Onion newspaper, now in Philadelphia, savors the absurd

These are the editorial minds at the Onion offices in New York who write for the paper, online and TV productions.
These are the editorial minds at the Onion offices in New York who write for the paper, online and TV productions. (The Onion)
Posted: May 10, 2011

Everything about the internationally renowned newspaper the Onion, which this spring introduced a Philadelphia edition, says class.

Take its motto.

Instead of going with the obtuse "all the news that's fit to print" or the self-satisfied "the truth in its proper use," the Onion aims for the sublime with Tu Stultus Es. (Whoa, that's, like, European!)

"That's Latin for 'You are stupid,' " says Onion feature editor Joe Garden, who, with Onion writer Chad Nackers, will talk about the ins and outs of the award-winning publication Wednesday at Drexel University.

"That [saying] guides a lot of our principles," says Garden, 41, who joined the satirical paper in 1993. Principles?

Garden says the Onion holds firm to that most sacred of tenets, "It's a lot easier to make up news than it is to actually report it."

It fabricates its untruth with panache and a healthy dose of acerbic wit.

"Congress Gets in 12 Solid Hours of Gridlocking Before Calling It a Day" read a headline on Thursday's front page.

The paper's Thanksgiving issue last year included the report, "Al-Qaeda Marching Band to Join Macy's Parade After Incredible Audition."

Blame the Onion's (twisted?) trademark humor on University of Wisconsin-Madison students Tim Keck and Christopher Johnson, who founded the newspaper in 1988.

No one seems to know why they named it after that most odorous vegetable. According to one of many apocryphal stories, Johnson's uncle, William Nels Johnson, suggested the moniker when he saw his nephew heartily bite down into an onion sandwich.

Since those halcyon days, the Onion has grown into a powerful (well, not really), agenda-setting (hmm . . .) powerhouse. It has launched a sister publication, The A.V. Club, which features un-ironic pop arts and restaurant reviews. The two newspapers, which are printed in 10 cities across the country, reach approximately 1.8 million readers in print weekly and 10 million monthly online. The Philadelphia edition is part of a business partnership with Philadelphia Media Network, which owns The Inquirer and Philly.com.

The brand also has infiltrated cable TV with two shows, The Onion News Network on IFC and The Onion Sports Network on Comedy Central.

"We are taking the country one step at a time," says Garden.

Why the success? What makes the Onion funny?

It skewers liberals and conservatives with equal vigor. "We don't have a political ideology," Garden says. "We ridicule anything that is dumb. We hold it up to the light of satire."

Do they really think their readers are stupid?

"I guess we're cynical. But we're rarely mean-spirited for the sake of being mean-spirited," says Garden. One thing they won't mock, he adds, are the powerless, "the person on the bottom."

The Onion is funny, Garden ventures, because no matter how absurd its stories may be, they're written in a dry, matter-of-fact manner.

The "area man" series of stories treats the most mundane daily activities as if they had global significance.

One piece, "Area Man Makes It Through the Day," celebrates one Adam Blume, a (fictional) systems analyst from Schaumburg, Ill., who manages to "successfully get out of bed and leave his apartment" in the morning.

Folks like Blume are relatable. His angst is our angst, besieged as he is by "such formidable opponents as suburban conformity [and] mind-numbing coworkers." No matter how Sisyphean his life, Blume perseveres: "[He] nonetheless trudged along - permitting nothing, no matter how soul-deadening, to break his will."

Garden, raised on the outskirts of a rural town of 5,000 in Wisconsin called Richland Center, admits the Onion has a Midwestern flavor. (Consider it A Prairie Home Companion Noir.)

"The Midwest is the perennial outsider. People talk about the South and the West and the East Coast cities, but no one really talks about [us]," says Garden. "The Midwest is the stable cousin that sort of gets by [in life] and who nobody notices at family reunions."

Yet the Midwest also has a savage edge. "We may be nice, but we also have a rich history of [jerks] and horrible serial killers [including Sen.] Joseph McCarthy, Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer."

Discussing the Onion

Joe Garden and Chad Nackers will explain the ins and outs of writing for The Onion with a multimedia presentation at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Drexel University's Mitchell Auditorium in the Bossone Research Center, 3128 Market St.

Tickets: $15, or $5 with Drexel I.D.

Information: www.drexel.edu/westphal

Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com


comments powered by Disqus