Joe Garden holds the dream job of every would-be wiseacre: staff writer for The Onion. Garden started reporting for the world’s premier source for fake news in 1993, long before it became an internet institution. It started as a free paper on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, slowly growing over the years until it made the leap to the web in 1996, becoming a national phenomenon. The Onion’s satirical news stories play it so straight that they’re often mistaken for real reports by gullible editors at “serious” newspapers and TV news programs. (Deborah Norville, for example, repeated an Onion article on MSNBC stating that 58 percent of all exercise in the U.S. is done on television.) Besides fake news stories, Garden also writes two of The Onion’s most popular columns: “The Outside Scoop” by the Hollywood-loving Jackie Harvey, and Jim Anchower’s slacker musings. In this interview, Garden talks about the hard work behind making fake news.
How did The Onion get started?
The Onion got off the ground in 1988, started by these two guys Chris Johnson and Tim Keck, basically as a delivery vehicle for pizza coupons and silly things. They sold it after about a year. At the time, there were two student dailies, free alternative news weeklies, free music weeklies—there was an insane amount of free publications in Madison (Wisconsin). And The Onion stood out. It was funny. When you look back, it’s kind of primitive and it’s not as good, but it was definitely different. I think the first issue had “Lake Mendota Monster Spotted” with that classic picture of the Loch Ness monster. Then by the third issue, they ran a story called “The Onion: The Early Days” where they had a picture of Scott Dikkers, who went on to be one of the head writers and owners, wearing this ‘20s-ish outfit holding up a copy of the first issue. And it was really funny! I thought it was a great little thing. So to become a part of this in 1993 was pretty spectacular.
Then in about 1995, a strange and wonderful thing called the internet started becoming more prevalent. Previous to this, someone had tried to convince us we needed to be on the internet, and they were actually very prescient. We were like, “Who’s gonna want to read this? That’s ridiculous! On a computer? You could just pick up the paper!” But around 1995 or ‘96, we ran this article, “Clinton to Deploys Vowels to Bosnia” (“Cities of Sjlbvdnzv, Grzny to Be First Recipients”). It was in maybe two or three newspapers in three different cities—not a huge circulation. But somebody along the line took it upon themselves to transcribe it into an email—typed everything up and sent it around. They forwarded it to people, but didn’t attribute it to The Onion. And before you knew it, it became one of those emails that everybody was forwarding around. It got read on the NPR show “Click and Clack,” it was also reprinted in Paul Krassner’s The Realist humor magazine, and it was also reprinted in Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll, the punk-rock fanzine of note. So we were running around going “This is ours! We don’t want money, we just want attribution. Say The Onion did this!” This was when we were in Madison, not getting a whole lot of attention. It really dawned on us that the internet was a very powerful medium for getting The Onion out there, whether through email or a website, and we thought we should take matters into our own hands.
How did The Onion go from internet phenomenon to household name?
The thing that really pushed us into the next level was when the first book, Our Dumb Century, came out in 1999. I was actually in Chicago and didn’t work on the book, so I can say this pretty objectively: That is a great book. It is really, really funny. And I didn’t work on it, so this is not me tooting my own horn. There are some things in there that I look at that still make me laugh. Scott Templeton was the designer on that, and he did a fantastic job. One of the best high-concept design jokes was for World War II; the headline was “WA- (see rest of headline, page 4).” He went back and did all this fantastic research and it was such a lovingly put together book. I think it probably stands as one of the best things The Onion has ever done. That’s definitely what really made The Onion blow up.
You write two columns by distinctly different personalities—who are these people?
The very first column I ever wrote for The Onion was Jim Anchower. He’s sort of an amalgam of a lot of the people I grew up with in rural Wisconsin—a stoner, hesher guy. He’s always smoking pot, drinking Miller Genuine Draft, getting fired, and having his car break down—always a permutation of those four. Just mix and match, and bang! You’ve got a Jim Anchower. There’s other stuff, too, but it’s probably the most autobiographical thing I do because any time I have car trouble it makes it into Jim Anchower. I’m looking for a house right now, so the last Jim Anchower column was how he has to move.
The other character is Jackie Harvey. His column is “The Outside Scoop”—it’s a Hollywood gossip column written by someone who’s obviously not living in Hollywood. Most of his information is second-hand; he gets everything from US Weekly, and he always gets the names wrong. The thing about Jackie Harvey is that he’s not snarky or critical—he’s super into being an entertainment reporter: “This is fantastic! I love it! Hollywood, the city of dreams!” It’s harder to inject personality in that, but that’s the thing makes it funny—it’s not just that he’s getting facts wrong, but that you’re learning little bits and pieces about his life. You’re getting a look into his psyche as the column unfolds.Does The Onion office operate like an actual newsroom?
It’s like a newsroom in that we pitch our stories, we brainstorm them, we talk about what the angles are that we want to touch on. We try to get a good balance of political, local, world, science, and whatever. It’s hard, because in the last month or so we’ve had a lot of drug and alcohol-related stories; now we have some jokes that are great, but they happen to be drug-related, so we have to wait two months or longer before we can run them. We don’t want to get too one-note about it.
But there’s the old saw about you never want to watch laws or sausages being made, and the same is actually true of comedy. Everybody’s like, “Oh, you guys probably sit in there laughing all the time!” Well, no. There are a lot of really great times when we are laughing a lot, but a lot of times we’re just sitting there going: “Oh yes. That is funny. I vote for that.” We have fun and it’s definitely not a standard office job—I mean, I’m allowed to run a deli out of my office. It’s not like Price-Waterhouse would put up with that kind of shit.
The Onion is probably the only straight-ahead humor publication in America that’s also a successful business. Why do you think that is?
We’re comfortable. Because of our format—which is both a blessing and a curse—we’re making fun of the news, the way the media operates, and the way the media presents stories. We’re also commenting on the stories of the day and certain issues, and that’s always going to change—but at the same time, our coverage of that will always be similar. With a lot of humor sites, they move on to bigger and better things, and we haven’t. The other reason that we’ve maintained (success) is because we have an internet presence and a hard-copy presence; we’re in seven cities, soon to be eight. It’s still popular, perhaps taken for granted in some cases, but people pick it up and read it pretty thoroughly. So if we’re flagging in one area, the other one is usually there to keep it going.
Why is fake news so prevalent these days?
It certainly seems like it’s more prevalent—the popularity of The Daily Show is a great indicator of that. I would say it’s possibly because, as the country becomes more fractious and divided, that everybody is looking for something that makes fun of the viewpoint that disagrees with them. I think that both The Daily Show and The Onion make fun of both sides; sometimes it may seem like we’re for one way, sometimes the other way, but we both generally try to play an even hand and make fun of stupidity wherever we see it. It’s also a processing method, a way for people to process the news because it’s really kind of overwhelming. Maybe it’ll make you think about it in a different way, maybe it just gives you a respite so you don’t have to think about it in a really serious way, you can just laugh and be done with it. But it’s really hard—I don’t want to second-guess why people like us. I just hope they don’t stop…
Joe Garden is currently campaigning to host Late Night on NBC when Conan O'Brien leaves the position to take over The Tonight Show in 2009. Visit his online campaign headquarters at VoteJoeGarden.com.