So What Do You Do,
Maria Schneider? The people in your media neighborhood.
LESLIE SYNN | It's not supposed
to be that easy. Every smart-ass college kid fantasizes about writing for The
Onion; Maria Schneider just sort of showed up at the newspaper's offices
after college, as her friends were starting to turn it into the satirical masterpiece
we all know and love, and she's been there ever since. Today she's a staff writer,
the talented voice of some longstanding, popular columns. She can easily shift
from writing as Herbert Kornfield, the bad-ass accounts-receivable supervisor,
to the persona of Jean Teasdale, an overweight woman in a small town who loves
her cats and Patrick Swayze. Schneider is also the creator of the "Pathetic
Geek Stories," the Onion comic strip that illustrates real people's
geekiest, dorkiest, and most excruciatingly self-conscious moments. Here she
confesses that The Onion has peaked, and she challenges other humor rags
to stop copying and start upping the ante.
August 18, 1968 Hometown: Madison, Wisconsin First section of the Sunday Times she reads: I consciously made
the decision not to read The New York Times unless forced to. But I used
to read the Book Review section, until I realized that I would never read any
of those books.
How did you start out writing for The Onion?
I did cartoons for the Daily Cardinal, a college newspaper [at the University
of Wisconsin], and then after college graduation I started going to The Onion's
editorial meetings in '92. I've been with The Onion ever since.
So you grew up in Madison, and then you went to the University
of Wisconsin in Madison Yeah, I'm a total townie. I lived there for my whole life, until a couple
of years ago when I moved out to New York. The paper moved to New York in January
of 2001. I joined them in May.
Did you already have your columns in mind for The Onion
when you started? I really didn't start column-writing until a few years in. I started writing
Jean Teasdale in '96 and Kornfield maybe a year or two after that. The thing
about The Onion editorial approach is that it was something that sort
of formed over time. We weren't a bunch of people that were going to write 'parody
And do you think that The Onion is still evolving? No, we're pretty much set rigid in our ways right now; we have no vision.
I think we've pretty much peaked and it's all downhill from here.
Did you ever see yourself not only doing this fulltime, but
also doing this with such success? Our writers have been with the paper for a while, and we're sort
of in this hive mind. We thought what we were doing was different and special
and that nobody else in comedy was really doing what we do. I guess you could
draw comparisons to Spy and National Lampoon, and that sort of
thing, but nobody was really doing outright parody news in a deadpan style.
In terms of us being really successful, I don't think anybody anticipated that.
Particularly because we were in Madison. People in Madison are extremely blasé
about The Onion. On the newsstands it's right next to the alternative
weekly, the shopper's guide, the classifieds, Wisconsin Woman. So when
people back in our hometown were finding out that we were getting this following
outside of Madison, they were like, 'What?!' So, yeah, it's surprising that
it's gotten this popular.
You write regular columns as Herbert Kornfield, T. Herman Zweibel,
and Jean Teasdale. Are these extreme caricatures written with any specific persons
in mind? I think Jean is the most direct parody of the type of column you usually
see in a small Midwestern newspapers, the personal commentary type of column
by somebody who really doesn't have much to say. Herbert Kornfield, I just wanted
to write something funny and stupid. To swear a lot and not have any meaning
attached to that at all. Zweibel, I don't write Zweibel anymore, but that was
just a character that the then-editor Scott Dikkers came up with, this senile,
over-100 editor of the paper. And I kept coming up with ideas for the character,
and he said, well you should just take over writing it. So I did that for about
four years. Another kind of surreal character, but not in the same vein as Kornfield.
I was a history major, and I like obscure historical references, and it was
the opportunity to do that-you know, show off my erudition.
One of the Jean Teasdale's columns, "With Friends Like
These" stood apart from the rest for me, simply because she came the closest
to identifying herself as the object of satire. She befriends these pop-culture
savvy and sarcastic college students and then she's mortified when she realizes
that they are documenting her life in order to make fun of her. Was that a moment
of guilt or self-parody?
I came up with these two columns about how Jean meets these really sarcastic
college students with a postmodern sensibility, completely mocking Jean behind
her back, getting kitschy pleasure out of her columns, and she completely misinterprets
that. I guess I wrote it because even though I stick it to Jean a lot, I'm a
little bit protective of her. I wanted to make fun of the people who make of
fun of Jean. I know that's a bit schizophrenic. Directed toward the type of
audience that is attracted to her column, I wanted to point out, "Hey,
they're kind of jerks, too."
One of the college characters got really upset and said, "I'm
sick of this. I just want to be a normal person." Do you ever get tired
of non-stop irony? Yeah, I do sometimes, especially when it gets snarky. Sometimes you just
kind of crave sincerity in some form or another. And then you wonder if even
that is something valid to crave. There wasn't a huge amount of meaning in those
columns. I just wanted to turn the tables on the people who poke fun at Jean,
and incriminate them for once, instead of giving poor Jean shit.
Do you find The Onion's character and voice particularly
tied to Middle America?
I guess it's Middle America if the experiences of The Onion writers themselves
can be described as Middle American. Because a lot of what you see in the paper
is based on things that we've directly experienced, or our families have. Things
we've encountered in our day jobs. A lot has been made about The Onion
having a Midwestern mentality, and I guess what that means here is that it has
a non-New York mentality. I think the paper's pretty reflective of everywhere
else except New York.
Do you think that The Onion's move to New York has affected
that non-New York mentality?
Not really. I mean we're all in our early- to mid- thirties, so we're all pretty
much set in our ways, sticks in the mud. We haven't had our heads turned too
much by New York society or anything like that. It's not something we really
respond to, sensibility-wise.
What is it like working in The Onion's office?
We have several meetings a week. We're actually pretty boring. It's a pretty
ordinary atmosphere punctuated by moments of terror and loud arguing. Generally,
we crank out forty-six issues a year. If you actually sit in on one of our meetings,
we read off ideas in a kind of monotone. We don't try to yukk it up. We just
read these lists of headlines off in a monotone so that we can figure out whether
it's funny or not by just the words themselves.
What would you say to some college kid whose dream job is to
work for The Onion?
I don't mean to discourage them, but when I hear about people who want to write
for The Onion, I'm just kind of like, "Do your own damn thing! Develop
your own voice!" I'm shocked that I work there. If I were in my early twenties,
I wouldn't even think about submitting anything to The Onion; I would
be way too intimidated. I have to say that if I wanted to go into comedy, I
would rather start from scratch and find my own voice. And the huge amount of
parody news that has come up in reaction to The OnionI guess this
sounds bitchy, but I don't really think they have a reason to exist. Sorry,
I know that sounds awful, but you won't see me teaching a course at the Learning
Annex called "Parody News Writing-Learn the Secrets from a Pro!" I
won't be doing any of that, because I don't even think I have it entirely figured
out, and it's just bullshit. When I hear about The Onion having imitators,
I just think, "Why? Do us one better. Think of something else that we haven't
Leslie Synn is a mediabistro.com editorial intern.