Anatomy of a Joke: Dissecting 'The Onion'

Chad Nackers of The Onion breaks down how an idea goes from brainstorm to fake front-page news.


It started with a group of University of Wisconsin undergrads spitballing jokes back and forth and grew to a comedy powerhouse paper, website, Peabody Award-winning news network, book franchise, film, and a nonfiction sister website this writer has contributed to, all of which cumulatively garner 14 million visitors per month. Rightfully dubbed “America’s Finest News Source,” The Onion has been pumping out satirical news stories since the late ‘80s when the paper’s founders were reportedly so poor, they were forced to eat onion sandwiches for sustenance. Much has changed since the onion sammie days, but two things that haven’t are the now digital-only publication’s biting stories and the breakneck pace at which its writers produce them. Chad Nackers, The Onion’s head writer who has been on staff since the Madison, Wisconsin days, gives us a peek into the cogs that get the pub’s comedy content churned out week after week.

It Starts With Research

To write fake news, you have to keep up to date with the real stories and stay aware of how they’re being presented.

A big thing is checking out how CNN and Google News, Huffington Post, how these different news organizations are handling different stories that are going on,” Nackers says. “That’s another aspect of things that we satirize, how the media handles things. … When there was the Miley Cyrus twerking thing, that’s a good example of, we weren’t going to do a joke about her doing some sort of crazy sexual thing or twerking thing or something like that. We, instead, did an editorial from CNN’s managing editor defending why that was their top story on their news site. That’s what we chose to satirize is how the media went so nuts with that stuff.”

But research isn’t limited to major news sites. Nackers says that research, and ultimately joke inspiration, oftentimes comes from simply observing what’s directly around you.

There are definitely times where I’ll be sitting in a coffee shop [and] sort of observe something and be like, ‘Oh, I can totally turn that into a headline.’ In fact, I think I had one recently that was ‘Couple Never Dreamed They’d Be Able to Talk So Honestly and Openly About Cabinets.’ That was based on a couple talking about that stuff and I was imagining them like it was sort of a sexual conversation, that this was a difficult subject for them to talk about and be honest with each other. People should be aware, if they’re worried that there’s an Onion writer out there, there probably is one ready to cannibalize their lives and make it into a joke.”

Then Comes the Headline

Any headline you see of a story, that was what was originally pitched,” Nackers says. “Sometimes they have a sub-headline that kind of rounds out the joke for you a little bit more, but for the most part [a joke] goes on the strength of the initial headline.”

The roughly 12-person writing staff each brings a list of 35 to 40 jokes to the table every Monday that the gang picks through to determine what’s going to make the cut for that week. Each staff member also pitches five or six jokes per day to keep up with the immediate news cycle.

Usually like 500 headlines are pitched [per week]. Could be a little bit more,” to produce the 15 or so pieces of content, including stories, videos, and infographics that appear on The Onion each day, Nackers says. 

But writers aren’t entirely alone. Once an idea is presented, the whole team works to flesh out the concept, find the right angle, and get the wording just right before putting it up on the site.

When you’re in a room with a lot of people, you kind of take inspiration from jokes that they make like, ‘Oh, that’s a really interesting way to look at things.’ You adapt that and you kind of get other tricks from people,” he says. “There are still times when you look down at that blank sheet and you’re like, ‘Oh God, What am I going to do now?”

Which Most Likely Hits the Cutting Room Floor

Of those 500 pitches, only a scant few make it to the web. The ones that do are jokes that are either impeccably zany or have a sharp satirical edge with a larger point behind it.

We like to have smart jokes that make a point, that feel like they really work,” Nackers explains. “[We have] a very sensitive staff. People will definitely be like, ‘I think that’s kind of wrongheaded,’ or ‘That’s not really making a good point’ or ‘The point that’s making is sort of illogical.’ There gets to be a lot of talking about the merits of jokes that just kind of goes on and on. On the other hand, I think that’s why sometimes it’ll be easier for the staff to get behind some kind of crazy, funny joke that maybe isn’t a real strong satirical point or anything, but it’s just funny.

It’s kind of like two weeks ago, we did this story about emergency crews rescue Olympic figure skater who fell through ice. That’s a pretty silly scene, but in a way it does point to [something larger] because a lot of people were like, “That’s why Russia shouldn’t be hosting the Olympics.” … Sometimes things are deceptive. They seem like a totally silly concept but there’s something behind them.”

Next Comes the Cross-checking

The Onion also prides itself on breaking fresh fake news, a feat that’s becoming increasingly difficult with the lightening speed of social media.

That’s another big vetting process thing,” Nackers explains. “[If] too many people are making this point about this news event or it seems like everybody on Twitter is saying this thing, even if we feel like, ‘Oh, [our joke] is perfectly worded,’ we’ll just kind of feel like we probably shouldn’t do that. That’s something that’s really changed with the advancement of social media. Twitter and Facebook allow people to get jokes out there much quicker. Back in the day, it was sort of like The Onion had a website. If we had something come up, we could get a joke out there pretty quickly and no one else really had the ability to do that. I think it’s a more competitive field now of people making jokes about stuff happening. 

We probably monitor Twitter a little more for if people are making jokes about a specific news thing to make sure we don’t just do the same exact thing. I think there are so many more opportunities for parallel thinking, it’s just something that during a pitch meeting if we like a joke, we’ll search it or Google it or whatever or check on Twitter to see if anybody has been making similar jokes. If it feels like something is well trod, we’ll just abandon that joke.”

Followed By the Writing

[The hours] can be quite a lot. There is so much behind the scenes, working from home, working on your commute. Our office hours are 10 to 6, but we have people go home and write drafts, edit, things like that. On Sunday, I worked until 2 a.m. on headlines. It really kind of varies. We’ve been working to ease that schedule because there are times where I can remember writing a story on Tuesday that would go up on Thursday and I’d write till two or three in the morning and then get up the next day and then write another draft or write a different story the next day. In that period of time, you could easily get 40 or 50 hours in.”

Nackers works 60 to 80 hours per week on average, making it easy to wind up exhausted or in a creative rut.

People seem like they’re constantly working and that’s definitely something that we are always a little bit concerned of, people burning themselves out because it can be an intense process and hard to keep up.”

Then Brace Yourself for the Audience Reaction…Actually, Don’t

I usually avoid any reactions because I really don’t care. I guess I’m kind of the old school Onion. We don’t care what your opinion is or what your thoughts are. We don’t accept any unsolicited material. In general, I want to avoid that, but there are times where it’s kind of fun to see reactions to stories,” Nackers says.

I think what’s surprising is how people will sometimes react and completely miss the point of the headline. That’s where it baffles me. I think the one recently was ‘Close-Minded Man Doesn’t Even Want to Listen to How Homosexuality is an Abomination.’ … There were a lot of people who really missed the point on that one. There were people who were saying that our point was that a lot of pro-gay people are actually very intolerant. That’s what people took away from it. It’s like, ‘Jesus, what are you reading? What lines are you reading between here?’ It’s just taking it totally at face value and really ignoring any of the language. I feel like maybe it’s these [subjects] where people are like, ‘I believe this and that’s that!’ I think those are the things where people are just taking things the wrong way. I’ve also seen people who take it on the other direction, who then get offended by it, [people] who are like, ‘That is so offensive that they’re being hard on a person for not wanting to listen to someone be intolerant of homosexuals.’ What the hell, people? It’s amazing how both sides can completely see the story wrong. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t millions of people who totally get it and understand it, but it is baffling sometimes that it’s taken so wrong.”

I think it’s really easy to be caught up in that. You can either go for the highs of people being like, ‘This is so brilliant! This is the best thing ever,’ to there are plenty of people who are like, ‘This sucks. This is the worst,’ or ‘You’re a terrible human. You’re going to go to hell.’ The two extremes are just not worth it.”

And Stay Open to the World Beyond Writing

A lot of those original Onion writers, they were history majors and psychology majors, people who had this other information. It wasn’t just that they were all creative writing students. I think that that really helps because when you know so much about the world and what shapes the world, I think there are so many more possibilities. Being able to know all the stuff in history that continues to repeat itself, those are things that are so helpful to be able to build jokes on. Having this broader view of things and knowing all these specifics about specialty things is really helpful rather than the only thing you’re doing is I’m going to concentrate on writing creative stuff.”

Satire can be done in so many ways and I think people limit it to journalism a lot. I think there’s so much stuff you can do. There are so many different aspects that you can create fake things of and build out a world. A couple of years ago we had done an issue where we were taken over by a Chinese company. I think we had put out press releases and things like that. It was really fun to build up this fake Chinese company and what their holdings were and I think they were into fish and salvage metals. It was really fun to explore that. On the other hand, we were playing with the journalism in the sort of loyalty that the Chinese owners had to China and how they found the American people sort of despicable. It was a fun filter to have on the writing style. It’s the same thing when we did a special 1783 issue. It’s fun to write from a different time period. I do think there’s so much stuff that people can satirize. I think your best bet is to try to build a wealth of knowledge.”

Repeat. Again and Again and Again

The Onion and it’s nonfiction sister publication, The AV Club, are currently hiring graphics,  production, and post-production interns for Summer 2014.

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