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Wednesday August 21st 2019

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Fake News Comes to Pensacola

By Jeremy Morrison

It was a simpler, quaint-in-hindsight time. News was news, and fake news was fake news. And the latter was supposed to be funny, not a depressing weaponized political barb.

It was 1988 in Madison, Wis., and Scott Dikkers thought it might be fun to write fake news. Beyond that, there was no grand plan.

“There were no investors; there was no plan,” Dikkers recalled recently. “It was just one of these things, you just start doing it and people like it and you make money at it, so you keep doing it and it’s fun and it ends up being a thing.”

That thing was The Onion, a satirical news forerunner that preceded generational staples like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” and, in a way, foreshadowed the current Trumpian-flavored fake-news era.

“Clearly, it’s had a lot of influence on the comedy landscape and comedy history and perhaps even the culture,” Dikkers said. “I had no clue that any of this would happen.”

Dikkers will visit the Jean & Paul Amos Performance Studio on the campus of Pensacola State College Jan. 24, to speak about his work over the years with The Onion as well as a host of other topics. Looking ahead to his local engagement, Dikkers took a few minutes to speak with Inweekly about The Onion’s influence and writing fake news in the era of fake news.

INWEEKLY: Can you tell me what people can expect from your visit to Pensacola?
SCOTT DIKKERS: They can expect me to be delightful and funny and humble. No, seriously, I’m going to tell some funny stories about how The Onion got started and how it almost went out of business in its early years from us getting into so much trouble and lessons learned along the way. It’s a little bit of an emotional journey, maybe a couple of lessons learned. It should be a lot of fun.

INWEEKLY: That sounds interesting. Can you kind of give me a preview? Like, what were your thoughts behind launching The Onion?
DIKKERS: Yeah, so that’s a bit of a longer question. Anybody who does comedy their whole life, like me, they don’t do it for any particular reason. They just do it because they have to do, you know? Like, it’s how they make sense of the world, and it’s how they cope, and that’s what happened to me.

So, I was doing comedy my whole life. I did comic strips and wrote funny stories when I was a little kid, like as far back as I can remember. And when I got older, I got into comedy professionally. I started doing a comic strip and actually did really well. That was my job. I was a full-time cartoonist, and that’s what led to The Onion.

I met up with some people who were starting up this newspaper, and I got involved and, you know, it just sort of happened. Like, life is kind of a snowball like that. So, it wasn’t necessarily a thing where I sat and planned, “I want to create a fake newspaper, and it’ll turn into a fake website, and I’ll make a lot of money doing fake news.” I just never, that was not happening. There were no investors; there was no plan, you know, like a business plan or anything. It was just one of these things. You just start doing it and people like it and you make money at it, so you keep doing it and it’s fun and it ends up being a thing.

INWEEKLY: And this was before the internet. Y’all were just a print.
DIKKERS: 1988 was when The Onion was launched, so I guess there was internet then, like the Defense Department had some kind of internet, but people didn’t start using the internet until the ‘90s. And The Onion came out. It was one of the first websites, like literally the first humor website ever. Yeah, we were doing it as a newspaper for almost 10 years, and when the internet came around, we just figured, “Oh, let’s just put it online. We’ve got all this material we’re writing every week, why?” And for a while we were like the only game in town.

INWEEKLY: You had a corner on that market.
DIKKERS: Pretty much.

INWEEEKLY: And kind of give us some context here. This was before “The Daily Show.” I remember as a kid, “Not Necessarily the News,” but what were you thinking doing comedy as news, or news as comedy, however you want to look at that?
DIKKERS: Yeah, I remember “Not Necessarily the News” too. Certainly, SNL’s Weekend Update. Those were kind of the only news-comedy that there were. But nobody was really doing straight news parody.
No, there was really no thought behind it. The only reason it happened was—and I’ll tell this story—basically, we went to a printer with our idea of starting up this college humor publication. And the cheapest possible way that we could produce that publication was on newsprint. And I was actually really disappointed in that because I wanted to do a slick, glossy magazine. And when it turned out that The Onion was going to be a newspaper, function followed form, so we made it into a newspaper parody. It just made sense because of the medium, because of the paper it was printed on.

INWEEKLY: OK, interesting.
DIKKERS: Yeah, at first, we did all kinds of wacky, like, tabloid news parody and stuff like that. And it took a few years to really zero in on the straight AP-style parody that The Onion is known for today. We did a little bit of it early on, but it was kind of a slow process to develop that and figure out, “Oh, this is what works best,” and to play it really straight. We were pretty wacky in the first few years.

INWEEKLY: And what was the feedback you started receiving when you did this?
DIKKERS: The general feedback for literally, I would say, first five years was kind of a resounding: “Whaah?” People just didn’t understand what this was. Nobody had ever seen or heard of a humor newspaper before. And thankfully, we were selling a little bit of local advertising and, like, paying for the printing every week. Other than that, nobody was making any money.

INWEEKLY: And where were you based? Where is local?
DIKKERS: This is in Madison, Wis., where it started.

Yeah, so it grew really slowly. We were just kind of making ourselves crack up for the longest time. We were building up a writing staff. It was—you know, right around when we went online, people were finally starting to notice, “Hey, this is actually pretty funny, what you guys are doing.” It was just so original and strange. People didn’t really know what to make of it at first.

INWEEKLY: What was your target or goal? Were y’all just cracking yourselves up like you say, or did you have some, you know, points that you wanted to make through your comedy?
DIKKERS: Yeah, I would say the individual writers writing the stories, myself included, always have some kind of point that we’re trying to make with a story. But in terms of, like, a business with The Onion, what was the point? At first, it was to survive, you know. Let’s make enough money to put out our next issue.

And then when things started going better—honestly, my dream was to be mentioned in the same breath as The Harvard Lampoon. I just wanted to be recognized as a quality college humor publication.

And I’ll just tell this little story. I don’t know if you want to reproduce this whole thing, but I remember it was about the mid-‘90s when I saw—I was just working so hard on The Onion, and I really didn’t have a life beyond that. I’d stopped doing my comic strip, putting all my effort into The Onion. And it was really starting to grow, slowly but surely, and I was starting to feel like, “Hey, we could become a legitimate college humor publication.” And I saw this insert that came in this magazine, U Magazine. It’s this national college magazine distributed to the all the campuses. It’s kind of a newspaper, but they had this feature in the center every month. And the feature was, it profiled the top 10 college humor publications in the country. And it had a really nice photograph of the staff. And it had, like, 10 questions, you know? Like, “What’s the name of your publication?” “What kind of humor do you do, and stuff?” And I saw that, and my heart just sank because The Onion hadn’t even been contacted. It was like The Harvard Lampoon and a couple of others from big universities, The Every Three Weekly at Ann Arbor, stuff like that. And I was just really disappointed. But then I read the answers, and the last question for each one was, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” And every single one of them said they wanted to work at The Onion. I was like, “Oh my God, we actually leap-frogged the competition, and now we’re considered this, like, national publication.” I literally had not even realized it at the time.

INWEEKLY: That’s funny. So, can you give me the short version of your official history with The Onion? You were involved kind of off-and-on as editor, is that right?
DIKKERS: Yeah, I would say so. I was one of the original founders, one of three guys. The other two guys left and sold it to me after like the first year. So, I was owner, editor and chief. And I had a business partner who was a co-owner, who sold the ads. And I wrote the jokes, I guess, or built up the creative staff. And I did that for like the first 10 years or so, and then I had a little hiatus where I—no about 13 years, I think, and then I left for two or three years and came back for three years. And then I left for another couple of years, and then I came back. And the last time I left was 2014, and I do not believe I’ll be returning.

INWEEKLY: Yeah? That’s run its course for you, or what?
DIKKERS: Yeah, no, I definitely feel like this time I left for good.

INWEEKLY: And so, what are you doing now?
DIKKERS: I am still writing jokes. I put out some comedy books. I wrote one on Trump a couple of years ago that did really well. Just put one out on Elon Musk, like a parody book. That was a couple of months ago. And I started a comedy website called BLAFFO, where I do, like, a parody of a magazine. Other than that, I started a podcast called “How to Write Funny” podcast, where I interview people in the comedy business. And I wrote a book called “How to Write Funny,” which was my first nonfiction book ever, where I just explained how you do humor professionally. And that book has really done surprisingly well. And, actually, I folded it into a whole teaching program at Second City in Chicago. So, I’m teaching people how to write comedy, and I did that in partnership with The Onion, so the whole program is called Writing with The Onion. So, people go through that program, and they learn how to write comedy. And a lot of those people get out and they get jobs professionally in comedy. A lot of them work at The Onion now.

INWEEKLY: And so, this is something you can teach? Comedy’s not a skill you’re born with?
DIKKERS: That is correct. Yeah, you can totally learn this stuff. So, that evolved into a website, howtowritefunny.com, where I have writing tips and tricks and stuff, and I’m putting out a sequel called “How to Write Funnier,” which really expands what I taught in the first book. The first book was all about how to write a joke, basically. And the second book is about how to write a longer comedy piece, which is kind of a different skill.
And I’m going to be doing more teaching, and that’s super fun because it’s kind of like what I use to do at The Onion. I would hire writers and editors and sort of train them how to do it in The Onion style. But now I’m training people just to do comedy period, because the fundamentals are the same no matter what style you’re doing, Whether it’s fake news or a stand-up bit or late-night comedy show or tv or whatever, the principles are all the same.
And then the last thing that I do is what I’m doing in Pensacola. I go around and I give talks—I’m on the lecture circuit—and tell funny stories about my life. And it’s a pretty sweet living.

INWEEKLY: It sounds very nice.
DIKKERS: It is.

INWEEKLY: So, back to The Onion. When you look for people to write for The Onion, are you looking for journalists or comedians?
DIKKERS: Oh, that’s such a great question. So, I do talk about this a lot in the talk, about where The Onion writers come from, where we find them and stuff. But essentially—I’ll just give you the short version—I’m looking for, I don’t want comedians or journalists. I want complete losers, because these are people who are bitter and angry and frustrated. And give those people a soapbox, and pretty soon, you’re getting some really solid comedy. So, everybody we’ve ever hired at The Onion has had no experience really doing anything. Like, dishwashers and, you know, janitorial people, these are the best people, people who’ve given up on life.

INWEEKLY: That’s interesting.
DIKKERS: Yeah, they write absolutely the best comedy. And I never wanted to hire anybody that was a professional because then they would have all these bad habits and they’d be, like, hacks. And I wanted to train people from the start.
And it’s funny, because you mentioned “The Daily Show”—and I’ll tell a story about this  during the talk—like so many people who have left The Onion have gone on to such hugely successful careers in comedy and one of them was an executive producer and showrunner at “The Daily Show” for years and years, like when “The Daily Show” first started under Jon Stewart.

INWEEKLY: Do you think something like “The Daily Show,” I mean, when they first started, I have to imagine they were kind of looking to you guys as somewhat of a model?
DIKKERS: Yeah, that’s why they hired this writer, Ben Karlin, from The Onion. Jon Stewart wanted “The Daily Show” to be more like The Onion because before him it had been more like a late-night talk show, with Craig Kilborn as the host. And then Ben co-created “The Colbert Show” with Stephen, which is even more like The Onion because The Onion is like this facade of a character who pretends they know what’s going on, whereas Jon Stewart is more like a personality. Yeah, The Onion had a huge impact on this whole fake news revolution.

INWEEKLY: And so, let’s talk about that. What are your thoughts on, you know, the day and age we live and “fake news” in general?
DIKKERS: Yeah, so I hate that. And part of me wants to say, “It’s not my fault, and I had nothing to do with it,” but the other part of me is like, “Well, that’s totally my fault,” that people are putting out propaganda on Facebook or whatever, like literally fake news stories that are meant to fool people and give wrong information, which is where that term first came from. Obviously, now, the term is only used pretty much by Donald Trump and his supporters whenever a legitimate news organization says something unkind about him, which is pretty silly. But the original propaganda that people say, back in the 2016 election and all this, they were putting themselves out there as satire, like they used that term, even though they were literally just trying to fool people with fake stories. Who knows who was doing that, Russian bots or whatever, but the only reason they were able to get away with that is because of this unfortunate fact of history that The Onion was doing satire and that led to “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Show,” and these were all satirical comedy entertainment products. And so, people forgot that fake news wasn’t the only place where you can get satire. They forgot that there’s such things as satirical plays and satirical novels, so a lot of young people today, they think that satire and fake news are the same thing, or they define satire as fake news, or jokes about current events at the very least. So, when these people put out these lies on Facebook or whatever and they labeled it satire, they were just using the term incorrectly. And it has nothing to do with what The Onion does, because The Onion is there to entertain people and make them laugh, and if they’re ever fooled by it, that’s just a happy accident. And they learn that they were punked, and everybody gets a good laugh. But the other stuff is out there to genuinely trick people, so it’s completely different. And wrong.

INWEEKLY: Is it more difficult to, you know—if we live in a more absurd world, is it more difficult to write absurd fake news?
DIKKERS: Only slightly. So, I saw Chad Nackers, the current editor of The Onion, was asked this question about Trump, “How do you write jokes about such an absurd situation and current events?” And he said something very similar to what I would say. And you know I wrote a book on Trump two years ago, before he was elected actually, and found that—so he’s a very hyperbolic character, and hyperbole is one of the tools of humor. And so, it is a little harder, in that you can’t use that tool, or at least if you do, you really have to up your game, but there’s still, like, 10 other tools that you can use, there’s 11 total, funny filters I call them, ways you can make things funny. And so, when things are absurd, absurdity is just one of the funny filters, hyperbole is another one, you got nine more. So, there’s still plenty of ways to make things funny. There’s plenty of other things in this world that are funny. I think it’s pretty great when reality is crazy and funny and absurd, because no matter how funny a comedian is, reality is always funnier. Like, you just can’t compete with reality. So, the fact that it’s getting close is kind of exciting to me. Like, I like that. But I honestly don’t think the world is any more absurd now than it ever has been.

INWEEKLY: Yeah?
DIKKERS: I just think we’re in strange times, and what’s happened with the media now, it’s just turned into infotainment more than news, and I know a lot of news and magazine editors have learned from The Onion that absurd-ish headlines actually get more attention. So even though the news stories might be legitimate reporting, they’re trying to be a little more cute, maybe throw in some wordplay with their headlines and stuff like that.
Yeah, so the short answer is, maybe it’s a little more difficult to come up with humor in this day and age, but there’s still plenty of ways to do it.

INWEEKLY: When, uh—and I guess this is my wrap-up question here, unless you have some other stuff—but, when you launched The Onion, did you ever foresee, you know, the influence it would have, both on comedy and, as you say, legitimate news kind of taking a cue from you guys headline-wise, and just following the tentacles all the up to—I mean, Colbert has the prime late night show now. Did you foresee all this, or no, not at all?
DIKKERS: Yeah, not at all. Quite the opposite. Like I said, my fondest hope was that we would be considered a legitimate college humor publication. And all this other stuff—just the idea that The Onion has become like an institution, like a comedy institution, yeah, it kinda blows me away because it’s just my life and I don’t think of it as anything bigger than that. But, yeah, clearly, it’s had a lot of influence on the comedy landscape and comedy history and perhaps even the culture. So, yeah, I had no clue that any of this would happen.

INWEEKLY: Life is kind of funny that way, huh?
DIKKERS: It is. But I did predict that Trump would get elected long ago because I wrote that book and I figured him out early. I was one of the few people that predicted it.

INWEEKLY: Like “The Simpsons?”
DIKKERS: Well, they made a lot of jokes about him being president, or a couple. But, no, I did interviews about the book in early 2016 where I was saying, “Oh no, he’s going to win. He’s going to get elected.” At the time, nobody thought that. They thought that was crazy. They were laughing out loud.

INWEEKLY: Why did you think that?
DIKKERS: Well, like I said, I had studied him to write this book, and I just know how competitive he is and how he’ll just stop at nothing to get what he wants. Whether that’s a good or bad thing that he wants, he’ll get it. And I also just knew that Hillary Clinton was an incredibly weak candidate that nobody liked. So, like, nobody really liked either of them. They were, I guess, the two least popular presidential candidates this country has ever seen, according to the polls—but yeah, I just knew he’d squeak it out. But stories in The Onion often predict the future, so I often do get credit for predicting the future, but it doesn’t happen very often.

INWEEKLY: Can you point to a couple of those that panned out, Onion stories that predicted the future?
DIKKERS: Yeah, so about a month or two before Chris Farley died, we did a piece. The headline was “Chris Farley Dies of Hilarious Heart Attack.”

INWEEKLY: Ugh.
DIKKERS: Yeah, so that was a proud moment.

INWEEKLY: Chris Farley would have thought it was funny, I think.
DIKKERS: I think so, yeah. Our head writer worked with him, was on an improv team with him for many years when they were younger, when neither of them were professionals.

A great story we did was an editorial by the CEO of the Gillette razor company, and the headline was “Fuck It, We’re Doing Five Blades.” And it was a really funny story, so well written. I would urge anyone reading our interview to look that up and read it because it’s just great. But the really cool thing about it is that a few months after that story ran, Gillette introduced a five-bladed razor.

INWEEKLY: That’s funny. You think they read your story first?
DIKKERS: They might have. They might have, but who knows?

SCOTT DIKKERS
WHAT: A lecture with the founding editor of The Onion
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 24
WHERE: WSRE Jean & Paul Amos Performance Studio, 1000 College Blvd., Bldg. 23
COST: $7-11
DETAILS: lyceum.pensacolastate.edu