The Fury Files: Seth Reiss

Posted: July 15, 2013 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
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Welcome to the latest edition of the Fury Files, which are now required reading in all Iowa middle schools. Check out previous interviews with Tom Linnemann, John Millea, David Brauer, Joe Posnanski, Pat Coleman, Kevin Van Valkenburg, Michael Kruse, Chris Jones, Chris Ballard, Roland Lazenby, Will LeitchPatrick Reusse and Peter Richmond.

This week’s guest is Seth Reiss, head writer of the incomparable Onion. For those who don’t know — Iranian news agencies, your second cousin who posts stories on Facebook and says “Can you believe this!!!!!”, and 94 percent of all Yahoo commenters — The Onion is a satirical newspaper started in Madison, Wisconsin in 1988. It’s gone on to become America’s Finest News Source — in its own words — and America’s Funniest News Source, in the words of everyone else. And Reiss is one of the main geniuses behind the whole operation.

Reiss comes from Connellsville, Pa., Pittsburgh Steelers territory, and graduated from Boston University. He interned with, among others, Conan, and was a page on Letterman. Before joining The Onion in 2005, Reiss’s credits included time as a writer on the ESPN Classic show Cheap Seats. He wrote sports items for The Onion and eventually became head writer, overseeing a writing staff that still produces brilliant work week after week, year after year. Reiss was one of the main writers and editors for the 2012 book The Onion Book of Known Knowledge. The fake encyclopedia is funny, outrageous, profane, original, subtle. In other words, the perfect Onion production. The book obviously hits on all the major events in world history — it’s an encyclopedia, after all — but it’s the smaller entries that are just as entertaining.

Reiss stays plenty busy away from The Onion, including writing for IFC’s Comedy Bang! Bang! He’s a regular contributor to McSweeney’s and for many years participated with the sketch comedy group Pangea 3000. Reiss has been included in a few profiles in the New York Times, including this June 2012 piece about the group’s hopefully temporary breakup.

Another time the Times featured Reiss? When he reluctantly admitted to being the man behind the Matt Albie Twitter account. Who’s Matt Albie? The pill-popping, cares-too-much comedic genius who was the head writer for Studio 60, the fake sketch comedy show on the failed NBC show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Matthew Perry played him on the actual show, but Reiss’s Twitter character — Mattalbie60 — has become him. “I am so good at what I do.” “When the Israelites were in bondage in Egypt they would perform nightly sketch comedy shows to relieve their anguish.” “If I ever have a son, I’d rush home from work, take him out in the backyard and toss the old sketch comedy around.” Taking it one step further, Reiss wrote a fake Amazon page for a fake Studio 60 oral history. Click on the book on that site and you can read an excerpt. Reiss’s commitment to the joke and character is admirable, and possibly a cry for help.

If you need a soundtrack while reading this Q&A, listen to some of the podcasts Reiss has appeared on, including ones on It’s That Episode, Jordan, Jesse Go!, and NPR.

Here, Reiss — who moved from New York to Chicago when The Onion moved its offices in 2012 — talks about his writing and comedy influences, Studio 60’s terrible goodness, The Onion’s evolution, its voice, Onion science, the encyclopedia, a Lake Wobegon serial killer and much more. Thanks a lot for your time, Seth.

I distinctly remember the first time I saw a story from The Onion. I was visiting my cousin at Luther College in Iowa in 1996. Someone had a clip. I thought, “What…is….this?” We didn’t know something like The Onion existed, or even could exist. Do you remember your first exposure to The Onion, which I’m guessing was online, unless Connellsville had a distribution deal.
You know what’s funny, I can’t really remember my first exposure to The Onion, so much as I can remember certain stories that just sort of made me go, “Wow, I love that.” Todd Hanson, who is such a formidable force in Onion history, and continues to have material in The Onion, wrote this piece and it’s one of my all-time favorites: Area Man Has No Idea Why He Wrote ‘Gazebo Convo-Resolve/Tues(!?)’ In Planner Six Weeks Ago. Also, “My Work Is Largely Unappreciated” by a Pylon, which is written in this broken English, sort of like an idiot man-child, was written by Scott Dikkers, who was The Onion’s first Editor-In-Chief. (At least I think he was the first. If he wasn’t, he was a big, important one. And he hired me). And my favorite Onion Headline: You Can Tell Area Bank Used To Be A Pizza Hut. I just love what all of those do comedically.

Was humor writing always the path you wanted to take? Or was there ever a time when you thought about being a cops reporter or a longform magazine writer or a TV news reporter or anything that didn’t involve comedy?
I always wanted to be in comedy as a writer and a performer. When I went to college (Boston University) I convinced myself that I wanted to be a journalist, but really, what I wanted to be was like an on-air funny journalist. Like, the annoying on-air journalists that try to be funny but aren’t. All that changed immediately when I got into BU’s sketch comedy group, The Slow Children At Play. Basically, college ended up being the infrastructure for sketch comedy. Everyone in the group at the time was very, very serious about comedy, and have gone on to do it professionally. And I ended up moving to New York to do sketch comedy with the guys I was in the group with.

I mainly realized I didn’t want to be a journalist when I had an internship writing obituaries for a local newspaper in the Boston area. That just really fucking sucked. I’d imagine, however, it’s definitely a good experience if you really want to be a newspaper reporter. I mean, I always think that the shit jobs are never that shitty if they are at least in the field you want to be in. I interned at The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn, Conan, The Daily Show, and I was a page at Letterman. I enjoyed those jobs. Not all the time, but for the most part they were great. I loved being around it, in the control room, around the producers. I got to submit 5 questions for Kilborn, and when I got one on the air, it was really just an awesome feeling. I got to watch Conan rehearse, and I was backstage right before showtime when he would run through his monologue. It was just awesome. I will really never forget it.

I remember during one rehearsal, they played a taped sketch for Conan, and Conan sarcastically asked his producers, “Could we make this longer?” I love shit like that. And at Letterman, I got to watch the show every night, which was great because he’s just unbelievable. But for me, I always loved the stuff that wasn’t taped, especially when Letterman would come out before the show to answer questions from the audience. Everyone in the audience was so excited to see him, and I was equally excited to see him every single time. For the most part, these jobs don’t lead to writing jobs. Writing leads to writing jobs. But at least you are around where you want to be. So, if you want to be a reporter, and you are writing obituaries, I can see how being in the newsroom environment would be great. But if you don’t want to be a reporter and you are getting reprimanded for not knowing a local newspaper’s style guidelines for when to say, “He was 87 years old,” then…ugh.

And who were some of your influences in college and when you first started writing professionally — was it magazine writers, screenwriters, standup comedians, novelists?
This is the same list every comedy writer my age says so I’m sorry, but it’s Steve Martin, Woody Allen, and Jack Handey. SNL, when I was 8 thru 18, made me want to go into comedy. I remember, when I was in elementary school, getting two cavities filled. I had cotton swabs in my mouth, and when I got home the SNL 15th Anniversary Tape came in the mail. I had to be careful not to laugh too hard because my mouth would get real bloody or something. The SNL oral history made me change my major from journalism to television (Though I should have just majored in English and History).

I will say this, I came to these people (Steve Martin, Woody Allen, Handey) pretty late. And I always feel like a loser for it. My parents are the best. Not big comedy fans, though, or people who would say, “Hey, you should read Steve Martin’s new piece in The New Yorker.” That’s not to say they don’t like to laugh, or they are not funny. My dad is Mel Brooks funny, and, it turns out, my mom is actually very-weird funny. My mom really makes me laugh in a way where I’m like, “Where the hell did you come up with that?” Anyway, the people who always exposed me to the stuff I should be reading or watching — those people were always kids I was in college with or co-workers. Co-workers introduced me to graphic novels. NONE of my friends read graphic novels in high school. They had no fucking clue what, like, Watchmen was, or who Neil Gaiman was. Now, in Connellsville, we did know everything about the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Steelers and what happened on WWE Raw is War the previous Monday, which, I admit, does have its own charms.

The fake Studio 60 oral history and the Matt Albie Twitter account: It reminds me in a way — minus the missing fingers, dead wives, David Bowie and a wrongful execution — of The Prestige and the sacrifices made by the twin brothers to pull off their act. The dedication to disappearing completely into their roles. Personally, does the payoff with that come from the humor, the improv interaction with the other fake characters or just the fact you’re able to exist in an alternate world about a terrible fake sketch comedy show inside a terrible real NBC show and it’s more about the dedication to the task?
I was just really drawn to the self-important voice of the character. I always think that’s funny. Now, I am not going to sit here and say that in my real life I am not guilty of the same sort of self-serious rhetoric. But coming from that Twitter account it’s funny, hopefully. Coming from me as a person, I’m sure it’s annoying. Now, I have watched Season 1 of Studio 60 probably four times. It’s an awful show. But for someone who grew up with the mystique of Saturday Night Live as a constant part of my life, it was just eye and ear candy. Will Tracy, the Editor-In-Chief of The Onion, and I talk about how and why Studio 60 failed maybe once a week. I’m serious. Will always says the show would have been good if the sketch show within the show was struggling in the ratings. I agree with that. Other people say it failed because what worked in The West Wing — that these guys had to be the best in the business because of where they worked — ultimately seemed silly for a sketch comedy show. That’s also a good point. I do think the show could have worked. I do think somebody wrestling with their art — whether it’s painting or sketch comedy — is interesting. But the show really wasn’t that. I thought most of the actors in it were awesome. I could watch Bradley Whitford act all day. And you know what? Same with Matthew Perry. Go back and watch The Whole Nine Yards. There is a scene on a boat where Bruce Willis is about to shoot Matthew Perry but shoots Michael Clarke Duncan instead. Matthew Perry’s character is stunned and in shock. Afterwards, Bruce Willis casually tosses Matthew Perry a beer and Matthew Perry makes no attempt to catch it, doesn’t even acknowledge it was thrown, and the beer goes overboard. So funny.

And after that long-winded paragraph, the payoff does come with figuring out funny things to do within the structure of the character.

I was one of those people who thought I’d love Studio 60 and ended up hating it. Was it our fault, were the expectations too much, was it too absurd to expect a serious behind-the-scenes look at a sketch comedy show to be good? Or, if 30 Rock doesn’t come on at the same time, would Studio 60 have had a chance? Did we judge too harshly or was it that bad?
We didn’t judge harshly. It wasn’t a good television program. It had a shit ton of potential. I honestly just re-watched the pilot. The pilot is good, but whenever a grown adult says, very seriously, “The sketch was called ‘Crazy Christians,'” you can’t help but laugh at that. Would I watch a second season? You bet!

A few questions on The Onion’s writing style and voice:

*When you first started with The Onion, did you struggle at all with picking up the writing voice that’s been The Onion’s trademark for so long? Was it at all difficult to maybe subjugate your own writing voice for the house style or was it a natural, easy fit?
YES, it’s very hard. And I struggled. There are certain mechanical things that you pick up along the way to maintain the verisimilitude (for example, when to say “reportedly,” and when to say “sources confirm,”  and when you realize you have said those things too many times, you figure out how to mix it up with a little, “Those familiar with the situation told reporters…” action).

But ultimately, the hardest part is operating within this very small pocket where jokes actually work — not so much when you are writing headlines, mind you, but when you are writing stories. I think readers don’t recognize this, or if they do it’s on a subconscious level (which is how it should be), that the jokes in the stories really need to feel effortless. If a reader can tell that a joke is trying to be made — that very hard work is being done by the writer to make the reader laugh — then it’s out of bounds. Then again, if the jokes are hidden amidst a lot of straight-sounding news language, it’s also out of bounds. It’s easy to write capital J jokes. But lowercase J jokes that land as capital J jokes are very, very, very hard. And that’s what The Onion, when it’s really on, does so well. And if you are a new writer, you want to make capital J jokes because they are noticeable. But ultimately, they are not in voice or too annoying or too easy or too cliche or not truthful or real. That’s not to say that those jokes wouldn’t work in another context, but they don’t typically work at The Onion.

* When you write a non-Onion piece, say for McSweeney’s, is it tough writing in a non-Onion style or is it nice to stretch out a little bit?
It’s nice. The similarity, though, is that you have a concept and you are unpacking it as creatively as you can and as clearly as you can. I think that’s the same for all really good writing, especially sketch writing.

* In going through old issues in the various collections you can see the obvious evolution in the style from the paper’s earliest days but it does settle into its famous form at some point and has seemingly stayed the same ever since. But for someone inside it, do you notice any changes over the past 10-15 years? And, if I can ask for a prediction that’s impossible to prove either way, in 20 years, do you think it will have evolved some more or will The Onion of 2033 read like the onion of 2013 and The Onion of 1999?
I don’t think much has changed in terms of the tone that was established in the late ’90s. I think things have gradually been refined though. It’s definitely nuts and bolts stuff that probably nobody cares about or notices, but one big difference is that I think our use of the editorial voice — that is, anything that’s not a quote — has definitely improved. When you write these stories, the quotes are easier because writing how people talk is just mechanically easier than writing ed-graphs (paragraphs that don’t just serve as quotes), where you are using journalistic language and paraphrasing, etc. BUT, I have found that some of the best jokes are in those paragraphs. They are just funnier to me because they sound so important and official. I think this is a common note during our draft meetings: “Take this out of a quote because it will be funnier to read in an informative ed-graph.”

I think the basic news article will be the same as long as The Onion is around. Content types will change, though. We just started doing these slideshows that make fun of slideshows that you see on Internet media sites. And we just dipped our toe in the water in terms of making fun of The New York Times’ classic film review videos.

Area Man is everyone’s favorite and for good reason, since he’s one of the great literary characters of all-time. But I always find I’m just as excited for two other types of regular stories from The Onion: Studies and Scientists. (“Study Finds Every Style of Parenting Produces Disturbed, Miserable Adults” “Scientists: ‘Look, One-Third of the Human Race Has to Die for Civilization to Be Sustainable, So How Do We Want To Do This?'”) Are there certain writers who specialize in those topics? For some reason I picture scientists especially being big fans of The Onion, since in many of the stories they’re sort of portrayed as being all-knowing while slightly exasperated with their fellow man. Do you hear much from the scientific community? 
Certain writers definitely enjoy the science-y language more than others. The trick is making sure the jokes don’t get bogged down in the language. And yes, I have one friend who I believe is a physicist in Pittsburgh, and he loves when The Onion does science pieces or makes fun of scientists. I’m sure we don’t always get the facts right, but we really try to get our scientific details correct with those types of stories. And I think people in the science community appreciate that. We actually do have fact checkers. That’s a detail that I think surprises some people. It’s because those facts set up punchlines. And if the facts feel off the punchlines will feel manufactured.

Three other — real-life — characters fascinate me: Tim Duncan, Joe Biden, Taylor Swift. What was the development behind all three of those Onion characters: The Tim Duncan who advises his wife’s divorce lawyer and encourages the Lakers to remember the Battle of Agincourt; the Trans Am-washing Joe Biden; and Taylor Swift, canoodling with everyone from James Holmes to Joseph McCarthy. Is there an Onion science to locating their attributes — boring; fun-loving; serial dater — and then exaggerating them or was it more spur-of-the moment, someone being inspired to think of Tim Duncan as a great comedic character?
I think it’s just recognizing that magnifying a certain trait is funny, and then realizing, as a writers room, that there are other places this could go. But with all of these characters, we never assign writers to write Joe Biden headlines. It just appears on their headline lists because they thought there was some new direction to take it. Somebody put “Taylor Swift Begins Dating Watertown Boat” on their headline list after the whole Boston situation because that writer thought it would be a funny direction to take that particular joke. Hopefully when we do these reoccurring characters it feels like we are doing something different each time or taking it to another interesting place. I really wanted to do a Tim Duncan joke after the Finals, but we didn’t get one that worked all that great, so we didn’t force it and we decided not to run anything.

Maybe because it’s still only been out for a pretty short time, but I feel like your guys’ latest book, The Onion Book of Known Knowledge, is somewhat underrated, as Our Dumb Century and the various collections might still be better known. The longer entries are outstanding, of course, but I think I’ve laughed just as much at tiny items that look like throwaways but aren’t: Inkling; This Guy; Xavier High School. And things like the CPR graphic, or the spread on Psychology. You’ve talked about it taking two years, but how quickly did you settle on using the encyclopedia format, which allowed you guys to go off in so many directions?
The idea for an encyclopedia was one of the first ones. And I think there was a feeling that that particular format might be expected. So we pitched a bunch of other ideas that, in the end, just didn’t lend themselves to being particularly funny. I think we said to ourselves, yes, this is somewhat expected, but with our staff we will work so hard to do so many interesting things within the format that we will make it our own. I guess that’s similar to the paper in a way. In the end, writing the encyclopedia was definitely one of the most fulfilling staff ventures The Onion has done, at least since I’ve been there (I started contributing in 2005). It was managed really well, we were constantly excited about the final product, and we were excited by the prospect of people reading it and being like, “What the hell is this? This is insane. Did I just read that the official definition for Waterfall is where water goes to commit suicide?”

The Onion’s famous for the hundreds of headlines that are thrown out each week because they don’t make the cut — was it a similar case with entries for The Book of KNOWN Knowledge or were you able to keep in most everything?
(I caught one mistake. One mistake, you failure. KNOWN Knowledge) (Fury note: Seth graciously emailed a 1,565-word attachment where he expanded on his disappointment with this one-word omission).
We cut A LOT. There are probably 150 take ideas for Abraham Lincoln in a Google doc somewhere.

What are you most proud of with the book? The depth? Originality? Pure humor?
I think I am most proud of how weird and interesting it is and we weren’t afraid to do what we thought was funniest. I’m also proud of how Onion-y it is. Only one staff could have done that book. I really think, among the staff, there was a sense we were doing something special. That’s so corny to say, and maybe readers will ultimately think differently, but during the creative process we felt like we were doing SOMETHING.

In an interview you and Will Tracy did with Dave Holmes, you jokingly said The Onion has no competitors. The thing is, I think it’s absolutely true. Yes, there are other good satire sites but most of the time if I read something from another source, I soon find myself thinking, “What would The Onion have done with this?” Without disparaging others by name, unless you want to, what do you think separates The Onion? The consistency, the voice, the versatility, the weight of its history…or is it just about being funnier?
I think what separates it is that everyone who works at The Onion has a tremendous amount of pride in The Onion’s history and what The Onion stands for comedically. It’s a type of humor that might not work on a broader television show. And it’s a type of humor that, if you like it, you think, “Thank God this thing exists.” I felt like that as a reader. Also, all of our writers come up through a sort of farm system. We don’t go through agents or anything like that. Our writers, other than the ones who started The Onion, are not just huge fans of The Onion, but know that The Onion is a perfect outlet to say what they want to say.

How has your job changed as The Onion’s become more topical and started producing much more daily content? The famous Monday meetings that were featured on This American Life, are those types of meetings now daily occurrences? Has it become more of a grind? And how challenging is it maintaining your guys’ quality when you’re doing so much more than you did when there were those 14-16 pieces for a single issue? Is there less discussion, less fine parsing of all the jokes?
It’s the same amount of scrutiny times five. We still have a typical Monday meeting where we go through a ton of headlines. But during our Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday morning meetings we are still going through hundreds of headlines, and only pick three or four. So in that sense, I think quality control has been successful. We are also SO aware of quality control and the potential pitfalls of turning things around much faster. If we don’t get the joke we want, we either won’t run anything or we write more headlines until we do get what we do want. Now, that’s not to say you won’t find one story funnier than another. You may find a story not funny at all. And that’s not to say that we don’t whiff every once in a while, too. But that was the case 5 years ago, 10 years ago, 15 years ago. However, everything you see in The Onion ultimately has a good amount of support from the staff, who are very talented thinkers and writers. So we have to trust that. Each piece you see on The Onion goes through at least two rounds of editing, sometimes three, no matter if it’s done that day or is on our more traditional two-week cycle.

I think the drawback of doing more topical pieces is that some jokes we make just won’t be as lasting as others, and will purely be jokes of the moment. I think we will always do one or two big jokes that take a step back and summarize the moment if the moment is big enough. But there are smaller jokes that, looking back in a year, might not make sense because you don’t remember the context.

I‘m guessing writing was always your No. 1 dream, but was performing always something you wanted to do too, or how did you first get involved in sketch comedy work? And with Pangea 3000, how different is it writing for live stage work compared to print/online? Is one more difficult than the other? Is it tougher to be funnier when you know you’re the one that will be performing in front of a live audience? And what’s more nerve-wracking, getting ready to go in front of a crowd or piecing together the main story for The Onion after a big event?
I love both equally. And I think both are the same in that you draw support from the people around you. In that way, nothing ever feels like you are putting yourself out there and saying, “Here goes nothing.” In both situations, you have done the preparation necessary to do the best job you can do.

“My dream job is to write for The Onion!” It’s a line said a thousand times a day across America. But damn it, I would have killed to write for Cheap Seats. You have an hour of free time, what are you watching — and which presents the best material for a writer? Roller Derby? Mid-South Wrestling? Superstars competition? Arm wrestling?
Oh man, World’s Strongest Man competition from the 1980s are the best. In my free time, I watch a lot of television dramas. For the most part, everyone in our writers room is a Game of Thrones fan and a Friday Night Lights fan.

I think your guys’ coverage post-Aurora/Newtown/Boston has been just as good as the widely lauded issues after Sept. 11, but I know that might not be as universal a sentiment, owing to the more political fallout of the mass shootings, in particular. In those hours and days after a horrific event — and we know you’ll be doing it again sometime soon — how do the writers put aside the same feelings of helplessness and horror that everyone else feels and produce pieces that are so good?
Well, I think it’s putting that horror and helplessness into the writing, and making sure the ideas are interesting. Also, we have to make sure the target of our joke feels right. We would never make fun of the victims of the tragedy. But, I do think that the sense of hopelessness those tragedies evoke is definitely fair game. As is the NRA. The NRA wants my old Civics teacher, Mr. Welsh, to have a handgun in his desk? Insanity.

In another interview you talked about preferring not to comment on the Oscar controversy and I’m assuming that’s still the case (unless you do want to give the official Onion writers’ response here…). But I am interested in your thoughts on outrage in general. A common thing on Twitter, and you probably see it on any story you guys write, is for someone to write, “I’m usually a fan of The Onion but this story goes too far,” which always makes me wonder if they were a fan. Do you get the sense people are fans…until a person/cause/party they support are the subject of a piece?
I won’t comment on the Oscar thing. But I will say that is the common disgruntled Onion form letter. “I’m usually a fan of The Onion but when you guys wrote [story that offended me]…” Granted, that person laughed at the story that offended someone else.

Along those lines, in a Salon piece, the writer wondered if The Onion had gotten too mean, which to me was ridiculous and seemed to ignore the history of the paper. I guess this also goes back to the question of the paper’s voice and if it’s evolved, but I think people would have been saying the same things if Twitter had existed 10-15 years ago. It’s just that everything is so amplified now. Do you think it’s a social media phenomenon or is it something you guys talk about or worry about?
This is the paper that ran “Ebert Victorious” in 1999 when Gene Siskel died. Pretty mean. Also pretty hilarious. Now, that was almost 15 years ago. The Onion has always had a mix of biting humor, absurd humor, smart humor, gallows humor, etc… There is something in there for everyone. Just last week we ran Fossilized Evidence Reveals Spazosaurus Was Largest Doofus To Ever Roam Earth. Now, can you imagine what would have happened on Twitter if we had run that Siskel headline and Twitter had been around in 1999? It would have been NUTS. But you know what, I’d like to think we would have still run the joke. The Twitter echo chamber should not deter anyone from saying whatever they want. And it shouldn’t cause artists and satirists to self-censor themselves. The Onion, or anyone doing ANYTHING artistic, can’t let anyone else dictate the material. Because if we do that, then we are alienating the people who love The Onion for its willingness to go places comedically that some places just won’t.

Again at the risk of turning this into a Sorkin-Albie-esque deconstruction…I’d love to dive into one specific Onion story you wrote and see the work that went into it. And because I’m from a small town in Minnesota, I have to pick: Two Dozen More Bodies Found in Lake Wobegon.

* Did that start like all of your guys’ stories, with the headline coming to mind, or had you been a Garrison Keillor fan and wanted to do something?

* You’ve talked about the research you put into this piece — reading books, etc. Was that the first time you’d done that with a piece and what got into your head that made you so determined to get the feel of Lake Wobegon so right?

* The Onion’s headlines are like Playboy’s pictures, but I really do read it for the articles, too. With this, how many drafts did it take and what’s the editing process like with the actual article? If the headlines are committee, are the stories more individual? What makes an Onion story work — a particular phrase, choosing the right adjective (something like “gruesome dredging” in this piece?) The tone? The facts — Krebsbach’s husband joking it was the only way to get rid of her?
I pitched the headline, knowing very little about Lake Wobegon. I knew it was a fictional town created by Garrison Keillor that had a lake called Lake Wobegon. But I think we all knew as a staff that this was going to be one of these niche stories that needed precise details. It needed to read as if we were knowledgeable about this place because readers who were familiar with Lake Wobegon (and let’s face it, who was going to read this other than those people) needed to get a sense that not only did we make this joke, but we had enough information to write an informed piece about it. So, I read about five or six Garrison Keillor novels over our winter break. And it was actually pretty fun because I do think he is an American treasure, and I really liked immersing myself in the world he created. The writing of the article itself was only hard in that there was so much more I wanted to put in because, you know, if there is a chance to show off your Lake Wobegon knowledge you take it.

I think in your addendum to this question, you asked what makes an Onion story work. And I really think that comes from having good comedy instincts; knowing when the juxtapositions will land really hard; knowing when to cut something short; knowing when to use certain language. In this particular piece it was important to put the Garrison Keillor voice into the article. How and when to do it, I think, is instinct.

Also, the headlines are written individually. And the stories are brainstormed by the room. But when the writer goes off to write it, it’s just the writer. We don’t do any co-writing.

If anyone made it through this entire interview, I applaud you. And to Shawn, at first I was like, ugh, an e-mail interview? But when I saw the level of detail in your questions, I would have felt like a giant sack of dog shit for not participating. But I thank you for your genuine interest. And to Onion fans who found this interesting, I thank you so much for reading The Onion. We don’t care about you, though, and think you are all dumb.

  1. callaway says:

    great interview, I always The Onion worked

  2. […] other day, I spiraled down one of those deep Internet sinkholes. Bottom was this Fury Files interview with Seth Reiss, head writer of The Onion. If you’re not familiar with The Onion, it’s a site […]

  3. […] Finally we chatted with Seth Reiss, head writer of The Onion. Actually, Seth is leaving The Onion to be on the writing staff of Seth Meyers’ Late Show. But Seth (Reiss) is an Onion guy for life. Reiss spoke about comedy writing, why The Onion is so good, why Studio 60 was so bad and how a changing media world has changed The Onion. […]

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