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So What Do You Do, Joe Randazzo, Editor of The Onion?

Helming America's funniest newsroom, this editor talks about crafting those signature headlines and why comedy needs more women writers

- December 23, 2009
Print publications are in real danger these days, but you wouldn't know it by looking at the satirical paper The Onion. While other pubs are cutting staff and pages, The Onion is holding steady, and launching a slew of new projects including the just released coffee table book, Our Front Pages, and the upcoming half-hour scripted television show project created in partnership with Comedy Central.

At the helm of the paper is editor Joe Randazzo, who oversees the biweekly's production from a Monday morning headline meeting on, all the while trying to expand The Onion's online presence. But just because he's busy doesn't mean Randazzo has let the quality of The Onion's content slip. "We try not to repeat the same joke or the same style of joke from week to week," he said. "We're probably a little more anal about that than we have to be."

And, adds Randazzo, the editors never have to worry about whether their stories will ruffle feathers among advertisers, an important benefit when ad sales are at a premium. "I'm sure there are certain companies that won't touch us because they don't want their ads next to a story about a child molester," he said. "But there are plenty of companies that are smart enough to understand that the people who are already reading The Onion are not going to be offended by The Onion."

Name: Joe Randazzo
Position: Editor, The Onion
Birthdate: March 28, 1978
Hometown: Penacook, N.H.
Education: B.S. in broadcast journalism from Emerson College
Resume: Started career as news writer at WBUR, Boston's public radio station. Then joined Mark Burnett Productions working on shows like The Apprentice and Survivor. Joined The Onion in March 2006 while working for Manhattan Fruitier, a fruit basket company.
Marital status: Married with a 1-year-old son
Favorite TV show: Top Chef
First section of the Sunday Times: The Magazine.
Last book read: "I haven't finished a book since my son was born, but I'm currently reading The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway."
Guilty pleasure: Martinis
Twitter handle: @Randazzoj

How did you go from working in broadcast journalism to reality television to The Onion?
I went to school for broadcast journalism at Emerson, and I worked for NPR in Boston. But when I moved to New York I had a tough time finding work at NPR, so I was working at coffee shops. I had an opportunity to work in reality television or keep barking up the tree of NPR. So I went to work in reality TV and kind of decided that I hated that a lot. A lot. It was a lot of work for a product that I wasn't proud of. So I decided to get out of that -- even though I could see a pretty clear path to making a lot of money, it wasn't the life that I wanted. The people at Manhattan Fruitier were friends of mine and they needed a full-time fruit coordinator. I think my title was sorter, so I was kind of a combination of all those things that I hate the most at work: data entry, plus customer service plus coordination and organization. I really love [those friends], but I was starting to go a little crazy and have an existential crisis, and that's when I started to do improv at the Magnet Theater in Manhattan. That's where I met Carol Kolb, who is now the head writer at The Onion News Network. She worked at The Onion for many years, and at that time she was the editor-in-chief. I also met Amie Barrodale, who was an editor here at the time. She left to go to India, and when she left she recommended me for the assistant editor job. I tested for it and got it. In that job, I worked very closely with the editor-in-chief at the time, Scott Dikkers, who helped make The Onion what it is today. I did what he told me to do, and learned the voice and the style. I was an outsider, but usually new staffers come from a very small group of people who are friends of current staffers. I was one of the first outsiders.

"A real-life headline that can feel like it belongs in The Onion is generally about an event so stupid and outlandish that no one could have fictionalized it, or it is due to laziness.[...] Neither of those things are traits that we want to have in stories in The Onion, since we are better than everyone."

What is your editorial process like?
Basically the way it works is on Monday everybody pitches 15 headlines. We have about 10 people on staff, plus about 20 contributing writers who also pitch 15 headlines. If two people in the room vote on it, it goes on the to the next list. So we narrow them down from about 600 headlines to about 100 to 125, and we talk about them at another meeting on Tuesday.

From those, we choose the 16 or so headlines that make up the whole issue. We assign them and brainstorm what the stories will look like. When we put together every issue, we are trying to find a good balance of stories that are national and international in scale along with local or smaller things, or observational humor. We spend about an hour or so brainstorming those stories on Tuesday afternoon, the writers spend Wednesday writing them, and then we have draft meeting Thursday where we go through first drafts and rip them apart. Then they write second drafts on Friday, which the editors go through on [the following] Monday, and we go through a first round of editing, make notes, there are rewrites and then a second round of editing. On Friday, I'll go through [the] final issue and make a last pass. I usually don't have to make too many changes, but I might punch up something that needs it.

Do you ever see a real headline and think, "Why didn't we come up with that?"
No. Usually a real-life headline that can feel like it belongs in The Onion is generally about an event so stupid and outlandish that no one could have fictionalized it, or it is due to laziness on the part of the journalist or the person writing the headline. Neither of those things are traits that we want to have in stories in The Onion, since we are better than everyone.

Is there a lot of turnover on your staff?
No, historically there hasn't been [a lot of turnover]. I would say that people stay here for about five years on average. In the last few years, we've had some veterans move on, mostly to do independent stuff, so most of the staff here now has been here five years or less. There is this feeling that once you've been sucked into The Onion you may never leave, and I think some people think they will die here or come back here to die. There is this incestuous family feeling, besides the fact that everyone hates each other. Wait, that's not true. We don't hate each other. We all love each other. There is a feeling of freedom here. We're an independently owned company -- we have a board of directors, but they don't have any interest in what we print. Whatever the 10 of us come up with, for good or bad, is what we get to put in the paper. You don't see that in a lot of other outlets, especially in comedy. When people do leave, they learn that it's not like that everywhere. When we do add staff, they usually come through recommendations of people who are already on staff. That's just the way it's always been since it was just five people in Madison, Wisc., just goofing around.

"It's definitely not true that women are not as funny as men are, but because that is the social perception, maybe women are more tentative."

The lack of women in comedy writing has been making a lot of news recently. Do you feel pressure to hire more women?
I don't feel any pressure, I just think it would be really good to have women on staff. We're a bunch of boneheads; it would be really good to have some female voices in that room. You start to regress, and there's not a balance. I wish that there were more active funny ladies out there. There are more and more as time goes on, and more women do emerge in the comedy world. It's definitely not true that women are not as funny as men are, but because that is the social perception, maybe women are more tentative. It's a tough world to break into; everyone is very insecure and people can be tough and mean. But it definitely would help to round out the room.

What advice do you have for women who are interested in joining your staff?
We don't solicit outside applicants, but internships are a good thing to do if you want to get involved. There have been a couple of people who have gotten staff jobs though internships. In fact, one of our staff writers started out as an intern. That's definitely a good way to get in. We also do writing fellowships every summer. Megan Ganz, a former editor here, had gotten in through the writing fellowship. She did such a good job, she's now writing for Demetri Martin. Women who are interested in comedy writing should start their own comedy newspapers and get involved in what's on their campuses at college. The way that it's always worked here, and the way it will always continue to work, is we find the funny people and the funny people find us. It's not an active search, it's a widening circle of friends and acquaintances. There is no active search out there to find the next great female comedy writer, but it's definitely in the back of my mind.

One of the ways you are earning additional revenue is with this new oversized coffee table book, Our Front Pages. Why do you think people -- whether they are avid fans of The Onion or not -- should buy this book?
I think for avid readers, it's the first time that any of these covers have been printed in all their glory. I don't think anybody has seen them this way. Newsprint doesn't do justice to the images or the photoshopping; neither does the Web site. So for people who just enjoy the art, or who just want a record of all these pages, it's visually stunning. And there are all these pages from 1988 on -- before the paper went online -- so there are years of covers that some people have never even seen. It's an interesting, almost academic, fantastical, topical survey of two decades of work, of the most consistently funny comedic publication in America over that kind of time period. And we went through thousands and thousands of front pages to narrow it down to the best. It's guaranteed entertainment when you're pooping -- or peeing for the ladies. And that's not ad copy. That's something I just came up with right now.

A few months ago there were some rumors that The Onion was in talks with a big media company to sell. Any truth to those rumors?
No, no, no. There's always been rumors, even when the economy was booming, that Viacom wanted to buy us or News Corp. wanted to buy us. It has worked to our advantage because we did a Chinese takeover edition in July and leaked a few fake news items to local blogs that were willing to print them. I know people have expressed interest in buying The Onion, but there is absolutely no truth to the rumors that the current management is looking to sell the paper.

Amanda Ernst is editor of FishbowlNY.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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