Peeling the Onion
In the satirical newspaper the Onion, the only sacrilege is to not be funny.
By BILL ADAIR
Published April 12, 2005
NEW YORK - Breaking news has disrupted the lazy routine at the Onion. Pope John Paul II has died and the writers have urgent work to do.
They scribble ideas for possible headlines and gather around a conference table to read them:
"Pope's Dying Wish: "Please Make 10 Billion Commemorative Plastic Items With My Face On Them.' "
"Papal Palace Revealed To Be Filled With Old Newspapers, Empty Pill Bottles, Several Dozen Mangy Cats, Uncashed Social Security Checks."
"World's Catholics Go On Crazed Sin Binge."
The writers at the nation's most biting satirical journal will spend the next day and a half debating which headlines to use. They'll discard their duds ("Cardinal Nader To Play Spoiler In Papal Election"), and they'll dissect and rewrite others. They'll even get in a shouting match.
All in the name of a pope joke.
* * *
Most headlines won't make the cut. Under the staff's unwritten rules, an idea must win a majority vote to stay in contention.
Todd Hanson, a writer with unkempt brown hair and a booming voice, reads from a journal where he meticulously jots his ideas in black ink.
"Despite Worldwide Prayer Vigil, Pope Dies Anyway," he says.
A chuckle, but no majority.
"Millions Worldwide Mourn Death of Johnnie Cochran." Silence.
"Pope Dead At 84; Pope Sex Tape Surfaces On Internet."
The writers work on the 10th floor of an old office building in SoHo, a neighborhood losing its artsy roots to Eddie Bauer, Pottery Barn and the like.
The Onion's office has high ceilings and hardwood floors. The writers meet in a spacious room decorated with Star Wars toys, a plastic owl and an action figure of Jesus. Their reference books include a directory of Topps Baseball Cards and Wondrous World of Fishes.
White boards on the walls list the headlines for each issue. Unlike real newspapers, where headlines are written last, the Onion staffers dream them up first. The best ones get a full story. Others become "one-liners" (stand-alone headlines on the front page), "side boxes" (headlines with silly photos) or "NIBs" (News in Brief items that run inside the paper).
The weekly paper has a circulation of 369,000; the Web version (www.theonion.com) attracts an estimated 2-million readers.
Writing for the paper is not exactly a grueling job. The staffers need come to the office only three days a week. The other days, they "work from home." One of them is very good at playing Grand Theft Auto.
* * *
The writers, three women and seven men ages 24 to 36, met at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where the Onion was founded in 1988. They are former liquor store clerks, cartoonists and, in one case, the brains behind the Madison Museum of Bathroom Tissue.
Though they earn a comfortable living from the newspaper, books and a movie deal, they dress in faded jeans and T-shirts with cartoon characters. They're proud of their slacker image.
"We still are people who get drunk or stoned and lie on the couch all day and play video games," says writer John Krewson, who wears a sweat shirt with a drawing of a rifle that reads: "Defend Brooklyn."
No one is sure how the newspaper got its name. One theory says the layered vegetable is a metaphor for in-depth journalism. Another says the founders were so poor they ate onion sandwiches. Maybe they just liked how the name sounded.
It began as a weekly coupon paper in the college town and developed a national following on the Web. It hit the big time in 1999 with the book Our Dumb Century, a historical collection of bogus newspaper pages.
The staff moved from Madison to New York in 2001 because they wanted to live in a big city, but they remain sharp about life in Middle America. ("Antique Dealer Sick Of Appraising Smurf Collections.")
Most of the writers have worked for the paper more than a decade and are such good friends that they fight like siblings. Editor in chief Carol Kolb says, "We're all kind of sick of each other."
They love to zing conservatives, but they take plenty of shots at Democrats. An early story about John Kerry was headlined, "Adorable Democrat Actually Believes He Has A Chance."
Writer Joe Garden, a lanky man with wispy hair and the look of an eccentric professor, says the Onion follows its Latin motto, Tu Stultus Es, which he says roughly translates, "You Are Dumb."
"Our whole paper," Garden says, "is an indictment of anything we think is dumb."
The pope's death is a sad event for millions, but for the writers it's a chance to poke fun at religion, the news media and the trappings of fame.
A couple of the writers were raised as Catholics but are no longer religious. No one on the staff has any qualms about offending readers; that, they say, is the nature of satire.
* * *
Hanson tries some more lines.
"World's Catholics Go On Crazed Sin Binge. . . . "There's no sheriff in town,' say churchgoers." "I like that," says writer Chris Karwowski. "I don't like "no sheriff in town,' but I like "World's Catholics on Sin Binge."
Maria Schneider, a writer who has been concentrating on paying her phone bill, looks up from her checkbook. "Yeah, I like that."
After settling on a headline they like, the creative process heats up. They add and delete words to make the line sharper.
"Should it be "Sin Binge'? Or should it be "Crazed Sin Binge'?" Hanson asks.
"It should be "World's Unsupervised Catholics Go On Sin Binge,' " Krewson says.
"I think I like crazed," Krewson says. "But I like unsupervised, too."
Finally, they're satisfied.
"It's good - it's excellent," says Hanson.
One down. Dozens more to go.
* * *
Kolb, the editor, plans to immediately post several one-liners on their Web site and rearrange the front page for the Wednesday, April 13, issue. It will still have "French's Introduces Antibacterial Mustard" and "Report: Cost of Living Now Outweighs Benefits." But a pope story will be added.
Kolb reads headlines of her own and several suggested by other contributors:
"Pope Wearing Jeans, Polo Shirt in Heaven."
"Pope Wearing Sweat Suit In Heaven."
Schneider suggests "track suit" would be funnier. Everyone agrees.
Kolb offers another that hits pay dirt: "Heaven Not As Opulent As Vatican, Reports Disappointed Pope."
For people who write fake news all day, the writers spend a surprising amount of time checking facts. Their intern Mike DiCenzo does Internet searches to check everything from whether they can say the pope's renal system failed to how many versions of Candle in the Wind have been recorded by Elton John (two).
The marathon meetings - they talk for seven hours the first day - reveal the writers don't fit their slacker image. The meetings can be as serious as a biology lab, with writers dissecting jokes the way scientists examine specimens. "This is a joke about misplaced focus," they say about a Popemobile headline. Another joke "uses verisimilitude."
But they have a good time, with digressions about rock music, the inconsistency ofBrooklyn accents on Laverne & Shirley (because they lived in Wisconsin) and why Sandra Bullock's movies are so lousy.
* * *
DiCenzo types a list of headlines that made the cut: 30 about the pope and 60 others. At 7 p.m., the writers gather around the table, the last glimmers of sunshine fading.
"We have a lot of good, solid pope jokes," says Garden.
They agree on "Pope's Renal System Proves Fallible" and "John Paul II's Last Words: "Pope Sled,"' their riff on the Citizen Kane "Rosebud" line. They also like "Pope-Killing Virus Claims Another Victim."
They decide against "Make 10 Billion Commemorative Plastic Items" because it's similar to their recent story about NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon.
They choose three for the Web site and pick "Heaven Not As Opulent" for the lead pope story in their next issue.
As the writers leave the office at 9 p.m., no one is thrilled with the choices, but at least everything is settled.
Until Kolb wakes up with a new idea in the middle of the night.
* * *
Kolb worked as a nurse's aide at a psychiatric ward, where she "changed diapers and put people in cuffs" - wonderful training to manage the eclectic group at the Onion.
When she arrives the next day, the 32-year-old editor meets with three of the writers - the others are tardy - and suggests a new lead joke: a chart that shows the pope going through a caterpillar's metamorphosis. The headline would be, "Pope Emerges From Chrysalis A Beautiful Butterfly."
The writers are lukewarm, but go along. Krewson is assigned to research the life cycle of a butterfly and write the copy. Kolb scribbles the headline on the board and retreats to her office.
Hanson and the other latecomers finally roll in. They balk, saying the new plan conflicts with other jokes. They're irritated that Kolb did not get majority support.
The writers shout and curse at each other. Garden tells Hanson he has no right to complain because he is always late. Kolb is summoned to mediate.
Hanson says the butterfly chart should not be the Onion's main statement on the pope's death. Kolb counters that their mission is to be funny, not make a statement. She tells Hanson that if he wants to make statements, maybe he should work for the liberal magazine The Nation.
The other writers are annoyed at Hanson - they frequently roll their eyes when he talks - but several say he has a point. They don't think the butterfly graphic should be their main story in the next issue.
Miffed, Kolb steps to the board, erases her butterfly headline and replaces it with, "Heaven Not As Opulent As Vatican, Reports Disappointed Pope."
Everyone calms down, another family feud settled.
-- Washington bureau chief Bill Adair can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202 463-0575.