Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JULY 20, 1999
Head: "The Onion"
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
You've probably heard of "The Onion" by now, the mock newspaper that was described by Hendrick Hertzberg in "The New Yorker" as, "the country's most interesting satiric publication. A more cogent running critique of the assumptions of mainstream journalism than any review of media studies."
"The Onion" is published in newspaper form complete with mock headlines, articles, editorials, Wall Street news, weather reports and advice columns. It's also published on the Web.
My guest Scott Dikkers is the editor of "The Onion" and the best-selling book version "Our Dumb Century," which features mock newspaper front pages spanning the 20th century. Today is the 30th anniversary of the day the Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the moon.
From the audio book version of "Our Dumb Century," here's the radio communication between the astronauts on the moon's Tranquility Base and NASA personnel at Mission Control.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- EXCERPT FROM AUDIO BOOK VERSION OF "OUR DUMB CENTURY")
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: This is Tranquility Base; the Eagle has landed. Jesus H. Christ, Houston, we're on the (EXPLETIVE DELETED) moon. Over.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: Roger, Tranquility. We copy that. We cannot believe you are on the (EXPLETIVE DELETED) moon. Repeat, cannot (EXPLETIVE DELETED) believe it. Over.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: On the bottom rung of the ladder. Just one more step and I'm... I abso-(EXPLETIVE DELETED)-lutely am standing on the surface of the (EXPLETIVE DELETED) moon. I am talking to you from the surface of the (EXPLETIVE DELETED) moon. Jesus H. Christ in a chicken basket.
GROSS: Scott Dikkers first joined the staff of "The Onion" as a cartoonist, he's been the editor for the past nine years. I asked him if "The Onion" has gone through different phases over the years.
SCOTT DIKKERS, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, "THE ONION": Yeah, it was a slow evolution that started out as a college humor publication. And it was pretty wacky and we had wacky contests and we would pull silly pranks and stuff like that. And over the years we sort of found our voice, and I think it was because we were printed on newsprint that we decided, "you know what we should really do is be a parody of a newspaper."
And that was about 1996. We kind of revamped it and really decided to hone in on that idea that this is "OK, now we're going to pretend like we're a daily newspaper and all the humor kind of has to funneled through that format." And we went online with that concept as well about the same time when CNN and some of the other big news organizations were going online.
And so we just modeled our Web site after theirs. And that was a really interesting experiment because then people started seeing "The Onion" as a real news source, which I loved because I think that helps humor when the first time you see it you're thinking, "oh, it's the newspaper. I'll just sit down here and read some news."
And then you go, "wait a minute! Something's gone terribly wrong with the world!" Which of course is what we're trying to say, I guess.
GROSS: One of the things I really like about the book "The Onion" is that you take on the whole century.
GROSS: Did you have to go back and do a lot of research about the look and the language of early newspapers? You know, I mean, of newspapers at the first part of the 20th century.
DIKKERS: Surprisingly, not a lot. A lot of us are kind of history buffs and there's a couple of the writers on staff who just have a knack for that turn-of-the-century news writing. Don't ask me why. I kind of have a knack for news writing around World War II era.
But obviously we did eventually have to look up some stuff and -- especially the designers to get the look just right. There was one story, actually, that I researched to do a story about. We had this story in the '60s it was, "Russian Space Program Ahead of U.S. in Dog Killing Race."
And I looked up this story in the paper from 1960, and it talked about how news from Russia was that the Russians had sent Lyka (ph), the first Russian dog, into space. And after, you know, a few hours he came down and Kruschev patted him on the head and everything was great.
And then I did some research on the NASA Web site to do our version of the story. It turns out the dog died in space -- he was up there for 10 days. You know, his face frozen in terror, he's starving in a one foot, you know, chamber.
And that kind of made me realize, wow, you know, we're actually -- maybe we're doing more than just a humor book here; we're doing a service by maybe pointing out some of the absurdities of newspapers. Because you read the newspaper today, you don't know how much of that is true, you know.
And that's kind of our whole -- that's been our whole point with the parody of newspapers is who's to say what's true, who's to say what's news and maybe our version of the news, as whacked out as it is, is as valid as anyone else's.
GROSS: Let me ask you to read the headlines from the first front-page paper in "Our Dumb Century."
DIKKERS: Yeah, this is from January 1, 1900. "A New Century Dawns: McKinley Ushers in Bold New Coal Age. As New Epic Dawns Our President Hails Future, Coal. Complete Text of Brief Three Hour Address on Pages 4-7."
"Death By Corset Rates Stabilize at 1 in 6. Growing Use of Dr. Schite's (ph) patented Safety Corset. Ladies Breathe Slightly Less Painful Sigh of Relief."
Then there's news from Rome. "Vatican Condemns Rhythm Method: Pontiff Excoriates Infidels for Fiendish Sin by the Calendar. Releases Papal Edict Outlining Forbidden Family Practices. Italians in Attendance Vow to People the Earth."
GROSS: Scott, how did you decide what stories to put on your first front page in the book?
DIKKERS: Well, we kind of had to use our memories first and say, "OK, what are some things we remember from the first decade of the century?" And, you know, you come up with a short list of maybe two or three things: McKinley's assassinated; the San Francisco earthquake; first flight, that sort of stuff.
So, we kind of started with those and figured well, if we can think of stuff like that that's probably what most people think of as the big stories. So, those kind of became our front page headlines, the big, you know, top of the page stuff.
And then we kind of used our idea about the character of the time and came up with some wacky stuff, which I guess is where a story like the corset -- death by corset rates -- comes in. That's us just making fun of, you know, what we imagine to be some horrible things happening then.
And then as our last resort we get these books out, like these timetables of history books. And you look at some of the events and you say, you know, "oh, the Boer War was ending about that time, so let's do something about that."
You know, and that's kind of how you fill out the little spaces.
GROSS: Now, I love the language that you use in some of the headlines like in one of the headlines from the child labor era, the headline is, "United States Leads World in Industry: `Thanks Orphans!' Grateful Americans Say." And of course there's a big exclamation point after "Thanks Orphans!"
And I know a lot of the newsreels later on had that kind of patriotic, optimistic, exclamation point kind of language. Did the newspaper headlines have that too?
DIKKERS: I think we made that up. The newspaper headlines -- well, actually, no. I take that back. They weren't as obvious about it as we are. But, you know, we thought it would be funny to quote in our stories, you know, "Leading Industrialists say..." you know. And really, you know, prop up evil capitalist industrialists who are basically torturing orphan children at work all day as these models of society. And we thought that was funny.
And then in the '30s we have a story where after a few years of the Depression have gone by there's an article that says, "Evil Bloated Plutocrats Losing Favor With Some Americans." Like we're all shocked at how that could be happening.
And that voice, that patriotic voice, kind of wanes in the '70s. And then it sort of comes back in the '80s.
GROSS: Well, actually, I really particularly like that "Evil Bloated Plutocrats" headline. Let me read the whole thing for our listeners. This is from 1932 in "The Onion."
"Evil Bloated Plutocrats Losing Favor with Some Americans. Some Workers Losing Faith in Goodwill of Oppressors. Long Renown Steel Magnates, Railroad Tycoons Puzzled by Waning Popularity."
What I particularly like about that is that you've taken the, like, monopoly era -- the era of magnates and monopolies -- and put it into the language of today's popularity polls where everything is about popularity.
DIKKERS: That was one of the things that was really fun about doing this book. We got to do certain types of humor that we simply couldn't do in "The Onion" newspaper every week. Which is take things that people know of today and transfer them back to then. Yeah, like popularity -- the idea of popularity of a certain group being important.
It's really fun to apply that to things in the '30s, and obviously another type of humor we could do is, you know, go back with knowledge of the future; which we can't do now, which is a lot of fun.
GROSS: Oh, there's a good example of that. Let me ask you to read it. And this is about television, and you have an article about, you know, the new arrival of television. Would you read the headline and a little bit of the story for us, Scott?
DIKKERS: Yeah. It's, "Television Promises Mass Enrichment of Mankind: Drama and Learning Box Will Make Schools Obsolete by 1970. New Device to Provide High Minded Alternative to Mindless Drivel Found on Radio.
"Imagine, if you will, touring the ancient ruins of the Roman Empire; watching a demonstration on the find art of sculpture or having the theories of velocity explained to you by a doctor of physics. All in the comfort of your own den after supper."
GROSS: That's really funny. There's something else I want to read, and this is along the lines of what we're talking about. It's an advertisement in one of your 1928 editions, but it's about a concept that only exists today. And so the ad reads, "Gents, Dial the Following Telephone Number to Listen to Unmarried Young Ladies Converse in a most Suggestive and Stimulating Manner."
It's like your 1928 phone sex ad.
DIKKERS: Right. Right.
GROSS: How did you come up with that idea, do you remember?
DIKKERS: I think that stemmed a little bit from an idea we actually ran in "The Onion" newspaper which was, "Senator Strom Thurmond Drafts Bill Prohibiting Telegraph Porn."
So, it was only a small step from there to think, "oh, how about we do a funny, you know, phone sex ad from 1928?"
GROSS: My guest is Scott Dikkers. And he's the editor of the weekly social satire publication, "The Onion;" which is written in the form of a newspaper. "The Onion" also has a new bestseller called, "Our Dumb Century." Scott, why don't we take short break here and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Scott Dikkers, editor of the weekly social satire "The Onion." Here's another news story from the audio version of "The Onion" book, "Our Dumb Century."
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- EXCERPT FROM AUDIO BOOK VERSION OF "OUR DUMB CENTURY")
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: It's The Onion Radio news. I'm Doyle Redland (ph). Media mogul Rupert Murdoch announced Friday he will launch Fox, a new television network he projects will employ over 25,000 Wayans brothers by 1995. The network will soon be offering programs including, "The Keenan Ivory Wayans Show;" "Daman and Friends;" "Wayans and Company;" "The Wayans' Brothers Hip-Hop Variety Hour;" "Wayans in the House;" "It's Wayans Time;" "Name That Wayans;" My Brother the Wayans;" "Live with Wayans and Wayans" and "She's a Wayans," starring Wayans sister Kim Wayans as an actress struggling to make it in a male Wayans dominated world.
GROSS: That's a reading from the audiobook version of "Our Dumb Century," which is a century worth of social satire from "The Onion." And "The Onion" is a satire of newspaper articles and headlines. My guest is the editor, Scott Dikkers.
What was the era that was easiest for you to do, that you really felt like I get it, you know?
DIKKERS: The '60s.
DIKKERS: There's just -- there's such upheaval. There's so much to make fun of. You can make fun of stuffy authority figures, dirty hippies. There's really -- the moon landing. I mean, all that stuff is just so funny, and believe it or not the public is actually clamoring for more jokes about the moon landing.
No, they're not really.
That was one thing we thought was, you know, they said, "oh, so `The Onion' is doing a book. Wait a minute, you're going to have a bunch of William McKinley jokes? I don't really think that's what the public wants."
I disagree. I think William McKinley is funny.
GROSS: I want you to read some headlines from -- this is like a late 1949 edition of "The Onion," and it's basically heralding the pop culture to come of the early 1950s.
DIKKERS: Yeah, this is from "The Onion," September 1949. "A-Bomb May Have Awakened Gigantic Radioactive Monsters Experts Say. Flying Turtles, Two Hundred-Foot Moths Among Rumored Creatures."
Then there's another headline, "Hideous Wooden Imp Causes National Panic." And there's a picture of Howdy Doody there. "Nightmarish Puppet Beast Featured on Children's Show. Millions of Youngsters Lapse Into Fear-Induced Comas."
And down here there's "Bing Crosby Record Reveals Secret Message When Played Backward. And The Message: `Have A Swell Day, Ladies and Gents.' Impressionable Youths May Fall Victim to Hidden Suggestion."
And then in the story it goes on to say authorities are alarmed by increased "swellness" among our nation's youth.
GROSS: That's very good. Now, what -- you were too young to have grown up with this. What pop culture did you grow up with, what records and...
DIKKERS: ... I had a weird music childhood. My mom was a pianist and she only had classical music. And she had two pop records -- she had John Denver and The Carpenters.
And that's what I knew, you know. And then it wasn't until I was in my early teens that I discovered pop radio, and I started buying singles. I had no idea there were such things as albums until I was in high school.
And by then I was kind of already an old man and I was like, oh, this kid's music. You know, it's all just -- it's the same chords twice, you know. So, let's see, I mean, besides music I loved movies. I always went to movies and I was pretty on top of that whole game.
I read "Mad" magazine as a real youngster.
GROSS: Now, tell me if these reflect the era you grew up in. These are headlines, "K-Tel Execs Warn: We Must Stockpile Solid Gold '70s Hits for the Future: Hits to be Sealed in the Vault. Musical Reserves Will See U.S. Through Potential Disco Drought."
Did you grow up with the K-Tel ads or disco?
DIKKERS: Well, those -- yeah, those are obviously from the '80s and '90s when they started packaging all those '70s hits and selling them. It actually was a really interesting experience doing this section of the book on the '70s because, you know, I lived through this time.
And the big thing I remember from the '70s is Evel Knievel trying to jump the Snake River Canyon. That's like my biggest memory. And so of course we had to have a front page where President Ford promises to put a man on the other side of the Snake River Canyon by 1978.
On a NASA, you know, NASA jet-powered sky cycle.
GROSS: And here's another one I really liked. "Joe Piscopo, Will His Star Ever Stop Rising?"
DIKKERS: See, that's -- I love those, like one of those knowledge of the future jokes.
GROSS: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
DIKKERS: There's no way you could make that joke now.
GROSS: Now, tell me about this one. And this is a headline that marks the beginning of the baby boom generation, "Toxic Levels of Self-Involvement Found in Many Post-War Babies. Seventy Percent of Infants First Word, `Me.' Entire Generation Expected to be Intolerable to Parents, Children, Each Other."
Who came up with that one?
DIKKERS: I can't remember whose specific idea that one was, but, you know, we -- all of us are, you know, in the so-called twentysomething or Generation X. And so we grew up in the shadow of baby boomers who kind of dominated the culture and the agenda, and so we always enjoy taking little pot shots at the baby boomers.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Scott Dikkers, the editor of "The Onion." And there's now a book version called "Our Dumb Century," which is a collection of "Onion" newspapers from throughout the 20th century.
Have you gotten a lot of interesting responses from real political figures who you've had mock headlines about?
DIKKERS: On occasion. It was funny, because in the earlier years before anyone really knew about us, and, you know, we labored in obscurity for about seven years before people, you know, generally started to know of our existence at all.
People who were famous who we made fun of would get really angry because they had no idea what we were. And they would say, "who are these damn kids making fun of me?" You know, they didn't know if we were serious or silly.
But then once we got a little more known, the response completely changed. Suddenly it was a knowing wink, like, "I enjoyed being poked fun at." It's like now they're part of the national humor dialogue. And it's cool to be made fun of by "The Onion." You know what I mean?
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.
DIKKERS: It's very, very strange. People ask us if we've ever gotten sued, and, well, no. Because, you know, anyone who would sue a humor publication for making fun of them, you know, would just look like a complete square.
President Clinton would never sue "Saturday Night Live." You know, "you made fun of me!" It's just not going to happen.
GROSS: Well, I'd like to close with the final entry in "Our Dumb Century," and this is the Year 2000 headlines. Would you read some of those for us?
DIKKERS: Yeah. Unlike a lot of the century retrospectives you'll read this year, we actually decided to just go ahead and include material from the year 2000. And from January 1, 2000 the front page headline is, "Christian Right Ascends to Heaven." And there's a picture of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed all following Jesus Christ up a golden staircase into heaven.
And there's, "Planet Temporarily Closed Due to Computer Crash." And here's, "Could a Rich White Male be Our Next President? Election Preview Page 6B." And there's other little items like there's TV headlights, "John Mellencamp's Slightly Rockin' New Year's Day Brunch" on VH-1.
And there's a little weather map with a color coded key that says there's a plague of locusts in this area; plague of toads in this area and a plague of infomercials in this area. I love apocalypse humor in the year 2000.
There's a little chart on the meteors headed for Earth today. And then there's the Dow Jones arrow, "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse Swept Through The New York Times Stock Exchange Today Smiting Thousands of Wicked Money Lenders And Jews."
GROSS: Well, Scott Dikkers, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.
DIKKERS: Well, thanks for having me, Terry.
GROSS: Scott Dikkers is the editor of the satirical newspaper, "The Onion;" and the book version of "The Onion," "Our Dumb Century." Here's another news story from the audiobook version.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- EXCERPT FROM AUDIO BOOK VERSION OF "OUR DUMB CENTURY")
UNINDENTIFIED SPEAKER: It's the Onion Radio News, I'm Doyle Redland. A six-legged frog with a human head held a swamp-side press conference to warn of the dangers of tampering with the basic building blocks of human and animal life. Addressing top executives from the nation's leading genetic engineering firms, the mutant six-legged amphibi-human hybrid called for an immediate moratorium on inter-species DNA experimentation.
According to the grotesque parody of nature, current standards of regulation within the $42 billion genetics industry are woefully inadequate and in need of immediate reform.
UNINDENTIFIED SPEAKER: Please, I beg of you my human half-brothers! Do not create others like me!
UNINDENTIFIED SPEAKER: Moments later, the frog was brained with a shovel by a frightened scientist as hundreds of horrified onlookers cried out for someone to, "kill it! For God's sake, kill it!"
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.
TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, D.C.
Guest: Scott Dikkers
High: Scott Dikkers is editor-in-chief of "The Onion," an alternative weekly based in Madison, Wisconsin. He along with the editors of "The Onion," have published the new book "Our Dumb Century." It's a parody of newspaper headlines spanning this century.
Spec: Entertainment; Media; Lifestyle; Culture; Scott Dikkers
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: "The Onion"
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.