MADISON, Wis. — In exchange for great pay, TV comedy writers face one giant occupational hazard--the inability to say whatever they want. Go ahead and bemoan how cruddy sitcoms are, but you try writing something genuinely funny with the network notes and the advertisers and the star egos to contend with. Interviewed recently on National Public Radio, Alan Ball noted that much of the juicy vitriol in his Golden Globe-nominated screenplay for "American Beauty" grew out of the frustration he was feeling as a comedy writer in a far more confining context--on the sitcoms "Grace Under Fire" and "Cybill."
Is it any wonder then, that some of the most daring and incisive humor originates these days far from the TV factories of New York or L.A., on the sixth floor of a nondescript building in the shadows of the Wisconsin Capitol? Here, six writers make their voices heard via old-fashioned newsprint and the newfangled Internet. They each earn around $25,000 a year--which, in left-leaning Madison, is more than enough to lead a relatively fulfilling life of intense self-hatred, depression and good Indian food.
"If we were on TV we'd be canceled," says Rob Siegel, editor of the Onion. He says this with a certain prideful relish: The Onion doesn't have TV-sized ratings, but at the Onion the writer is king. One is a former dishwasher, another an ex-liquor store clerk. The paper's senior writer is also the curator of the Museum of Bathroom Tissue, which she runs out of her Madison apartment (strictly on a volunteer basis).
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 30, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Page 99 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
The Onion--The names of the paper's publisher, Peter Haise, and former editors Rich Dahm and Ben Karlin were misspelled in last Sunday's article.
They are people, in other words, who came to professional comedy writing organically--without an agent, without ever doing lunch. Together, they create the weekly newspaper the Onion, a straight-faced satire of USA Today, complete with national and world news, colorful charts, man-on-the-street interviews, trend stories and local news. What began humbly, as an underground goof, today has an audience in the neighborhood of 1 million people, including 520,000 visitors per week to the Web site alone. The former dishwasher and the liquor store clerk and the toilet paper museum curator are these days much admired in Hollywood comedy circles. They are also the winner of the 1999 Thurber Prize for American Humor and the best-selling co-authors of the 1999 humor book "Our Dumb Century," which re-imagined the 20th century with the Onion as the newspaper of record, reporting on such landmark events as the sinking of the Titanic ("World's Largest Metaphor Hits Iceberg") and the JFK as sassination ("Kennedy Slain by CIA, Mafia, Castro, LBJ, Teamsters, Freemasons").
There's another book due this spring, called "The Onion's Finest News Reporting, Vol. 1," while the Web site continues to build the Onion's "brand," to use the parlance of today's crowded multimedia marketplace.
"I'd say it's the best comedy product being made in America," says Bob Odenkirk, a comedian and writer. Odenkirk says he heard about the Onion five years ago from comedian Emo Philips, who says he heard about it from comedian Weird Al Yankovic. For regular surfers of the Web, the Onion is an old story too. But the paper's content still largely flies under the comedy radar. TV sitcoms and movies rule that industry, even in their heavily compromised--and corporatized--state.
That dominance won't change, but as the proposed Time Warner-AOL merger suggests, the Internet could emerge as a genuine content competitor. For all the dreck in cyberspace, the Web is ideally suited for a pure comedic voice like the Onion's. Comedy on TV, after all, has to sidestep any number of sacred cows. But at the Onion there are none. "Columbine Jocks Safely Resume Bullying," the newspaper announced, in a story that quoted a Columbine High School football player saying: "We have begun the long road to healing. We're bouncing back, more committed than ever to ostracizing those who are different." Such humor may offend, but it's also on point: Despite the tragic shootings that occurred at the school, student cliques are inevitable. As it often does, the Onion speaks real truths by mocking accepted ones. Some recent headlines:
"God Answers Prayers of Paralyzed Little Boy: 'No,' Says God."
"Study: Children of Divorce Twice as Likely to Write Bad Poetry."
"U.S. Breaks Off Relations With Chad."
Subhead: "He's Just Not the Same When He Drinks, Says Clinton."