I would just like to do all of you a favor and point out that this weekend is Pierogi Fest. If you’d like to know how I feel about Pierogi Fest, IE Christmas But Better, go here.
Today’s interviewee lives in New York and edits a little publication you may know as The Onion (along with several of its books and other related projects.) Earlier this summer you may have caught him on TV discussing the Onion’s campaign for a Pulitzer. You can learn more about him and follow him on Twitter here.
How many unsolicited Onion pitches do you receive a week from family/friends/strangers? What percent of them actually have potential?
Strangely enough, I’ve never really had to deal with this. People will sometimes say, “This [actual news event that is mildly strange or ironic for reasons specific to my personal beliefs or lifestyle, but which would in no way fit into the Onion’s tone or apply to a broader spectrum of society] would be perfect for the Onion!” But generally they’re all pretty respectful about it. That or they don’t know or care what the Onion is, which comprises a surprisingly high proportion of my family. More often than not, though, someone will send me a text or email about a story they particularly liked.
Do you have any sources you try headlines/stories out on who aren’t co-workers?
If I’m writing something specific to a friend’s area of expertise—like a story about hedge funds or sports statistics or something—I’ll ask them to look it over for factual correctness and general feeling-like-it’s-real-ness, but other than that, not really. Nor do I get to write nearly as many headlines or stories as I’d like these days.
What are some of your favorite stories or headlines that never saw the light of day?
We are still batting around a spec OpEd I wrote about Muhammad that would probably inflame the entire fundamentalist world. It would be much worse than those little Danish political cartoons. I don’t tend to hold on to ideas too much. It’ll break your heart if you do, Claire. It’ll break your f*cking heart.
What are some stories published or milestones the Onion reached that you’re proudest of?
The China Takeover issue, the 1783 issue, and the 2008 Election are probably among my proudest moments. I thought our Michael Jackson coverage was good, and I got to write the story about JD Salinger’s death, which was special because he was so influential on me growing up. I was also an editor on ‘Our Dumb World’ which was just amazingly ambitious and crushing and funny. Our new book, which we’re writing now, is in many ways even more ambitious, and I am already extremely proud of the comedy in it. I’ve also overseen a lot of the incremental migration from print to digital, and I think we’ve done a really good job. I can’t think of anything else good I’ve ever done in my life right now, sorry!
Outside of the Onion, what are some examples of things (movies, books, TV shows) that people seem to find hysterical that you just can’t get into?)
I don’t really get too much of a kick out of the misanthropic protagonist paradigm which seems to dominate a lot of American comedy right now. That said, I love Larry David and Kenny Powers, so maybe that’s not totally true. I just think that’s too easy and not very inspiring. Hmm. What else should I bash in a public forum? I didn’t see that Jeff Dunham thing, but I’m sure it was really bad, too.
When I first started reading the Onion it was a funny weird paper I picked up in Madison. Then it expanded to other cities. Then it came out in book form. Then in film and TV and now there are calls for it to win a Pulitzer. I’m not sure I can imagine where else you can go from here but what are some potential directions for the Onion to expand?
I think there are natural limits to just how much a small, independent, subversive publication like ours can grow while remaining small, independent, and subversive, and that’s what we’re figuring out right now. Our character is this all-knowing, omnipotent corporate monolith, but in reality, we’re a small operation with a Midwestern sensibility. Certainly there’s room for us to do a lot more in terms of online videos, expanding the kinds of comedy we offer through platforms like YouTube and the like, and I think we’ll be able to do some really great work in TV, both under and outside of the traditional “The Onion” banner. Plus novelty mugs!
Of the celebrity pitches for the Onion’s Pulitzer, which are your favorites, either in terms of content or the source?
I hate to say it, but Glenn Beck‘s must be my favorite. It was just so bizarre to watch him say those words with the same passion and intensity with which he usually calls for armed insurrection or the liquidation of Ft. Knox or the destruction of all Lithuanian people, or whatever comes out of his mouth. We all had extremely mixed emotions about it, and so did our audience, but that’s what made it great. And, honestly, he was one of the most professional people on the whole thing: We sent him a script and about two hours later we had the video, and he didn’t flub a single line. As our Head Writer Seth Reiss said at an event we did in Dallas recently, “If you hate him, doesn’t it kind of suck even worse that he did such a good job?” He’s a performer and he’s a brand and he understood that it would look good for him to do something for the Onion.
Ira Glass mentioned, with chagrin, how it felt for This American Life to be sent up by the Onion. How often do you hear back from people who were written about, and typically are they happy or not to have been mocked?
Most people are flattered and will send a note saying so. Drew Barrymore sent us a nice card and some chocolates after we did an ONN video about her. The producer of the Spider-Man show on Broadway wrote me an email after we ran a story about a nuclear bomb actually going off during rehearsals saying it made his day. Et cetera. But I guess you have to say that you love being made fun of in the Onion or you kind of look like an *sshole, right?
Who are some high-profile fans of the Onion that you wouldn’t have expected to be readers?
I know Bill Moyers loves us. Al Gore supposedly. Grover Norquist. Peggy Noonan knew a surprising amount about the Onion when I met her at a press event. I’m just going to go ahead and say that former National Security Adviser and cofounder of the Trialateral Commission Zbigniew Kazimierz Brzezinski is also a huge fan. Reads us every day.
You used to work for Mark Burnett. What reality TV shows do you watch now?
Well, here comes the answer everyone my age is supposed to give: I don’t watch that much TV. It’s true though. We got rid of cable late last year and we watch everything through Netflix or Amazon on our Roku. I also have a 2 ½ year old son, so in the past 2 ½ years my TV consumption has gone way down. My wife and I are trying to catch up with a lot of the stuff we’ve missed, but in terms of reality TV, we used to watch ‘Project Runway’ and ‘Top Chef’ every week, and we do miss those.
You talked in another interview about not loving that line of work so much: what about it did you like least?
Everyone was working their asses off 16 hours a day, six days a week, as if it were the most important, most vital work in the world, and at the end of the day, it was all to promote Donald Trump. I had a lot of fun, and the people were extremely creative and hard-working and awesome—really, I didn’t have to deal with too many monsters, and I worked very closely with multiple producers. But, ultimately, I just wasn’t that into the final product and it felt like a bit of a scramble to work your way up. And all they had to drink in craft services was f*cking RED BULL AND I HATE RED BULL.
In my opinion the Onion’s foray into fake TV news and sports reporting has been delightful: did you have any input in the transition to TV, and if so, how did you utilize your experience in broadcasting?
The TV staff was, by and large, independent. I gave notes to the EP, Will Graham, on the early scripts and submitted ideas, but I was busier working on everything with the paper and website.
What’s your first source for news every day?
What’s the last thing that made you laugh out loud?
One of our contributors, Dan Klein, did this hilarious web series called “The Jerry Seinfeld Program” in which Seinfeld has been on the air for 21 years. He and another Onion friend, Arthur Meyer, play Jerry and George, and it’s just brilliant and sick and surprising. I watched all 21 episodes this morning, in fact, and laughed out loud multiple times. I think my favorite is Ep. 3 “Agoraphobe.” I highly recommend it.
How does it feel to be the 286th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
How can a man express with words an emotion he has never before experienced?