Peeling the Onion

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

About the Onion's politics: Other than some nonspecific leftist leanings, it mostly has none. See--Siegel likes People magazine. He does. And he watches Entertainment Tonight, and he reads USA Today. Now Siegel knows you can't subsist on candy. Todd can, maybe, in a strictly caloric sense...

But yes, something is wrong. Siegel knows that to be the case, however lame he fears it might sound to address the issue directly in print. And this causes an anxiety, something deep and dark and subconscious, that afflicts pretty much everyone who works at the Onion. Assistant editor John Krewson can provide a comprehensive diagnosis: Siegel has an ulcer or some other sort of excruciating chronic abdominal ailment. Cartoonist Maria Schneider gets migraines and is an insomniac. Krewson himself is an insomniac. Todd Hanson has been observed coughing for 27 consecutive minutes. Only Scott Dikkers--whom Krewson calls "a glowing, rugged, virile, Aryan ad for vegetarianism and regular exercise"--exudes any measure of health. At 5 feet 10 inches, 150 pounds, he's the office arm-wrestling champ.

And a fervent practitioner of Tai Chi. Before Tai Chi, Dikkers suffered some pretty intense and regular discomfort in an undisclosed site between the 3rd and 7th cervical vertebrae... and today he's doing somersault leaps over a seated Krewson in the writer's room.

This chiropractic success story raises comparisons to the Onion's editorial approach. Because, like Tai Chi, the Onion's writers offer no overt resistance to their environment. The act of identifying and lambasting the wicked (as did the National Lampoon), or ironically fellating the famous to the purported humiliation of such individuals (as did Spy)--these are impulses of an expired age.

No, the Onion is all about verisimilitude. Impersonation. Watch Mike Loew at work on Photoshop. He's a one-man Gannett graphics department over there. It's 40 minutes away from an entirely non-negotiable deadline, and he's creating the image for a cover story, "Local Man Would Like Fries With That." And, after three days of tele-negotiations, the braintrust at the Central Midwestern headquarters of the Wendy's corporation has forbidden the taking of photographs on any Wendy's premises.

So Loew begins scrolling through the file photos at Press Link: promotional shots of NBA All-Stars slam-dunking Chicken McNuggets into honey-mustard sauce; Hindu-friendly McDonald's subsidiaries on the Indian subcontinent introducing the first beef-free Big Mac. Finally, Loew finds a photo he can use: Boris Yeltsin stepping up to the counter at McDonald's Moscow--or some such scenario.

Within minutes Loew has photographically dismembered the Russian premier and replaced him with a posed photo of "Don Turnbee"... the same portly and dyspeptic-looking fellow who appeared a month ago in the Onion expose: "Whaler Sandwich 'Not Sitting Too Good' With Area Man."

About a year and a half before, Loew was an undergrad who had never even seen the program he's now manipulating with a dexterity that would no doubt please its programmers to no end. A cut, a snip, a wash, a tuck. At 23, this guy has already produced more accomplished agit-prop photo-collage than possibly anyone in history. He's a prodigious artist, Mike Loew is, working in a narrowly defined medium: For a brush he uses incredibly powerful Macintosh software; for a palette, white noise.

8. Chevy Chase Isn't Funny Anymore

THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A LIVING comedy institution. Take stand-up. Dead. Song parodies. Dead. Saturday Night Live--Night of the Living Dead.

Perhaps more than any other craft, comedy relies on a hair-sensitivity to the zeitgeist... another term none of the Onion staffers would ever use. But they comprehend, internalize, worry. Siegel--he's here 70 or 80 hours a week, and by his reckoning did not break the five-figure income barrier last year. And even if he does after his raise this year, taxes would take most of it, he figures. Hanson, he doesn't even know what a five figure income would look like. He has to write it down in zeroes with his finger on the table, just to fathom. Krewson sells liquor to frat boys and Madison's dipsomaniacal community. This is the paradise they're all protecting.

Because what could beat what Siegel, Hanson, Loew, Krewson et al. have going on here, now? The 4.1 million and the reviews and the blow jobs from angels. And if Netscape, say, should offer Dikkers and Pony-Tailed Publisher some large money, a really enormous wad, there's really no reason things couldn't stay sort of the way they are today. Why couldn't that happen, Siegel wonders.

The Onion is already fimoculous, which is a biological term for an organism that lives in excrement. Lives in shit, consumes shit, and extrudes it too. And the media environment, the Onion imagines, is going to get shittier before it gets cleaner.

But that doesn't explain why Dikkers skims the incoming correspondence--electronic and other--to spare Siegel the hate mail. Not the folks who have taken offense--e.g. the Gulf War vets who resent the Onion's article suggesting a link between Gulf War Syndrome and being dumb enough to join the Army. Fuck them, really--but the wise-asses who say the Onion is losing its touch.

These people cause Siegel to lose sleep. He fears that that one reader who says the Onion is getting stale, losing ground in the comedy gerbil wheel, "sliding toward creative bankruptcy," that's the way Siegel puts it--that's the one person who's right... he thinks. Just as we're the only people who see the world for what it is... dumb... maybe that person sees through us to what we are...

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