Today’s Solutions: December 09, 2022

Carolyn Steel | August 2009 issue

Onion writer Todd Hanson, in a lighter moment.

Photograph: Carol R. Hartsell

How do humor writers deal with the constant pressure of trying to be funny on deadline? “Mocking each other and having dangerous levels of psychiatric pathologies is probably the main way,” says Todd Hanson, who has been writing fake news for the satirical newspaper The Onion since 1990. “We used to have a ping-pong table but it got taken away.”
After 21 years of filling the need for unreal news, The Onion staff often struggles with the grind. Trying to be funny, Hanson says, “is the most miserable, stressful thing you can spend your time doing.” But still, the writers are driven by an odd sense of purpose. After all, who else is going to let us know when “Obama Debuts Annoying Catchphrase”? And on the bright side, there will be no lack of source material, Hanson says, until “the day when politicians stop doing incredibly stupid things.”
The Onion started in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1988. For the first seven years, the writers had to keep their day jobs—as bank tellers, portrait photographers’ assistants and dishwashers. “We got paid, but it was just beer money, and not even very much beer,” says Hanson. Today, The Onion has more than 3.5 million readers. Especially during hard times, Hanson says, there’s a social value to the right kind of mockery. As the recession worsened, The Onion pointed out: “Nation Instinctively Forms Breadline.” Even after 9/11, The Onion ran headlines like “Hijackers Surprised to Find Selves in Hell” and “God Angrily Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule.” Recalls Hanson: “We got hundreds of emails saying, ‘God bless you.’”
The Onion may not have changed the world, but it’s done its part in pointing out what needs to change. “I think we’re on the side of the righteous,” says Hanson. “Even though we’re mean and make fun of everything.”

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