All the news that's fit to parody

CATCHING UP WITH... THE ONION

From underground lampon to best-selling book, the Onion has found wide appeal

Catching Up With ... The Onion

June 06, 1999|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff

* O.J. finds killer: Los Angeles -- After months of tireless searching, a triumphant O.J. Simpson announced Wednesday that he has found the killer of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. "I am deeply sorry for doubting you ..." said lead prosecutor Marcia Clark.

This is the devilish work of the Onion. The weekly humor publication started as a college humor sheet by a couple of Midwesterners in 1988 and, until recently, enjoyed a faithful underdog following.

"People think they have discovered the Onion in the last two years," says Onion staff writer Carol Kolb. "We've been around a much longer time."

The Onion has shed its skin. Facetiously billed as "America's Finest News Source," the parody newspaper attracts 2 million visitors a month to its Web site (www.theonion.com) and claims a weekly newsstand readership of 500,000. A couple of NBC specials are in the works, as is a national magazine and a radio show.

But perhaps the most surprising success story is the Onion's "Our Dumb Century." The coffee-table book of faux front pages about the biggest news stories of the century has been glued to the paperback best-seller list. You might never trust a newspaper headline again:

* CDC: New "AIDS" disease could put nation at increased risk of celebrity benefits

* Giant poster of Mao seizes power in China

* Female orgasm discovered: Baltimore, MD -- Scientists at Johns Hopkins University Medical School announced Monday that they have discovered what may be a sexual reflex in women: the mythical, long-rumored female orgasm.

The Onion can be so sophomoric that, naturally, mass popularity was inevitable. Credit the Internet -- and the Onion does. That, and a thick profile in a recent issue of the New Yorker, whose own headline read: "HUMOR PAPER READ, PRAISED: Based in Midwest, named after vegetable, deemed funny anyway." The big boys are paying attention.

"That was something, wasn't it?" asks the Onion's long-time editor, Scott Dikkers, 34. "We went from not knowing what we were going to eat one week to having five media outlets waiting to talk to us."

Will all this attention ruin the renegade karma of the Onion? It's a question only a mainstream newspaper can ask.

"I don't worry about popularity. I think we are still a blip on the pop-culture radar screen," Dikkers says.

Face it, Scott, won't money spoil the Onion?

"We wanted to make money," says Dikkers, sounding not embarrassed in the least. "Doing it for the money is the right reason to do it."

* Nixon steps up bombing raids on New York Times

* Reagan may have been elected, doesn't recall

* New TV network to employ over 25,000 Wayans brothers

Dikkers, speaking from his home office in Wisconsin, credits David Letterman and MAD magazine as his comic influences. He'd stay up late to watch Letterman, then sleep in the next day and skip school. As a teen-ager (kids, don't try this at home), Dikkers had a working philosophy that Letterman was more important than school. "And I was absolutely right," he says.

In 1988, Dikkers bought the Onion from two guys who had wanted to make some money by starting a college humor magazine. It didn't fly. So Dikkers, a cartoonist by trade, assembled a group of young folks with like comedy minds and sensibilities. People who thought much of what passed for humor was not funny at all. People who, with a straight face and perhaps a shot of caffeine, could write a news story parody based on a headline, such as: New medical report finds heavy petting linked to Communism.

Something was born, though no one at the Onion knew exactly what. But it wasn't like having a real job, so they kept at it. Over the quiet years, a few staffers even left the Onion to write for Letterman and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." The remaining writers giddily carry on.

"We think of ourselves as an old rock band. Now we got to keep the spirit alive!" says Kolb, 26, another Midwesterner who studied at the altar of Letterman. Surely the Harvard-born National Lampoon, the hip humor mag of the '70s, also must have been an influence. "Well, I don't think any of us really read that," she says. Of the unsolicited submissions the Onion receives, Kolb notes with seething delight the comic bits occasionally sent by Harvard graduates. The Onion staff thoughtfully read each submission, then thoughtfully turn to one another and say: "This is [bad word]," says Kolb. Leave the heavy headline lifting to us.

* Bumper crop of '35: Dust

* Iowa family blasted for lack of diversity

* Christian right ascends to heaven

Leafing through the banner headlines in "Our Dumb Century," readers discover the Onion is not biased against any subject, particularly politics and race. It parodies with impunity; it's an equal-opportunity satirist:

* Martin Luther King: I had a really weird dream last night: Washington, D.C. -- "I had a really weird dream last night. I had a dream in which I was in Yankee Stadium ... I had a dream in which the great stadium became filled with circus animals ..."

* Whites invented 'rock and roll': Authorities Assure Public that Negroes Had Nothing to Do with Popular Music Form, reads a fake 1955 Onion headline.

"We are making fun of the notion of truth," Dikkers says, "and of what news is."

Why don't they get a real job? Here we toil every day at our serious, fair-minded -- did we mention serious? -- newspaper, and these smart-alecks sit around their Wisconsin office (Madison, of all places) and make up goofy news headlines and stories in the name of satire, fun and free speech...

Pub Date: 06/06/99

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