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Area Man Interviews Humor Writer

The Onion’s forthcoming Our Front Pages is one of the rare cases in which one gets exactly what is advertised upon purchase. The book is a massive collection of front pages from the venerable satiric newspaper; while not fully comprehensive, the book includes dozens of memorable front pages from each year of The Onion’s existence. I took the occasion of Our Front Pages’ upcoming release to interview the current editor in chief of The Onion, Joe Randazzo, via email.

BROOKLYN RAIL: Beginning in 1995, the paper seemed to make a pretty permanent shift away from the look and feel of a tabloid newspaper to something modeled more on a mainstream newspaper, USA Today in particular. Since then, the tone and style of The Onion have been remarkably consistent. How do you maintain this style from year to year?

JOE RANDAZZO: Well, thanks. I think as the humor in The Onion became more sophisticated, it naturally gravitated toward a more sophisticated source of mockery, namely The New York Times. So more than just a visual parody of that recognizable USA Today broadsheet, The Onion started to become a deeper satire of the news media as a whole, and The New York Times is the perfect model for this. It has this self-importance and certitude that is almost impossible not to satirize. So we look to The Times whenever we have questions about how certain stories would be handled, or what kind of photojournalistic images would feel iconic, etc. We really take cues from all manner of media in our writing—tabloids and magazines and even novels—and we’ve updated the look of the paper a couple times in the last few years, but The Times is a reliable template.

RAIL: Inasmuch as this new book is a collection of front pages, the focus (and the highlight) is on the headlines. I was reminded while reading this that you’ve had some pretty outrageous stories over the years, taking pot shots at religion, race, politics, sex—nothing really seems to be too taboo for The Onion. Is this really the case? Have you ever had to reject a headline due to a sense of propriety or concern about backlash from any arena?

RANDAZZO: Not really, no. There are always certain topics that you never want to hit unless you have the perfect joke; rape, and pedophilia, and so forth come to mind. But that’s always kind of our main goal: to make a joke we’ve never heard before. So nothing’s off limits, but we try to be very careful that the target of the joke is the right one. For instance, in the Atlas, we did 54 pages on Africa, which is a horrible place, but the targets of the jokes were things like the corrupt government, or wishy-washy American liberal activism, or that sort of thing. Whenever we do stories about the troops, we’re guaranteed to get hate mail. If a joke’s in poor taste, we’ll hesitate, but we’ve never pulled anything or held off on anything for fear of offending a certain group. Nor have we ever had any pressure from the business side to do a certain thing or not do a certain thing. That sort of creative freedom is almost without rival, and it’s one of the things, I think, that makes The Onion independent and great. We get to say ‘fuck’ a lot. Fuck. 

RAIL: Although it’s a humorous publication, this collection provides a good overview of the nation’s concerns and phobias over the last two decades. How much, if any, news do you digest to stay current?

RANDAZZO: I’m finding more and more that I get my news in this kind of atomized, passively filtered way. I’m pretty active on Twitter and less so on other social media, but the point is, I have a lot of daily interaction with people all over the world who have interesting things to share. It aggregates and parses, almost literally, all the news that there is on the planet earth. So I’m privy to this incredible cross section of little information morsels—way more information than I could have seen in a day 10 years ago—and if something interests me, I go and read more. Now, I also have RSS feeds (which I sort of scan and focus in on in the same way) and I usually visit The New York Times and the Guardian, etc. a few times a day to see what the headlines are. Others on staff are much more voracious news consumers, but the older I get, the less interested I am in reading the mainstream news in anything more than a topical way. I understand how the news is written (I was also a Broadcast Journalism major) and so much of what is out there is all just slightly different variations of the same consumer product. There’s not a lot of difference or texture from one channel to the next on broadcast news, for instance. If you’ve seen it once, you get it—especially in terms of how to satirize it. I definitely try to stay current and understand trends, but it doesn’t take hours out of my day.

RAIL: It’s a pretty cynical and bleak outlook on things. Would you say that that’s an accurate reflection of you and your colleagues’ perspective? Or is that just part of the job?

RANDAZZO: I think any good comedian will try to move toward the darkness and horror within them, because it is great material and also a way of maybe taking away some of its power. It’s therapeutic. Anyway, I’m really interested in those awkward and uncomfortable spaces of human interaction, and if you can share that with someone else—if you have the same masturbation ritual or you’ve thought the same horrible thing about an unborn child as a comic onstage or an article in The Onion—that’s a real connection. So it’s part of the job, but it’s something we look for in our daily lives, too.

There’s also a danger in satire, I think, in that you can hide behind it and wind up not saying anything at all—just perpetuating this dull and superficial worldview. It can make you lazy if it just veers into the realm of sarcasm. So all of the laying bare of that dark stuff has to come from a place of heart, or it almost becomes pornographic. I think we try to have heart behind it when we talk about these grim ideas. Some sympathy.

And, yes, some of us are real sick sonsofbitches who would have jumped off a building or taken out a DMV with an AK-47 years ago if we didn’t work here.

RAIL: I’ve always felt that one of the great things about The Onion was that it was a material, disposal thing that you could carry around with you—an actual newspaper. Obviously you’ve developed a strong presence on the web, and with other papers and print media in decline, what do you think the future holds as far as the physical item is concerned?

RANDAZZO: Oh, I don’t think newspapers are going to disappear, but it is one area where supply and demand and the rules of the marketplace are actually working for good. It’s true that newspapers are at a disadvantage when it comes to the speed and diversity of the web, but they’ve been very slow to adapt or innovate, so if they stop becoming relevant, it’s not because people are stupid or ignorant or lazy (per se). They’ll have to find a new role for themselves, and that will take time. It’ll probably shake down into the super-local and the broad, more in-depth “newspapers of record.” Many will fall by the wayside, for sure. People still want to hold a newspaper, it’s just a matter of how important its contents are to their daily lives that will determine which ones they hold. 

RAIL: With things transitioning to the web, do you feel that that will open any creative doors, allow you to do things that you were otherwise unable to do in print?

RANDAZZO: For sure, we’re still figuring out a lot of this stuff. We’ve thought about The Onion in terms of a weekly publication for a long time, and that’s worked for us because we try not to get caught up in the 24-hour news cycle. We like to wait and comment on the media and the zeitgeist, and that’s why so much of our stuff has stood the test of time. But we’re also finding ways to respond more quickly to certain things: deaths or big events, for instance. We can put out a headline to our 1.7 million Twitter followers within a couple hours of Michael Jackson’s death, and we can still do deeper, more thought-out stories about it the next day.

Also, we recently ran an issue in which we were taken over by a Chinese mega-corporation. We made a website for the company and gave it a Friendster profile and added all this texture to create a whole universe that we could never, ever do with the paper. And it was the first time I can think of that we really got to interact with our readers, through the character of the Chinese corporation, on Twitter and Facebook. It was really remarkable and rewarding to see so many people play along with the joke and the language of the Chinese overlords and in such a smart, interesting way. Normally, the character of The Onion despises its readers and could not care less what they think or do or want.

RAIL: There’s a very good balance in the paper between “local” and “national” stories. Is that a concern for you? Do you make a conscious effort to counterbalance, say, a piece on the President with an “area man” story? Or does that just happen in the course of business?

RANDAZZO: Our primary concern every week is to get the funniest headlines in the paper, but we are also extremely obsessive about coming up with a good mix. Sometimes we just don’t have the big business story, or international story, but we really try to keep the material as varied as possible. We don’t even really like to have a one-liner and a story that both deal with food, for instance, and we compulsively avoid running two similar stories (in subject matter or style) in successive weeks. But we’ve been doing this so long, and everyone’s so aware of it, that it does tend to have an organic way of working itself out. 


James Arnett


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2009

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