By Wells Tower
Sunday, November 16, 2008
If you were a prospective gag headline, you would probably feel about the writers' room at the Onion the way World War II soldiers felt about the view of Omaha Beach as the landing craft doors yawned open. By midafternoon on a Monday, at the paper's SoHo offices in Manhattan, the writers at America's most successful satirical newsweekly had mowed down somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 possible headlines in search of a dozen or so solid comic premises around which an issue of the paper would be built.
In an inversion of the traditional editorial process, the Onion chooses its headlines and then invents stories to fit them. For a headline to have made the first cut, at least two of the six writers in attendance had to okay it, generally an occasion of little fanfare in which a couple of people threw up their hands and murmured with a defeated sigh, "Sure, why the hell not?" Among the survivors were "Sudanese Man Best In Village At Stacking Bodies"; "Really Loud Whistle Guy Takes Every Opportunity To Whistle Loudly"; "Steven Tyler Laid Off From Aerosmith As Band Jobless Rate Hits 20%"; "Kid Not Sure What To Do With Sex And The City Action Figures"; "Bill Clinton Sadly Folds First Lady Dress Back Into Box"; "Price of Gas Rises To Four Expletives Per Gallon"; "50-Year-Old Prince Licks AARP Representative's Face"; and "Op-Ed: It Figures That Right After I Wash My Car, It Rains Blood."
The choicest material -- the staff writers' ideas -- had been pitched this morning, and the writers were sorting through the chaff, the jokes sent in each week by part-time contributors, known in local editorial parlance as "the [expletive] list." The writers fidgeted and slumped in their chairs, visibly oppressed by the haze of failed hilarity thickening in the room.
Fallen cannon fodder included: "Face Of God Seen On Bus Ad For God"; "California Courts To See What Else They Can Marry"; "Meter Attendant Accidentally Tries To Collect Change From Vending Machine"; and the following op-ed: "You're Breaking The Human Half Of My Cyborg Heart," which caused senior writer Dan Guterman to groan and offer a counter-headline, " 'I Suck,' By A Joke."
Though individual writers would ultimately spin into full stories those headlines that survived a second culling, the paper is a thoroughly collaborative effort, with pretty much every member of the staff getting an equal vote. "We find that the creative process works much better when we function as a kind of collective mind," said top editor Joe Randazzo, an unassuming 30-year-old who doesn't radiate any boss-ish swagger in meetings and whom no one on the staff seems scared of or desperate to impress. "There are times when a joke gets mired in semantics, and I have to tell everybody to shut the hell up. But that happens pretty rarely, probably once every couple of issues, when a story needs a definitive yes or no."
Nearly every word that appears in print is conceived, refined, brainstormed and edited in committee, which calls for near-bedsore-inflicting stretches of seat time in the writers' room -- on average, about three solid days of meetings each week. To blunt the tedium, Guterman shuffled poker chips in a slick, one-handed way. Assistant editor Megan Ganz, the only woman on the 10-person full-time writing staff, scratched out Sudoku puzzles. Feature editor Joe Garden crimped and folded a motley horde of paper frogs with the help of a book titled "Animal Origami for the Enthusiast."
Beyond the general grousing about the unending meetings, writers also griped with a sort of doleful pride that their work for the paper was something they toiled at, in at least some far compartment of their minds, during every waking moment of their lives.
"Everything becomes fodder for humor. It's actually a terrible way to go through life," said Guterman during a cigarette break on the sidewalk on Broadway. "You never entirely leave the work. It makes it impossible to have conversations with people. Your mind is incessantly working in this mode."
Story editor Todd Hanson, 39, who is the acknowledged despair specialist and the oldest writer on the staff, took a pull on a cigarette and offered a slightly different spin. "For me, comedy is essentially about personal horror, and transforming that horror into something people can laugh at." Hanson went on, "People always say, 'You should do a book.'"
"I never say that," Guterman interrupted.
"I know," said Hanson. "Who'd want to read it? It'd just be me talking about being depressed. It's much better to take life's horror and disappointment and channel it into humor."
By 5 p.m., the bulk of the day's meetings had drawn to a close, and most of the staffers had gone home, leaving assistant editor Mike DiCenzo and staff writer Seth Reiss to attend a meeting with a few outside contributors who came by to help with the Onion's sports section.
In that meeting, issues under discussion were whether it would be funnier for Detroit Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood to be caught making love to the Stanley Cup or merely getting to "second base" with it; whether 1937 Triple Crown Winner War Admiral should have been spotted leaving the 2008 Belmont Stakes in a Rolls Royce with a cigar in his teeth; and the comic value of a TPGA Tour, which would give transsexual golfers a chance to compete. The meeting finally petered out around 6:30. Leaving the office, the writers radiated a jittery, joke-addled adrenaline. One could see their eyes roving over the cubicles and the receptionist's desk with a suspicious alertness that somewhere close by lurked an unexploited joke, a kind of comedian's version of the neurosis that causes war veterans to hit the deck when a car backfires. On the elevator ride down back to Broadway, a woman left the elevator at the fourth floor. "Fourth floor, fourth floor," one of the contributors murmured, as if he were trying to spin a headline from it. "That's pretty funny."
"Yeah," said Reiss. "It'd be funnier if she'd gotten off at the third."
If a mattress were substituted for the meeting table, the chamber where the Onion's writers spend the balance of their professional lives could pass as the bedroom of an excessively bright, not terribly well-adjusted teenage boy. In one corner, beside a rack of comic books, a bookshelf holds a small bounty of items brought in by staffers to furnish the room: an action figure of Lee Majors as the Six Million Dollar Man; an enema syringe; a videotape titled "The United States Capitol: A Place of Resounding Deeds"; copies of books such as "Everything You Need to Know About Abortion" and "Darwinian Dynamics"; as well as a half-dozen trophies, including one for the Onion's retrospective news compendium "Our Dumb Century," which topped the New York Times Best Seller List in May 1999, and a "The Best of the Web" award from the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences for the Onion's Web site, which, according to Onion management, receives more than 5 million unique visitors per month.
As its strait-laced cousins in the traditional print media suffer withering cutbacks, the Onion is in comparatively robust shape. In the past three years, the Onion's New York staff doubled in size, to 50 full-time employees, as the print edition of the paper, which is free, added markets in Austin, Los Angeles and Washington (The Washington Post prints the paper's D.C. edition and sells local ads for it), and holds strong at a circulation of 630,000 nationwide, management says. Meanwhile, according to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, free papers that subsist on ad sales, as the Onion does, have been faring poorly. Creative Loafing, which owns free newsweeklies throughout the South, mid-Atlantic and the Midwest (among them Washington's City Paper) filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September because of debt and declining ad sales. The Onion's ad sales have seen no appreciable decline.
The Onion's success in a down market reflects Americans' surging appetite for satiric news as a regular part of their media diet. A March 2007 poll by the Pew Research Center placed Jon Stewart fourth among the nation's "most admired news figures," ahead of Ted Koppel, Peter Jennings and Diane Sawyer. In early October, "The Daily Show's" election campaign coverage broke its own ratings records at that time with an audience of 2.4 million, outstripping "Hardball With Chris Matthews" by nearly 1 million viewers. Or, compare the 6 million or so who watched Katie Couric's momentous CBS interview with Sarah Palin to the audience of 14 million who tuned in to watch the Alaska governor's appearance on "Saturday Night Live" and its fake news segment.
According to Robert Niles, editor of the Online Journalism Review, the success of the Onion and its ilk lies in part in the ability of satirists to penetrate the hypocrisies of the news cycle that the straight press is compelled to dance around. For instance, just weeks after 9/11, when the likes of Dan Rather were pledging their support for President Bush on network TV ("Wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where," he told David Letterman), the Onion was already presaging, from the safe bunker of satire, the leaps of credulity America would soon be asked to make in obeisance to the War on Terror. "If I Don't Get My Medium-Rare Shell Steak With Roasted Vegetables In The Next 10 Minutes, The Terrorists Have Already Won," read an Onion op-ed published in November 2001.
"The public's frankly gotten frustrated with the convention of objectivity, the idea that you have to present both sides of the story, even if one side is completely bogus," said Niles, citing as an example news reports on global warming in which the views of politicians and lay-skeptics get consideration equal to studies by climate science PhDs. Niles went on to argue that satirists gained additional traction in the post-9/11 news climate, when mainstream media outlets didn't push back as hard as they might have against perceived intimidation of the press by the Bush administration.
"Take for example, [Ari Fleischer's] chilling quote that all Americans 'need to watch what they say,'" an admonition Bush's former press secretary made about TV talk show host Bill Maher at a White House news briefing shortly after 9/11. "That should have been the moment that all the journalists woke up and said, 'Screw that!' But it was generally the satirists who felt emboldened enough to say the things that the mainstream news wouldn't for fear of seeming too partisan."
But culture war considerations aside, Niles attributes the boom of the faux news corps to a plainer cause. "Quite simply, people like the Onion are creating more engaging content than the daily papers are."
The rise of the parodic industry poses new riddles for media observers: In years to come, will America's faux news prove a more enduring enterprise than the news itself? What might it mean for our nation that joke news could outlast the institutions it ridicules? "Speaking as a citizen of America, it's a little terrifying that real news is crashing while fake news is growing," said Chet Clem, the Onion's editorial manager. "It's scary. You wonder where people are going to get their facts."
But on the bright side, Clem continued, at least the shrinkage of the newspaper industry had yielded some usable copy for the paper, inspiring such stories as, Coverage Of "Dying Newspaper Trend Buys Nation's Newspapers Three More Weeks."
By Tuesday, after another lengthy meeting, the 140-some first-cut headlines were winnowed to a final assortment. "Steven Tyler Laid Off From Aerosmith As Band Jobless Rate Hits 20%" endured, as did, " 'Time' Publishes Definitive Obama Puff Piece"; "5-Year-Old Wants To Be A Tractor When She Grows Up;" and "Bill Clinton Sadly Folds First Lady Dress Into Box."
The Clinton/dress had barely escaped the editorial guillotine. A slim consensus had it that Hillary Clinton had already taken enough slugs in the primary contest and that a post-mortem ribbing about the candidate's loss might be beating a dead horse. There was also the point that a joke about the president in a dress felt sort of like warmed-over Benny Hill. "It just seems toothless," said Dan Guterman. "It's a joke about a man in drag."
"But it's not," said Megan Ganz. "It's a different story. It's more an emotional story -- it's about sad Bill. Just as Hillary had these deep emotional reasons for wanting to be president, Bill had deep emotional reasons for, you know, welcoming heads of state to the White House in a dress."
Mike DiCenzo, a quiet 24-year-old and the most tidily kempt of the staff's four bearded-Jesus avatars, agreed. "It's not so much as a man in drag as Bill Clinton wanting to be really elegant, to be the center of attention. It's about getting back to our crazy Clinton character," who in previous issues of the paper: wrote a fan letter to Joan Jett, poured out malt liquor in the Rose Garden for "dead homies" Ron Brown and Vince Foster, was molested by his visiting uncle, became a spokesman for Manwich, captured a Nazi submarine, Googled himself and used the power of his imagination to turn a bar of soap into a tugboat.
After a period of spirited debate, Guterman conceded that he was willing to get behind the headline provided that "the dress comes with a pillbox hat."
"And the pearls he planned to wear," said Seth Reiss.
With the headlines selected, and the issue's skeleton propped into place, the writers convened after lunch to brainstorm each story, to probe and test the jokes, and gestate their conceits into embryonic pieces of comic reportage. In committee, the Bill Clinton/first lady dress joke underwent a transformation from imperiled underdog to unlikely favorite. The process worked like this:
Todd Hanson: "Okay, so the joke is all about Bill Clinton wanting to be the first lady. So what we're satirizing is the foolishness of the role of the first lady."
Megan Ganz: "I don't think that it's the foolishness of the dream, so much as that he wants to be a Jackie O, a figurehead, a fashion icon. It's about the sadness of letting go of the dream, that he never got to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue on the president's arm. We'll want to see him carefully folding the tissue paper over the dress and putting it on a high shelf."
Todd Hanson: "Do we talk about his dream of being the first male first lady?"
Dan Guterman: "I think it's funnier if we leave gender out of it entirely."
Megan Ganz: "It's like: 'It's such a lovely dress,' said Bill Clinton, the 62-year-old ex-president. I think you want to stick mostly to the sadness."
Joe Garden: "I feel a hope chest is in order. He'll put the dress in a hope chest for Chelsea."
Todd Hanson: "No, I think it's got to be his hope chest, full of all the stuff he's been buying in anticipation of being first lady. He presses the dress to his decolletage, lets out a wistful sigh and carefully lays the box in among the fancy china he'd bought to entertain heads of state with. He'll have a pair of those white gloves with the buttons that women don't wear anymore and imagining all the heads of state he would have gotten to greet."
Seth Reiss (falsetto, pantomiming the wistful proffering of a regal hand): "Good afternoon, Mister Ambassador. How do you do?"
Dan Guterman: "While a grandfather clock ticked in the background, he carefully lowered a gramophone needle to a worn LP, held the dress and slowly danced around the room to the crackling strains of 'The Way We Were.' "
A wave of unrestrained laughter broke in the room. Editor Joe Randazzo gave a skeptical half turn of his head. "I just hope this works," he said.
The Onion, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, published its first issue in 1988 on the campus of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. It was conceived by students Tim Keck and Chris Johnson, who were in their early 20s. The early days were so unremunerative that Keck and Johnson purportedly were often reduced to unhappy lunches of white bread topped with raw onions, a meal that inspired the paper's name. In 1989, Keck and Johnson sold the paper to Onion cartoonist Scott Dikkers, then 24, and publisher Peter Haise, 21, for $16,000. Tim Keck is now publisher of the Stranger, a Seattle weekly alternative paper. Johnson is an owner of NuCity Publications, which publishes the Weekly Alibi in Albuquerque.
Under Dikkers and Haise, the paper spread beyond Madison to a handful of cities: Milwaukee, Chicago, Boulder, Champaign-Urbana. Its climb to national prominence started in 1996, when the Onion's Web site launched.
"I remember thinking, 'This is nuts; no one's going to look at this thing on the computer,'" Joe Garden, then a contributor, said. "I thought the Web spoiled the whole concept of the Onion. I thought: It's a paper, a parody of an existing medium. That's what makes the jokes work."
But the Web site speedily went viral, and, in the meantime, the black-and-white print edition had undergone a full color renovation, with spoof schlock sidebars ("Infographics" and "Statshots," e.g., "What Are We Dipping Our Snack Foods In?"), refining its nose-thumbing at the McPaper design conventions of USA Today. Beyond its riffs on politics and pop culture, the Onion's distinctive voice coalesced in the journalistic chronicles of its workaday protagonists, the Area Man and Woman, whose small-caliber vicissitudes ("Area Man Forces Self To Drink Another Free Refill," "Area Man Expected To Work With These Incompetents") would ultimately build into an epic literature of American alienation writ small, and in arid AP-style prose.
By 1997, the Onion was at last in a position to pay salaries to its employees who, for the previous decade, had pretty much worked for free. At the start of the Onion's boom years in the late '90s, $25,000 was the standard wage for its writing staff. (The paper won't disclose current employee pay, except to say that its employees make less than television writers, who average solid six-figure salaries, but that they "aren't poor.") In 1999, the Onion found its way onto coffee tables nationwide with its bestselling "Our Dumb Century," a volume retrofitting history with 100 years of satiric reportage (August 15, 1945: "War Over! 50 Years of Nuclear Paranoia Begin Today"), and won a coveted Thurber Prize for humor in 1999, confirming its ascent from scampish campus broadsheet to American comedy institution.
In 2001, the paper, now bundled with the A.V. Club, a nonsatirical insert featuring a standard array of reviews and art-related doings, relocated to New York, to place itself in the nation's hub for both comedy and publishing. The Onion hadn't yet hit the newsstands in New York when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, a horror the writers found themselves in the unenviable position of having to turn into something Americans could chuckle at.
"At that first meeting, we were supposed to pitch jokes around the attacks, and here we weren't even established as New Yorkers," said Joe Garden. "It seemed way too soon, and just sort of inappropriate for us to make any kind of statement at all. I remember thinking, 'We're done. It's over.'"
But the paper went to press, with lead stories ranging from "Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves In Hell," a piece some criticized as unimaginative pandering, to more elegiac and moving contemplations of the tragedy. "One of my favorite Onion stories -- 'Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American Flag Cake' -- came out of 9/11," said DiCenzo. "It wasn't a big newsy take on 9/11, but it totally captured what a lot of us were feeling."
"Feeling helpless in the wake of the horrible Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed thousands, Christine Pearson baked a cake and decorated it like an American flag Monday," the story reads. "'I had to do something to force myself away from the TV,' said Pearson, 33, carefully laying rows of strawberry slices on the white-fudge-frosting-covered cake. 'All of those people. Those poor people. I don't know what else to do.' "
The move to New York was a disappointment to some Onion die-hards, who took to the blogs with gripes that the paper "jumped the shark" when it left Madison. As a possible symptom of the brand's exhaustion, some have pointed to the Onion's critically reviled "The Onion Movie: Raw and Uncut" (written by Todd Hanson and former editor in chief Rob Siegel), a straight-to-DVD suite of largely uninventive, charmlessly vulgar sketches that show few glimmers of the sophistication and dry wit the paper built its reputation on. (Even among Onion staffers, it's difficult to find anyone willing to contest the outpouring of lethal critical responses "The Onion Movie" provoked. A contract with the studio prevented everyone from saying anything negative about the movie, which, for all intents and purposes, prohibited them from saying anything at all.) In spring 2007, the Onion launched the Onion News Network, ONN, a glossy imitation-CNN video broadcast on its Web site, to a few lukewarm reviews characterizing it as the predictable extension of a franchise rather than an inspired foray into fresh terrain. Since then, ONN seems to have found its footing and has expanded its reach through a distribution arrangement for European and Asian markets.
Though the paper, being privately held by a Chicago-based company, won't disclose its revenue, Clem says the Onion is "doing well financially," citing its foray into new markets and growth to about 160 full-time employees nationwide.
Despite the Onion's considerable fame, the office still routinely gets phone calls and letters from people who somehow miss the joke. On a corkboard in the main "newsroom" of the paper's office, under a banner reading "Letters, e-mails, and other proletariat grumblings," is a note from the publisher of "Our Dumb World" about a deluge of complaints from readers griping that the promise of a "free globe inside" did not turn out to be true, alongside a cease-and-desist letter from the Bush White House protesting the Onion's use of the presidential seal on its Web site. ("We said, um, First Amendment? Check it out," said Randazzo. "We kept using it, and they never really followed up with us.") There were also the calls from Catholics pondering surgery after reading the headline "Pope Condemns Three More Glands." Or the 2002 blunder by the Beijing Evening News, which reprinted, in all earnestness, an Onion story reporting Congress's threats to leave Washington unless the government builds a new Capitol with a retractable dome. Or the sports fan who left a panicked phone message at the Onion's office after publication of the story "Mark Cuban Buys [All] Sports." Or the time, following the publication of "Victim Of Mall Shooting Determined Not To Die In Yankee Candle," in which a bullet-riddled man crawls from the candle shop to collapse in the less emasculating Champ's Sports Store, when a Champ's representative called the editorial offices to offer the recovering victim a gift. Or the afternoon in June, when a technician who had come to fix the air conditioning turned to read the headline "Rotation Of Earth Plunges Entire North American Continent Into Darkness" on a framed edition hanging in the foyer. "Damn, when did that go down?" he said. "I don't remember it at all."
Though the Onion rarely publishes an issue that fails to offend dozens, or hundreds, or sometimes even thousands, of readers, the writers can't recall ever having to issue a formal apology. Nor, they say, has the paper's business office, which operates from a separate building near Union Square, ever attempted to control the Onion's content in the interest of courting revenue from conventional advertisers who might not appreciate the paper's edgier pieces. "There's always been a solid brick wall between the business side and editorial," said Randazzo. "As far as any pressure to pull a story, or for advertisers to have any effect on a story as it's being conceived or written, that's simply never come up."
The Onion's uncontested eminence in the satiric newspaper industry notwithstanding, you would not readily pick out its staffers from a crowd as elite wielders of media power. T-shirts and sneakers are de rigueur, and the dominant style is the unshaven, underexercised, Nazarene look of bookish people who probably suffered a steady program of jibes and wedgies in junior high school and carried pocketfuls of 20-sided dice. "One of our unwritten rules is that, in order to work here, you had to have cleaned a grease trap at some point, and you had to have been punched in the face at least once," Garden said.
Garden, a tall, pale man with a raucous manner, has both cleaned grease traps and been punched in the face. "It was in junior high," he said. "But that still counts." His best-known contributions are a pair of long-running Onion columns, "The Outside Scoop" by Jackie Harvey, Hollywood's most clueless and error-prone reporter of celebrity news ("The lines have already started forming for 'Star Wars: Revenge of the Sirth.' "), and "The Cruise" by Jim Anchower, a hapless stoner besieged by an endless onslaught of romantic, financial and automotive woes.
"On top of the car troubles, I just got a new job that's severely cramping my style," reads one Anchower column. "Now, as all of you know, I got canned from my warehouse-guard job about a month ago, and I've had a lot of bills piling up, so I had to land a new job real fast. Well, I should have known better than to keep shooting my mouth off, saying I'd never work one of those fast-food jobs, 'cause now I've gotta eat my words with special sauce all over them, and that's a taste I don't much enjoy. That's right, Jim Anchower's working fast food."
Garden's path toward a staff writer position began with what was evidently a traditional step at the Onion: dropping out of the University of Wisconsin. He found work at Badger Liquor in Madison. One of the few perks of the job was that his bosses let him draw whimsical signs for the store's wares, for example: a diagram of the brain whose regions he labeled "Frontal Lobe," "Backal Lobe" and "Michel-lobe." His signs ultimately caught the attention of his regular customers on the Onion staff. They invited him to an ideas meeting, and, in 2001, after about eight years of working nearly for free, Garden was offered a full-time job.
At 37, Garden is the second-oldest person on the staff, two years the junior of Todd Hanson, who has written for the Onion for 18 years. Hanson, too, found his way to the Onion after faring poorly at the University of Wisconsin. In Hanson's freshman year, his high school girlfriend dumped him, which triggered a debilitating period during which Hanson's chief activities, as he told one interviewer, included skipping class, staring at the wall and "getting stoned out the bejeesus on huge, three-foot bongs," before ultimately withdrawing from the university to begin a career as a dishwasher. "I had what psychiatrists would probably classify as a breakdown," Hanson told me. "At the time, I just figured I was a loser in the game of life."
In the meantime, Rich Dahm, a friend from Hanson's short-lived scholastic career and now a co-executive producer and head writer on "The Colbert Report," had assumed the editorship of the Onion, and he asked Hanson to contribute. In 1990, at the age of 23, Hanson said, he wrote his first headline for the paper ("U.S. Signs Peace Treaty With Canada"). Seven years later, the Onion offered Hanson a salaried position as head writer. The promotion to one of the most coveted positions in American comedy did little to alter Hanson's perception of himself as a hapless underachiever dually oppressed by his own inadequacy and the unending indignities of everyday life. Hanson has penned thousands of stories and headlines during his career with the paper, though his best-known stories are despairing contemplations of life's routine terrors: "Utter Failure To Spend Rest Of Day In Bed," "Area Man Makes It Through Day."
Had Hanson's depression, I asked him, become so deeply interwoven into his writerly persona that he could not create without it?
Hanson, who is still single, sighed and made a dismissive gesture with his free hand. "Well, I suppose there's the standard response to that," Hanson said. "Twain's quote about how there is no laughter in heaven, and that sorrow is the secret source of humor and not joy, and I think he's right. Humor and laughter are enormously complicated. Monkeys smile to show subservience to the others in the tribe. Often, humans giggle when they hear something too terrible to make sense of. Humor's often a startled reaction to surprise and danger. Laughter's a strange thing. There's a lot of darkness behind it."
According to Ganz, the work also inspires an inverse of the Hanson Effect. That is, just as personal sorrow bleeds into one's jokes, the writer's comedic impulse tends to infect moments in life when a dose of somberness is called for. "I just broke up with my boyfriend, who was also a comedian, and we could barely go through with it, because every two minutes one of us had to crack a joke about the fact that we were breaking up," Ganz said. "But he definitely won the relationship. He was funniest."
I sought clarification. Did she just say he won the relationship, as though her intimate bond with another person could be best understood as a comedy smackdown?
"It really was," said Ganz. "He made the best joke. We were doing that way-too-melodramatic thing where we kept kissing, not wanting to have the last kiss. And at one point I said, 'You know, we can't keep doing this forever.' And he said, 'I know, because then we'd be immortal.' And I immediately burst out laughing. He delivered it perfectly."
The Thursday writers' meeting took some time to call to order because Garden had hoisted his T-shirt to reveal his large pale belly, a beloved sight in the writer's room, and had begun to slap it.
"Hey, everybody, look at that pile of mashed potatoes!" said staff writer John Harris. "Whatcha doin', Joe's Belly?"
Garden folded his belly into a mouthlike crease. "Makin' poop -- yay!" his belly said, and everyone laughed and gave hearty applause.
"Could we please get started?" begged Randazzo.
"Can't you see we're busy?" said Guterman. "Joe's Belly's here."
When Joe's Belly finally made its exit, the writers began a group edit of the first drafts of the issue's articles, all of which had been hammered out the previous day. The least assured people in the room were Matt Morrison, 23, and Jack Stuef, 19, both "writing fellows," cub reporters culled from several hundreds of applications to spend a summer pitching headlines and fielding assignments for the Onion. Stuef was a rising Georgetown junior and editor at the Georgetown Heckler, one of dozens of campus knockoffs the paper has spawned. "I got turned down for an internship with the Washington Nationals," Stuef said with a shrug.
Stuef had been assigned a challenging "point/counterpoint" piece, a genre that had produced such classics as "Point: U.S. Out Of My Uterus"/"Counterpoint: We Must Deploy Troops To Jessica Linden's Uterus Immediately." The proper tone for Stuef's assignment, "You're Never Too Old For Laser Tag" vs. "Sir, If You're Not Accompanying A Minor I'm Going To Have To Ask You To Leave" proved a bit more difficult to strike. Criticisms targeted the editorialist's long descriptions of his POW camps and his excessive fantasies about the slaughter of his co-workers.
"The cleaner the voice is, the more the wackiness sticks out," Ganz instructed.
"Set this thing out in the sun, Jack," advised Garden. "Dry it out a little, bring it back in, and you'll have yourself a nice raisin."
Next, the group turned to Morrison's piece, "Steven Tyler Laid Off From Aerosmith As Band Jobless Rate Hits 20%," a difficult story whose lean comic conceit lay in the discussion of Aerosmith not as a band, but as an economy unto itself.
"You want more economics-speak," said Ganz. "The analysts need to be drier."
"Take out the personal stuff. You want it to be like, 'Aerosmith responded to sluggishness in its vocal sector by laying off Steven Tyler,' " said Randazzo.
"You want stuff, like, 'I got into this for the benefits and the job security,' " offered Harris. The suggestions ran on for many minutes, while Morrison sort of grinned and shrugged and looked at the table out of hooded eyes, as though he could see the criticism mounting there like a distasteful meal he'd be obliged to eat.
Finally, Randazzo pinched off the conversation. "Most first-time first drafts we see are way off," he said. "This is great. It just needs to be, you know, a lot, lot, lot, lot, lot funnier."
"Yeah, actually, we're a humor paper," said Ganz.
Stuef had landed his fellowship after answering a call for applications sent out to 60 or so college humor magazines. The writing fellow position isn't merely titular or instructional. Ganz, one of the first writing fellows, won a staff position after spending a summer in the writers' room, the only writing fellow hired into a notoriously difficult job to land. "We don't really have a staffing structure," said Randazzo, who came to the Onion in 2006, after working at a fruit basket company and moonlighting in improv theater, where he attracted the notice of Onion staffers. They recommended him for an assistant editor position that had recently come open and for the next two years, he worked under the wing of Scott Dikkers, then editor in chief. After Dikkers left the paper in June, Randazzo was named his successor. "We don't take unsolicited submissions or look at people's résumés. I couldn't even tell you how you go about getting a writing job at the Onion."
But Stuef's writing samples impressed the staff as sufficiently controlled and subtle to merit a fellowship. "He seemed to have a really good sense of the news voice in the package that he submitted to us," said Randazzo. "It was a little drier; it didn't always go for the goofy jokes. He understood the restraint that a successful story requires."
Morrison won his writing fellow position after spending a season as an intern, and "always wondering, with this sense of awe and mystery, what went on behind the writers' room door." But humor writing isn't the only future open to Morrison, who'd hedged his bets by enrolling in Mount Sinai medical school, where he was scheduled to begin coursework in the fall. While the full-time staffers share the consensus that the work takes at least some toll on their personal lives, the writing fellow gig, according to Stuef and Morrison, eclipses all semblance of a healthy, non-work-related existence.
"Other than think about [Onion] stuff, I don't really do anything," said Stuef of his first summer in New York. "I guess I've gone out a couple of times, but I'd love to do this work for the rest of my life. I want so much to get it right, I basically stay home every night and work on stuff for the paper."
"Going in there and reading your list and having no one laugh, it's brutal," said Morrison. "You want to impress these people you respect, but at the same time, you really want to avoid the shame of failure. I've got a date next Wednesday, but besides that, I'm not going out." The date, happily, had already furnished Morrison with a green-lit headline: "Upcoming Date Only Thing Between Area Man, Utter Self-Neglect."
Curiously, Morrison's acceptance to medical school didn't seem to lessen the pressure he felt at the Onion, for which he'd readily put off his medical career should a writing job come through. "This is the most fun I've had in my life so, yeah, I'd continue doing it if possible," he said.
I pointed out that a dispassionate observer watching Morrison at the pitch meetings would not suspect him of having enormous amounts of fun. "No," he said. "That's true. I pretty much sit there in terror of saying anything untoward, or of emitting any sound, really. But it's a little depressing to think about when it's over, about going straight to studying, you know, pollen zygotes after spending my summer in the most fun room in the world."
Back at the meeting, the writers turned their attention to Garden's editorial, "Hey Everybody, Let's All Go To The Beach And Complain," though the conversation foundered when Garden again lifted his shirt and let his belly speak for him.
"Hey, Joe's Belly, you want a drink of water?" Harris asked.
"Would I?" shrieked the belly, and Garden took up a cup and poured a stream of water onto his navel.
Randazzo watched the water course off Garden's stomach and onto the floor while the staff raised a strident cheer. "I hate this job," he said.
When you are in the business of writing, rejecting and editing jokes at the rate of, give or take, about 3,000 a month, cliche becomes a noxious hazard, and the truly inventive gag seems to lie at the end of ever-deeper reaches of an increasingly exhausted humor mine. What was once precious ore becomes, after one or two uses, useless dross, an inventory of which lengthens each week on a whiteboard in the writers' room under the header "No-No Words." The slag heap of old gags now includes such objectively funny words and phrases as "Electric Boogaloo," "signs of the apocalypse," "unicorns," "method actor," "stalker," "twister," "vanity plates," "ninjas," "William Shatner," "speed dating" and "clowns."
The most overplumbed subject that does not appear on the "no-no" list is probably that of George W. Bush, whose tenure most Onion staffers said they are happy to see end. Really? The Onion would not, even in some small way, miss one of comedy's most cherished targets in presidential history?
"Oh, God, no," Garden said. "It's been a nightmare trying to figure out what to do with him." He reflected with fondness on the period before 9/11 when Bush appeared in Onion stories as a more protean character, doing such improbable deeds as correcting math equations on a blackboard at the Fermilab and quoting Virgil, in Latin, at dinner parties. These days, Bush rarely graces the paper's pages, save in a series of recurring stories in which he's the object of outlandish contrivances of slapstick violence, for example, getting pureed by helicopter blades, and being dragged behind the presidential motorcade after shutting his necktie in a limousine trunk.
In the midst of the presidential campaign, much was made of the sway comedic news held over the election. Yet there wasn't much swaggering being done in the writers' room at the Onion.
"We hear it a lot these days, this idea that 'Colbert' and 'The Daily Show' and the Onion have risen to the challenge of . . . speaking truth to power," said Hanson. "I think maybe we made some people feel better, that there was this plucky little voice dissenting in the media wilderness, but I don't think it's really affecting elections. We were going after Bush right after 9/11. He still won in 2004."
Nor is choosing political sides something the paper's all that interested in doing, according to Garden. "I wouldn't say we have the broadest spectrum of political inclinations on our staff, but we're not here to be a pal to liberals or to be a mouthpiece for the Democratic Party," he said. "We're here to make fun of things that are dumb."
The Onion trod on multitudes of toes with its coverage of Obama's presidential run, with headlines such as "Black Guy Asks Nation For Change." From the Onion's standpoint, Obama's nomination and his rock-star celebrity were good news, "simply because he has people interested in politics, which lets us satirize something people care about," said Garden.
On a Monday afternoon, one week after the initial ideas meeting, the editors convened in the glassed-in corner office to prune and polish the paper's content one final time. Bill Clinton's dress, which the editors had slated to run as the issue's lead, was the first story on the table.
"I loved this," said Guterman. "It's long, but it flowed so easily."
Randazzo concurred, "Though I thought we could find something more sentimental for Clinton's hope chest. You know, a dried leaf or something."
"A jar of apple butter?" quipped Ganz.
"A peacock feather," offered Guterman.
"And the ending felt a little brief to me," said Randazzo. "I felt like we needed something else there."
"How about Clinton pushing his cleavage together for Obama?" asked Ganz.
"Very good," Randazzo said.
The meeting ground on for an hour, through a panoply of nips and tucks. The editors wound through the stories with soft-spoken, passionless dispatch. The shortage of editorial energy in the room could probably be traced to the writers' pending three-week vacation, which was to begin in four days. Because of the collaborative nature of the paper, Onion staffers vacation at the same time. To prepare for the holiday, they'd had to write an additional issue on top of their usual duties and also to compile a "theme issue" ("The Gay Issue") out of items recycled from previously published editions. The schedule had exhausted them, and they were eager for some respite. Hanson looked forward to cleaning his apartment. Reiss would head to his parents' house in rural Pennsylvania to write skits for his comedy troupe. Ganz planned to stay in town and avoid her co-workers at all costs. DiCenzo said he hoped simply to clear his head and relax, and almost immediately, he seemed irritated with himself at the suggestion that his was the sort of soul-destroying job that one desperately needed a respite from.
"Whenever I start to think this way, that we do so much work here, I just think that if I were to visit myself back in college, and say, 'Four years from now you're going to get paid writing for the Onion, and you're going to get frustrated with it,' I would have punched myself in the face."
Wells Tower is a Magazine contributing writer whose short story collection, "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned," will be published in March. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.