”I just don’t think it’s funny,” says Robert Siegel, The Onion’s senior editor. He’s slumped in an uncomfortable-looking chair, absentmindedly munching on popcorn, which from the looks of his underfed frame, may be his primary food source. ”But do you guys want to do it?” The answer — a resounding, sarcastic ”Nah” — echoes from his staff, seated at cluttered desks around him. For the last 25 minutes, the paper’s four main writers have been trying to convince him, in rapid-fire, round-robin-like bits, that the ”Many Rappers May Suffer From Unrealistically High Self-Images” story meets The Onion’s strict code of funny.
It’s that standard that has millions biting into The Onion’s pungent pieces week after week. Housed in a nondescript sixth-floor office in the heart of Madison, Wis., the satirical weekly has been publishing sardonic news parodies and goofy advice columns since 1988 (the off-kilter interviews didn’t come until the early ’90s). Still, it wasn’t until May 1996 — when its straight-faced lunacy went up on the Web — that the world beyond Madison started getting the joke. Soon, bogus reports with titles like ”Nation’s Wealthiest One Percent Demands Minority Status,” ”It’s Not a Crack House, It’s a Crack Home,” and ”President Clinton Reprimanded by Total Bitch Supervisor” were getting e-mailed, faxed, and printed out all over the U.S. and beyond.
Not everyone’s amused — the ”Nation’s Educators Alarmed by Poorly Written Teen Suicide Notes” story garnered a nasty letter or two — but 1.5 million die-hard fans still log on each month, and more than 165,000 readers pick up the print version each week. Admirers run from physicist Stephen Hawking to author Douglas Adams to comic Chris Rock, who recently ordered 500 copies of The Onion to use as a model for a humor mag he wants to start at Howard University (”We have his check stub up on our wall,” says Siegel). And Bob Odenkirk, costar of HBO’s acclaimed Mr. Show, thinks it’s the funniest stuff since the early-’70s heyday of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players and The National Lampoon. ”It’s the best comedy writing in the country, and it has been since it started,” says Odenkirk, who’s been reading it for six years. ”We’re huge fans of theirs.”
That’s a long way from The Onion’s meager beginnings in the apartment of original cofounders-owners Tim Keck and Chris Johnson, both 31, who started the paper as an excuse to skip classes at the University of Wisconsin. They succeeded (though Johnson graduated; Keck dropped out), but they called it quits nearly two years later to pursue publishing careers in other parts of the country. In late 1989, Scott Dikkers, 33, originally a cartoonist for The Onion and now editor in chief, and his partner, Peter Haise, 31, the paper’s current publisher and president, decided to take up the torch and bought the weekly from Keck and Johnson for $19,000.
Though at first it didn’t seem to be the best business decision, in hindsight it couldn’t have been smarter. ”For a long time we were only getting $5 to come to story idea meetings,” says Mike Loew, 25, The Onion’s graphics editor and occasional writer. ”We all had second jobs, but now with some recent pay raises we can do this full-time.” The job security could in part be attributed to Web exposure, which not only attracted more fans but more advertising. ”It was a no-brainer to put The Onion on the Web,” says Siegel, 27. ”It was an incredibly cheap way to multiply our readership by a factor of 20.”