Washington Post Magazine: Onion Nation
Monday, November 17, 2008; 12:00 PM
If The Onion's absurdist twists and wicked parodies of conventional journalism are just a joke, the country's leading satirical newspaper is having the last laugh.
Two Onion staffers, assistant editor Megan Ganz and feature editor Joe Garden, were online Monday, November 17 at 12 noon ET to discuss this week's Washington Post Magazine cover story, "Onion Nation" -- and to offer a glimpse inside the brainstorm that leads to headlines like Voting Machines Elect One Of Their Own as President and Majority Of Americans Never Use Physical Education After High School.
A transcript follows.
Megan Ganz: Hello, readers of a vastly inferior publication. I assume you've wandered onto this page because The Onion's site is down. I am Megan Ganz, assistant editor at The Onion. I look forward to entertaining your asinine questions.
Joe Garden: Hi, this is Joe Garden. I am the features editor of the Onion.
Joe Garden: I also run a bodega called Joe's Cold Beverages that Mr. Tower apparently didn't see fit to mention.
Joe Garden: And I am relatively happy to be here today.
Joe Garden: Sorry for the lag. We're still getting adjusted to this interface.
Washington, DC: Generally, you make humor out of tragedy by mocking the responses or media coverage, rather than the tragedy itself. But I find the Amber Richardson series ("I Hope My Baby Doesn't Come Out All ---ed-Up And ----", "My Baby Don't Want No Medicine," "Why Somebody Always Around Every Time I Drop My Baby?", etc.) too sad to be funny. What published articles have caused the most internal debate on taste?
Megan Ganz: Every headline we publish causes some kind of internal debate, but it is almost always a debate over how funny the joke is or how to make it funnier. We rarely get into issues of taste or "do we want to go that far?" But always try to come down on the right side of the issue and make some kind of satirical point.
As far as the Amber Richardson articles, I'd say your concern is very typical of what we see in our reader response. Most of the stories we publish get at least one person writing in to say, "Usually I love the Onion, but this time, you've gone too far [because you've made fun of something I love.]" Everyone has a personal soft spot that they're not fine with others making fun of. Looks like we hit yours.
New York: The Onion has made me prouder than anything else, ever, to be a UW alum. That includes Mystery Science Theater 3000, the pink flamingos on Bascom Hill, the Statue of Liberty on Lake Mendota, anything you can think of. Not that I ever read anything beyond the headlines, however.
Joe Garden: Spoken like a true Madisonian. I'm proud of you, but you still suck.
Joe Garden: We're proud of you too, not that we have ever met you.
Megan Ganz: The Onion should have razed that hell-hole in its wake. Nothing survives once the Onion is gone. Nothing!
Silver Spring, MD: In the article, Mike DiCenzo cites the post-9-11 story, 'Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American Flag Cake', as one of his favorites. To me, it's a small masterpiece. Was it primarily the work of one writer, or was it a group effort?
Joe Garden: This was mostly Carol Kolb, with some editing after the fact. I also consider this one of the best Onion stories ever. It's an interesting and funny observation, but it's got a great deal of heart. I am eternally envious of Carol for her talents. She's a genius.
Evanston, Illinois: The next time the Onion sends over some hacks can they at least be good writers like Nathan Rabin or Amelie Gillette?
Megan Ganz: Dear Mr. or Mrs. Rabin or Mr. or Mrs. Gillette --
Thank you for your comment. Your children are talented and worthwhile. And such good posture!
Joe Garden: If you don't ASK Nathan, he's not going to come. And Amelie never leaves her HateCave.
Does this refer to anything in particular? The AV Club and the Onion are separate entities under the same umbrella, so I'm not sure if anyone has gone to... Northwestern? I'm assuming.
Alexandria, VA: Why don't you put at the funny stuff on the back page of the Onion, so I don't have to hunt for it?
Joe Garden: Because then we'd have a blank back page. HAW HAW HAW!
Joe Garden: Wait, that may have been your point.
Joe Garden: If so, touche, my good man.
Megan Ganz: You have been reading the paper backwards. Our front page is advertising, and you flip the paper from left to right to get to the funnier stuff at the back. This allows us to please our advertisers, which is why we got into journalism in the first place.
Annapolis, MD: I usually don't pick up the Onion because I prefer publications that cost money. However, my servants tell me that there is something of a kerfuffle in the economy, which is driving some people to cut costs by, for example, purchasing truffles that have already been imported rather than sending Consuela to France in the Learjet every morning. If you credit these reports, then perhaps more people will purchase your free publication. Do you anticipate a rise in readership because of the hard times? Will you start charging for the paper (thank God!)? Or do you expect that the only increase will come from vagrants taking your paper to wrap around themselves against the cold?
Megan Ganz: Your flagrant hatred for our nation's working class is deplorable. I ask you, if you prick a peasant, does he not bleed? If you make him carry giant stacks of paper from New York to Chicago, D.C., and Denver, does he not grow tired? If you do not renew his unpaid internship for a second year, does he not cry like a total pansy?
Joe Garden: Every copy of The Onion comes with an embedded RFID chip, so we generate revenue by tracking the habits of Onion readers and sell the information to social organizations and advertisers.
Chicago, Illinois: Favorite Onion headline ever: "Recession-Plagued Nation Demands New Bubble To Invest In"
Joe Garden: Say depressed headline author Todd Hanson: "Aw, that's cool. That makes me feel good. Thank you."
he's in the office next to mine, so I can just holler to him.
Arlington, Not the Real Virginia: Could you post a link to the Amber Richardson series? It sounds interesting, but not interesting enough to make me want to go out and pay actual cash for the mag.
washingtonpost.com: Here's the most recent one: **** Yeah, Another Baby (The Onion, July 16, 2008)
Megan Ganz: However, if you are interested in spending cash on our free newspaper, please send it to: Megan Ganz c/o The Megan Ganz Ripping Off Dumb-Dumbs Corporation
New York: How have things changed at the Onion since you moved to NYC?
Megan Ganz: We are all fatter and yet, ironically, more full of sushi.
Joe Garden: I'm more cosmopolitan. BELCH
Harrisburg, Pa.: Which story generated the most cards and letters?
Joe Garden: Oddly enough, it was a trifle of an article. It was an editorial entitled "That Mary Kate Is Dragging Ashley Down." We received hate mail about that for YEARS, but none seemed to be from anyone who understood that the Onion was satire.
Megan Ganz: We also got a few letters about a column "Are Your Cat's Old Enough To Learn About Jesus?" from a--and I use this term lovingly--complete wack-job who wanted more information, as in her opinion her cats were mature enough to welcome the Lord into their hearts.
Washington, D.C.: Is Joe's belly participating in the chat?
Joe Garden: Joe's Belly is busy makin' poop.
Brooklyn, NY: How can one (me) get to write or do something for the Onion? I live in Brooklyn, so if stalking is involved my proximity will help.
-- PS - why no comics in a humor newspaper? Would that be overkill? Have you considered a section with humorless drawings - a la a comic strip version of My Dinner With Andre?
Joe Garden: There are comics in the back of the print section.
We're getting a lot of permutations of this question, so I'll just say this: We're not currently hiring.
Megan Ganz: Yes, the Onion does not accept any outside submissions, so our hiring process (which is not currently active) happens by way of a hidden door deep within the forest. If you can find it...
St. Louis, MO: Hello Megan and Joe I was a student at UW-Madison in the mid 90's and I wonder how much of the paper still reflects your origins. Thank you.
Joe Garden: You can take the boy out of Wisconsin, but you can't take the Wisconsin out of the boy.
Megan Ganz: Well, you can actually, but you need that part of your colon.
Joe Garden: Point well taken. That would be the cheesiest surgery ever performed by medical science.
Really, really short version of serious answer:
Because The Onion came into existence and gestated as outsiders, and regardless of how many awkward chats we participate in, we still feel like outsiders. I'm still fundamentally a Wisconsin guy, except that I will never, EVER set foot into a BoDeans concert.
Arlington, VA: If you learned that all your readers were wealthy, good looking and happy, would it depress you?
Joe Garden: Yes. But I don't think we're in any danger of that.
Joe Garden: Unless you know something we don't.
Chinatown: How sad and/or pathetic would you feel if no one sent in any questions or comments to this chat?
Joe Garden: Not terribly. This would give Megan and I a much-needed opportunity to catch up.
Megan Ganz: I've got my mother on speed dial to remedy that situation, if need be. Plus, I haven't spoken to her in weeks so, two birds, one stone!
Indianapolis, IN: Whose photos are those in "American Voices?" (Probably my favorite section)
Megan Ganz: The photos used for American Voices are mostly people who were around the old office in Madison (a UPS driver, people who worked there, people just minding their own business walking down the sidewalk). But their pictures have now seen publication once a week for 20 years. In fact, the UPS driver was featured in an article in a UPS magazine about his tenure as one of the Onion's men-on-the-street. He said he sometimes gets recognized for it.
Joe Garden: Yep. One is a Madison Community Theater actor. One used to work with writer Chad Nackers at a restaurant. One is a photo disc guy, who replaced a 6th grade teacher who begged us to remove his picture because his kids were going nuts over his stuff.
But get ready to say a fond farewell to them. After 10 years, I'm replacing them with a whole new crop of people.
Chicago: No, the best Onion headline ever was "A Shattered Nation Longs to Care About Stupid Bull**** Again."
Megan Ganz: All right, let's not get into arguments about what was the best Onion headline ever. Instead, let's all agree that every word we print is a condensed opus of brilliance and nuanced hilarity. Okay?
Joe Garden: I would prefer arguing over which character is funniest, because with two characters, I have a pretty good chance.
Future Journalist: I'm a journalism student, and I am weighing internship offers from Playgirl and an Onion-like media venture. What should I do?
Megan Ganz: Put all your money on 14. Seriously. I got a hunch.
Joe Garden: I would recommend a bottle of Oxycodone and a liter of vodka
Joe Garden: We actually have an intern that used to intern at Playgirl, and she seems to be happy here. Depends on what you want out of an internship. As someone who never interned, I have no idea how it works.
New York: EDITORS OF HUMOR PUBLICATION EMULATE MAINSTREAM JOURNALISTS IN ONLINE CHAT WITH ANONYMOUS LOSERS.
Hmm. Too long? How would you fix this?
Joe Garden: Cut all verbs.
My personal favorite headline was only seven words:
Guy In Headlock Just Wanted To Party.
That, to me, says it all.
Megan Ganz: Also, what's with the all caps? You trying to make me deaf?
I agree with Joe: shorter is better. One of my favorite Onion headlines was only one word. It was below a picture of a log cabin in the woods, and it read:
Bethesda MD: Hi Onion People!
I'm a big fan and loved the article. But I was surprised at the article's tone: sure, the headlines are funny, but there seems to be a fair amount of angst and depression associated with bringing the yuks.
Care to comment? Was that note in the article intentional? Is it overstating things to say that there's an emotional cost to your work?
Megan Ganz: Like Todd Hanson said, and is always saying, humorous people are dark people, because humor is at its core a way of dealing with things that are too traumatic or frightening to confront directly. But people who feel drawn to rooting out hypocrisy and humanity's foibles are not good people to invite to a dinner party. I always say it's like a verbal tic that happens at even inopportune moments, only sometimes, it makes people laugh.
Joe Garden: It's true. Most of our best material comes from personal experience where we're making fun of our own flaws. That said, I wouldn't say I'm a terribly unhappy person. I'm actually fairly content. You'd meet me at a party and say "What a pleasant, if ultimately uninteresting person."
Arlington, Va.: I'm thinking of starting a competing online magazine called "The Rutabaga" that will only publish when you guys are on vacation. Which headline do you think should be my lead?
1: Boner Problem Complicates Math Problem
2: GM to Become Medicare; Medicare to Begin Manufacturing Cars
3: Man Asks if it is OK to be Perfectly Honest
4: Accused Rapist Pretty Cavalier About Use of "R" Word
All hail The Onion.
Joe Garden: You're fired.
Philadelphia, Pa.: Has anyone ever tried to sue you for anything you published?
Megan Ganz: We've gotten a few cease-and-desist letters in our day, but libel laws are such that we aren't in any real danger. We're obviously a satirical newspaper, not meant to be taken literally, and the 1st amendment still exists for the time being.
We did get a letter from the White House telling us that we had to stop using the presidential seal next to our weekly Presidential Address podcast, but there are clear laws stating it is public property. So we had our lawyers send the White House a nice letter explaining that... and cc'ed the New York Times.
Joe Garden: Things have come up before, but as we move on, we become more secure that the law is on our side. We're not concerned.
"If you learned that all your readers were wealthy, good looking and happy, would it depress you? ": What is Garrison Keillor doing on this chat?
Joe Garden: Are you Jesse Thorn? Man, that guy HATES Garrison Keilor.
Washington, DC: John Waters work has potentially gotten flat since many of his too-weird-to-be-true suggestions (World's Filthiest family, celebrity criminal trials) were supplanted with the real-life (MTV's Jackass, OJ Trial). When the Onion ran its story "Uneducated Forklift Driver to Address Nation on Limbaugh Show" which I think came from a book, I laughed because it was a silly trajectory for the anti-intellectuals promoting dumb over leadership. Then "Joe the Plumber," who gets all his facts wrong and makes up stories about owning a company someday, became a sick reality. How do you cope with your influence on American culture now that your ideas shape major political party decisions?
Joe Garden: If we actually wielded that sort of influence, I'd have my face added to the nickel.
Megan Ganz: I think we will never be in danger of shaping American culture because, since it began, the Onion has been written by a bunch of people who couldn't be less in-the-know. Our stories are about Area Men who can't seem to deal with day-to-day life, and that will always be true. As far as the Onion writing stories that eventually come true, yes that is a disturbing trend. In fact, one of my favorite stories is one Joe Garden wrote -- a column from the CEO of Gillette after the three-blade razor came out--called "**** Everything We're Doing Five Blades," and now there IS a five blade razor. Joe Garden was a hair's breadth away from being a razor blade tycoon.
Washington, D.C.: When I was a student at UW Madison in the '70s, some of us used to refer to the student union at "the onion." I had always assumed that was a source for the newspaper title. Is it a UW Madison "in-joke", or am I way off base?
Joe Garden: Off base. The origin of the name can be found in Mr. Towers' wonderful article. Think of it as a word search.
Rockville, Maryland: Former Area Man Expresses Gratitude
Thanks for many years of The Onion, an almost perfect combination of humor, horror, and anger. Your newspaper is a superb depiction (via parody) of the sterile, lifeless form that is modern quote-unquote objective journalism.
Oh, and thanks for making me cry about that article where the two children think their dead father is just sleeping underground, jerks. More guest editorials from your Comic Book Guy-like character, instead. I would like the condition of my Biotron appraised.
Joe Garden: Thank you for not telling us that we're a comedy newspaper, and how dare we publish something that evokes an emotion other than knee-jerk laughter.
And I would like to see Larry Groznic return one day as well.
Megan Ganz: Just another "Usually I like the Onion, but..." answer. Looks like someone realizes their father is mortal and, by way of association, has discovered themselves to be mortal, too! Tough break, kid.
We have lots of reoccurring characters that go in and out of regular contributing. I ask for a new Smoove B. once a week.
Washington, DC: With all the free time between part-time jobs and craft projects, why doesn't Jean Teasdale write columns and update her Web site more often? I love Jean and hubby, Rick!
Joe Garden: Maria Schneider, the creator of the brilliant Jean Teasdale, left the Onion last year. She still periodically does new columns, but we space them out.
Incidentally, I've met Patton Oswalt a few times, and he always says how much he loves Jean Teasdale.
Anonymous: I think the highlight of my 8 year old's life was when I caught him sitting on the toilet reading "Our Dumb Century" and he was reading the story titled "Holy ****, Man Walks on ****ing Moon"; it was a trifecta for him - reading, outer space and potty talk. Keep up the good work.
Joe Garden: This warms my heart.
Macon-Dulles, VA: If you broadcasted online sessions of your staff meetings, I bet people would pay $2 to watch. Your readers want so badly to be as funny as you.
Joe Garden: Seriously, that would make the least-compelling viewing I can imagine. We barely move, let alone laugh. Joe's Belly made people laugh because it was so stupid. I think that would be a huge disappointment to anyone that liked our paper.
However, you can see the Joe Garden Web Cam if you'd like.
Megan Ganz: Do not pay for the Joe Cam. It is only fun for the first two minutes, and then you realize it's just a camera focused on a looped video of hippos dancing.
Brooklyn: "I'm replacing them with a whole new crop of people."
You have to use my neighbor's photo!!! He walks around Brooklyn barefoot and he looks like the hate child of Edgar Winter and Shirley Booth.
Joe Garden: But is he willing to sign a release to have his image exploited for ten years with zero compensation? That is the problem.
New Orleans: The Weekly World News recently folded. Did The Onion have a regular subscription? How much of an influence was this august publication on The Onion?
Joe Garden: Initially, a huge influence. Ed Anger was a favorite of mine. And if you look at the first issues, you can see the Weekly World News all over it.
Joe Garden: But those issues are long gone. Alas. Unless someone has some copies they'd be willing to send me.
Ann Arbor, Michigan: Hey, This election season had a lot of wacky characters that deserve their own talk/reality show. Huckabee already has one but who do you think should be next: Sarah Palin, Rielle Hunter, Jeremiah Wright, Father Pfleger, Lanny Davis, Geraldine Ferarro, Obama Girl, Lynn Forester de Rothschild, Ron Paul, Cynthia McKinney, Ralph Nader, Bob Barr, John Hagee, Rod Parsley, Nancy Pfotenhauer, Tom Tancredo, Rudy Giuliani, Alan Keyes, Dennis Kucinich, Joe the Plumber, Tito the Builder? Any other whack jobs I left out? Maybe they could do a political "Surreal Life."
Megan Ganz: I think giving those people airtime for a year now has been plenty long, don't you? And they do have a political "Surreal Life," but it's called C-SPAN and people hardly ever get wasted and hook up with each other.
Jim Anchower: I've been living in a crappy apartment, driving a Ford Festiva, eating frozen pizzas, and drinking MGD for how many years now, and I don't even get a mention in your story? Don't call me when you're in need of weed.
Joe Garden: As an aside, Jim Anchower's car is actually my car. It's a 1992 Ford Festiva that I've had for 5 years. If anyone has a passenger door they are willing to part with, I'd happily make some sort of arrangement.
John, Dallas: Do you ever feel that even some of your jokes go a little too far?
Joe Garden: Yes. But I'm glad we run them nonetheless.
Megan Ganz: Everyone has a different "line" that will be crossed at some point. I don't mind the jokes we do at the expense of women (actually, I write most of them) but I cringe a little whenever we make fun of other comedy institutions. Can't please everyone.
Burbank, Calif.: Has there ever been a celebrity who sought to be satirized in The Onion?
Megan Ganz: Not that I know of, but sometimes people are a lot cooler about getting made fun of than you might think. We published a magazine cover with Bill Nye the Science Guy's face on it, with a headline reading "Crack Almost Killed Me," and then we received an e-mail from him saying, "Thank you for dealing compassionately with this matter." It made me think a lot more highly of him, for being able to take a joke.
Joe Garden: Yeah. No one really tries to get in the Onion, but once they're there, they usually have a good sense of humor about it.
Anonymous: What's your favorite bar in Brooklyn?
Joe Garden: I rarely go to bars. Used to be North 6, now it's The Gate or Union Hall. I hate bars with more than two TVs tuned into sports.
Megan Ganz: I also, rarely leave the house. But I like Sound Fix and Enid's and Black Rabbit. All dark and quiet and usually dead on a Tuesday night.
Alexandria, VA: I always like Kelly's comic. You should pair him with Ed Anger.
I usually pick up a book to read or a new game to try from your lifestyle columns. What I don't like are the stories about the lonely guy sitting at home who doesn't have any friends.
Joe Garden: Unfortunately, we're not going to stop running them. But thanks!
Megan Ganz: How about "Area Cool Guy With Tons Of Friends That Everyone Likes"? Does that sound funny?
Madison, Wis.: When I was a student at the University of Wisconsin, there was this grocery store that sold this sort of food that made your eyes water when you cut into it. We used to do this as party tricks at keggers. Is this where you got your name for The Onion?
Joe Garden: No. The origin of the name can be found in Mr. Towers' wonderful article. Think of it as a word search.
Alexandria, VA: Loved the Colonial issue! Any chance that Megan will be a topless page 3 girl?
Joe Garden: No. But I have appeared naked twice. If you'd like to see my junk, I'll send you the link.
Joe Garden: Seriously, I will give you access to a picture of my genitals.
Ogden, Utah: which one of the Onion writers wrote the Bush inauguration speech story from 2001 -- "Our long dark night of peace and prosperity is over..." and is that person available to help me pick horses at the race track?
Seriously, that was the most prescient piece I've seen anywhere.
On a more serious note, why is it that humorists like you guys and the Daily Show are able to go after politicians in ways the mainstream media seem afraid to? The Daily Show, especially, has no qualms at all about showing videos of politicians blatantly contradicting themselves... why don't the regular media do that on a regular basis?
Joe Garden: We can do it because we aren't bound to be factual. We can just attack things we think are unjust. And any time the MSM seems to point out that something is unjust, they are accused of being too liberal or conservative.
Megan Ganz: I think it's also because we can exaggerate and don't have to offer any solutions. We can just publish a story that has the basic thesis "Stuff's really messed up right now!" and leave it at that.
Anonymous: At the top of this chat it says "Behind the Scenes at America's Most Outrageous Newspaper"
I thought you were the most prestigious newspaper?
Megan Ganz: It's outrageous how prestigious we are.
Joe Garden: Thanks everybody for dropping by. We have to get back to work. Sorry if we didn't get to your questions or respond to your insults.
Bethesda, MD: Ms. Ganz, this question is for you. The article says that you have recently broken up with your boyfriend, and the photographs in the article suggest that you are not unattractive. According to the rules of the internet, this means that I am entitled to make inappropriate comments about how I'd like to date you. Regrettably I am in a committed relationship. If I pretend to proposition you, will you say something that will cut me down to size so I never ever do anything like this ever again?
Joe Garden: Except to respond to this:
Oh for god's sake, man, have a sense of decency and boost your self-worth.
Megan Ganz: Thank you all for your questions and desperate pleas for employment. Please continue to check our paper for the most up-to-date reporting on our slide into oblivion. Thank you also to the Washington Post. Happy Holidays!
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