Big Think Interview With Joe Randazzo
Joe Randazzo is the former editor of The Onion, the world's most popular satirical newspaper, as well as former creative director of adultswim.com. Randazzo also performs stand-up and has appeared on NPR's This American Life, PBS's Charlie Rose, and MSNBC's Morning Joe. Randazzo was awarded the Burke Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Public Discourse through the Arts by the College Historical Society of Trinity College Dublin in 2012. He is author of the book <i>Funny on Purpose.</i>
Question: What did you think you’d be doing when you grew up?\r\n
Joe Randazzo: What did I think I would be doing when I grew up? It’s funny. I think I always thought that I would wind up in comedy somehow. I guess I kind of envisioned myself being like a Bill Murray or somebody who was my hero, but I didn’t ever actively pursue comedy as a career. It just sort of like happened. I never really thought that I… While I always fantasized about it as a kid, I just, for some reason it never seemed like something that I should actually really pursue, so. So I think I envisioned myself being as much like Bill Murray as I could, and having kids and having a cabin up in the woods somewhere, and so one of those things has happened so far, so that’s good.\r\n
Question: Why did you want to be Bill Murray?\r\n
Joe Randazzo: I think he was such a specific kind of comedy that was sarcastic and confident, but also not cold and soulless. You know, like not just doing comedy on the surface level. There was something really endearing about him, and you got the sense that even though he made cynical remarks that he was a kind of flawed and normal guy as well. You know I think he just really is sort of the standard bearer for this tone of comedy that a lot of people from my generation grew up with. You know Steve Martin was in there as well, Chevy Chase in those days were all… I don’t know if they’re big influences, but I guess I haven’t done a lot of reflecting on who my comedic influences actually have been. Growing up with, you know, two younger brothers and sarcastic parents probably was the biggest influence of any you know. I don’t think anybody can really make me laugh like my little brother Matt or my dad or my brother Nick, so I think that had a lot to do with it.\r\n
Question: How does the Onion try to avoid partisan satire?\r\n
Joe Randazzo: It’s hard to be impartial, and it’s hard to know sometimes where the line is, but I think while we are a comedy outlet that’s first and foremost is designed to entertain it does really aid with the verisimilar attitude of being a news organization. If you can appear to be as impartial as a real news organization tries to appear to be. The main I think is that nobody on the staff has a political axe to grind or ideological axes to grind. I think people get more upset about you know somebody having finished the mayonnaise than they do about genocides and Darfur unfortunately. But I try to be really aware of it we’re talking politically how many times we do jokes about Republicans and how many times we do jokes about Democrats and sort of making sure that we’re…we are walking down the middle. A lot of that work is done for us just by the sheer stupidity of politicians in general. You know we are really just trying to mock things that are stupid and people acting in stupid or hypocritical ways, and that happens on both sides of the aisle enough, more than enough, but we always get complaints from conservative readers saying that we’re not hitting Obama specifically enough or enough, but there the problem is that people get upset that we don’t criticize policy initiatives on the part of whoever is the current president based upon what their own perspective on that policy issue is. Like we’re not a left-wing organization who is trying to propagate a left-wing way of thinking, and we’re not a right-wing organization who is trying to do that either, so we can’t pick apart policy moves. We just, we’re not politicians. We’re not political, but when Republicans, for instance, you know try to portray Obama as a socialist who wants to kill your grandmother, that’s just absurd. That needs to be pointed out and ridiculed because it’s absurd and on the other hand, you know when Obama says he is going to do one thing and then sort of backs down and does another that also is… needs to be satirized. So I try to be very careful about it, mainly because I want both sides to read us and enjoy us and we do have lots of conservative readers who like us as well.\r\n
Question: Do you ever get bored with the day-to-day side of politics?\r\n
Joe Randazzo: I think the much more interesting thing for us to cover and which is what we do well is to kind of comment on what’s going on in the country rather than what specific politicians are doing. These things change from day-to-day and if you look on a historical scale politicians have been doing the same stupid things over and over again since the time of togas, so our job, and what we’re interested in as consumers in America in 2009 as individuals, and then translated into what we do in The Onion, is mocking the media, mocking Republicans, mocking Democrats. I personally went through a period a few years ago where I was intensely consuming political news and it wore me out and sort of depressed me. I read a lot less of it. I read it a lot less closely nowadays than I was say four or five years ago when every new story would throw me into a rage. You know it was a lot of energy for trying to go up against something that’s an immoveable force that’s been in motion since the dawn of man, man’s stupidity and hubris.\r\n
Question: Do Onion writers seek outside opinions to avoid “inside humor”?\r\n
Joe Randazzo: No. I think another one of The Onion’s strengths or the reason that it’s been able to do this so well for you know 20 years is that we really try to avoid thinking about will a reader like this while at the same time not making it too insider-y. Like that is something that definitely comes up a lot that it’s either too sort of New York-centric or it’s a meta-joke that’s operating on all of these different levels that we understand because we’re holding ourselves up in this room for six hours every week to talk through every little detail of every little joke and the reader doesn’t care about that. We have to be aware of and acknowledge that, but at the same time a big part of what we do is making each other laugh in the room and some of the best stories are ones that come from a riff that takes place in the room where a joke is sort of modified and through informal brainstorm becomes a different kind of joke. That stuff is always really rewarding, so we are extremely insular in fact and the language and structure of what we do is really only known by a very small group of people, if you know what I mean. It’s hard to explain to somebody how to write an Onion story.\r\n
Question: How do you typically write an Onion story?\r\n
Joe Randazzo: I think the method is pretty much the same. We’ve got it down to a science, man. It’s I think the number one rule is that… The number one thing that people wouldn’t think of is that, if you’re trying to be funny in your headline it’s not going to work. I’ve had people who are very big fans of The Onion and read it for years finally hound me enough to be able to submit headlines and I’ve only agreed to do this a few times, but and they do and the headlines have these sort of like wacky, a wacky element to them and the thing about the… You know the most important thing I think to keep in mind is that we to take ourselves extremely seriously. The headline has to take itself extremely seriously. The character of The Onion is presupposing that it is the most important media outlet in the world and that its word is essentially the word of God, so everything that we publish has to really feel kind of almost stoic and over important and the editor in chief before me, Scott Dickers, really taught me a lot about sort of killing your darlings I guess I would say where you cut out the part that’s funny from a joke. It’s counterintuitive, but it’s that dry tone and that straight tone of the newspaper article, the kind of AP style of writing or New York Times style or writing is what we strive to achieve and sometimes just deleting an extra little funny word makes the joke that much better because it’s really emulating that style. So that’s something that’s really important to what we do.\r\n
Question: Which Onion article are you most proud of?\r\n
Joe Randazzo: Well I’ll just go and totally contradict myself right away, because one of my favorite articles was “I Got What America Needs Right Here,” by Jimmy Carter. It was an op-ed where Jimmy Carter is basically talking like a New York gangster, so that’s a kind of a silly headline and we do, do silly headlines. I mean we’ve had talking monkeys and birds on the front page many times, but you know and there is… We do stories that are based on really local small stuff, the area man stories and we do stories that are based on big national events like one of the most famous ones that pops into mind because so many people talk about it as having been prescient at the time was right after George Bush got elected the first time. It’s a Bush quote, “Our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity finally ends.” I’m probably misquoting our most famous article, but you know it’s just so straight and to the point and kind of powerful, but I’m also a big fan of… You know we recently ran one called “Grandma Concerned About Dinner Roll Count” for Thanksgiving. It’s just a small slice of life kind of story that has a little more of a literary bent to it. We can actually in some of those kinds of stories bend the rules a little bit and add some flourishes and some pathos, so it kind of run the gamut. It’s hard to say in that respect what would be the ultimate Onion headline.\r\n
Question: Do you write the article or the headline first?\r\n
Joe Randazzo: Everything comes from the headlines, and it takes a lot of practice to kind of know which headline… first of all, which headline works in the context of The Onion. Sometimes there are headlines that come in that are very funny, but they just for some reason wouldn’t work. They wouldn’t feel right. And then after you can get past that, it takes a lot of practice to figure out which headlines have enough of an idea behind them that they can be examined for 600 words. So the way it works is, every Monday we have our staff of writers, which is about 10 people and about 20 other contributors, all submit a bunch of headlines. We go through the whole list of several hundred of these. If two people vote on it, it makes it to Tuesday, and Tuesday meeting is the big meeting where we actually select the issue and brainstorm all the jokes, so that’s when you get a lot of the discussion, this kind of almost scientific discussion about what a joke means. Is its target right? Does it have enough legs to sustain a full story? I think that’s something that you just really need to get with practice. I don’t know that there is… at least the way that my brain works. There are other people on staff who I think could actually explain to you logistically how a headline, how you can know that a headline has enough of an idea behind it to be turned into a full story, and that’s kind of when that happens and that’s usually the most fun part of my week is the brainstorming session when you take this joke and sort of move it around and play inside the idea of it and kind of find out like what kind of quotes would there be in this story. Would the quotes be totally…? Are the quotes in on the joke as well or is it one of these stories where just The Onion… It’s just The Onion’s perspective on something, an Onion, the writer, the reporter or the character of The Onion is totally missing the point? We call that a misplaced focus joke, where we get really upset about one little detail in an issue that obviously you should be getting upset about something else. See, I even try to explain it, I’m confusing myself. But that’s kind of… It’s the most grueling part of the week, but it’s also the most fun and most rewarding.\r\n
Question: Do you ever have “headline regret” the next morning?\r\n
Joe Randazzo: Yeah, it does happen once in a while. And I apologize. I’m trying to think of actual examples. It happened for us in a good way very recently. We had come up with this joke, which I think originally was “INS Deports Lou Dobbs,” and then it was supposed to run the next week and then Lou Dobbs abruptly left CNN, so we actually we had this like perfect joke that we had to do a little bit of last minute finagling and editing and Photoshopping to get it out right on time, but we were able to respond to Lou Dobbs leaving within an hour on Facebook and Twitter and places like that, getting the story out and it was actually the first time that we did kind of breaking news, and because with Twitter we’re able to reach almost two million people instantaneously. Whereas it used to be just a newspaper that came out once a week in ten cities, now it’s we can really reach people a lot more quickly, a lot more people too, so we did something where we released that headline and then just a portion of the story and then the next day rereleased it again as a developing story that now we’ve had the time to write the whole article about, so again, kind of really trying to mimic what it is that actual news organizations do and we actually got some inquiries from different media writers about how did The Onion respond so quickly, and is The Onion going to be doing breaking news now, and I was like no, we’re still just a stupid joke factory. We’re not going to be doing breaking news anytime soon.\r\n
Question: Are your columnist characters written by one editor, or do you take turns?\r\n
Joe Randazzo: They’re written by one person. There have been a couple, such as Smoove B, who is, you know, this kind of romantic lover. That had been written by multiple people, but the torch has been passed on.\r\n
There’s also Jim Anchower, which is written by a writer named Joe Garden. He is the stoner whose car is forever broken down. Jean Teasdale, who was actually originally The Onion’s humor columnist, but she has just kind of got this really depressing suburban life and a loveless marriage, but manages to be chipper throughout it all and even though she is apparently barren is still written by a woman named Maria Schneider, who used to be a staff writer and editor and left a couple of years ago, but we still have her do that column.\r\n
These are so… The columns are so personal and specific that it would be really hard for someone to pick up and take over for someone else after so many years of kind of nuance and layer, and they’re often writing about things from their own life that’s translated into this character, so yeah.\r\n
Question: Do Onion editors’ lives inform their articles?\r\n
Joe Randazzo: I think it informs a great deal. You know, it’s funny. You can sort of pinpoint sometimes in the meeting like oh, so obviously Seth, you watched a lot of Seinfeld over the weekend because all the jokes are about Seinfeld, or TV commercials that you would find during Seinfeld, or if somebody is especially frustrated with their roommate like people in the past will just sort of… You can tell through the headlines that are being pitched you can sort of observe the arc of their relationship with their roommate, so I think because it’s as much these little minor things that occur in daily life, more observation stuff that makes it into the paper as it is big national news events, so definitely people’s biases about say brunch or Aerosmith will make it into headline form and then get pitched at the meeting and if it’s… if we think it’s sort of universally funny enough it will actually make it into the paper, so there is definitely a lot of that.\r\n
Question: Will Herbert Kornfeld return?\r\n
Joe Randazzo: We recently talked about--actually the idea just occurred to me to release like the Kornfeld Papers or something that, you know, some of his old writings that had been unearthed, but we decided to kind of let it be for now. You don’t know. You never know. It might happen at some time, but for us right now Herbert Kornfeld is dead, still the victim of white-on-white violence.\r\n
Question: How has the move from Wisconsin to New York affected the Onion?\r\n
Joe Randazzo: I think it’s been beneficial. You know it’s sort of the thing about The Onion is it’s despite kind of how popular it continues to become we still sort of think of ourselves as outsiders. It was kind of founded on that idea, a very rooted in a very Gen-X perspective on the world of these slackers kind of sitting around poking fun at everything that was going on and because of that I think there is an inherent Gen-X slash slacker mentality at the core of what The Onion is, so it’s good that we came to New York because it sort of allowed us more exposure and we’re more in the heart of where the media is happening and can just bring more sort of interesting **** people into The Onion sphere than you would have been able to find perhaps in just Madison, Wisconsin, which is a great town, but you know a little bit smaller than New York. So yeah, I mean and it’s a strange kind of almost paradox in a way because we’re satirizing… The Onion’s character is this huge mega corporation that is cold, callous and uncaring and unconcerned about anything but profit, like actively dislikes its readers, will sell itself out for anything, but the integrity that we have with The Onion, in the actual operation The Onion is exactly the opposite of that. We try really hard to be a little more conservative with the kinds of ads that we’ll allow on our site, on our website and in our paper. I think we have the standards that are as high as like The Guardian in the UK I think is the only one that when you look at the kinds of ad models that we work with and that we won’t, the only people with standards as high as ours is The Guardian. I’ve seen stuff on The New Yorker and or New York Magazine and New York Times and you know that ads that will like blow you away. You know they take over content, and I don’t want to promise something that we can’t deliver on.\r\n
Question: Has the recession affected you more as a comedy outlet or a newspaper?\r\n
Joe Randazzo: I think it’s the same kind of stuff. We rely on advertising and advertising dollars have just really dried up. I mean there is definitely companies that we would love to take money from, but who are a little bit afraid of the content. You know we’re not afraid to put a big top story about a pedophile on our front page and you know a large corporation with an image and a brand to protect might be a little bit hesitant to have itself be associated with that in any way. So that I think is the thing that’s specific to comedy that we face is our content is very R rated and I think it frightens off some advertisers, but at the same time I don’t think that we’ve faired as badly as lots of other places. We certainly haven’t had to close down. Lots of print organizations have been just closing up shop. Ad dollars are down, but they’re down everywhere and I think if you look at… compare us to a lot of other organization we’re doing pretty well because we have I think a solid brand that people… that readers have a good association with and a lot of companies want to be associated with that and we have a lot of loyal readers and we put out pretty funny stuff every week, so we haven’t seen them totally dry up, but people aren’t shooting themselves in any offices yet, but we’ll see.\r\n
Question: Does the Onion aspire to more, or is it comfortable where it is?\r\n
Joe Randazzo: I think we’re pretty comfortable. I mean I would like for everybody to… you know a million more people to buy our books and know about us, but I think there is a sort of you know I never want to be standing in my corner office one stormy night with a glass of brandy looking at my reflection and asking what I’ve become due to The Onion growing too large, so I think there is somewhat of a finitude. I mean we can never be Disney, and we don’t reach the number of people that Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert can reach because we’re not broadcast in that way. We’re not on TV. So maybe some of these things can change. I mean I think it would be a terrible paradoxical shame if The Onion actually became a huge heartless corporation that distained its readers, but I guess the nature of capitalism and the free market is that a company wants to become as big as it can, so we’ll just have to see what happens. Maybe The Onion will turn into a monster. I don’t know.\r\n
Question: Is humor writing or standup comedy harder?\r\n
Joe Randazzo: Standup comedy is definitely harder. I mean, I like being onstage. That’s always been fun for me. Better than a… It’s like people ask how do you go up on stage, I don’t think I could ever do it and my answer is like well I’m having trouble talking to you right now. You know it’s like for some reason some people just have it in their genetic makeup that it’s easier to go up and interact with a group of strangers than it is to have any kind of meaningful interaction with a person whose eyes you have to look into and I’m not saying that I’m a cold, heartless monster, but a little sick, but standup is harder because it’s just you on your own. The great thing about The Onion is it’s so collaborative. You know it’s you almost kind of take on this group mind there and people are really willing to sacrifice their own personal pet headlines or their own preference on a joke for the good of The Onion, for the good of the product. I don’t think either that standup informs my work at The Onion very much or vice versa because they’re pretty different in style. The standup tends to be a little more of a… a little more of a… I kind of do this kind of character who… that exaggerates all of my own nervousness and neurosis and they tend to be a little more conceptual like as an eight minute set than telling a joke and then telling an unrelated joke and then telling an unrelated joke. I can’t… I sort of can’t write jokes that way personally. I have to think about how do I want this eight minutes to feel so that it is as awkward for the audience as possible while also being funny and then sort of write to that as opposed to this is a good joke that I will expand on and then find a segue into something else. For me I just can’t… It’s really hard for me to do that.\r\n
So one thing The Onion has sort of taught me, though, is how to actually like write material and how to hit a joke as hard as you possible can relentlessly until it’s near to the point of being too much, so having that sense is something that I’ve really gotten from working at The Onion over four years, but the two are actually pretty unrelated. You know I do have website that I keep up as well. It’s called The Joe Randazzo Association, which is now that I’m saying it, it’s this sort of large, heartless corporation and it’s the kind of goings on at the office, messages from the HR representative and schedule of events for the seminar and what the lunch menu is going to be and it’s those kinds of things. So the writing for that has definitely been influenced a lot by my time at The Onion just in how to really write a joke, but it’s my own personal stuff because sometimes you just need to write your own personal stuff as well.\r\n
Question: Is comedy fun?\r\n
Joe Randazzo: It’s fun, but it’s also horrible. Anybody who has to… Well I don’t know if anybody, but when you have to sit down and write something it’s just the most dreadful feeling in the world for me anyway, but it’s also really fun. It’s just you forget. When you’re having the fun you forget how dreadful it is and when you’re in the dreadful you forget how fun it can be and you have to write something in order to be able to have material to perform and that’s when the fun is, so I guess I sort of actually force myself to do it and I’ve listened to other… There is this great podcast I listen to called The Creative Screenwriting Magazine where Jeff Goldsmith is his name, he is the senior editor at the magazine I think and he interviews different screenwriters every week and he always asks them if they… what do they do to… do they get writer’s block and do they… what do they do to get rid of it and every time I’m like how… I always have writer’s block. Writer’s block is the default position for me. It’s like such a struggle to get these ideas out, so they don’t want to come out even though they’re in there driving me crazy. But it’s also just incredible to be able to have a career out of making people laugh and or a job anyway. I don’t know if it’s going to… if it will be a career. Where you sit around in a room and make people laugh and then put together something that’s so great that you know I can be so proud of and you know when you see people on the street reading The Onion it’s a really… It’s a really wonderful feeling and I always want to tell them you know I’m…Look at the masthead, that’s me. I work there. So I’d say it’s got to be that the fun outweighs the dreadfulness for sure, yeah, but it’s work. It’s work.\r\n
Question: Is anything beyond satire?\r\n
Joe Randazzo: I guess dead baby jokes are less funny to me now that I have a living baby, but we still make them. We still make them. You know I don’t think anything is… should ever really be off limits. I think it’s the… your take on it. It’s your angle on it. What you have to say about it that can be tasteful. You know I don’t believe in things being too soon. I just think if you’re making a joke to sort of cash in on what everybody is thinking and feeling and talking about at that moment, with no heart to it or no thought to it or no kind of like human empathy or understanding, then you’re just kind of like a buffoon, but you can still make the joke you know. I remember when the Balloon Boy thing was happening, however. I’m pretty active on Twitter and there were… This was at the time when I actually thought that a six year-old boy was up in this balloon, and I just had this image of this kid with like the wind rushing through his face like screaming for his mom in the balloon and it sort of made my gut wrench, and people were making jokes about it at that time and I sort of got upset at people, like maybe let’s wait and see if the kid is alive before we make jokes about him, but that’s the thing about this you know being able to communicate with so many people so quickly on Twitter, it’s like it’s the time has just compressed so much. You know like a Twitter hour is like a year in real life or something. That’s off the subject. But I don’t consider anything, any subject to be taboo. I think there is definitely taste that comes into play, and certainly at The Onion we don’t… You know there is nothing that we won’t talk about if we feel that we have a good joke for it with a good angle.\r\n
Question: Would you be willing to write a headline about your own mother?\r\n
Joe Randazzo: I would do this, yes, but I wouldn’t put her name in it per se, and if you’re asking me to do it on the spot right now I cannot. It’s a torturous affair to write a headline. It takes many minutes of torture, sometimes hours, and it would just be humiliating to me and demeaning to all of us for me to come up with a headline on the spot for you today.
Recorded on November 30, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen
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