Why The 9/11 Issue Maybe Wasn’t Great For 'The Onion'
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So, this article is going to have a surprising amount of caveats. If caveats are something your doctor has warned you against, perhaps this article isn’t for you.
So let’s get the first caveat (SEE!?) out of the way. I’m very proud to have been involved in The Onion’s 9/11 issue. I had been a full-time comedy writer for exactly 9 months and 11 days at that point, and it was kind of an insane thing to be involved with, both geo-politically and career-wise. If you want to hear more about the issue, how it came together, and the world's reaction, you can read that here.
You’ll probably walk away with the understanding that a lot of people thought that issue was a BIG DEAL. After all, no one’s doing an oral history of Mad Magazine’s 9/11 issue. The problem, though, with a thing that becomes a BIG DEAL is that notoriety tends to change the thing in question. After all, Sugar Ray could have remained a perfectly awful nu-metal outfit, but their out-of-left-field massive pop hit “Fly” changed everything, somehow resulting in singer Mark Magrath dominating Rock and Roll Jeopardy.
Ok, bad example, but again, you get the idea: When something gets massive, it changes everything, often not for the better. Before we get too far, though, let’s set the stage for my part in all this.
If You Can Make It There, You'll Make It Anywhere
I was hired part-time by The Onion in 2000. That year, the editorial staff convinced the business side that moving to New York City made sense. And in 2001, The Onion staff moved to the Big Apple and made me a full-time writer.
I figured out pretty quickly that New York City can be a hard place to live, even when terrorists aren’t inserting planes into places where they don’t belong. It’s the kind of place where getting a cable line installed can take three days and eventually force you to ask a neighbor if the cable guy can take his ladder and equipment through their brownstone.
On the bright side, it’s also a place where you could be in a softball league with High Times Magazine or buy a $2 bahn mi sandwich, until they become “hot” and suddenly transform into a $9 sandwich.
Then 9/11 came. My own personal recollection of the day was waking up hungover. Most of The Onion writing staff spent the previous night watching They Might Be Giants play at a club where they served free J&B whiskey (The Mel article says it was Johnnie Walker, but I remember differently).
The next morning, my then-roommate and co-worker Joe Garden woke me up by banging on my door. He yelled, “Karwowski, a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center, and it looks like it was on purpose!” By the time I made it downstairs, the second plane had already struck. We got a phone call telling us not to come in, a moot point as the whole city was shut down.
When things became such that we could return to work, everybody arrived at the office for the Monday meeting to pitch headlines. We decided to do an issue around the attack but it was not a decision arrived at lightly. And no one was sure if it was going to work. However, after putting the issue together, we were pretty confident we had done what we had set out to do, which was talk about what happened in the world without being too bratty or snarky about it.
I believe we finished up the issue on Friday evening. The paper, then a print edition (how quaint!), was distributed on Wednesdays so there were five whole days of us wondering how the hell the thing would be received.
After the issue dropped, we received hundreds upon hundreds of emails. For context, we usually got about 50. Someone printed out the mostly positive messages and put them in thick binders. To say getting positive feedback was a relief is an understatement, especially since 9/11 seemingly pulled the plug on humor. Everyone was proclaiming comedy to be “dead”. The press that followed was also gushing. Heck, someone tried to nominate the issue for a Pulitzer Prize.
The National Zeitgeist
All that was great in its own way, but I fell in love with The Onion in the mid-90’s, struck by its genius mix of silly and smart. The paper had, in my mind, the best distillation of that hard-to-come-by combination since Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
When I first went to The Onion office before being hired, they proudly showed off their “hall of fame," which consisted of a bookshelf that included things like a whoopee cushion and a King Ralph collector’s plate. The funny part was they proudly moved every single scrap of that weird collection of comedy-related detritus to NYC. They didn’t take the idea of “greatness” too seriously. But after the 9/11 issue and all the resultant accolades, that slowly seemed to shift.
As an example, one moment that the Mel Magazine oral history pulled out of my memory was when writer John Krewson took one of the printed negative emails, dramatically ripped it out of the binder, crumpled it up, and tossed it into the trash behind him. Writer Tim Harrod talks about some of the writers objecting to Krewson’s actions, saying, “That might go into a museum!”
I suspect that was the first time any of us thought that way. Yes, the issue was significant, as you’re clearly reading an article about it (or have programmed a bot to do it for you) twenty years after it came out. But that response also showed that people were starting to think differently about what they were doing.
Another post-9/11 moment that I think about a lot is when one of the writers emphatically stated that people were “clamoring for The Onion to comment on the national zeitgeist.” I remember thinking that was odd. That wasn’t the vibe in the room back in Madison, Wisconsin.
Before the 9/11 issue, everybody in the writer's room knew that people liked the paper. They knew that people were gaga over Our Dumb Century, but that attention didn’t seem to make a big difference in the overall Onion approach. Yet all of sudden, it felt like the spotlight on the paper might be too bright to ignore. I remember more pitched headlines that seemed to make a point first and be funny second. It was like we were being told what to think from the outside, rather than following our own compasses.
For a good example of how The Onion balanced serious news with a goofy, irreverent edge, just look to headlines published less than a year before the 9/11 issue: “Serbia Sends Peacekeeping Force To United States,” “Clinton Declares Self ‘President For Life’” and “Bob Dole: ‘Bob Dole’s Been Shot.’” But there were also headlines like, “Ask A Guy Getting Yelled At By His Wife Over The Phone At Work” and “I’m Like A Chocoholic But For Booze”, which is often considered one of the best op-eds the paper has produced.
After 9/11, The Onion pushed further and further to react to the news of the day. I have to admit the first few times it happened, it was exciting. Something newsworthy would happen, then one of the editors would tell us to write headlines and send them in for a quick turnaround. We would pick the best idea and publish it, all in a matter of a few hours.
Over time, however, I realized how far this mindset was from earlier versions of The Onion, the paper that often very deliberately would not comment on the daily news. This was partially from necessity, as it was a print edition and there would always be at least a three-day delay from when it was finished to when it was released. Any “timely” jokes would have been at least three days old.
However, the staff was very proud that they didn’t engage in the late-night-talk-show style of headline chasing. If you watch a lot of late-night monologues, you learn that when everyone works from the same starting point, sometimes there’s only one really good comedic take. The jokes will inevitably end up being very similar.
That’s why The Onion preferred to comment on the commentary. For example, The Onion did almost no jokes about the OJ Simpson trial as it happened, but for Jay Leno and his ilk, the event was a goldmine. What The Onion did was wait until the verdict was released and did multiple takes on the verdict, with headlines like, “OJ Simpson: Magic Sprites Killed My Wife” and “OJ Finds Killer”.
You might ask what’s wrong with The Onion engaging in harder satire and jokes about the day’s news, especially when, admittedly, a lot of it was great? I have a theory about music that might help. My theory: when you fall in love with a band, it’s rare that you’ll love an album more than the one that got you hooked. That’s because the album that got you hooked has all the elements that you want. Other albums might have variations, but they won’t have the exact thing you love.
The Onion I fell in love with was the sillier version from the ’90s, where headlines like, “Jurisprudence Fetishist Gets Off On Technicality,” “Guy In Headlock Just Wanted To Party,” or “Animal-Rights Activists Release 71,000 Cows Into Wild” ruled the roost.
A final caveat: at no point do I think The Onion turned bad. They are still doing good stuff now. And they're obviously in a way, way different digital economic climate that's predicated on timeliness. It’s just that, in my opinion, the post-9/11 seriousness and the news-cycle chasing that followed rubbed some of the shine off what was once a singular comedic voice.
And honestly, I thought there were going to be a lot more caveats. I deeply apologize for misleading you at the beginning of the article.
Top Image: The Onion