Onion writer talks satire, controversy

Susie Ferrell Jan 30, 2012

“If you shut up and listen, maybe you’ll learn something,” The Onion's head writer Carol Kolb said, beginning her talk in McConomy Auditorium last Monday.

Sarcasm was to be expected from Kolb, the previous editor-in-chief of The Onion, a satirical newspaper. The Onion was established at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1988 by Tim Keck and Chris Johnson.

Since then, it has become a national publication with an online edition and a television program. Kolb became involved with the paper after establishing herself through other comedy projects during her time at UW-Madison.

Inspiration for The Onion comes from serious sources. “I just read the news,” Kolb said. “Either making fun of what’s in it or actually just making fun of the business of news and how flashy everything is and how dumbed down some stories are.” The amount of real research that goes into each article or video for The Onion varies with the writer’s familiarity with the subject. If, for example, a writer knows little about how a bill is passed, some research will be done on the bill before he or she writes the article.

The only news programs that are not targets of The Onion’s satirical comments are ones that are already satirical in nature. “You want to make sure you’re coming up with your own ideas,” Kolb said. The satire of The Onion does have a history, however, of not being recognized as such. News sources from China’s Beijing Evening News to Fox News have reissued The Onion’s stories as true.

Despite the success of The Onion, the worry of falling flat still crosses Kolb’s mind. “Even more than we want things to have a point, we just want to make people laugh, so that always is a fear of just sort of making something too heavy-handed or not funny enough,” Kolb explained. “That’s always the hardest thing, having a point and making it be satirical but also having it be fun and silly.”

There is one worry that Kolb does not have, however. “There certainly are people out there who don’t find it funny or find us offensive, and we just kind of don’t care. Don’t read us, then.” With the anything-goes style of The Onion, nothing is off limits. However, Kolb noted that the publication does think about who it’s making fun of before they make a joke. “[The] 9/11 issue was a good example. We didn’t want to offend anyone,” she said.

The one topic that people get sensitive about, Kolb said, is animals. In response to an article titled “Puppy Bowl Marred by Tragic Spinal Injury,” The Onion received an intensely negative response. “ ‘You went too far when you covered this,’ ” Kolb said, in the words of the critics. “Not when you made fun of cancer, or you made fun of the troops...” In 2007, The Onion introduced the Onion News Network (ONN), a mock news program. “We definitely did have to re-learn what we were doing,” Kolb said. “We couldn’t just do what we did in the paper. We looked into modern 24-hour cable news.”

One major difference is the lack of the “stodgy voice” the newspaper has. Instead of looking to precision in journalistic formality, the program is designed to be flashy and eye-catching.
“It kind of has to be,” Kolb said. “Especially when we were doing video, we found it just had to be a little more engaging. It’s enjoyable to read something, but I think watching video, you need it to keep grabbing your attention — otherwise you’re going to turn it off.”

The ONN continues to grab viewers’ attention. The show has been renewed for a second season on IFC, thanks to “nine billion viewers across 811 countries,” according to Kolb.

Many members of Carnegie Mellon’s satirical newspaper readme were in the audience. Emily Forney, a senior linguistics and Russian studies major and editor-in-chief of readme, said that she related to one of Kolb’s comments that anything can spur satire, including a simple comment from the writer’s mother. Joe Selinger, a junior chemical engineering major and writer for readme, noted a difference between the articles he writes and those of The Onion. “Our articles do a lot of more college-related humor,” Selinger said.

Kolb shared advice for aspiring satirists in the audience. “Try to think of something new. A new format or a new voice or something,” she said. “When I started writing, as compared to a few years of writing, the difference was huge,” Kolb said. “You just have to write a lot and get people to read it who will be critical of what you’re doing and actually say, ‘That’s not funny,’ or ‘That’s not good,’ and then just keep doing it.”