By Chris Giblin
Onion writer Seth Reiss spoke to students about satirical news writing and comedy in general at Emerson Suites Oct. 21. Reiss went over the storied fictional history of The Onion, which, according to his presentation, has been a trusted news source since colonial times.
Outside his writing, Reiss performs in an improv group called Pangea 3000 at Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater in New York.
A Q & A session was held just after the speaking performance:
Question: What was your first job in comedy?
Seth Reiss: I wrote for a television show at the end of my senior year in college called Cheap Seats on ESPN Classic. Two twin brothers, the Sklar Brothers, were making fun of a lot of different things like the 1986 World’s Strongest Man Competition and Mystery Science Theater 2000, and I wrote for them. I got that [job] because I was doing an internship in LA: The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn, and I just entered this essay reading thing, not a competition but it was just like an event. It went well, and the guy put me in touch with Cheap Seats.
Q: What’s your writing process like, and how do you do it?
SR: We come to our meeting Monday and we pitch 15-20 headlines and they get voted on and that begins the process. But writing those headlines, that’s a really pop-into-my-head breakdown. I carry around a book. If you want to write comedy, you should all carry around a book to write down your ideas. But I’d have to say my mind is constantly in headline mode; it never shuts off.
Now, my process writing stories is, I’m great in the morning. I am a morning writer—terrible at night. I’m exhausted at night all the time. I mean, some people write their best comedy at night, but I’m not funny at night. I’m not funny on paper at night, on stage though, I’m fuckin’ hilarious. [Laughs]
And also, in terms of comedy writing, no matter how excited you are about something, about sending it, getting it done, saying “this is hilarious”—sleep on it. Sleep on it and work on it the next day, because it will be 100 times better. Also in terms of writing television scripts, it’s the best thing you can do.
Q: Is there any overlap between you guys [on The Onion editorial staff] and the filmed stuff on The Onion News Network?
SR: There’s very little. There was one thing though—my lone contribution to video—when we were sitting in on a meeting, and somebody pitched a story about a fat kid’s shirt [going unquestioned while he’s swimming]. And I was like, I think that should be a video; I don’t think it should just be a one-liner on the scroll. I would hope that there would be more overlap in the future, because I think we both respect what the other does.
Q: When you’re pitching stories, how many would you say get thrown out and what do you think sets them apart from the ones that get used?
SR: I can’t say that there’s a hard-fast rule. I will say, what helps a headline is when it’s creating a news event. And we definitely do stuff that’s like “Area Man Thinks,” but if you create a news event in your headline that parodies what’s going on in the real world, it has a much better chance of getting into the paper.
Q: Is your job 9 to 5 like a normal office job, or what is it like?
SR: No, my job is not 9 to 5. It is sometimes in an office. Mondays can be like 7:30 a.m. to 7, but that’s what needs to be done just that day. And then right after 7, things need to be done for Tuesday. The Onion’s like college because you always have a deadline hanging over your head. It’s not 9 to 5; it’s really a lot more than that. It’s not a job where you leave work when you’re at home.
Q: Do you ever find it hard with only about eight people [on The Onion editorial staff]? Is there anything the group of you find funny but nobody else does?
SR: Yeah, but there are more than enough people in there who put themselves in the position of the audience. I mean there aren’t many times when we’re all like “look how hilarious we are,” and we’re patting ourselves on the back. That happens very, very rarely. But that being said, I think there’s something The Onion does that I really like in that sometimes we’ll just do very niche jokes.
[For example], I don’t know how familiar you guys are with Garrison Keeler, but we did a story I wrote called “Dozen More Bodies Found in Lake Wobegon.” And for people who don’t know Lake Wobegon, or don’t know Garrison Keeler, which is a majority of the nation, they’re not going to get why this story is even funny at all, but we’ll run it because for the people that would get it, that would be great. So that’s the kind of stuff The Onion will do that you probably wouldn’t see in other comedy.
Q: How is it writing for The Onion?
SR: I like my job very much. It’s really hard work, but I can’t imagine really writing comedy anywhere else at this point in my life. I still kind of live like a college student. I graduated in ’05. My job fosters not growing up; it fosters a state of arrested development. So at this point in time, I don’t really want to live any other way.
Chris Giblin is a junior television and radio major who doesn’t give a shit about The Onion. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.