Will The Big Apple Take The Bite Out Of 'The Onion'? The Staff Of The Humorous Online Newspaper Parody Has Just Relocated - From Wisconsin.

Posted: February 25, 2001

NEW YORK — It's a long, long way from Wisconsin, here on this stretch of West 20th Street, a weird neighborhood of warehouses and car-rental places not far from the on-ramp to the Lincoln Tunnel.

The Onion, the nation's premier humorous online newspaper, relocated here last month from Madison - and within weeks had inked a deal with movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, giving Miramax Films the right to make movies from Onion articles.

There are fans who wonder if success will spoil the Onion. But its writers shrug off their resettlement in Manhattan as nothing special.

"If anyone else wanted to move to a new city after 10 years of working in the same place, no one would care," says managing editor Rob Siegel.

It was in Madison, 12 years ago, that a group of University of Wisconsin undergraduates developed their utterly skewed and totally invented version of a weekly paper. Now its Web site, www.theonion.com, attracts about 800,000 visitors a month, according to Media Metrix.

Readers click on for the deadpan fake political stories, such as the recent "Clinton Vaguely Disappointed by Lack of Assassination Attempts"; for USA Today-on-acid-inspired polls ("What We Drank Last Saturday"); for news briefs announcing "Area Man Suspects Lactose Intolerance"; and for hilarious columns by the likes of Herbert Kornfeld, ebonics-speaking accountant.

When the Onion began in 1988, it was published out of a dorm room and given away in Madison. (Now it's distributed as well in Milwaukee, Chicago and Denver, with editions planned for New York this summer and for San Francisco next year.)

It went online in 1996 and quickly became the critics' darling. Its writers graduated to gigs at Comedy Central and The Late Show With David Letterman.

DreamWorks optioned two of its articles for movies: "10th Circle Added to Rapidly Growing Hell" and "Canadian Girlfriend Unsubstantiated."

Two staff-penned books (Our Dumb Century and The Onion's Finest News Reporting: Volume One) became best-sellers.

Still, the Onion stayed put in the heart of square America.

Now that it's moved here, loyal readers may wonder whether the Onion is in danger of being tainted by East Coast snarkiness - whether its staff will be seduced by TV and movie deals, by velvet-roped nightclubs and arm-candy dates.

"I'd like to do TV and movies," said Siegel, explaining the relocation between bites of tuna on a bagel. "There's nothing inherently evil about the visual media."

Upon signing with Weinstein, Siegel's official statement was: "Our goal for this Miramax deal is to create movies that don't suck."

Siegel and his writers now have what amounts to two full-time jobs: running the Onion, and trying to prove to skeptical fans and a regular influx of visiting reporters that the city hasn't changed them.

Positive signs abound. The cavernous office space, which had housed a now-deceased dot-com, is echoing and empty, devoid of anything but a few chairs and computers and various containers of takeout food. The staff is dressed in beyond-casual wear (T-shirts, overalls, things that are stained, or don't fit, or both).

And the jokes come fast and furious, as the writers discuss potential headlines for the next issue. "Man in Bar Way Too Into Stevie Ray Vaughn" looks like a winner.

How's the city treating them?

"Well, it's always exciting the first week," says staff writer Tim Harrod. "But then you do everything there is to do. I went to the restaurant, I rode the subway. . . . What's left?"

Just then, a guy wandered in with a Radio Shack bag that instantly became the focus of the group's rapt attention.

"Man," breathed Harrod, "New York's got everything."

If things don't work out in New York, they say, they'll take Madison - again.

"We will not hesitate," proclaimed head writer Todd Hanson, "to go crawling back with our tail between our legs.

"We have not sold out," he insisted. "That's scheduled for 2002."

Jennifer Weiner's e-mail address is jweiner@phillynews.com.

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