NEW YORK — Days before the January 2001 inauguration of President Bush, the Onion ran a story headlined: “Bush: ‘Our Long National Nightmare of Peace and Prosperity Is Finally Over.’”
Writers at the satirical paper still speak reverentially of the story, in which Bush promises to take the country into a deep recession, worsen the environment and “end the severe war drought that plagued the nation under Clinton.”
“Wow, was that prescient,” marveled Joe Garden, the Onion’s features editor.
Whether or not you share that political viewpoint, the Bush era will end soon and the political comedy epicenter will shift to Sens. Barack Obama or John McCain.
At the Onion — “America’s finest news source,” as it calls itself — this change in the Oval Office is a welcome opportunity for new material after eight years of Bush and an interminable presidential campaign.
“Everyone started being like, ‘Nothing is funny in politics. We’re done talking about it,”’ said assistant editor Megan Ganz.
Regardless of who’s elected Tuesday, it’s clear satire has won in 2008. “Saturday Night Live,” “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” have all been at the top of their game, with record ratings to show for it.
But the Onion is a slower moving, more broadly social animal of satire. It is, as editor Joe Randazzo calls it, “the satirical newspaper of record.”
Founded 20 years ago by two students from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the Onion gradually grew under editor Scott Dickers and went national in 1996 when it started its Web site. (The move was partially inspired by the viral spreading of the story: “Clinton Deploys Vowels to Bosnia: Cities of Sjbvdnzv, Grzny to be first recipients.”)
It was around then that the Onion really honed its approach as always rigidly couched in dry writing style with slick graphics.
The paper, distributed weekly in 10 cities, has a circulation of about 900,000 and is now based in New York. The more profitable Web site draws 5.5 million unique visitors per month.
All the while, the Onion has spread to other media forms. It has published numerous best-selling books, including the rewrite of history, “Our Dumb Century,” and the mock atlas, “Our Dumb World.”
The paper also comes with a serious and respected entertainment section of criticism called the A.V. Club. Onion Radio News is a daily one-minute podcast that consistently ranks among the most popular on iTunes.
And last year, the Onion launched the Onion News Network, a parody of a 24-hour TV news network, perhaps the Onion’s most costly startup with a staff now of 20 making videos with high production value.
ONN executive producer Will Graham and head writer Carol Kolb (a former editor of the paper) translated the Onion sensibility to video, with stories such as “John McCain accidentally left on campaign bus.”
Though the ONN — which produces 15 videos a month — may not yet be as profitable as the rest of the Onion projects, Randazzo says the privately held Onion Inc. is “pretty healthy fiscally” despite the downturn in ad sales brought on by the economic crisis.
“I try to avoid the idea that people care a lot about the Onion, or at all about the Onion,” said Garden. “Then you’re sort of infected with a weird sense of self-importance and that just doesn’t fit with what the Onion is. The Onion started as an outsider publication, I think the Onion works best as an outsider publication.”
The Onion centers its election coverage at a site separate from the main Onion page (www.theonion.com/content/whitehousewar). It includes candidate profiles, videos and a glossary (“debate: a contest to see which candidate can answer the fewest questions”).
It will offer continuous Election Day coverage (and the day after). This might be as reactive as the Onion has ever been; the videos take months to prepare and each paper issue is created about two weeks in advance.
“We are kind of more a gauge of culture,” said Randazzo. “But everything is mediated through this lens of the upcoming election that it has become sort of necessary for us to really do a little more coverage than we normally would.”
To prepare for whatever happens Tuesday, the Onion has — like a real newspaper — organized coverage for either a McCain win or an Obama win.
After so many jokes from not just the Onion but all the other outlets of satire, it’s not easy to keep mining new material. But the Onion has continued to thrive largely because it fiercely guards against repetition.
On the back of the door to the writers room, for example, is a list of “no-no words,” which Garden explains as “overused comedy tropes.” A few: William Shatner, home schooling, DVD commentary tracks, Battleship, soccer.
Tired jokes are just as easy for an election stretched over two years. Ganz says the prospect of Obama jokes have lightened the room, producing sillier stories like the Onion ran during the Clinton years.
“We get asked a lot if we secretly want Republicans to win since there’s so much more material,” she said. “The thing is, we always say, we have to live in the country, too. And also, when stuff is really going bad, it’s harder to make jokes.”
Creating those jokes is a communal affair at the Onion.
Ten writers and editors congregate every week in a room surrounded by dry-erase board to pitch headlines (all stories start with the headline) and select about 16. A writer will be chosen for each — often not who wrote the headline — and everyone will discuss how to approach the piece. Later, several editors will go over it.
Watching the humor of each story dissected is a rapid-paced marvel. The mostly young staff analyzes a story’s tone, perspective, kicker and meaning.
Like many people, the Onion staff is ready to have the election over with. In satirizing the media’s excessive ramping up of election coverage, the Onion has been forced to do the same.
“(The Web site) War for the White House is as much a joke on the media industry as it is our expanded coverage,” said editorial manager Chet Clem. “It’s this sort of overblown hyperbole that’s thrown around about an election. Yes, it’s very important, but do you really need a 24-hour news bunker? Does Wolf Blitzer really need to be that sleep-deprived?”
But Onion writers are not built like Blitzer.
“If we were a regular news organization, we’d be here with shifts of people right up until the deadline,” said Garden. “But we’re not. We’re a bunch of softened comedy writers who like to go home at a reasonable time.”