I recently came across a 2008 episode of This American Life wherein host Ira Glass goes behind the scenes of satirical news organisation The Onion‘s weekly editorial meeting. Every Monday morning, the seven men and one women who constitute The Onion‘s writing team each bring 15 fake headlines to pitch to their colleagues. Anyone who’s read The Onion (whose current headlines include “Hillary Clinton Quietly Asks Bill If He Still Finds Her Electable,” “Nabisco Snack Physicists Develop Highly Unstable Quadriscuits,” and “You’ll Never Work In This Town Again!” by Dave Bing, Mayor Of Detroit) might imagine such a meeting to be a rip-roaring, rolling-in-the-aisles giggle fest. In reality, only an average of one in 100 jokes gets a laugh, and even then it’s usually a quick “HA!”
It’s not, of course, that the writing staff of The Onion are humourless. They are some of the best comedians working today. But they have work to do. Over the course of two days, they must whittle 600 proposed headlines down to a usable 16. For the sake of both efficiency and quality, the team has developed a system of parsing and evaluating jokes based not only on their immediate instincts but over 20 years of experience. It is that unique combination of talent and experience that make The Onion‘s writers able to differentiate between seemingly similar headlines like “Local Girlfriend Always Wants to Do Stuff” and “Nation’s Girlfriends Call for More Quality Time,” and ultimately chose the funnier joke (in this case, the former, which when angled against the boyfriend allowed for a variation on the worn needy-girlfriend stereotype.)
The writers of The Onion know as much about the nuances of comedy as lawyers do the law and doctors the human body. Yet adding to their challenge of joke-selection is the element of subjective taste. The number of bones in the human body isn’t really up for debate, but a group of eight people isn’t likely to be unanimous about the humour of every joke.
For example, veteran writer Todd Hanson advocates for his headlines “Plan to Stay in All Weekend and Play Video Games Goes off Smoothly” and “Area Man Makes It through Day,” while 24 year old writer Seth Reiss just doesn’t find them funny enough.
Seth Reiss: Especially the video game one. It seems very Onion by the numbers.
Todd Hanson: That’s kind of why I liked it.
Seth Reiss: I know. But I’ll tell you, almost to a point where that sentiment, I don’t think we’re doing anything new there.
Todd Hanson: I don’t know, I just think of that as The Onion’s ethos. That’s kind of what The Onion is about. I mean, that’s what America is.
Seth Reiss: I feel like you’ve done that joke before.
Todd Hanson: The reason we’ve done that joke before is because America has been like that for a long time. And it still is.
Seth Reiss: But the sentiment is so similar to the sentiment of a lot of Onion headlines that people, they’re not going to notice that. They’re just going to be like, oh, The Onion does this again. I don’t know. It just doesn’t feel right.
Todd Hanson: Well, I’m going to keep writing jokes like that until the day I die. So I’m just warning you.
It doesn’t help that an artistic temperament lends itself to a particularly fragile ego. Writer Megan Ganz reminisces about a headline she (and I) thought was hilarious (“Spork Used as Knife”) months after its rejection. Yet with such a small team, the staff has to be nearly as good at collaborating as writing. Collaboration always requires finesse, but even more so when creativity is being evaluated. The secret to successfully overcoming any resulting tensions is a shared commitment to a project, which allows for a bottom-line understanding that everyone ultimately wants what is best for the work.
When people are truly passionate about a project, every detail matters. Nothing is inconsequential, and nothing can be glossed over. According to This American Life, the headline “Ghost Just Dropped by to Say Boo” caused a deep fissure among the staff. Ira Glass said, “People raised their voices. One usually mild-mannered editor walked out in protest. Editor Joe Randazzo says it was an existential fight about what kind of paper they were, that would or would not publish such a thing.”
Finely honed skills and passionate devotion are the mechanics behind creativity. There is indisputably a science to art, and we constantly seek to refine it. As long as there are no maths, we’ll be fine.