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Friday, Aug 13, 2004, 2:40 pm

It’s funny because it’s true

By Jessica Clark
Earlier this week, Onion writer John Krewson mounted the cramped stage of Chicago's Wicker Park Rainbo club to opine on the role of satire in politics and how stories from The Onion too often come frighteningly true.

Krewson, who has written for the fake newspaper since 1991, is the auteur of such dark, snicker-inducing favorites as " ???Bush: Our Long National Nightmare of Peace and Prosperity is Finally Over," as well as the horoscopes, which he assured the crowd "aren't true--I don't consult charts or anything." He noted that while political humor sometimes hits the mark, the stories have to be "funny first...or else we don't eat. You have to sugar the pill to get people to listen to your serious stuff."

At first he claimed, a bit overmodestly, that the formula for satire isn't so complicated. "We're basically a bunch of simple alcoholics, " Krewson said. "You make a joke, follow up with facts, and hopefully the facts will support the jokes." But later, he admitted, "political satire is hard," and the community is small. Former Onion staffers now work at another thriving fake news venture, "The Daily Show," and they all still hang out. Bush staffers take note: "One grenade could wipe us out," Krewson said. "We all drink at a bar called O'Callahan's."

He bemoaned the thought of making four more years of Bush jokes, and begged the audience to vote Kerry into office. "Make it a lot easier for us...We have so many Kerry jokes: he looks like a basset hound, he looks like the Mac the Knife guy. Satirizing him will be easy."

If The Onion seems a bit left-leaning, Krewson suggested that it's only to compensate for the current climate. "It's hard to make jokes about Democrats when Republicans own the news cycle...We try to be evenhanded--everyone is a jackass--but the administration does a lot of work for us...But saying that Bush is stupid is just not enough, and re-sleeving that every week isn't easy."

Still, they manage to do it. One story that Krewson was proud of writing was titled, "American People Ruled Unfit to Govern." He explained that "making fun of the electorate is our job. The dirty secret is that we don't make 'Bush is stupid' jokes, "we make 'Bush is as stupid as the rest of the population' jokes."

According to Krewson, the president that Onion writers really miss is Clinton, who "wanted to be liked so damned bad that there was nothing he wouldn't do...that's key for comedy." Rush Limbaugh picked up on one story, which placed Clinton in the doghouse with Hillary for spending his paycheck on the way home. Other stories have caught the attention of readers across the political spectrum, including gay-basher Fred Phelps, who credulously posted a story on his heinous site, http://www.godhatesfags.com, which suggested that, just as he'd suspected, the gay recruitment drive was going swimmingly.

"An important part of satire," Krewson noted, "is that people will believe what they want, no matter what."

At the request of an audience, Krewson described a week in the life an Onion writer:

Monday: They bring in 25 ideas in headline form, and then shoot one another's ideas down. One recently rejected seedling: "Affection for Girlfriend Expressed by 17 Minute Drum Solo."

Tuesday: Headlines must be approved by 2/3 quorum--"at least one political/national, and one about some schlub."

Wednesday: Stay home, play videogames

Thursday: Write the stories you were supposed to write on Wednesday, and then pass them around. "This is not a very nurturing process," Krewson said, noting that much of the paper's revenue comes from advertisers. "Let's face it, it has to be funny...so we beat the living shit out of each other."

Friday: Everything else.

Over the past few years, "everything else" has included producing a set of best-selling compilation books, moving the paper's offices from Madison, Wisconsin to the Big Apple, and taking on the distinctly unhumorous challenge of producing satirical commentary in the weeks right after 9/11.

"I'm proud of what we did," Krewson said. "No one else had started making jokes except Saturday Night Live...We did it the way we did a lot of our best comedy; we tried to express what people were feeling." Stories like "Not Knowing What Else to Do, Woman Bakes American Flag Cake," reflected both the banality and uncertainty of many Americans' responses during that disturbing period--an aesthetic that's still apparent in what Krewson called the "stand-up tragedy" of one of the paper's fake columnists, Jean Teasdale.

Asked if the paper had ever been sued, he replied that it had, but that satire is protected speech. "Martha Stewart fucking hates us," said Krewson, and "we heard that Condoleezza Rice once threw a copy across the room. She's is so hot."

Krewson's appearance was sponsored by the Independent Press Association of Chicago. IPA-Chicago strengthens the independent, ethnic, and community press through networking and training events, loans, listservs, and other resources.

Jessica Clark is a writer, editor and researcher, with more than 15 years of experience spanning commercial, educational, independent and public media production. Currently she is the Research Director for American University’s Center for Social Media. She also writes a monthly column for PBS’ MediaShift on new directions in public media. She is the author, with Tracy Van Slyke, of Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media (2010, New Press).

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