The Truth About The Onion

Question: Do Onion writers seek outside opinions to avoid “inside humor”?

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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.

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Question: How do you typically write an Onion story?

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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.

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Question: Which Onion article are you most proud of? 

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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.

Recorded on November 30, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen

A look inside The Onion writer’s room, and how it avoids becoming too "inside."

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