''The story is so dark and hate filled -- I was shocked,'' laughs Onion head writer Todd Hanson, 31, who is adapting his Dante parody for the big screen. Editor in chief Rob Siegel is equally amused: ''It's like an Onion joke. I mean, what are they going to do? Add a sickly but adorable moppet?''
That's right, folks, the Onion -- the Madison, Wis., based bastion of vicious, pointed comedy that has been the Internet equivalent of a brilliant late night cable show -- is suddenly ready for prime time. The DreamWorks deal just serves to underscore the paper's status as a latter day National Lampoon -- churning out talent and building one of the most respected comedy brands in the U.S. Their first book, ''Our Dumb Century,'' stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 24 weeks, and their second, ''The Onion's Finest News Reporting Volume One,'' has followed closely on its heels. And that's just for starters: Onion Radio News is syndicated to more than 100 stations; a CD is in the works; founder Scott Dikkers' indie flick ''Spaceman'' got picked up by Palm Pictures; and Onion vets populate the writing staffs of ''Futurama,'' ''Spin City,'' and ''The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.''
Of course, as anyone who has read the Lampoon (or flipped through MAD magazine or watched ''SNL'') can attest, building cred is often the easy part. Keeping it is the ''what's next'' question that plagues staffers. A simple inquiry about future projects to Hanson and Siegel, for example, results in a 20 minute ramble covering Tom Waits' lyrics, Danish TV star Soren Filmark, irritable bowel syndrome, the all around suckiness of ''Arli$$,'' and unspeakable sexual acts performed on Muppets with fluorescent orange objects. Everything, in other words, except the future of the brand.
''The talent of the people behind the paper is unquestionably transferable to other mediums,'' says former Onion scribe and current ''Daily Show'' head writer Ben Karlin, who spent three years pitching pilots in Los Angeles with other Onionites. ''But my advice to the guys is, If you're waiting for 'it' to happen, it's happened. The Onion isn't going to get any bigger.''
''There's a virgin quality Hollywood likes,'' says Siegel, 28, who claims the paper has been approached by everyone from ex-NBC entertainment head Warren Littlefield and producer Jerry Bruckheimer. ''We get offers, we have aspirations, and everyone eventually wants to do their own projects.''
One possible solution? A move to a more mediacentric locale like New York City. ''The paper couldn't have ''grown'' in New York or L.A., but we're considering [a move],'' says Hanson. ''The key is keeping the staff and office culture,'' adds Siegel.
''We've got to be careful,'' says Hanson, with a wicked grin. ''The last thing we want to do is look up and realize we're doing 'National Lampoon's Seven Deadly Sins' with Annabella Sciorra and a monkey in a funny hat. Nobody wants that. Nobody.''