For someone whose job is to write satire, separating reality from absurdity can seem unnatural. This is something that becomes apparent when talking to Todd Hanson, story editor and longtime writer for The Onion and co-author of Our Dumb World: The Onion's Atlas of the Planet Earth, 73rd Edition. Consider his voicemail greeting: "Hello, you’ve reached the personal greeting of the outgoing message of the cell phone of Todd Hanson. And I, Todd Hanson, am now greeting you personally." In an interview, he alternates between serious, funny, and bafflingsometimes in the space of a single answer. But isn't that what you'd expect from the man who brought us "
"You only write satire about things because you can't stand them so much that you want them to change. So, no, I won't miss George Bush."
Gelf spoke with Hanson about the creative process at The Onion (which is headquartered in SoHo in Manhattan, having relocated from Madison, Wisconsin in 2001), whether or not his interview responses should be funny, and the vicissitudes of the human heart. The following interview has been edited for a dangerous abundance of over-the-top metaphors. (You can hear Hanson, comedian Kumail Nanjiani, and writer/blogger Patrice Evans, aka The Assimilated Negro, talk about their work at Gelf's free
Gelf Magazine: I was hoping you could take me behind the creative process at The Onion. Do you have a staff meeting where you brainstorm and play off of each other or is it more of an individual process?
Todd Hanson: Everything is very collaborative. People bring their ideas and bounce them off of each other. Everybody bounces everything that they subsequently do off of everybody else. It is very much like a like a metaphor that involves bouncing and inclusion. It's actually quite tedious and very time-consuming. We go from a large amount of ideas down to the ones that actually get used. Everything gets discussed and discussed quite a bit.
GM: How do you determine which ideas warrant full articles as opposed to news briefs or just headlines?
TH: I guess it's just the random vicissitudes of the human heart. There are hours and hours of discussion. It's hard to find any consistent rules after the results of those discussions manifest themselves every week. I think it depends on many factors, but luckily for us, all of the factors are still organic. It's always been that way. Even though we've been doing the same thing for a number of years, it's never become a factory. There's always been a creative spirit among team members. Boy does that sound like a corporate motivational seminar thing to say, but in this case it happens to be true.
GM: Is all of The Onion's content always new, or do you guys have a large pile of articles waiting to be printed that you mesh with the more topical pieces?
TH: We would never do that. We have evergreens; in fact, most of our stories are evergreens. Sometimes there are things that are specifically topical and time-sensitive but we try to avoid those. And when we are topical and time-sensitive it's usually a matter of weeks or months as opposed to that specific day. So many other people rip on the 24-hour news cycle. Our paper comes out once a week and we start out two weeks in advance. We want our stories to have a longer shelf-life than something that if you miss on Monday, you'll never experience the joke.
"What's amazing is that when the original three-blade razor came out, it had already been 'predicted' by both National Lampoon and Mad Magazine. Society keeps outpacing the humorists."
GM: How has the success of The Onion online affected your regular content?
TH: Well, we now have daily content, as opposed to updating week by week. It's a more-fragmented reading experience. The readers of The Onion used to wait until Tuesday at midnight, then read a whole new week's worth of content in one go. Now it's more spread-out. There are also more links to past articles and the archives are more integrated. Going online is not like reading the paper in distinct issues.
GM: Have the stories themselves changed at all to engage the broader audience that you're reaching now?
TH: I certainly hope not. It would be a terrible thing if they did. Our audience is large, but not by mass-media standards. We have something like five million people. That's more than we have any right to expect. But that isn’t enough to keep a TV show on the air. I like to think that The Onion is still an underground thing. We're not owned by any corporation just yet. I think it would suck if The Onion went for a broader audience. Don't you?
GM: I do. I enjoy picking it up from a newsstand like a small local paper.
TH: I like it so much better in paper. I don't get the idea of surfing around all of the different content on the website. It's very cool for people who act like they're younger than 65, but to me it's all just a bunch of newfangled craziness. I prefer to hold the newspaper in my hand and read it. I'm like the parents in the Broadway show Bye Bye Birdie who can't relate to the crazy behavior of the kids. I'm the stodgy old bean.
GM: I think quoting Bye Bye Birdie is what makes you a stodgy old bean.
You mentioned that you haven't been bought by a corporation just yet. Have there been offers?
TH: If there were, I wouldn't know about them. I don't own the place; I've just worked there my entire life. One of the great things about The Onion is the separation between the business side and the creative side. Over my 18 years at The Onion and the 20 years that the paper's been around, there haven't been any problems of censorship or influence on the content from advertisers or the business side. That's probably why The Onion has such a unique voice. Other papers don't have that and therefore their voices are limited.
I sound so pretentious, "their voices are limited." I'm like Maya Angelou talking about the voiceless.
GM: Eighteen years is a long time. How has working at The Onion changed over the years?
TH: It's very different now. They have robot dogs instead of regular dogs. There are CGI mascots running around instead of the hand puppets that we used to have. Lots of foam tunnels. We're careening headlong into the future, not unlike a spaceship with its controls locked on a collision course with the surface of the sun.
TH: It's awesome. Some of that stuff is as funny as anything we've done. I'm really proud of the work that [head writer] Carol [Kolb] and [executive producer/director] Will [Graham] are doing over there. I try to have some hand in it, but it's really a separate unit. I can't believe how well they've succeeded at capturing The Onion voice in a video format. And it's all grounded in some genuine, criticism-worthy aspect of the government, society, or human nature. It's high-quality satire.
GM: I'm impressed with their production values. I showed the Ocular Penetration Act to a friend who was convinced he was watching C-SPAN.
TH: The software gets better every year. You can thank the overlords of humanity in their current embryonic form for that. As well as the incredible skill of the human operators of the machines, who will hopefully not become obsolete.
GM: I always enjoy it when stories from The Onion come to life. Like when Schick came out with their five-bladed razor, or when an Nebraska state senator sued God. Do you feel any personal pride when that happens?
TH: That razor thing was weird, but what was amazing about it was that when the original three-blade razor came out, it had already been "predicted" by both National Lampoon and Mad Magazine. Society keeps outpacing the humorists. But yeah, we take pride in it. Joe Garden wrote that story about the razor and he takes great pride in it to this day. People always remember it and talk to him about it. Though sometimes it’s such a depressing thing that comes true that it's hard to feel good about it. Like in January 2001 we published a story about Bush declaring in his inauguration speech, "Our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity is finally over." We were the first paper to break that story. Another good one that came true is a story we wrote about a TV show called "Rape, She Wrote." People were getting bored of murder and wanted to watch a new brutal crime as light entertainment. But now there are actually shows like that.
GM: You've expanded your sports coverage recently. Was there just too much material in sports to mock that you needed to give it its own section?
TH: Well, we almost never wrote any sports stories before because there was no sports section. John Krewson, a longtime Onion guy, finally started a sports section recently. Before that, none of us really gave a shit about sportsat least not enough to make any good jokes. John and some other people on the staff have been doing some incredible work, but the rest of us are just too wussy to make quality sports jokes.
GM: Are there any newspapers in particular that you model your stories after?
TH: Only in the most general sense. If you talk to Scott Dikkers, the editor-in-chief, he'll say that he's making fun of USA Today-style, Fox News-style, stupid journalism, as opposed to the heavy, serious journalism of the more respectable newspapers. I think there may be one or two left of them. (Actually, have your fact-checker look into that, they may all be gone.) A lot of it is also poking fun at small-town Midwestern newspapers, because that's where all of the core people are from. But now it’s a lot more varied, with our "War for the White House” coverage, the sports coverage, and things like that.
TH: Of course, I love McSweeney's. Their current issue contains a booklet called "Where to Invade Next," which is pretty amazing.
"Stories that come from a dark personal place are usually my favorites."GM: What are some of your favorite Onion stories that you've done over the years?
TH: I have some but I can't think of any right now because I've written thousands of stories over the years. When people would ask me, I used to have six stories picked out. But then I had 12 ready to say, then 24, and then none, because I couldn't keep track of all of them. I guess "U.S. Trudges Methodically Through The Motions Of Yet Another Day" from the late '90s, and "God Angrily Clarifies Don't Kill Rule" were some good ones. One of my favorites was from years ago called "Area Man Ashamed Of Own Joy Upon Receiving New Mop Head." It was about a dishwasher who finally gets his dirty mop head replaced, and he's actually incredibly happy about it. But then on the way home he realizes that his expectations in life have been lowered so much that something like that is a bright spot in his day. Stories like that, which come from a dark personal place, are usually my favorites.
GM: Where do you come up with stories like that? Are they inspired by people you encounter?
TH: They're mostly based on our lives and the people that we know and love.
GM: Are there any stories you've regretted?
TH: I don't have any stories that I've regretted, though there are probably some that other people would have regretted had they written them, which I'm proud of. One time the President had asked the media to lay off of his daughters, so of course we all pitched Jenna Bush jokes right away. I wrote this one-liner, which sounds kind of high-brow but is actually really vulgar. I wrote "Jenna Bush's Federally Protected Wetlands Now Open for Public Drilling."
GM: How much are you going to miss George W. Bush?
GM: Not even for comedy purposes?
TH: You only write satire about things because you can't stand them so much that you want them to change. So, no, I won't miss him. That's like somebody writing a satire about death and disease, and asking them, "Would you feel bad if death was eliminated and disease was cured forever?" But I won't even be that happy when he's gone, because I'm sure something just as depressing and awful will show up as soon as he leaves.
GM: What's your life like outside of The Onion?
TH: I enjoy competitive dance. I do a lot of stuff on Brooklyn Public Television. I don't really want to brag but I'm part of a crew, and we do battles around the neighborhood. It's kind of like that movie You Got Served. A lot of effrontery. A lot of umbrage being taken. Sometimes tempers flare up in the middle of those heated dance competitions. I'm also a very competitive rock climber. There aren’t too many cliffs in New York City, so we usually climb buildings instead. I've climbed some pretty historic buildings. It's illegal so we have to do it in the middle of the night, like international diamond thieves. Other than the dancing and climbing, it's pretty much just my active social life, which I'm sure you've read all about on Page Six.