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'Our Dumb Century'

The Onion's pungent take on the century that was

Web posted on: Thursday, April 01, 1999 4:03:46 PM

By CNN Interactive Senior Writer
Jamie Allen

(CNN) -- No doubt, the politically correct establishment on this April Fool's Day would love it if the editors of The Onion (that satirical newspaper and matching Web site of biting sarcasm and existentialist wit) came out from behind their curtain of outrageous news articles and in the spirit of the day said, "Just kidding! Apologies to anyone we might have offended!"

That might happen. Not.

Instead, The Onion keeps churning along, offering an alternate universe of news, a weekly update on humanity's fleeting existence on this spinning orb we call Earth. (Example: A headline from an Onion article this week reads "Single Marine Sent Back In Time To Resolve Kosovo Crisis")

Can you write like the Onion?

And The Onion editors say they're just getting warmed up.

"We just want to be the only newspaper there is," Onion editor Scott Dikkers said in a recent interview with CNN Interactive. "When Joe Citizen gets his newspaper each morning, we want it to be The Onion. We want them to watch The Onion news on TV. We like our version of the news better than yours."

He's kidding, right?


'Nothing is sacred'

But then again, The Onion -- based in Madison, Wisconsin -- has transformed in the span of 10 years from a wacky diatribe written by a couple of college students to a nationally distributed, caustically fictional paper with a highly successful Web site that receives millions of page views each week. It has been featured in "The New Yorker." It has been called "genius" by the "Chicago Tribune".

And that's not all. The Onion is also working out a TV deal with NBC.

And they're keeping up with every other major and minor media outlet by releasing their print recollection of the century that is passing. Of course, their take of the 20th century is a bit different from, say, Peter Jennings.

The book, "Our Dumb Century: 100 Years of Headlines from America's Finest News Source", aims to reveal, through the use of hindsight and a healthy dose of liberal perspective, what The Onion believes is the theme behind every news story in the history of the world: Humans are stupid.

Begin reading 'Our Dumb Century'

To wit, some headlines from the book, which is a collection of fictional Onion articles dated from January 1, 1900 to January 1, 2000:

  • From April 16, 1912: "World's Largest Metaphor Hits Iceberg" (they're talking about the Titanic)

  • From April 4, 1927: "Babe Ruth Unveils 'Wife Bat'"

  • November 9, 1988: "Marion Barry Re-Elected On 'Let's All Smoke Crack' Platform"

  • From January 10, 1998: "Drugs Win Drug War"

    Each headline is accompanied by a deadpan article that takes the proverbial "line in the sand" and washes it away forever.

    In other words, nothing is sacred at The Onion. Nothing. The paper has used events like the Oklahoma City bombing and the dropping of the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to make their point.

    "The mere idea that we would make fun of such a sacred subject is in itself funny," says Dikkers, who uses the message to defend the means. "Good humor always has something to say. There's always a message behind the humor. Humor is valid ... I can't imagine any subject matter that is off-limits, as long as it's intelligent."

    And Dikkers believes there is a natural link between the funny and the tragic.

    "Humor and sadness are actually the same thing," he says. "It's your body's inability to react to stimuli that doesn't make sense. Sometimes you laugh so hard you cry, sometimes you cry so hard you laugh. And I find that fascinating."

    'We're all very screwed up individuals'

    You would think that Scott Dikkers, 34, has one of the coolest jobs on the planet. He and fellow editor Robert Siegel, and their staff of nine writers, sit around all day thinking up funny things. These are the people who often take hilarious perspective on the futile, mind-numbing, conveyor-belt ritual we call "work." Their place of work probably resembles a frat house -- right?

    But when asked if he thinks he has a cool job, Dikkers says, "I mustn't because I'm so miserable. But that's my own problem ... Of course, I'm completely spoiled and I don't know how good I have it."

    And their place of work? It's a downtown building with an early-1970s orange elevator and a view of the capital.

    "It feels newsy because you can see the capital," he says.

    Dikkers joined the staff of The Onion as a cartoonist shortly after it formed in 1988. Soon, he was writing stories for the paper, and when the original founders wanted out, he, Siegel and another business partner paid $20,000 for it.

    Since then, The Onion (the name does not come from the slang for a juicy news story; instead, legend has it, it's a reference by the original owners to the onion sandwiches they ate when they were low on cash) has evolved into a sharp parody of "USA Today," and any other media outlet (CNN has been the brunt of a few Onion articles).

    The success is the result of what Dikkers calls an "organic" staff of genius-level writers who have a lot in common -- they're all messed up in the head.

    "We're all very screwed up individuals," Dikkers says. "We come from broken homes, and we have emotional problems and this is our way of working things out. If we didn't have this venue, we'd probably be serial killers or something."

    They take their jobs at very seriously. Much like a major news magazine, it's a high-pressure environment with a weekly deadline.

    "It's a treadmill here," Dikkers claims. "It's not a joyride. There's a lot of screaming over content."

    'Strangled by appropriateness'

    Dikkers says outsiders who want to write for The Onion try to contact him "a couple of dozen times a day," but usually they don't get it.

    "Everybody thinks humor is easy, but humor writing is a lot more difficult than 'serious' writing. It's so much easier to make someone cry than it is to make someone laugh out loud. It's much more of an intense intellectual exercise."

    Along the way, The Onion has managed to ruffle a few feathers. The nothing-is-sacred mission statement is a direct violation of the unwritten code of ethics that has gripped the PC media, and anyone who believes in it.

    "We think the world is being strangled by appropriateness," says Dikkers. "Everything is just way too sanitized."

    Of course, taking this stance can, among other things, lead to legal troubles. In its stories, The Onion goes so far as to take very public figures and fill their mouths with very outrageous quotes and ideas.

    Many lawyers have contacted The Onion, but, "Our lawyer is amazing," Dikkers says. "He makes them all disappear. There's freedom of the press in this country, and we're protected."

    Then there are those who have stumbled upon The Onion newspaper or Web site and thought it was real news. For instance, The Onion once reported that Microsoft had patented all ones and zeroes. Several people wrote in asking, "How can they do that?"

    Dikkers says he doesn't answer those letters. It would take away the fun, and also he has grand plans for The Onion. World domination, for one.

    'Read something else'

    In conjunction with "Our Dumb Century," The Onion also plans an NBC televised special reviewing Onion headlines from the past century, narrated by "some pretentious Peter Graves-esque host."

    Meantime, fans will have to settle for the book. And the PC establishment will remain unsettled by what they read:

    "German Jews Concerned about Hitler's 'Kill All Jews' Proposal"; "Soviet Space Program Ahead in Dog-Killing Race"; "John Lennon: 'I'm Higher Than Jesus Right Now"; "Berlin Wall Destroyed in Doritos-Sponsored Super Bowl Halftime Spectacular"; "OJ Finds Killer."

    Nothing is sacred.

    And Dikkers has a solution for those who object.

    "If people don't like the subject matter, too bad. It people don't like the message, read something else."

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