Peeling the Onion

1. Prologue:
Cape Canaveral to Tom Bosley

MONDAY, FEB. 10, 2:17 P.M.: PARTIAL transcript for cover-story meeting, the Onion Volume 31, Issue 6.

In attendance: Scott Dikkers (SD), Editor in Chief; Robert Siegel (RS), Senior Editor; Mike Loew (ML), Graphics Editor.

SD: ... New Surveillance Satellite to Monitor Tom Bosley?

ML: Tom Bosley... Tom Bosley... The name sounds funny. And he's pudgy.

RS: I don't think anything about Tom Bosley is that inherently funny. Is there anyone else?

SD: Here's my problem. Whenever we choose a different name it's never any better than the one we started with.

RS: That's because you've already imprinted like a baby duckling.

SD: If you want to spend all day making some list that we're probably not going to use, and not go home to the wife, that's fine.

ML: I think I'm getting cold feet on Bosley now too.

RS: I don't think it's hilarious. I'm just not proud of the idea. It has good elements. The government. Silly celebrities. Satellites.

ML: For silly, I almost prefer Giant Beatnik Threatens Mount Bongos.

SD: I don't get it. What's a giant hippie?

RS: Not a hippie. A beatnik.

SD: And what's Mount Bongos?

ML: You've heard of bongos? Like drums...

SD: I don't know if this is a bad week or if we're just becoming immune to...

RS: or just fucking sick of...

SD: ... jokes. Has Mother Teresa died yet?

RS: No. But we're following it.

ML: That's a good story: Mother Teresa Sent to Hell in Afterlife Mix-up.

SD: The worst thing would be if she died on a Thursday. We should write that one ahead of time.

RS: Imagine if she did die on a Thursday and we came in and put the story together that day for the cover. Just like a real paper...

2. Mass Media

THE ONION IS NUMBER ONE IN NEWS and every word they print is true. Terrorist Bombing Damages Bob Dole's Outer Hull!: True. Pure Silk to Stream From Cindy Crawford's Ass!: Also true. Baseball Imposes Tough New "Three-Strikes-You're-Out" Rule!: Too True. Madonna Gives Birth to Million-Dollar Marketing Scheme!: A million dollars true.

Or as true as any other newspaper, anyway.

Q: Do the media ever lie?

Q: Could 4.1 million readers be wrong?

Check that number--4.1 million! Since the Onion went online last summer, some exponential things have been happening to the circulation. The reader-tracking is rough and the actual calculations... well, they've been invented for the purpose of this paragraph... but with 90,000 web page views a day, and 92,000 print readers in three Midwestern cities and 1,500 paid subscribers... yes! The Onion has 4.1 million readers!

And they're getting it. Just look at the press clippings tacked to the wall behind the receptionist's cubicle--or what would be the receptionist's cubicle if the Onion employed a receptionist, which it doesn't. Tacked to the wall below the busted "N" of the old Onion logo is the blurb from the Wall Street Journal, the Jerusalem Post... the capsule review from The New Yorker, which one staffer compared to "getting a blowjob from 800 angels"... and also Entertainment Weekly, Newsweek, and Wired and Glamour... Duck! Full-office football toss, incoming!

Always with the footballs here, and not just in a forced merriment, anti-corporate, corporate environment where the adults--or for irony's sake, the "grown-ups"--engage in some high-intensity "release" to optimize their ergonomics and efficiency. None of that here. This is football for football's sake.

e.g.: Just the other week Mike Loew, the art director, called to say he'd been detained... a friend of a friend just met these strippers and said strippers are threatening to come over and... Do they fire him? First answer this: Did they fire him when he called to say he'd be late because at that particular moment some high-potency THC was lingering in his system from a bake-off the night before? Hell no. Mike's a stellar employee. Stellar--that's the word they use.

Besides, the Onion is not that kind of organization. Organization is even the wrong word for it. If Rob Siegel, the senior editor, had his way, everyone here would be drawing a paycheck just for being... himself. Like an artist's commune, almost, he says. Or at least that's what Rob claims until he finds himself in the office, alone, with a blank front page and a printer's deadline stalking him in a no-nonsense personal way.

But whenever Rob looks like his beloved A.P. stylebook is burning a chancre in his gut, it helps to remind him... that this is the Onion! Really--what legit newspaper ever received a Christmas card from the brothers at High Times magazine? Or a curt complaint from the president of the Catholic League, who has a few choice words to share about this Onion cover story "Pope Admits: God Ain't Said Shit to Me."  

And the Catholic League is reading the Onion online: They're part of the 4.1 million! It's like that Onion template, "Everybody's Blanking," a satire of media trend fabrication. Everybody's Dressing Themselves. Everybody's Writing Brezhnev Biographies. Everybody's Digging Through Bomb Rubble Looking for Loved Ones. And now... Everybody's Reading the Onion.

Like USA Today, America's real paper of record, the only one the Onion subscribes to, which took a few words from its daily global-disinformation campaign to plug the product of sworn enemies. And soon there's going to be that article in the Columbia Journalism Review. Wait again--and this time not for the football, which is right now spiralling starboard off the entertainment editor's hand into the paste-up room--but is the Onion really going to be featured in the Columbia Journalism Review, the periodic encyclical of the high media cabal? Yes.

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--

Well, like the self-smitten villain in a James Bond movie, he can't help showing off Figure 15, which features parallel rows of icons shaped like a three-tiered wedding cake. Each icon represents a city. On the top row are New York, Madison, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Chicago. Below those are another dozen or so cities: Austin, Indianapolis, Seattle. One day, maybe, all these cities will have their own edition of the Onion! The top row will be controlled by the Onion Inc., the lower files farmed out...

And there will be a half-dozen new positions to fill. Soon! A marketing director just to start, and... Wait, Rob Siegel says. We want the readers, sure. An Onion in every pot, so to speak. But isn't the product speaking for itself? Have you seen the reviews? If all we want to do is send out coffee mugs, he continues, we could get a minimum-wage grunt for that. Or an intern, or a chimpanzee.

"Am I going to market the Onion like an asshole?" Pony Tail Publisher asks, then. "Just answer that."

"No, but..."

"No, I'm not. But we've got to grow. We can't wait around any longer. I'm not going to wait."

End of conversation. A highly atypical conversation too, really it was, everyone goes to some lengths to point out immediately after. And for the next four days, too, this mantra, what a strange meeting, circulates around the office, adding to the Buzz.

The gist of the Buzz is that with all the money that's obviously floating out there to colonize the idiot continent that is cyberspace--well, maybe someone will drop a few million on this little paper in Madison and...

4. Cape Canaveral to Tom Bosley: We're Not Reading You...

WEDNESDAY, FEB. 12, 6:42 P.M.

Partial transcript of cover-story rehash, the Onion Volume 31, Issue 6.

In attendance: Scott Dikkers (SD), Editor in Chief; Robert Siegel (RS), Senior Editor; John Krewson (JK), Assistant Editor; Todd Hanson (TH), Head Writer.

RS: ... and it's not that the Tom Bosley isn't written well. It's just not working.

JK: ... the line "this adequate, adequate actor" is the only funny part...

TH: People know who Tom Bosley is. He's Mr. Cunningham. Hi! I'm Tom Bosley for Glad Trash Bags.

SD: I don't think anyone else is going to be appreciably funnier.

TH: How about Fred Dryer. I got him off your celebrity list, Rob.

"Satellite to Monitor T.V.'s Hunter." We've wanted to use the phrase "T.V.'s Hunter" for months. T.V.'s Hunter! That's funny!

RS: It doesn't do much for me. As long as we're going to do this for the cover, we might as well choose someone who's inherently funny.

TH: Wait! This is going to be our lead story? Oh man... This is going to be a shitty issue.

RS: Shut up.

JK: How about Norman Fell.

TH: Norman Fell is hilarious!

RS: ... eghhhh.

SD: I have to say something...

RS: I know...

SD: I know you know, but I have to say it anyway. And that's that we've been thinking about this all week, and the reader is going to look at it for maybe four seconds, laugh, and then move on.  

RS: Understood. I'm trying to take that into account.

SD: I'm glad you're trying to take that into account.

TH: Who else is on that list? Tom Skerritt... Ned Beatty... Markie Post. I like the name Markie Post. Leslie Uggams... Leslie Uggams! Kizzy from Roots. Plus all the televised singing specials.

JK: Leslie Uggams is good.

SD: I still like Tom Bosley.

TH: Lee Horsley! T.V.'s Matt Houston. That works, Rob.

SD: No one's thought of Lee Horsley in years.

TH: Lee Horsley is great! Look at Rob... just look at him. He's killing it.

RS: No. I'm just making my trademark slow acceptance...

5. Is it Memorex... or is it Memorex?

THE ONION WRITER'S ROOM IS LIKE the messiest dormitory lounge... maybe ever. Start with the furniture: an orange bean bag that looks like it might start hemorrhaging polyurethane pellets any minute; a futon with its footless frame suspended across stacks of Onion back issues; a freestanding car seat with high-pile velour-analog covering, possibly from a minivan of Dodge or Chrysler make.

The walls are covered with posters and magazine photos, mostly ironic--or "ironic," even, somewhere past camp and irony, yet still an incalculable distance from anything that might ever pass for sincerity. The western wall (labelled "The Wall of Chimp") is given over in whole to publicity stills of Hollywood's lovable simians. Opposite that is a leotard shot of Farrah Fawcett, pre-Burning Bed era, with an index card addendum that reads: "Don't set me on fire." Even the western-exposure windows are shaded, taped over with browned paper... blocking what all solar indications suggest might be some panoramic, near-beautiful crepuscule.

But then those evening hours are when head writer Todd Hanson is first getting started. First waking up, often enough. Typing on the DinoMac below the flammable Fawcett. Sucking down strawberry Quik. Plowing through a bag of generic-brand Fig Newtons. Todd Hanson is not only nocturnal. They say he actually fears the "surface dwellers."

Hanson's been here for some seven years, doing more or less what he does now. Writing about half of any given issue. Just a couple of seasons ago, he acted in a sketch comedy show--another bold Dikkers initiative never to see the screen--and, physically, in those intervening years, Hanson has leapt from his early 20s into his mid-30s. He's got the donut gut and a thin barbarous line along his mandibles, from his goateed chin up to his sideburns, that presages where his jowls will grow in, like some dotted line on a plastic surgeon's computer projection. And he's got this way of getting out of a chair, falling up and forward, almost, that suggests imminent spinal distress.

And the whole effect accentuates some part of Hanson that is decidedly sad-sack. You can smell it on him. And he knows that he's emitting sad-sack like pheromones, so he goes with it. Like, after granting an hour-long interview, he tracks me down to say, well, if he could be so presumptuous as to request that if I only get around to citing him on one topic, could it be that quote about comedy reflecting life's nightmare hellscape of unrelenting horror?

That's really the way he feels, too. What if we just started telling kids to lower their expectations, he wonders. Would that help? And then he shrugs and says that that's what everyone in his milieu is supposed to think, the whole slacker bit... which only adds some seriously painful self-consciousness on top of what Hanson calls his chronic "loserdom."

Only a week ago, though, Hanson started receiving a salary, yes, a bona fide weekly paycheck from the Onion. And he's also got this excellent girlfriend--the founder and curator of the Madison Museum of Bathroom Tissue--and they live together along with 3,000 rolls of the stuff. There's t.p. from the Vatican, Graceland, J.R. Ewing's ranch. And today... well, as much as Todd's mordant comportment will allow it... he's ecstatic!

See, over those seven years at the Onion, there were a handful of guys who graduated from the paper--their names are still in currency around the office--to attempt what Hanson calls "freelance entertainment media in the Los Angeles area." Meanwhile, Hanson was stuck in Madison, depressed, broke, answering phones for doctors, living off strawberry Quik... wondering if he was ever going to find his niche.

"A few years ago I was in this comedy troupe called the Arc Improv Theater," Hanson explains. "Chris Farley and Joan Cusack came out of the same group. One night we went to see Broadcast News and there's this scene where Joan meets Jack Nicholson and shakes his hand, and she's sort of in awe. You have to understand that Jack Nicholson is one of my heroes. And it was strange to look over and see Joan there, and then to see her on screen..."  

There may be more levels to this anecdote than can be readily decoded--between character and Cusack, icon and celluloid--but the ultimate point may lie on this box of Trix cereal adjacent to the Wall of Chimp. There, on the special write-ready Trix blackboard, Hanson has scribbled a situationist graffito from Paris, 1968:

Down with a world in which the guarantee that we will not die from starvation has been purchased with the guarantee that we will die of boredom.

Hanson, it would seem, has no more faith in the illusory universe of L.A. freelance entertainment professionals and the vapor trail their lives describe than he does in his own ability to feed himself. And the Onion explores the netherworld between those extremes--between the Nicholson on screen and the Cusack sitting three seats down. And treats it as... news...

6. Give Us Convenience or Give Us Death!

CONSIDER THE COLA WARS, AND, more particularly, the recent introduction of a carbonated beverage called "Surge." The public may know it better as the "fully-loaded citrus soda" (a trademark of Coca-Cola Corporation, 1997). Before I ever discovered Surge on the shelves or the airwaves, though, I saw it on the front page of the business section of the New York Times:

"In an escalation of the soda wars, Coca-Cola Co. plans to challenge Mountain Dew, a 50-year-old icon of successful consumer marketing," the selection begins with martial urgency. And while the article deserves reproduction in full, a few salient paragraphs must suffice:

"Pepsi professed to be unworried by Coke's plans. 'Bring it on; we look forward to the competition,' said Brad Shaw, a spokesman for Pepsi-Cola Co. 'A wide array of wannabes have failed to put a dent in Dew. Its authenticity has been cultivated for decades...'"


"The introduction of Surge 'is a major beverage event,' said John Sicher, publisher of Beverage Digest... 'A national roll-out like this without a test in the United States is highly unusual.... This is a hugely confident, aggressive move by Coke.'"

Maybe you just read the above excerpts and you're now shrugging your shoulders, underwhelmed or otherwise in need of additional whelming. In which case there may be nothing gained by going through the prose and highlighting the individual instances of really first-rate absurdity. Like: What is authentic about Mountain Dew? How can such authenticity be cultivated? What is a beverage event? How can a global manufacturing and bottling conglomerate centered in Atlanta be (or act) either confident or aggressive? And for the record... what is a cola war?

Rather than meditate over the koans of the Coca-Cola Co. in the aisles of SuperAmerica, though, the Onion goes one better. In a story meeting, the writers create the following headline: "Ad Veterans to be Honored with Cola War Memorial."

The idea is even better than its already-printed predecessors: "Mountain Dew Council of Elders Exiles Radical Teen," or "Chinese Government Cracks Down on Refills." The incredible is made... even more incredible. Tautology is wrung into truth... or a kind of truth.

That truth belonged to a fairly obscure Frenchman named Guy Debord--a man who, as the Trix blackboard urged, killed himself a few years back out of boredom. To quote from Debord's 1967 manifesto Society of the Spectacle (a thing best done sparingly): "The spectacle is a permanent opium war which aims to make people identify goods with commodities and satisfaction with survival." Later he continues: "The satisfaction of primary needs is replaced by an uninterrupted fabrication of pseudo-needs which are reduced to the single pseudo-need of maintaining the reign of the autonomous economy."

And that economy is our own... a society where, as the Onion reports it, Frito-Lay scientists are ever discovering the miraculous properties of "Cheesium-109"; where ABC programmers cancel Yeltsin! after sluggish ratings; where Amnesty International demands gentler soap for Indonesian political prisoners; where NATO drops condolence cards over Bosnia...

"Feed the rush!" Surge says (and only Surge can say it, because this, too, is trademarked). To which I would append the following warning... Feed it, or, like an insatiable beast, it will consume you whole, Nikes and all.

7. Just the Factoids, Ma'am

"PART OF OUR WHOLE IMAGE IS THAT we're faceless," Senior Editor Robert Siegel says. And he, more than anyone, is responsible for making the Onion that way, reining in the writers' proclivities to Weekly World News-ism--or, as a staffer says, not altogether sympathetically, rewriting every third word of each article, every week.  

"The Onion could just be spit off the A.P. wire," Siegel elaborates. "In terms of our writing style, I want to minimize the individual voice. When you read a USA Today story, you really don't care who wrote it. This adds to the aura of the Onion--and news and information in our society in general--being this monolithic, faceless thing that's just dropped down from the heavens."

And google-bytes of infotainment... call it supernal media manna or electronic candy--it falls like a hard rain from satellites Murdoch A6-3i and Time-Warner Ion-II. Floods of Bill Gates interviews in the equatorial ecosystems of Brazil. Tsunamis of celebrity diets off the Eastern coast of Malaysia.

Siegel, in an act of managerial caprice, has even dared to attempt an enumeration of this environment in magic marker on a board in the writer's ghetto. A brainstorm list is what it is--which causes the Onion writers actual embarrassment, they claim. As if there was something corporate, almost, about artificially induced creativity. Is Siegel trying to squeeze a $400 paycheck's worth of funny out of us now that we're on staff?

Some of the topics on the board are: tribute albums, caller ID, hostage crisis, CIA, liposuction, Tommy Hilfiger, CD clubs, fantasy camps, salary cap, health care, parental consent, one-drink-minimum, country music, golf, call waiting, food courts, success stories, Sega, Ninten...

And the list goes on and on. The writers--whatever they've professed earlier--they're adding to it themselves. Because there are so many trends and products and services and so many of them are dumb. That word is in heavy circulation among the Onion writers. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb. The Internet is dumb. The CIA is dumb. The new flavor of Doritos is dumb. The word is right there in the Onion logo: "You are dumb."

For as pejoratives go, dumb is so much more malleable and ambiguous than say, venal, or insipid or flat-out insidious. Those words have no sense of play. Leave them to the Neil Postmans, the Bill McKibbenses, the media watchdogs and ordinary grousers... those middle-aged men who do not realize that the MTV revolution has already been consummated and that none of us can ever return to some bucolic Murrow-land of media responsibility, media ignorance. Media innocence, is what those guys are talking about, in their self-righteous marrow.

Not that the writers crouched in the orange bean bag ever name-check Neil Postman. It's so much more elementary than all that. To cite Marshall McLuhan--who began his career as a lit prof here in Madison--think about a light bulb. Are you pro or con, light-bulb? Well?

The question--Unabomber excepted--is moot. As McLuhan explains it, the light bulb has already changed the world in countless grim and emancipating ways, and debating the point now is to belabor the ubiquitous.

And so it is today with all the other wavelengths and photon-impulses pouring forth from the ionosphere, streaming through cables into our Sonys and Mitsubishis and Pentium chips. Unto themselves, these things have no inherent moral content... unless one is a liberal humanist, which the staff at the Onion are decidedly not. "It feels so pretentious to say 'it's all evil,'" Siegel says. "Or that we're coming off as the young people who are Rebelling Against the Media, and Mass Marketing. I hate to say that."

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...

9. Thursday, Feb. 10,
5:22 p.m.

FINAL COVER STORY CONFAB, THE Onion Volume 31, Issue 6.

In attendance: Scott Dikkers (SD), Editor in Chief; Robert Siegel (RS), Senior Editor; Mike Loew (ML), Graphics Editor; John Krewson (JK), Assistant Editor; Todd Hanson (TH), Head Writer.

TH: ... of all the "Horsley" science terms, "Horslo-Spectrometer" is my favorite.

RS: Okay. What else do we have the satellite doing?

JK: Spectrohorsal monitor scans current made-for-TV movies for traces of Lee Horsley.

RS: What is this one? Spectrographic analyzers scan upper atmosphere for trace elements of gases which may have originated within Lee Horsley?  

SD: It's a fart joke!

RS: I can't believe we made a Lee Horsley fart joke!

TH: This is so stupid... But stupid is great! It was totally worth the trouble it took to come up with Lee Horsley.

RS: Can we get a moustache joke in?

TH: Mike, can you make the the Horsley photo infra-red?

ML: Ummm... yeah... I think so... How's this?

RS: Are colors going to show that way on the page?

SD: Can we get more contrast on the infrared Horsley?

ML: How's this...

RS: We're losing the moustache now.

TH: Look how the information superhighway has enabled us to color in Lee Horsley's moustache at the touch of a button...

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