Wisconsin Wise Guys Plot TV Takeover

Ex-Onion writers shake up A tired comedy landscape
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Jon Stewart's deadpan delivery as host of the Oscars gave America a taste of the tart satire on display most nights on Comedy Central. At one point, he noted that the films up for major awards focused on terrorism, racial tension and censorship. “It's why we go to the movies,” Stewart said. Skipping a beat, he added, “To escape.”

This and other dry-as-dust lines carried a certain humor publication's DNA. That would be the Onion, a weekly mock newspaper written by a crew of a dozen or so comedic oddballs. Although the Harvard Lampoon magazine has long been the primary pipeline for comedy writers in Hollywood, it was the Onion whose distinctive sensibility informed Stewart's barbs at the Oscars. After all, Daily Show executive producer Ben Karlin and head writer/supervising producer David Javerbaum, leading the writing crew for Stewart's Oscar performance, cut their teeth at the paper.

It's no surprise that the Onion brand of humor is finding a voracious appetite these days. With an unpopular war, a president slipping in approval ratings, and America losing faith in lawmakers, the time is right for scathing socio-political satire. And that a cable guy was tapped to host Hollywood's biggest gala (and, more recently, the Peabodys) indicates just how hungry America is for comedy that's offbeat, irreverent and just plain different.

And the Onion's unique humor—a recent headline read “Rest of U2 Perfectly Fine With Africans Starving”—easily translates to television, where audiences, critics say, are increasingly tiring of formulaic comedies with punchlines they see coming a mile away. Besides Karlin and Javerbaum, the former Onion writers currently working in TV include Richard Dahm, supervising producer at The Colbert Report; Tim Harrod, who writes for Late Night With Conan O'Brien; Dan Vebber, supervising producer at Fox animated program American Dad; and Mark Banker, supervising producer at Squirrel Boy, which debuts on Cartoon Network in July.

12 ANGRY MEN

Creating comedy for television is a dark art. Typically, a dozen men—and it's usually men—sit in a room for hours on end, trying to make each other laugh. They start by breaking out the story for a particular episode, send a writer off to pen the script, then spend the better part of a week rewriting lines, punching up jokes, taking suggestions from the network suits, then rewriting some more—until nearly every line in a 45-page script makes at least most in the room laugh. Then they start on the next episode.

While the pay is terrific—entry-level writers earn $2,500-$3,000 a week for a 40-week (June-March) schedule, producers make mid six figures and up, and executive producers on hit shows earn well into the millions—the hours are brutal. And job security is anything but secure: NBC's Seinfeld lasted nine years, but ABC's Emily's Reasons Why Not lasted a single episode. Sitcom writers say a typical day might run from 10 a.m. until well past midnight, and the pressure to pitch funny material hour after hour, day after day can be very rough. One writer on a hit show, having worked weeks without a day off, says he knew it was Sunday only because he was stepping over a thicker newspaper on his doorstep on the way to the studio.

Like any well-paying showbiz job, competition for staff gigs is fierce, particularly with the dearth of strong comedies this year—only NBC's My Name Is Earl has emerged as a bona fide broadcast comedy hit in the past year. Aury Wallington, a Sex and the City veteran who taught several TV-writing classes for media-professionals Web site Mediabistro, says a writer with talent, networking acumen and, perhaps most important, a bottomless reserve of persistence may snag a job. But the odds are stacked against them.

“It's almost impossible to get your first job,” says Wallington, now at CBS' Courting Alex. “There are zillions of writers, so even super-experienced people don't [get staff jobs].”

SUCKLING HOLLYWOOD'S TEAT

While comedy writers can come from any number of sources—standup and performance troupes like the Groundlings, publications like The Yale Record and literary journal McSweeney's, and, more recently, Web sites like thelonelyisland.com and channel101.com—Harvard and The Harvard Lampoon have long been a prime launching pad for comedy-writing careers. Former Lampooners Michael Reiss and Al Jean have worked on The Simpsons since its debut on Fox and opened the door for many Lampoon mates (such as Conan O'Brien, Greg Daniels and Bill Oakley) to write for it and other programs.

The Lampoon presence among TV writers is around 10% on live-action comedies and 40%-50% on animated comedies, industry executives estimate. That includes Daniels, Michael Schur and B.J. Novak at The Office; Steve Lookner of Comedy Central's Mind of Mencia; and R. Conrad Klein at new Nicktoons comedy Kappa Mikey. Before writing for the Onion, Daily Show's Javerbaum attended Harvard and wrote for the Lampoon as well.

While alumni of both the Onion and the Lampoon make up a small percentage of working comedy writers, they wield disproportionate influence, with high-ranking staffers producing influential shows. Onion humor drives programs that mine current events for wit, like The Daily Show and Colbert Report, while Lampoon humor—described by The Office producer and former Lampoon President Schur as “very odd, dry, abstract and mostly unreadable if you're not on the staff”—seems best-suited for sitcoms and sketch comedy.

It's not hard to see the Onion's influence on its alumni's shows. There's the tongue-way-in-cheek satirical bite of Daily Show (a Zagat-style review of Guantanamo called it a “hip Hussein loyalist hangout,” albeit one with a “limited menu”) and Colbert Report (bombastic host Stephen Colbert teased a recent episode with “So-called separation of church and state—if a father and son can be president, why not the Holy Spirit?”).

There are the “Onion-esque” newspaper headlines, as American Dad executive producer Mike Barker describes them, that start each episode of the Fox program. “The satirical bent that the Onion writers have lends itself perfectly to the satirical nature of American Dad,” says Barker. His favorite Dan Vebber headline on Dad: “Britney Spears' Baby To Enter Pre-Hab.”

The Lampoon boasts its own influence. Various locales on The Simpsons, from the Quik-E-Mart to Springfield Elementary School, share the same addresses (57 Mt. Auburn St., 44 Bow St.) as Lampoon headquarters in Cambridge, Mass. In one episode, a character, Hollis Hurlbut, is named for a pair of Harvard dorms; in another, the boss on the “Itchy & Scratchy” program fires his Harvard-educated writer—a nod to the school's long contribution to TV writing.

“Without the Lampoon, it probably would have never occurred to me that comedy writing was a job that people had,” says Steve Hely, who wrote for Late Show With David Letterman before moving to American Dad. “I would have become a doctor or teacher or something and helped improve society instead of realizing I could suckle on Hollywood's lucrative teat.”

The Onion, with its roots in the University of Wisconsin campus in the late '80s, has only recently emerged as a rival to Lampoon dominance. Despite moving from Madison to Manhattan five years ago, the paper has enjoyed a decidedly outsider status since it launched. Writers, who used to put in 12-hour days in a dingy basement for $15,000 a year (favorite freelancers got $20 a story), wrote for the sole purpose of cracking each other up. “It was a comedically pure, protected environment,” recalls Karlin, who's also executive producer at Colbert Report.

And it was funny. “Starr Taunts Clinton With Humiliating 'Sittin' in a Tree' Song,” read a typical headline. There were “Typo Results in 10,000-Acre Wyoming Skate Park” and “U.S. Breaks Off Relations With Chad,” about America's severing diplomatic ties not with the African nation but with a 26-year-old North Carolina cabbie named Chad (“'He's just not the same when he drinks,' says Clinton”). The paper's heralded post-9/11 issue ran a story headlined “Hijackers Surprised to Find Selves in Hell” (“'We expected eternal paradise for this,' say suicide bombers.”).

“There were years where it was arguably the funniest thing going in any medium,” says Rodney Rothman, former head writer at Letterman.

DWAYNE THE DISCO BAT

The Onion-Hollywood connection was born about a decade ago, when five former staffers of the paper set out for Los Angeles to work in television. While thousands of Hollywood hopefuls were dropping spec scripts on agents, the “Onion guys,” as they became known, learned that their paper carried considerable weight. “The Onion was this amazing calling card,” says Colbert's Dahm. “You could hand it to somebody, and they knew right away what your sensibility was.”

From their years at the paper, the Onion guys could come up with dozens of jokes on just about any topic in a matter of minutes. They'd sat through rigorous pitch meetings and had their work mercilessly critiqued by fellow staffers. They were in tune with pop culture and could satirize it like few others in Hollywood. Producers loved them. “I've never heard anyone say the Onion is not funny,” says American Dad's Barker.

The Onion guys got work punching up movie scripts. They wrote episodes of animated comedy Space Ghost Coast to Coast. They sold a fake-news pilot. In 1999, Karlin—who had never been on the set of a TV show—was offered the head-writer position on The Daily Show, which had recently hired a new anchor. “Jon [Stewart] was such a fan of the Onion voice,” says David Miner of 3 Arts Entertainment, who manages former Onioners and Lampooners alike. “He wanted someone who wasn't used to writing other people's voices, so he took a risk on a guy who made him laugh.”

On the heels of the original Onion gang, former Onion writers like Tim Harrod, Sam Means and Ian Dallas also made the jump to TV.

Squirrel Boy's Banker says the trademark “reduction-to-absurdity” humor is the thread connecting the Onion gang's TV work; to illustrate, he mentions an episode of animated sci-fi comedy Duck Dodgers in which a flashback reveals how various rocket prototypes had failed. “Normally, you'd show a few. I insisted on showing all 12 in a row because I felt that was the joke,” says Banker. “I remember thinking at the time that was something the Onion guys would dig.”

Known for creating “wacky characters” like Dwayne the Disco Bat and Sparky the Firehouse Dog at the Onion, Banker is still putting that skill to good use. His creations include a host of oddities—including twin lizard crime bosses called Royal and Roy Serpenti that are voiced by Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise—for Duck Dodgers on the Cartoon Network. “I always loved creating characters and giving them a unique voice,” he says.

As former writers at the paper move up the ranks in television, they hint at a cultural chasm between the Harvard elite, who worked on the Lampoon in a building called the Castle, and the scruffy state-school guys who had toiled in a basement. “We never in a million years imagined we could make a living by writing jokes,” says Vebber, adding that he was part of a slim non-Harvard minority while at Futurama. “The Midwest work ethic, the sense of gratefulness—it's occasionally missing in the people I've seen from the Ivy League.”

But the Lampooners insist they don't get jobs based on their Cambridge connections. “Some people may resent the Lampoon if they think we're a bunch of fancypants snobs who get handed jobs along with our degrees,” says American Dad's Hely. “But whether you're from the Onion or Lampoon, no one's going to give you a job if you're not working hard and writing funny stuff.”

The former Onion crew keeps working hard and writing funny stuff. In 2001, the paper ran a story under the headline “Four Generations of Americans Demand Sitcom Reparations” that chastised the networks for the “mind-numbing swill” they were airing and called for remuneration to the viewing public and a memorial to the time lost watching sitcoms. Those reparations won't ever happen—but some old Onion writers are at least doing their part to liven up lame TV comedy.

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