Onion Q & A

Rob Siegel, editor in chief of the satirical newspaper The Onion, sat down with Daily reporter Jodi Genshaft.

Daily: What do you think about the fact that a lot of students read The Onion instead of the real news?

Rob Siegel: I don’t care. What, am I supposed to be responsible for the edification? I’m glad they’re reading us. I think that’s great. And I think a lot of students and a lot of people in general increasingly get their news from comedy. … If you pay enough attention to The Onion, you’ll glean some real news. We try to be really truthful and cut through the bullshit. We’ll often do real stories and often feel like we’re being more honest and truthful and direct about what’s going on in the world than a real newspaper. But I still think kids should be reading newspapers. They’ve got to know what’s going on in the world.

Daily: How is your readership different today than it was back in 1988, when the paper started in Madison, Wis.?

RS: Now it’s read by people who don’t live in Madison. It has shifted. In the early years, the typical Onion reader was kind of a young stoner, you know, a pot-smoking slacker type. Over the years, it became increasingly respectable. And it still managed to keep the pot smokers, but it also is read by really serious people in cubicles and white-collar (jobs). If you look at the breakdown of people who read The Onion online, it’s like Microsoft, Dell Computers, the Department of Justice and then, like, University of Wisconsin. So it’s a combination of students and pretty impressive people. … I get the feeling that the print version is read by people hanging out in bars.

Daily: How did you get the gig and make your way to Madison?

RS: I made my way to Madison because I went to the University of Michigan. And my girlfriend after college moved to Madison to get a Ph.D. in English, and I was a history major, so I of course didn’t have anything to do after graduation. So I went to – is that a Michigan pen you’re using?

Daily: Yes.

RS: Well, look at that. (pauses) OK, so I followed her and I happened upon the paper. It was just a coincidence. I’m from Long Island, (N.Y.). If you grew up on Long Island, you don’t really move to Madison, Wis., to start a comedy-writing career.

Daily: What would you be doing right now if you weren’t working for The Onion?

RS: I would probably be a journalist, I think. When I moved to Madison, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to do something in media writing. So I tried to do as many things as possible. I volunteered at the local community radio station. I volunteered at the public radio station. I wrote for the local paper. The Onion was just one of all the things that I was trying. And I just generally didn’t know which one would stick. I certainly didn’t think it was going to be Onion, just because The Onion didn’t seem like it was going to be anything that was going to last and grow. So I didn’t think, ‘This is my path as a comedy writer.’

Daily: What is a typical Onion news meeting look like and does (columnist) Smoove B show up?

RS: I write some of the Smoove Bs. It used to be written by Scott Dikkers, who was our editor in chief before me. And then after he left, I started writing them and Tim Harrod. It’s the only column that’s been written by multiple people. All the other columns are written strictly by one person. Smoove B is pretty easy to write. He’s pretty popular. It’s pretty easy to get that voice down: “There will also be corn,” “I will serve you juice,” “I will serve you the finest silks in France.” You know, it’s easy to write poorly like that. The Onion’s news meetings are a lot like real newspaper meetings, only what we’re talking about is very straight. We talk about it in a very sober, serious way. We discuss which should be the lead story. It looks and feels like a real newspaper.

Daily: Where do you get the ideas for the “area man” and “area woman” stories and the city locations?

RS: Local stories are inspired locally. You see stuff around you. There’s not a specific source for that. You’re sitting on the bus and, you know, something happens. I just leave the writers to pitch headlines on whatever they want. They’re not really required to read the newspaper. We don’t come in in the morning and look at The New York Times and make jokes because that would produce jokes that people don’t necessarily know about or care about. We just let them joke about whatever they want. So if a writer spent a weekend just sitting around, drinking and playing (Sony) Playstation in their underwear, that might be inspirational. Another writer might have taken a road trip and eaten at Burger King. It’s just the world around you.

Daily: Any chance we’ll see Evanston or Northwestern in The Onion?

RS: We just pick places randomly off a map.

Daily: I found my hometown, Canton, Ohio. The story was about an orgy, and some guy was organizing one.

RS: Yeah, I picked that. We try to spread it around the map, but we also try to give some thought to where these things might actually happen. Why would an orgy happen in Canton, Ohio? Um, because I didn’t want it to be a real big city. New York and Chicago might be too hip for that scenario to work. And I didn’t want it to happen in some small backwoods. So a small- to medium-sized city like Canton just felt right. We do a lot of Ohio. I always pick the dateline cities, and I change everything in the paper. Ohio’s got really good cities. I’m always tempted to use a city in Ohio. And I always want to do a Southern city, but you know, the South has that redneck thing. If I wrote a story about an orgy in Alabama, somehow it takes on a different meaning. I pick southern cities and then I back off and change them to Ohio or places (where) I think the regular people are.

Daily: How many letters do you receive each week and what’s the typical letter to the editor?

RS: I get dozens or hundreds. I don’t even know how many we get. There are the people who don’t get that it’s a joke and are outraged with what’s going on in the story. So they’re not even mad at us; they’re mad at what President Bush did or supposedly did. And then we get the letters from fans who we’ve offended for the first time. They say, “I normally enjoy your paper, however …” In this case, you made a joke about something that’s close to me. So it’s a little hypocritical on their part.

Daily: What haven’t you mocked yet and what would you never mock?

RS: I’m sure there are things we haven’t mocked. We haven’t avoided anything. There’s no line. There’s nothing we wouldn’t mock for fear of taboo subjects. We just want to make sure that whatever we make jokes about, we stand behind them. We’re not afraid to make a joke about it.

Daily: Do you have any screening?

RS: No, we don’t do any focus grouping. That would open a whole Pandora’s box if we started doing that with outsiders. We trust ourselves. We discuss things pretty thoroughly internally. We just pitch the headline. We don’t come in with proposed stories.

Daily: Do you feel like you’ve lost your Wisconsin roots?

RS: No. Except for me, everybody’s from there and they go back to visit. As the old saying goes, “You can take the boy out of Wisconsin, but you can’t take Wisconsin out of the boy.” Or the girl. We soaked it up long enough. People who have long left their parents’ house spend hours in therapy to shake the effects of their childhood trauma. It’s not like everything about that place leaves you when you’re in a new place.

Daily: So it wasn’t lactose intolerance?

RS: No. Actually, I’m a little lactose intolerant. I used to drink Lactaid. It was just a desire for a change of scenery. I kind of wanted to go home.

Daily: Can you tell me a little about the Miramax deal? Has The Onion sold out?

RS: Yes, it has sold out. The Miramax deal is a first-look movie deal. We pitch ideas to Miramax and they have to buy two of them. Having a movie deal doesn’t really change your life.

Daily: In 2000, People magazine ranked you one of the 50 most eligible bachelors. How has being editor affected
your dating life?

RS: It doesn’t hurt. I don’t really have – well, my dating life at the moment is my girlfriend, who I’ve been dating for about a year. So I guess I’m not a very eligible bachelor. But it doesn’t hurt. Onion fans, by and large, are not pretty girls. Most of them are the same fans as Weird Al Yankovich: obese, acne-ridden, 15-year-old boys. The problem is the combination of the poor Onion fan demographics and the fact the most Onion writers are shy, geeky guys that aren’t really the type to parle their Onion fans.

Daily: How do you get a job at The Onion?

RS: It’s like, “How do you get a job in the Rolling Stones?” It’s just us. We are the people who do it. If one of us left, we wouldn’t necessarily put an ad in the paper. We get lots of resumes and cover letters from people. Usually I just very respectfully file them away.