Joking that Maroon Managing Editor Laura Oppenheimer's introduction was going to be better than anything they would say, Carol Kolb, the Editor in Chief of the Onion, started with a little self-deprecation about her rag.
"Why do people turn to us for the news?" Kolb said, flanked by Amie Barrodale, her associate editor. Kolb emphasized that the satirical newspaperwhich distributes in cities like Chicago, New York, Denver and Minneapolis and has 1 to 1.5 million readers on its websiteshould not be taken seriously.
Kolb and Barrodale shared their quips and secrets as part of "Behind the Scenes with America's Funniest News Source: the Onion," a lecture given Monday night at the International House. It was sponsored by Global Voices Program, Student Government, the Hillel Jewish Student Kehilah, and Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.
By showing some of the Onion's headlines, like "Jewish elders lift 6000 year ham ban," "Relations break down between U.S. and them," and "Jesus Demands Creative Control over next movie," Kolb illustrated that the Onion tries to point out the flaws of the media, the political establishment, and American society in general.
More than anything else, Kolb said, the newspaper is anti-stupid.
"The discourse in America tends be dominated by the far reaches of society," Kolb said. "We just try to be the voice of reason, but the number one job is to be funny."
According to Kolb, students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison started the Onion, originally called the Reg, in 1988. Its original form was similar to that of the World Weekly News until it turned exclusively to news spoofs.
With the onset of the Internet, book anthologies, and faked archival articles such as "HOLY SHIT: Man Walks on Fucking Moon," the Onion became popular in the mid-'90s. The newspaper moved its headquarters and most of its Wisconsin-based staff to New York in January 2001.
Barrodale, who joined in 2002 as one of the first non-Wisconsin members, said that prospective news writers have to wait for one of the Onion writers to die to get on staff.
"How did I get a job? I was unemployed for two years, had a drinking problem, and was friends with Carol Kolb," Barrodale said. She also quipped that most of the Onion staff reports to her about missing work, usually because of cats, NFL games, or getting hit by cars.
For the Onion editors, article topics stem from serious topics, like the war on terror and the presidential election. Kolb commented that it has been hard to make fun of Senator Kerry, especially compared to the degree of ease that Onion writers have in making fun of President Bush.
Barrodale said that focusing on sensitive topics requires writers to think very hard about exactly where the satire is. "We are very turned on by taboo subjects," Barrodale said. She referenced a photo of herself in the headline "Holocaust Museum Cashier has yet another depressing day," which got flack from the ADL for featuring a picture of Adolf Hitler.
Kolb reminisced about how the paper handled its coverage of 9/11, especially in its attempt to bring humor to the tragic day. "Some staff members were shocked that we were doing an issue that week, and argued that it would offend people," Kolb said. "We thought that it would be false not to comment on the mood at the time and, luckily, people understood."
Kolb and Barrodale ended their lecture with letters and e-mails from readers who actually thought the articles were real. Several Christian groups commended a 2000 article, "Harry Potter Books Spark Rise In Satanism Among Children," as proof that the book series was promoting witchcraft.
Another e-mail, concerning the article "New Wonder Drug Gets Users Really High," asked where the writer could get the fictional drug. Kolb and Barrodale ended with samples of the hundreds of e-mails defending an Olsen twin after the Onion's 2002 article "Mary-Kate is Dragging Ashley Down."