Back & Forth with The Onion’s Joe Randazzo
After four years as editor in chief of The Onion, comedian Joe Randazzo is leaving the paper, and America’s self-proclaimed “finest news source” is relocating its offices from New York to Chicago. City & State editor Morgan Pehme talks with Randazzo about his tenure at the helm of the popular satiric publication and asks him if there’s anything funny about Andrew Cuomo.
City & State: What’s so funny about politics?
Joe Randazzo: You have a high concentration of egotistical people who oftentimes put their worst qualities forward to get noticed and to be recognized, and this lack of compassion, humanism and altruism often leads to success in politics. These are the worst qualities of humankind that people who are being put forth to represent all of humankind are embodying, so that inherently is a tragically hilarious juxtaposition.
CS: How seriously does The Onion take itself?
JR: I think it’s understood that there’s this bedrock responsibility to speak truth to power, to call out bullsh-t when The Onion sees it or hears it, and to always try to fall on the right side of issues, to never be against the victim—and not to try to maintain objectivity but to keep any target open, so Democrats are just as open to ridicule as Republicans. But in order to get to the good jokes that make The Onion successful, all the writers have to do is make each other laugh. I think a responsibility to the broader social conversation is genetically encoded in The Onion as an institution and that rubs off on the writers, but on a daily basis Onion writers aren’t thinking about their responsibility or taking themselves very seriously. It just needs to be funny jokes.
CS: At The Onion, are you a journalist first or a comedian?
JR: I come from a little bit of a journalism background. I majored in journalism at Emerson and I worked for NPR, but I’m definitely a comedian first.
CS: Earlier this year, Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana mistakenly thought a story in The Onion about a planned “AbortionPlex” was genuine. On other occasions The New York Times and Fox News have reported on your articles as fact. How blurry is the line between real news and fake news in the current media environment?
JR: That one was really wonderful, because the whole point of the AbortionPlex story itself was to try to give as much credence to what we imagined every right-wing nut job’s worst nightmare of Planned Parenthood could be and to explore that and give it The Onion treatment, which is to present it in a very dry, authoritative way. That’s our formula; that’s the lens through which we observe the world—that’s where 90% of our comedy comes from—so when we do it really well, sometimes people who aren’t familiar with us take it seriously. I think it does to a degree speak to—especially during the Bush Administration and the rise of FOX News, not that Rupert Murdoch is an evil person, per se—this sort of reinventing news as entertainment that that has really taken hold in American culture.
I think in [Rep. Fleming’s] case, he’s a pandering guy who’s not that intelligent, who thought that something obscenely ridiculous like the AbortionPlex could ever possibly be real. But actually, one of the things that lent it some credence was that somebody went and created an actual Yelp site for the AbortionPlex—we didn’t solicit this, they just did this of their own accord, organically—and hundreds of people who were in on the joke started giving it thumbs up or thumbs down and writing reviews like “It was great! My husband and I are going to go there every year for our anniversary” and stuff like that, which sort of gave texture to this world we created that we never could have done on our own. I think that story, paired with that kind of real-world response to it, painted this picture that for some people made it much easier to believe that it was real, even though the story itself was ridiculous. I mean, it’s a $7 billion AbortionPlex or something like that, where they’re killing, like, 1500 babies a minute. There’s waterslides, and you can have a martini while you wait. It’s like there’s no way that would ever be real, even from Planned Parenthood. It’s delightful when people take that stuff seriously.
CS: Does constantly mocking hypocrisy and ineptitude in government make you hopelessly cynical about the state of our country?
JR: I think a lot of comedians are cynical. I’m generalizing, but comedians tend to be fairly sensitive people who have to kind of harden their souls to the fact that they’re going to get hurt, and that everybody’s going to get hurt, and that people are imperfect and that, you know, ultimately we’re all going to die. I think that’s actually the background of every comedian’s mind. So, I think there’s a side to that sensitivity that hopes for good, that wants to be optimistic, that wants to be idealistic, but that’s a vulnerable place to be, and rather than going out and trying to collect names for Children’s International, comedians write nasty jokes about Rush Limbaugh. Personally, I wouldn’t say that I’m cynical, but I’m not an activist.
I think that our country, if we continue on this path which is consumed with the endless obsession with consumption—that’s physically unsustainable, spiritually unsustainable, and culturally unsustainable. Politics is just a reflection of that, trying to keep order out of all these different types and groups of people, who are all basically just trying to get by in a material world—I think Madonna said that at some point. So I don’t actual think I’m cynical, but I’m not holding out a lot of hope for, like, big change. For one thing, we’ll probably have to wipe out, like, three quarters of the population maybe before anything good can happen, and that’s okay, I’m comfortable with that. I’m just enjoying my life while I can before the big purge comes.
CS: As a comedic journalist, when scandals like the ones that brought down Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer hit the papers, do you just think to yourself, Thank you!?
JR: Something like Eliot Spitzer or Anthony Weiner is a little more in the purview, from The Onion point of view, of late-night talk shows, like one-liners and zingers. The Onion tends not to really comment on those types of little blips, and when we do it tends to be more of a comment on the media’s take on something. We try to write stories that can be evergreen, that you can read in 10 years and they would still make some sense. We try to look at it with more than a 24-hour news cycle mentality. When Anthony Weiners come up I think we actually say, “Sh-t!” because we have to either figure out a joke that nobody else has done, or we won’t be able to cover it at all.
CS: The Onion hasn’t really run a satiric article featuring Andrew Cuomo since his days as HUD Secretary. Is there just nothing funny about Cuomo to write about?
JR: I don’t think there is. He’s boring, right? That’s his whole thing?
CS: In 2009 The Onion was awarded a Peabody, and last year you actively campaigned for a Pulitzer. Does The Onion really deserve journalism’s highest award or was that just a shameless publicity stunt?
JR: I think that we would all actually really like to win a Pulitzer—and now that I’m leaving in two days, I think I can say that The Onion absolutely does deserve a Pulitzer. In terms of commentary I don’t think there’s anyone who has consistently done a better job with sort of more integrity that The Onion has. The Onion also does lots of stupid, horrible jokes that have no business being published, but I think there isn’t any other organization that has for 20 years observed the American condition as consistently as The Onion has. It’s been amazing to be able to work for them for six years. The Pulitzer campaign was definitely tongue-in-cheek. It was meant to be sort of a comment on awarding prizes for journalism, which is kind of a weird thing. In many ways, even though you are talking about things that are supposed to be good for the community, it can get wrapped up in just as much vanity as the Academy Awards can. So we thought it would be funny, instead of pretending we don’t care about prizes like many news outlets do, just shamelessly going for one and saying we will actually just buy one from you, if you allow us to do it.
CS: In 2009 you were nominated by the ECNY Awards for Outstanding Performance in the Field of Tweeting. Nowadays it seems like every elected official is trying to build a following on Twitter. Do you have any advice for how politicians can use the medium effectively?
JR: I follow [California Rep.] Darrell Issa, and I think he does a very good job, because he gets the language. It doesn’t feel like it’s coming from an intern. Maybe it is; I don’t know for certain, but it doesn’t feel like it is. He knows how to speak the language of Twitter and the Internet, and he engages you. I think that’s the most important thing. A lot of people who are really well-known, whether they be politicians, actors, writers or whatever, they think, I can just put something out there, some crumbs for the proletariat and they’ll eat it up and be glad that they get such access to me. They just completely miss the point, which is that Twitter is really about having a conversation, and you need to follow other people and you need to read what other people are saying, both famous and nonfamous, and to talk with them, and once you start communicating, you notice all sorts of connections and elegant ways of using the medium that are almost poetic—but more importantly, you’re talking with people in real time. My advice to a politician is that you don’t need to be on there all the time, but when you are, have a mix of good information and access—and I think if you’re giving the sense that you’re really engaged with the people who are on there, who are taking the time to read what you have to say, that will pay off a lot.
CS: Last year, a few months before New York State legalized marriage equality, your paper had an article entitled “Future U.S. History Students: ‘It’s Pretty Embarrassing How Long You Guys Took to Legalize Gay Marriage’.” Do you think The Onion has ever had an effect on shaping policy in the real world?
JR: One of the most interesting things that we’ve been able to do is boil down an issue into simple terms and from a perspective that people might not have thought of. Chuck Schumer used one of our stories during Congressional testimony a few years ago. The story was “Nation Demands New Bubble to Invest In” and it was all about “We need to get rich quick on something unsustainable! Give us a bubble! We don’t care what it is! We want to invest in it!” And he used that in Congressional testimony. It’s on the record. That was a really cool moment for us; that we were able to boil down this issue into something meaningful. Of course, our article was outlandish, but that’s what good satire does: exaggerate reality to point at something very fundamental about reality. I don’t know if that had any real-world influence on events, but the fact that a powerful senator noticed it and thought it articulated something, speaks to the quality of the writers for The Onion.
CS: Looking back at your four years at the helm of The Onion, what is your proudest accomplishment?
JR: We just completed a book that’s going to be out in October that’s called The Onion Book of Known Knowledge, and it’s an encyclopedia. I think it’s definitely the single creative thing that I’m most proud of in my whole life. It sort of covers the whole gamut, everything and anything, and it’s got a really perverse worldview but with a real heart. In many ways it’s much different that anything The Onion’s ever done, but it’s quintessentially an Onion product as well. Just managing that whole process and taking on something so ambitious with such scope and still finding a way to do it and make it manageable is definitely a huge task, and I would say that’s the thing I’m most proud of. That and the China issue, which was in 2009 when we said that The Onion was taken over by a Chinese conglomerate. I was really proud of how that turned out, also.
CS: Not that you’re leaving the paper, what’s next for you?
JR: I’ll be getting into politics.
The Onion’s Funniest Articles about New York State Politics:
Though The Onion’s focus is national, it occasionally turns its satiric lens on New York State politics. The following are five choice articles about local politicians from Joe Randazzo’s time at the helm of The Onion, plus a bonus article that every New Yorker can appreciate (at least on occasion).
Tags: AbortionPlex, Academy Awards, Andrew Cuomo, Anthony Weiner, Chuck Schumer, City & State, Darrell Issa, Eliot Spitzer, Fox News, George W. Bush, humor, Joe Randazzo, John Fleming, Madonna, Morgan Pehme, Onion Book of Known Knowledge, Planned Parenthood, Pulitzer Prize, rupert murdoch, Rush Limbaugh, The Onion, twitter
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