Peeling the Onion

USA Today, Tomorrow the World: Inside the only humor publication that matters

3. Looking Through a Glass Onion

GET THIS: THE FUNNIEST PERIODICAL in America, the orphan love child of unknown parodic ancestry--MAD magazine, National Lampoon, Spy, S.J. Perelman, Stephen Wright, Ian Frazier, Mark Leyner, to name just a few of the suspected parents--is being published right here in this eight-room office suite in Madison, Wisconsin, a block from the gilded dome of the capitol.

To say anything more than that about the location... it's a secret. If you were to show up at the masthead-listed address, that being 33 University Square, you'd find yourself facing a perfectly affable but factually unforthcoming package clerk at the USA First mail service center. Go ahead and call them, he'll say, pointing to the pay phone. What he doesn't say--as he looks out the window into the courtyard of the squat shopping center beyond--is this: If you're just another undergrad with a fat book of bong jokes, well, then you're just the out-of-luck schmuck they're trying to keep from crashing the clubhouse in the first place...(As with all such clubhouses, it seems, this one is populated almost solely by boys. There's a young white man here to see you, the joke goes when a new writer enters the office.)

As is, the volume of unsolicited material--mail, e-mail, phone calls, faxes; most of it of the scat and stoner variety--it's all too much to deal with sometimes. Hard to believe that a few years back the Onion was this hit-or-miss, black-and-white, college-town humor rag with a print circulation of 23,000 and pizza coupons on the front cover. And a few years before that...

Well, we're getting into some paleolithic shit by Onion standards. Only Dikkers, "Old Man" Dikkers they call him, goes back that far. "Old," in this case, means 31 years. (Try to say 32, though, and he'll set the record straight, fast.) Old Man Dikkers was there in the old days--1988--when a creative business major first thought to compile a cartoon strip from the college daily into an 11-by-17-inch calendar with bratwurst ads on the back. Not a familiar tectonic profile for today's hypequake of 4.1 million readers...

But that summer, this business major, Tim Keck was his name, teamed up with a like-minded entrepreneurial soul, Chris Johnson, and Keck's mother contributed this moniker--the Onion--which is news lingo for a juicy, multi-layered story. (And, as Dikkers points out, naming something after a food is always a positive idea.)

Not that the first few issues were worth more than their pulp weight. "I was pretty stunned at how terrible it was," Dikkers says. He'd contributed a few cartoons, but had hedged his bet by leaving his own comic strip, "Jim's Journal," at the Daily Cardinal, where he received all of, say, $5 a strip. "The second issue was actually a big hit, though," Dikkers says. "It was better than the first, but it was still pretty crappy. It had some pull-out, Crazed Drunk Backstabbing Sorority Girls Drinking Game... I still thought the writing was abysmal."

So for the third issue, Dikkers showed up with a few notions at Onion headquarters--better known then as Chris Johnson's dorm room--and a few weeks later he was... the de facto editor! Putting out a paper with one writer, one computer and no printer... running to Kinko's in the hours normal folks like to call ungodly. Pasting corrections right onto paper. In one evocative, Borges-ian scene, Dikkers found himself in the aforementioned godless, wintry hours, chasing a cut-out of the letter "e" down the center of Regent Street.

And when Keck and Johnson wanted out of the paper business a year later, there was Dikkers with one grand--which was a pretty nerve-wracking investment for back then, Dikkers says--and this ad rep named Pete Haise with his grand, and a computer guy who was gone within the year.

Today, Scott Dikkers is 31 years old, divorced, and dating a lesbian--a relationship that seems to be working out better than one might guess. Dikkers is a can-do guy that way, the furthest thing from the lollygagging thirty-nothing of media lore. Really he represents--what's the phrase--a Renaissance Man... if one is ready to recognize the artistry of cartooning and producing sketch comedy for television and radio.

A year ago, for instance, Dikkers decided that he had to make a movie. Call it an itch, a bug. The fact that he didn't know squat-minus-jack about the technical craft of cinema was not a factor in the Dikkers calculus. He wrote it; he produced it; he directed it. Now if the thing could only find its way into the theaters...

But that's where Pete comes in, and the future of the Onion franchise. Franchise! That ad rep Pete--the pony-tailed jean-jacket devotee with the mien of a veteran hackey-sack addict--he's the publisher of the Onion. Pete's out in Milwaukee now, running that town's Onion edition (there's a Boulder edition, too) while conducting marathon consulting weekends in rented ski villas. He's taking census of the State of the Onion... sketching out a five-year plan for penetration of every conceivable market: books, movies, radio, television. Bumper stickers. T-shirts.

In fact, Pete Haise's got this folder with a full work-up of the new Onion Industries. And while he's not ready to disclose the full enormity of the plan--

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