For three and a half years*, Joe Garden has helmed the features-editor chair at The Onion, perhaps now America's most successful newspaper model. In that time, Garden has given life to the faux-paper’s classics, such as opinion-page characters Jim Anchower and Jackie Harvey, and augured the coming of this nation's important cultural advances (which include The Hulk sequel, the five-blade disposable razor, and a raft of other indispensable bric-a-brac). Not bad for an undeclared state-school dropout with no prior comedy experience.
"Nothing's verboten. If it's funny, and we can come out on the right side of it, we'll do it."
In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity, Gelf spoke with Garden about The Onion's backwards drafting process, the paper's overarching ontological joke, and unseating Jimmy Fallon. [Revel in Garden's presence and that of other local comedy luminaries at Gelf's free Non-Motivational Speakers Series, Thursday March 26 in New York's Lower East Side].
Gelf Magazine: What's the typical editorial calendar like at The Onion? How much new content is churned out on a daily basis?
Joe Garden: The typical process is like this: Mondaypitch headlines; Tuesdayassign and brainstorm stories; Wednesdaywrite stories; Thursdayread and discuss stories; Fridaywrite second draft.
Of course, the second drafts are usually written Sunday night-Monday morning. This is on top of other duties, like researching daily content and sorting through it and punching it up and so on.
Gelf Magazine: You guys don't bandy around bylines. I always assumed it was to protect yourselves from the humorless and the Mormons. Are things just highly collaborative, or have you achieved pure Marxist Communism in your newsroom?
Joe Garden: More than anything, it's kind of the meta-joke of the Onion. The Onion is the only news source worth reading, and the news comes from the Onion, not from its individual reporters.
Gelf Magazine: How closely do you try to adhere to current news as opposed to, say, completely fictitious trend-mockingand which one is more fun to write?
Joe Garden: Our stories have a two-and-a-half-week turnaround, so we can't comment on specific things so much as we do Zeitgeist-y stuff. The closest we get to current events is in the American Voices and Infographic. Those have a two-to-seven-day turnaround.
Gelf Magazine: Is there anything verboten, anything you guys won't riff on?
Joe Garden: No. If it's funny, and we can come out on the right side of it, we'll do it.
Joe Garden: I'd say that my proudest achievement would be that I've been able to keep writing for 16 years and I can still improve. That said, my favorite articles are "Fuck Everything, We're Doing Five Blades," "I Have To Admit, I Love The Nuts," and "Why No One Want To Make Hulk 2." Unfortunately, two of those are now terribly out of date, since there IS a five-blade razor and there IS a Hulk 2. Recently, my favorite article is "Hercules Struggling to Complete 13th Labor," and it hasn't run yet.
Gelf Magazine: You've had a hand in two parodies of The Dangerous Book for Boys series, written by and for cats and dogs. What was the impetus? Are you just big-time animal people, or was your goallike all good parodistto tell the authors of the source material to knock it off?
Joe Garden: I don't know that any of us had the impulse to write a pet-book parody. The five of us assembled to write a Secret parody, and were told that no one was interested in it. We were then contacted by an agent to see if we were interested in writing The Dangerous Book for Dogs. Considering two [of us] were out of work and freelancing and another was in a dead-end job that was reducing him as a human being, I thought it would be a good idea. We set out to write the fastest, best dog-parody book we could, and I feel like we were successful.
I actually have some affection for The Dangerous Book for Boys, but somewhat less affection for other dog-humor books.
Joe Garden: Well, I knew from the outset that there was no way it was going to happen. But my friends and I thought it would be funny if we treated an entertainment monolith like it was an actual democracy. We just wanted to have fun with the idea of campaigning and of the idea of the talk-show host in general. Since Fallon started, we've kicked around the idea of turning it into a revolutionary movement bent on seizing the Late Night chair, but that would cease being funny as soon as we’re interviewed by the police.
Joe Garden: When people ask that, it feels weird. It assumes absolute perfection. This is an historic presidency, yes, and it is definitely a shift from the past eight years, but Obama is human, and no administration is perfect. Especially right now, with so many challenges facing him, there will be missteps. This early, it's hard to say how his presidency will be defined, but we'll be writing jokes until we get it right.
*Gelf mistakenly reported that Joe Garden was features editor at The Onion for 16 years. He's been a contributing writer for 16 years and features editor for the last three and a half.
Related in Gelf
An interview with original Onion writer Todd Hanson.