Fake news is everywhere. Fran Racioppi traveled to Minneapolis to meet the pioneer of all things false, the founder of The Onion Scott Dikkers. Scott and Fran cover his book, Outrageous Marketing, where he challenges conventional wisdom on building brand loyalty, making your own rules and connecting with consumers.
An introvert by nature, Scott spent decades leading a team of creatives without an organizational chart, no corporate policies, giving no credit, and getting quality from quantity. Scott and Fran discuss the evolution of the media industry, the rise of commentary over objectivity, top Onion headlines and 13 tips to being OUTRAGEOUS!
Read the full episode transcription https://talentwargroup.com/jedburghpodcast/076-the-onion-founder-scott-dikkers and learn more on The Jedburgh Podcast Website. Check out the full video version on YouTube.
Listen to the podcast here
About Scott Dikkers
Scott Dikkers performs, writes, and animates the new weekly TV show, Scott Dikkers Around, available ad-free wherever you get podcasts.
His long career in comedy began with his syndicated comic strip, Jim’s Journal, which led to a New York Times bestselling book collection. After that, he founded the world’s first humor website, TheOnion.com. He’s served as The Onion’s owner and editor-in-chief, on and off, for much of the last 30 years.
Scott’s work has won a Peabody award, the Thurber Prize for American Humor, and dozens of Webby Awards. In addition, he earned the #43 spot on Time magazine’s list of the Top 50 “Cyber Elite” alongside such iconic figures as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and George Lucas.
Scott shares his humor-writing secrets in the best-selling How to Write Funny book series. The latest addition is How to Write Funny Characters. He mentors comedians and comedy writers via a series of online classes he developed through the Second City Training Center in Chicago. He offers workshops, live writers’ rooms, and free resources for comedy writers through the How to Write Funny website.
In his spare time, Scott is an accomplished voice actor who’s performed in many national commercials, video games and animated cartoons, including Saturday Night Live’s “TV Funhouse.” He’s also written and directed several award-winning short films, two feature films, Spaceman, and Bad Meat, and several novels. His latest is The Joke at the End of the World.
The Onion – Founder Scott Dikkers
Fake news is everywhere. Depending on who you are and what you care about, you can choose what you want to believe and what you know is not reality. Fake news has been around for a long time. It’s influenced a lot of perspectives, but most producers of fake news will never tell you it’s fake except Scott Dikkers.
He created a brand of journalism built completely on fake news. He told us from the start that it was all false and that we should never believe it. Even though we knew it was fake, he was sure that we would come to love it and enjoy it. For this episode, I traveled to Minneapolis to meet the pioneer of all things false, the Founder of The Onion himself, Scott Dikkers. He and I covered his book, Outrageous Marketing, where he challenges conventional wisdom on building brand loyalty, making your own rules, and connecting with consumers.
He is an introvert, but he spent decades leading a team of creatives without an organizational chart, no corporate policies, giving no credit, and getting quality from quantity. He and I discussed the evolution of the media industry and the rise of commentary over objectivity. He is one of the foremost leaders in satire and comedy. He is the author of 25 books. He is a director, producer, and actor. He won a Peabody Award and a Thurber Prize for American Humor.
As a Journalism student long ago, he and The Onion were a topic of daily lectures that I sat in. Naturally, I asked him about the top Onion headlines and his thirteen tips for being outrageous. Read this on your favorite platforms. Watch the full video version of my conversation with Scott on YouTube. Subscribe to us and follow @JedburghPodcast on all social media. Check out our website JedburghPodcast.com. Learn more about Scott at ScottDikkers.com and @ItsScottDikkers. Get your fill of fake news at TheOnion.com and @TheOnion on social media.
Scott, welcome to The Jedburgh Podcast.
It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.
We sat down with the Special Olympics. The CEO of the 2022 games was transitioning to the CEO of the 2026 games. I confided in them as I will to you, and people will tell me that I shouldn’t do this, but it’s my first time in Minneapolis.
That is not a bad thing to admit. Why would that be bad? Why wouldn’t anyone ever come to Minneapolis? It’s way too far North. It’s way too cold. It’s like our little secret. It’s an adorable place, especially in the summer. There are lakes. People know how to use the outdoors here because they’re shut in. I say that because I’m a shut-in. During the winter, they’re out in the winter. They’re out on their cross-country skis. They’re jogging around the lakes. It’s an active city. Their bike trails are amazing here. Unlike any other city, you can bike anywhere and never see cars because they got this whole secret network of bike pads.
There were no cars downtown.
There is no traffic. There is nobody here. Nobody lives here. It’s great.
It reminded me of Denver circa 2005. Everything is new. It’s clean. There is nobody.
There is not a lot of diversity. There are some, but not a lot. It is similar to Denver, very similar cities.
We did notice that we kept seeing these signs for the sky bridge all through the city in Minneapolis and downtown. We realized that it is designed for the winter so that you don’t have to go outside, which means it’s that freaking cold there.
You go downtown. You walk on these little sky bridges to cross the street instead of being outside. It is positively arctic here. It is rough in the winter. I had forgotten that I grew up here, but when you grow up, you don’t know you’re living in a weird, different place. This is your reality. I wasn’t here for several years. I come back, and I’m like, “It is cold here.” I had no idea it was cold because I had lived in Chicago for a long time. I thought that was cold. I didn’t know what I was talking about. It gets cold and lasts a long time.
I’m glad we’re here at the end of the summer of 2022.The really successful companies all do this. There's always some person at the top, the person who started it or the visionary who propels it forward, who is obsessed. These are the people who would do the outrageous thing. Click To Tweet
It’s time to be here.
This is the place.
I hope you bring your bike.
I brought all my equipment. I’m jogging that around. That’s my exercise.
That is fun, too.
Scott, it is an honor to sit here with you. As I told you before when we were setting up, I studied Broadcast Journalism when I was an undergrad. Everyone who reads the blog knows that because it makes me feel good to talk about it. This show has been away over the few years to circle back on that, and I joke that I just finished paying Boston University several years later. It’s time to get an ROI on that money that I paid them to get that degree in Broadcast Journalism.
The time period that I went to school was from 1999 to 2003. It was an interesting growth period for The Onion. It was all over the place being a student of Broadcast Journalism. You would go into class, and they would tell you, “Here are NBC News and CBS. It’s the rise of Fox.” All these people would come in. It was all real news. They would take The Onion. They would compare it and say, “This is fake news, but this is writing.”
When you talk about writing, writing styles, and telling a story, it was such a textbook that could be used every day to talk about developing narratives and telling stories. We always contrasted it with everything. When we met in May 2022 at Podfest, somebody came out to me and said, “Can I introduce you to Scott Dikkers?” I said, “You’re joking.” He was like, “No, he is in that room.” You were gracious to spend a couple of minutes with me.
I didn’t know I was a virtual professor for you in college.
You are a Founding Member, Owner, and longtime Editor in Chief of The Onion. You are the author of over 25 books, actor, director, producer of TV and film, and winner of a Peabody Award. There are many ways that we could start this conversation. I was joking with you a few minutes ago that the book I read, Outrageous Marketing, tells the story of The Onion and you. It tells about how to build a brand in a lot of different ways.
You frame it in terms of without spending money on marketing, with knowing where you want to go, but having to define the process while you’re in it. We talk about these nine characteristics of performance all the time on the show. Special Operations uses those to recruit, assess, and select talent. They are critical because they can be applied to anything. I try in many ways to do that.
When I read your story and the story of The Onion, it brings up drive, resiliency, adaptability, humility, integrity, curiosity, team ability, effective intelligence, and emotional strength. You had to show and demonstrate all of these things. You tell that story through the book, but we’ve got to start somewhere. What do you mean by outrageous because that got me? I was like, “What is that?”
I used that word because it didn’t seem like it was a normal way to run a business. It seemed like what we were doing at The Onion was outrageous. It was over the top because you hear stories about starting a business, and maybe you get some seed money. You hire some good people and try to make a good return on your investment or whatever, but The Onion was not any of those things. The Onion was a labor of love that snowballed. It attracted a lot of like-minded people, other misfits who had something to say who came together and had this incredible obsession to do comedy.
The Onion was a format for comedy. It was an accident of history that it was fake news, that it was in the format of a newspaper. It could have been anything. We could have been doing a TV show or a play, anything. It was people who wanted to do comedy and had something to say. I learned a little bit about management and leadership. I studied W. Edwards Deming. I edited a series of tapes when I was working at public radio on him, a conference that he did. Peter Drucker was there. I was in my early twenties. I didn’t think anything of it, but because I was editing these tapes and W. Edwards Deming talks like, “We took the team.” It’s like an hour speech that lasts four hours.
My job was to cut out the space for the words. If you listen to it a lot, it drills into your head. You get good at editing quarter-inch audio tape. I had in my head this idea of constant improvement. The customer is always the boss, total quality management, superior product, and superior customer service. I had all these things in my head, but I didn’t have anything to do with them because I didn’t have a company. I drew a comic strip, and I did voice work for radio commercials.
When I got involved with The Onion, I found myself being the leader of a team. I found myself being the owner of a company. Naturally, I was implementing some of these strategies, but they happened nicely for me because my own obsession and my team’s obsession with doing comedy fed right into that. We were obsessed with doing the best comedy we possibly could. That was our way of pursuing total quality and thinking of the customer as the boss.
We had two customers. We had the readers and the advertisers who paid our bills. We were nice to our advertisers because they paid our bills. That was a joke. We would do that in the paper. We pretended we were sellouts. We would do anything for the advertisers and to hell with you, readers. The readers love that attitude. It was funny. It allowed us to serve both customers. To the readers, we were giving. Every week, we have more comedy. It was always free. We put it free on the street. Over time, people are falling in love with this because how can you not like it? It’s free comedy. You’re getting it every week. It’s consistent and reliable.
Through that, I started thinking, “There are some principles at play here.” It did seem different, over the top, and outrageous because what other companies are doing this? Are soap companies doing this? For the book, I did some research. I looked at some other successful companies. I saw successful companies all do this. There is always some person at the top, the person who started it or the visionary who propels it forward and who is obsessed with this.
Colonel Sanders was obsessed with fried chicken. That’s what makes KFC. We don’t have KFC if we don’t have a guy obsessed with serving delicious chicken. That was his life’s mission. He would do anything. Disney is another one. Steve Jobs is another one. These are people who would do the outrageous thing, the thing that everyone else would tell him, “You’re crazy.” They can’t be stopped because it’s an obsession. They’re going to do it anyway. That is what comedy is for me and people who worked at The Onion. We would be doing it anyway.
Let me ask you about comedy because comedy is an important part of society. You focused on satire and spoke a lot about the importance of satire in culture and society. Why is comedy important? What are people looking for when they come to something like The Onion, turn on Comedy Central, or go to a comedy show?
I don’t think they know consciously what they’re looking for. They know they want to laugh. I have thought about this stuff. I’m a nerd about it. I will spout some theories about it. I think that humor is the highest functioning thing our brains can do. It is a thing that animals can’t do. Animals can do almost anything else. They can use tools on a fundamental level. They can communicate on a sophisticated level. Some people will say, “Chimps and dogs can laugh.” Sometimes chimps will do that huffing sound. It is a display of submission. That is what laughter is. It’s a display of submission to someone who thought of something more clever. A chimp would do the same thing.
We crave acknowledgment that someone else thought of something smart. That’s a connection point between people. It’s a connecting thing, a human thing. It’s also a way for our brains to activate on the highest possible level, to find something humorous. It’s the frontal cortex thing that is uniquely human. When you’re depressed, you’re probably in the lower brain. You’re like in chimp or the reptilian brain. You’re in fear mode.Comedy is such a great coping mechanism for life. It's an incredibly crucial part of human society. Click To Tweet
When you can finally laugh at that thing, that gets you out of the fear brain. It gets you out of the stress response. It is a healing thing. Comedy is such a great coping mechanism for life. I don’t think people necessarily realize that or know that, but they’re turning to it like they would a drink or a drug at the end of the day. It’s an incredibly crucial part of human society. Having said that, does it make any difference? Does it change society? I don’t know. It seems like we had zero effect. I know that on an individual level, it helps people feel better and make them feel more human.
Can you explain this concept of verisimilitude? It comes up a lot in the book.
Verisimilitude is a watchword that we used to use at The Onion a lot. There are eleven different funny filters. In my book, How to Write Funny, I lay out how to do comedy in a straight, no-nonsense way. There are eleven different tools that comedy writers use to make things funny. There are eleven different kinds of jokes, and those are the only kinds of jokes there are. You can mix and match and create an infinite number of combinations of those eleven things.
One of those eleven things is a parody. When you ape or mimic something else that people recognize, that is funny to them. These are eleven things that are inherently funny when you do them. The irony is another one. Misplaced focus is another one when you purposefully focus on the wrong thing. That works with kids.
Peek-a-boo is a great example. Kids will laugh because it’s like, “I thought you were there, but you’re here. I’m shocked.” They are delighted by it. We experienced the same thing. It’s just a slightly more intelligent level, but verisimilitude comes into play with parody. When you parody something else, the more it appears to be the thing you’re parodying, the funnier the parody is going to be.
On SNL, when they parody a movie or a TV show, and they get one of their cast members who looks like the person in the movie or TV show, they put a costume on, and they make the set. Sometimes you watch that, and you will hear the audience laugh when the lights go up. Not a single line of dialogue has been spoken, but they see the thing that they recognize, “This is going to be a parody of my favorite show.” They see somebody in a wig in it in the White House, and people are laughing already.
We learned this lesson from the National Lampoon, which raised the bar for parody because they made things look close to what they were supposed to be. Michael O’Donoghue’s Vietnamese Baby Book bit in the National Lampoon looked exactly like one of those baby books. It had the art the same way, the right fonts. It looked real. Someone had filled in the things.
Before them, people weren’t interested in verisimilitude. It would be close enough. I will make it like the thing. They made it like the thing they were parodying. The Onion looks like a real newspaper. The fonts are the same. The pictures look straight a lot of the time. Even the way it’s written, the AP style is straight. That’s all verisimilitude. If you go to The Onion website, it looks like a news website. In my opinion, that makes the comedy funnier because you’re doing parody well. Before you have told joke one, you already have people laughing. It gives you a headstart in the comedy.
You can’t tell it when you look at The Onion.
If you read it and you still can’t tell, that’s on you. You’re dumb. Once you read it, you should be laughing at how ridiculous it was.
I’m going to throw it out, so they have headlines later that have come over the years.
Once you read the content of that format, that is on you if you’re still fooled.
In your discussion in the book, you laid out these thirteen principles of outrageous marketing. We’re going to do a quick hit session at the end. I will outgrow them out, and you give me the top line on each one, but there are these five themes that you had in the book. I want to go through them because these five themes tie well into our conversations about leadership, building organizations, vision, mission, components, characteristics that you have, components of a performance mindset, and the five SOF truths. I’m throwing out all these terms, and people who are reading will know they come up in different conversations.
I’m going to go through a bunch of them here because it’s important to tell your story. Talk about leadership in an industry that, if you look at any and you know firsthand, it’s certainly much better than me, but over the last several years, it looks way different than it did. When you started The Onion, you were still putting type set on newsprint and having a set of blocks to the printer. Now, there is no print.
We’re using sticky wax to adhere the stories to paste-up boards. It’s madness. There were three networks and PBS. The USA Today was the scariest thing in journalism. That’s what was going on when The Onion started.
Let’s start with the first one. The first one is that you have phrased, “Capitalizing on a leader’s intense and emotional drive to connect with customers.” We talk about drives. I always put it as number one in our list of nine characteristics. I have a quote from you. It’s a little long, but it’s important to frame a little bit of this.
You said, “Whether I’m at The Onion, doing my comic strip, making a podcast, or writing a book, this inner drive is always pushing me, always compelling me, and always making me strive until the breaking point to get my message out. The inner drive gives me an intense level of commitment to quality. It forces me to find every avenue of exposure possible and exploited. It educates me and turns me into a master creator. It makes me a compelling leader who attracts like-minded people that join my effort. Over time, it guides me to define and build a brand. All these things together make me an unstoppable force destined to succeed.”
You grew up here in Minneapolis. By many standards, you classified yourself as poor growing up. You failed out of high school and worked at McDonald’s, but you had a true calling to get this message out. Why was growing up in this environment and having that vision and mission so important for you as you’ve gone through this career?
First of all, I’m surprised I wrote that. I’m so full of myself. I have always been obsessed with doing comedy. Everyone who does comedy usually has some obsession with doing it for whatever reason. Oftentimes they had to be the peacemaker in their family. They learned how to be funny to smooth relationships, or they had some dark things happening in their family. They had to be the comic relief or the person to lighten things up.
From a young age, a lot of comedians and comedy writers learn the skill of comedy as a necessity for getting by. I’m the same as those people, but everybody’s story is different. My story was that I was a super shy, introverted kid, and I didn’t know how to relate to people. I didn’t feel comfortable talking to people or doing things with people.
From an early age, back to four years old, I remember my dad brought home scrap paper from his office. I stapled it together, made a little book, and drew a little comedy book. I would show that to my grandma, and she would be delighted by it. I would get all this love and praise. I figured out from an early age, “If I write funny things down on paper and hand them to other people, that’s how I get the love and attention. That’s how I can interact with a community, how I can be a part of human society and not be locked in my room, performing in front of the mirror all the time.” It is what I always did.
The only way I knew how to relate to other people was through comedy. It was a survival tactic. It was a way to find my place and identity. I go to school, and I become a class clown. That’s my niche. I have found my niche, and that’s my thing. It’s the same way that another person would be driven to go out and go to parties and sporting events. Anybody who can relate to that drive or that need can understand what I was doing because it’s the same drive. That was how I connected with other people.The best way to ensure good comedic performance is to control the context of the audience as much as possible. Click To Tweet
The second one that you have here is interesting to me because it is, by definition, contrary to Special Operations Forces Truth number two. There are five Special Operations Forces Truths. Number two says, “Quality over quantity.” What we mean by that in Special Operations is that we can take a team of 12, 6, or 2. If they’re highly trained and highly proficient at what they do, that’s going to be more effective than throwing bodies at the problem.
If we have better equipment, we know how to use it at a higher level, and we train harder, we’re going to spend less money, and we’re going to be in a higher position to be successful than our adversaries who take hundreds of thousands of people train for a week and throw them out on the battlefield. You say that you’ve been adamant about needing quantity to produce quality. You have that as 1 of 2 critical factors. Why does quantity produce quality in comedy?
It’s different. I would never recommend applying my standard to Special Ops. It works great for comedy because comedy is not brain surgery and not a military operation. It’s an entertainment form. In order for it to work, people have to laugh and people have to like it. You can’t know what people are going to laugh at, necessarily. You can have some ideas. You can be experienced at it and probably have a higher batting average than someone else.
At the end of the day, even the best comedians in the world have to test their new standup material and see if it works. If the audience likes it, they keep working with it and try to improve it. If they don’t like it, they scrap it. The only way to get at good material is to try more material. In comedy, quantity is the path to quality.
At The Onion, we learned that if we come up with 10 headline ideas and pick the best 1, it’s going to be okay. If we write 100 headline ideas and pick the best 1, it can be even better. It’s a matter of creating more raw material, like digging through more coal and digging through more of the mine to get the gem. The bigger the mine, the bigger the mass of raw material, and some of it is terrible. It’s like crappy jokes you have to wade through.
What’s the standard? How do you identify the standard? Do you know when you look at it? Is there like a defined, “This is what it looks like?”
It’s tricky. I feel like I know it when I see it, but I’m not infallible. There is a process that we developed at The Onion where we have this meeting. We would read all the jokes out loud, and ideally, the person with the most boring voice would read it in the flattest possible tone because you don’t want to unnecessarily or artificially gin it up or sell it. This is what I don’t understand about a lot of comedy in the industry. People pitch ideas. That’s a terrible idea.
You can’t go pitching something because you’re artificially inflating it to make it seem better. When you deliver The Onion to a reader, it’s just flat words on the screen or on the page. There is nobody there pitching it. It better succeed when someone is reading it. It better be funny. You get a certain quorum of people to listen to these terrible ideas one after another. There are thousands of ideas. Every once in a while, an idea will be read aloud, and 1 or 2 people will say, “That one was okay. That was pretty good.”
That’s about as much of a reaction that you get. You don’t get big laughs because the tone is dead. It’s depressing in some of these writer’s room meetings, where you’re going through the material. After that meeting, in the meeting where you look at the shortlist, they look good. A joke that can survive that horrible dark environment is got to be a strong joke. For somebody to say, “That one wasn’t bad,” they are pretty good.
You don’t know people’s moods when they’re reading it.
That’s the thing about comedy. The best way to ensure a good comedic performance is to control the context of the audience as much as possible. The Onion does that with the format. It’s by making it look like a newspaper, making it all serious because when everything is serious, that’s when you’re not supposed to laugh. That’s when you want to laugh. That helps. On a TV show, they bring out a warmup comic. They gin everybody up, “Everybody, let’s laugh. It’s going to be fun.” They got signs and everything. They do everything they can to control the context.
It’s hard in written comedy because somebody could be sitting at breakfast, they could be on the subway, they could be falling asleep, and you have no idea what they’re doing. The joke has to be a powerful joke. When I say joke, I mean the headline. That’s what we call jokes. It has to be powerful that it can reach someone, even if they’re in a bad state, and still seem funny.
There was a second factor here that you rolled up a bit into this same conversation where you talked about judging the material on merit, leaving ego aside because that is how the best work rises to the top. When we build organizations and teams, that is something we talk about a lot. We will say that, and it briefs well. You get in the room, and it’s like, “We’re going to do a performance review on this person.” You’re like, “I’m from Boston,” and they’re from Boston. “I love the Red Sox. They are pretty good at their job.” They miss revenue projections, quarter on quarter, and 40% attrition, but he’s a good dude. How do you separate?
It’s one of the hardest things to do in an organization to look at the meritocracy of it, the quality of the product, and the quality of the work and not look at the personalities because we’re human beings. Our brains are hardwired to care about interpersonal dynamics. Who do we like, who do we not like, who do we want to work with, and who do we not want to work with?
When I was putting together The Onion staff and the system that we use to put together the content, I wanted to avoid that as much as possible. Part of it is I’m an introvert. I don’t trust the group’s thinks. I only trust this weird mathematical science for coming up with the best joke. On some level, you have to circumvent your chimp brain when you’re in a group because chimp instincts are not helping us in any environment. Pretty soon, we’re going to be throwing feces at each other.
In most comedy rooms, the head writer would come out and pitch ideas, never say, “They are great, boss.” Those are the ideas that you run with. They are not going to be the best ideas. At The Onion, if the janitor came up with a good idea, it would go on the front page. I don’t care who came up with it. It’s all about merit. The way we would do it is all the jokes that go on a list without any names on it. When you’re reading those jokes in that long boring meeting, nobody knows who wrote the jokes. You’re judging them purely on merit. The head writer has the same vote as the lowly peon in the group.
If a joke gets half or more votes of okay, it goes on the shortlist. The team of editors can look at it and assess which ones work. They talk about them as a group. That’s the way that we came up with to eliminate the human element and ego element. Once you do that enough, people get the culture. The culture is that we want the best joke. People will sacrifice their own jokes. They will say, “That joke is better than mine.”
People aren’t allowed to pitch their own jokes. They are not allowed to advocate for their own jokes. They can only advocate for another joke that they like. That mimics the audience’s experience. The audience doesn’t know us. They don’t know who’s more likable. They only know the joke on the page. It is important that all that ego be eliminated.
You took away even putting writers’ names on the articles.
Even in the final printed publication, their names are gone. That’s a slightly different strategy, but it furthers that culture. It furthers the goal of the team that it’s all about making this final product. Be funny. It’s not about me getting any credit for what’s happening. I had seen other humor publications fail because they made celebrities out of the writers. When those writers left, readers turned on the publication, “That is not funny anymore because Doug Kenney left or Kurt Andersen left.” At The Onion, I wanted it to be so strong as a brand that we could, and we did, at one point, lose 80% of our writing staff in one fell swoop. The readers had no idea.
That comes down to standards when we talk about building resilient organizations. I work with athletes at the collegiate level. We talk about building a team that’s built on a defined standard. It doesn’t matter who the captain is. It doesn’t matter who the athletes are that come through there. You have a core set of cultures that exist for you.
In Special Forces, there are people who will tell me, “You were in the Army. You were in SF. It’s a hierarchy. You wait to get told what to do.” I tell them all the time, “One of the flattest organizations that I ever worked in was on my Special Forces Team.” I come in as the detachment commander, but it’s my first day on the team. My team sergeant, the senior enlisted guy on the team, had been in our Special Forces Unit for several years. What you learn quickly when you come in, and you meet everybody else, they’re on deployment 8 and 10. They had been on the team for 4 years, 5 years, or 10 years. They have been all over the world. They know so much.We live in a love economy where customers, or the end user of any media, want to be with things they love. Click To Tweet
Even though you’re in charge and you’re the commander, the buck stops there. You’re ultimately responsible. If you don’t start looking around the room and saying, “Here are what we’re tasked to do. What are everyone’s opinions?” and start taking the best ideas, regardless of where people sit, and even get new guys in, though. What was cool about serving in Special Operations is that you get guys who are refrigerator mechanics or electricians before they come in. All of a sudden, you’re trying to solve a problem. The guy was like, “I was a plumber before I came in.” You’re like, “You’re a toilet man now. Get over there and fix the toilets because no one else is here to do it.”
Sometimes the best idea is going to come from the twenty-year veteran, and sometimes, the best idea is going to come from the total newbie because they don’t know what can’t be done. They can change the whole thing and wake everybody up to a new idea. You got to be open to all of it.
Can you talk about the difference between the attention economy and the love economy? That exists right now.
I grew up in the information economy. It was all about that being the commodity. It transitioned to the attention economy with the rise of the internet and especially social media which can get attention. I was looking at that, realizing, “You can get somebody’s attention because you can do all these crass sleazy, clickbaity things to grab attention but what staying power does that have?” It’s very little. It’s going to maybe get your attention for a few seconds.
I realized, “We live in a love economy. We live in an economy where customers or end user of any media wants to be with things that they love. They want to be with voices they love to listen to, the comedy, movies, and ideas they love. They want to buy products they love.” That’s what’s going to ultimately be more powerful.
A lot of companies miss that, and they don’t realize what simple little things they can do to make people love them. For example, we have terrible customer service as a rule in this world now. Everybody farms it out overseas to people who don’t care and who oftentimes don’t speak the language well. That says a lot about what that company thinks of their customer. It tells them they don’t care. The customers are no idiots. They can feel that.
My goal at The Onion was always to make the reader and the advertiser, our two customers, who got two different products to make them feel unconditionally loved. They knew they were going to get our best, and building that goodwill was something I learned from Walt Disney. He created what he thought were the best, most family-friendly films, TV shows, books, and everything he could for decades and constantly losing money, begging banks for more loans, and begging his brother to get more money so they could survive a little bit longer to create one more product.
When you create that goodwill and you raise two generations of customers who now associate your name with quality family entertainment, you can’t lose. For me, at The Onion, it was never about the money. It was always about producing the highest possible quality product and being relentless in giving that to people. I knew that ultimately that would pay off. It may be a long time.
I sometimes wonder if The Onion sold too soon before it was at that Disney point. Disney went from being completely broke to being the number one Fortune 500 company in the space of 10 or 20 years. It’s a quick turnover. Once people realize, “That is what they are. We all love them,” then they’re non-negotiable. It’s like, “We got to have Disney.”
It’s ingrained in the culture of being a child and an adult. My son is two now in 2022, and he has been to Disney. We went there when we were at Podfest. I don’t think I told you this. That is how I got to go to Podfest. I got to go to Podfest because I told my wife, “I have been invited to speak at Podfest. It’s in Orlando. If we go, it’s on Memorial Day weekend, but you can take the kids to Disney, and we’ll bring your brother and your parents. It will be a big family trip. You guys go to Disney. I will go to Podfest.” Somehow, it worked out beautifully because they all went to Disney for three days. I went to Podfest.
Another person at Podfest told me the same story. He convinced his family to come with them to Podfest to go to Disney World.
Otherwise, there was no way she was going to let me, not on the Memorial Day weekend. It was never going to happen. You started bringing up the business side a bit of The Onion, and the next two themes I have titled here are the business side of it and the business side of journalism in The Onion. The third theme that you bring up is defining and refining a brand’s personality. You edited owned work for and have been a part of The Onion for several years. You have seen good times and bad. You have watched as different people have come in and tried to take it in different directions.
As I was reading about this and learning more about it, I thought of you as the keel to a sailboat. Every time some wind comes from a different direction and tries to push that sailboat over, the keel rights it back. I feel like you have seen that over your career where you left. They called you back. You got it back on track. You left, and that has happened a number of times.
I never thought of that. That’s a pretty good analogy. They would often bring me back to get it back on track when they thought it was veering off track or something.
Let me read you something because you alluded to it here. It’s important because it’s about brand building. You said, “The brand we’re building at The Onion was one of a faceless news organization and an established powerful beacon of truth that handed the news down from on high and openly dismissed its readers as dopes, dummies, and layabouts. You Are Dumb was The Onion’s official slogan for a long time.”
“To live out the most heightened manifestation of that brand and to be the most outrageous versions of ourselves that we could, we hid staff names and made it a truly faceless organization. The more impersonal and called the voice of The Onion, the more would live up to that vision.” It was about this brand. Why does the brand permeate more over time than anything else in the organization? I will quantify that as the industry changes.
To understand the brand, it’s important to understand the concept of character because every brand has a character. I wrote a whole book about character. Character is one of those eleven funny filters I mentioned, and character works well when you can define what your character archetype is. There are certain comedy character archetypes that always come back in entertainment, certain characters that audiences love to see over and over. They come back in different forms. They always seem new.
One of my favorites is the bumbling authority figure. This is a classic character from the Commedia Dell’arte Renaissance Theater, and audiences love it. It’s like the Keystone Cops, the Bumbling Politician, Leslie Nielsen from the Spy Hard movies, or Police Squad, Ron Burgundy, and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. These are people in authority who are important. They usually have some insignia or badge that indicates that they have authority. They are usually a pretty low-level authority. Paul Blart: Mall Cop is a perfect example. They are bumbling fools. The audience loves to laugh at those people.
There are about 40 other character archetypes that always come back that are popular. I list them all in this book. When you’re creating a brand, you need to know who your character is. At The Onion, I realized we are the bumbling authority. We are a big important newspaper, acting like we know all the truth about the world and what’s happening. You should only listen to us and ignore everything else you hear, but we spot foolishness to a T, what that character is.
Another thing that I mean by the word outrageous is when you become a heightened version of your character, and once you’ve established who your character is and the audience, your fans, customers, whoever, and the public at large recognize who your character is, you need to lean into that. You need to play that to the hilt. If the Onion is a bumbling authority figure, we need to be more self-important. We need to be more like a big media company that doesn’t care about you and lives in an ivory tower. We need to spout more foolishness.
The content has to get funnier, and the format has to get more impenetrable. There is less of a connection between the reader and us because that makes it funnier. That’s counterintuitive from Web 2.0, which is where you’re supposed to communicate with your customers online. You’re supposed to take their feedback. We would insult readers. We would never respond to comments on social media.
Now they’re like, “You respond to every comment.”It's important to understand the concept of character because every brand has a character. Click To Tweet
Now I do because I have a different brand I’m doing. With The Onion, the whole thing was, you don’t want to respond because that’s not the character. You play into that character. You use that character. That is a smarter strategy than going by the book and saying, “The book says we’re supposed to be friendly to our customers. We’re supposed to give them what they want.” Yes, but what’s your character? What would your character do? What’s going to make them like you more as a character and as a brand? How should you behave to further that?
If it’s the opposite, you do the opposite. You do the counterintuitive thing. You insult them. You demean them. You pretend like you’re not giving them anything. Clearly, you’re giving them a lot. You’re giving them free comedy constantly through social media and the website. You put out a book and a podcast. You’ve got all this content out there that people get for free. It becomes funny and fun for them that they know it’s a joke. That’s another layer of humor that you’re giving them. You are giving them irony because you’re being so giving to them, but you’re pretending you hate them. It’s funny.
The evolution of media over the last several years has been something that, when we look at industries, has been probably one of the most rapid changes. We go the number of fronts we have gone from. From print to digital. There are no newspapers anymore. It’s all online. There is a 24-hour news cycle. Social media has now created an environment where anybody is a reporter.
Anybody can, in two seconds, create something and put it out into the world, and somebody can look at it and say, “That’s truth.” Oftentimes that gets more views, comments, and attention than the actual truth might. There has been this rise also of this shock jock journalism. I remember when I was at BU, they wouldn’t take Howard Stern’s money to put his name on the building. The building at BU that common is in is still the same piece of shit building that it was several years ago because they wouldn’t take his money. Now, he’s a legend.
Everybody said, “It was a terrible decision.” It remains a terrible decision, but he was the first one who started changing the industry. You had guys like Bill O’Reilly. I had told this story before. He came, and he is a graduate of BU at the graduate program. He gave a great speech one day, and he said, “I’m not a reporter. I’m a political commentator. You have to understand that when I stand up in front of you, I’m giving you my opinion on this issue. I’m not telling you the news. We’re putting it in the context of a situation that’s occurring, but I’m a commentator.” Now we live in this world where everybody is up on TV. There is no separation.
They get rid of the fairness doctrine in the ‘80s. It’s gone. We can do anything we want in the media. There doesn’t have to be balance. That has been a big change.
How did you view the evolution of the industry? When you looked at the direction that The Onion had to go, what were your thoughts on how you’re going to keep up with these changes?
When The Onion Started, USA Today was the biggest threat to journalism. As the years went on, in the ‘90s, we started seeing more of these shock jocks and more of these sensational political commentators and reporters. By the mid-2000s, I had come back from The Onion after I hiatus. I realized that the real threat to journalism at that time was the Fox News model.
We created The Onion News Network to be more of a parody of Fox News than a parody of USA Today, which is what The Onion was. It was big, powerful, dangerous, in-your-face news that was meant to scare you, be intimidating, be opinionated and a little angrier, and less of an AP style that was meant to seem like it wasn’t editorializing, and more like it was editorializing so much that it was almost offensive.
You mentioned Fox. It’s crazy because you can put Fox on it, and you can put on MSNBC. They’re having the same conversation. You can’t call them facts, these opinions. When you think about these different channels, Fox, MSNBC, and CNN, and how far we have come, where are we going with this? Is there an end?
I hope there’s an end to it, but we can’t escape who we are. We’re human beings, and we’re biased. I have reached the point of almost being jaded so that anything I watch, especially in the mainstream media, I don’t believe any of it. MSNBC’s advertisers are drug companies and oil companies. Are they ever going to say anything about climate change and the disastrous healthcare situation in our country? No. They’re never going to say anything about it.
Fox News is a propaganda arm of the Republican Party. I can’t believe anything they say. What the repeal of the fairness doctrine has done is unleashed the worst of humanity so that people are out there being self-interested or interested because they’re getting paid to be interested, and that’s all we hear. You always have to follow the money with these people.
Dennis Prager is one of my favorites because he is funded by the Koch brothers. The whole goal of organizations like that is to indoctrinate young people. Charlie Kirk is another one with his organization, Turning Point USA. It’s a big right wing, which is wacko funders who are trying to indoctrinate young people to be Republicans. That’s the whole point of it. They find these people who have these incredibly unpopular opinions to go out there and spout them. You can’t trust anything they say.
Right-wing radio is the same thing. There’s nobody left on the radio. It’s gone. There are no progressives, establishment Democrats, or anything. Everybody on the radio is extremely right-wing because that’s who’s paying for the ads. It’s people who want to perpetuate the most fierce form of capitalism. That’s all we get to hear. It is a little disconcerting, and I don’t know where it ends.
I do like this movement in Gen Z that you’re seeing online. Younger people are learning how to do research more. They are learning how to fact-check because the problem is that a lot of people now have completely lost any criteria for how to determine whether something is true. That’s terrifying. You see some of these interviews with people at Trump rallies and some of the conspiracies that they’re spouting. They are convinced that there are true and what are their criteria? “I saw it on the internet.”
When you look back at history, is that any different? For centuries, we were all Catholics. We would burn someone who wasn’t a Catholic. It’s not like we haven’t always believed in conspiracy theories or things that aren’t true. It seems like we have made a lot of progress with the scientific revolution and the enlightenment. It seemed like the beginning of the 20th century, we were on a good track, and everything had gone completely shit. We’ve backed slit into ignorance. It is frightening.
It seems to me like a much broader trend than anything that might change in a time of years, but more in a time of generations, which is why I have a lot of hope in Gen Z. I feel like they have an amazing bullshit detector as a generation. They are good at getting at the truth of things. That’s what we lost. We lost the truth.
We did an episode a few weeks back. It is episode 69 with the Cofounder and CEO of a company called Readocracy. His name is Mario Vasilescu. He talks about what used to be the information commons. We used to have philosophers, Encyclopedia Britannica, and things we could all agree on that were true. He talks about infobesity and how we are in a world now where the food epidemic and everybody came in. It was like, “Eat whatever you want.” People realize, “You can eat whatever you want.” Now, infobesity is this constant influx of information. There has information warfare, and people are using it against you.
It’s all propaganda versus propaganda. That’s a great term, infobesity. We’re all getting our information the same way we get food from the gas station. We’re getting at the cheapest, worst place you could possibly run.
You’re consuming it, and there is no way to start to triage what you’re looking at.
It’s effective. People hear information, believe it, and they’re gone. They’re done because you can’t convince them otherwise. You can’t deprogram them. That’s how people are wired.
Social media is also propagating it. I use the example of boats. I like boats. I go on my Instagram, and I look at a video of a boat. What do I get? You get more videos of boats. My whole perception of everything in the world is now everybody loves boats because that’s what Instagram is telling me. That all exists in the world.If you keep putting it out and you keep honing your brand and voice, then whoever likes that will find you, and that's your tribe. Click To Tweet
I know these wormholes in silos that social media puts us in. At some point, I feel like something has to be done about that. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if the tech companies tweak things or if there has to be some government regulation, but something has to happen with that because it’s dangerous.
It’s quite frustrating because I feel like we produce great content. We make these awesome video episodes. We put them on YouTube and got five likes.
Why isn’t anyone finding my show when it’s clearly the best show?
You will go and look at some crazy video of someone falling off a chair, and it’s got 5 million views.
What are you going to do about that?
I will keep producing content, and eventually, it’s going to work out.
That’s my philosophy. If you keep putting it out, you keep honing your brand and your voice, whoever likes that voice is going to find you. That’s your tribe. That’s what you can do. You have to be happy with whatever size that tribe is, and hopefully, it grows. If it’s not growing, it’s probably on you to adjust it a little bit and make sure that you’re appealing to a good amount of people. That’s the only formula that works now.
Where do we go for objective journalism?
It’s always a good policy. I will check the New York Times, and I will check the Fox News website. They will have a different angle on it. If it’s the same basic facts, I’ll believe it to a certain extent. Carl Sagan has this great phrase, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” If it’s something like a foreign leader was elected, and someone else lost, the extremes of the media are saying that this is a fact. I have no reason to disbelieve. That doesn’t seem crazy. If you’re going to tell me JFK Jr is still alive, you need extraordinary evidence for that because that’s an extraordinary claim. That’s something a lot of people forget, too.
They’re happy to believe anything. They don’t care how outrageous it is. The slightest bit of non-evidence convinces them, “I saw it on Facebook.” You need a little more evidence than that. That’s how I live. I also try to live more in an existential gray zone where if I’m going to rely on some fact or some truth for my own safety, I’m going to research that pretty heavily. If it’s some trivial knowledge about something going on in the world, it’s not that important to me. I don’t need to know it. There are levels for what to care about and what to know is true.
I was the emcee of this panel that was hosted by the Global SOF Foundation. The keynote speaker was Retired Vice Admiral Tim Szymanski. He was the Deputy Commander of the US Special Operations Command. He was talking about how in this environment, people are overvalued. What they are putting primacy on is what their buddy or their friend tells them over hard evidence.
The connoisseur was in about mental health. We were talking about mental health, post-concussion syndrome, and soldier suicide. You have this world now where people are coming in, and they’re saying, “These are the facts.” He was like, “Where did you hear the facts?” They’re like, “My team is talking about it every day.” He was like, “Where is the evidence?”
It’s funny we’re sitting here talking about truth and facts when we’re talking about The Onion, which is all lies. It’s ironic, and it’s important. One of the whole points of The Onion from the early years was that we should at least use this as a way to communicate with people. Maybe you should be thinking a little more critically about what you read. You shouldn’t believe everything in print because we get this mindset, “It’s in black and white. It must be true. Someone in authority said it on TV. It must be true.” That is terrifying. It’s terrible. What are we doing?
That is our default position. The scary part that you were talking about is that we have come into a world where you can’t turn on the 6:00 news while you’re making dinner and have it running and be consuming it somewhat passively, saying, That’s what’s happening in the world.” You genuinely have to pay attention and now ask yourself, “Is that what happened?”
All of this is playing to the worst human instincts because we’re tribal and chimps. If our tribe believes one thing and we hear something else that someone else believes in a different tribe, we don’t care about the evidence at all. All we care about is that they’re wrong because they’re in that tribe, and I’m right because I’m in this tribe. That is a recipe for disaster.
Let’s talk about your leadership. Curiosity is one of those characteristics of Special Operations that I talked about. We define curiosity as exploring the unknown and challenging the status quo in pursuit of a better continuous growth attitude. Can I find solutions to problems? Sometimes these are problems that people don’t even know exist. It’s about the opportunity.
The fourth principle theme that you talked about was playing by a new set of rules. To me, that’s challenging the institutions that are set. Journalism is an institution of its own right. You said, “The Onion writers broke a lot of rules.” You experimented with topics, people, and storylines. You had legal troubles for going because people felt defamed and insulted. Why is challenging the status quo so important to building a successful brand?
Any leader has to realize that whatever systems they have in place and whatever they’re doing that they think works if they ask themselves, “Is this the best possible way this can be done, and no better way will ever be invented?” the answer always has to be no. Do you honestly think things will never get better? No. A better idea is going to come along.
By being curious and open to ideas from the lowliest members of your team, you’re talking about the new person on the team with new ideas. Sometimes, the new person can come in and be like, “Have you tried this?” There is going to be a better mouse trap. Somebody is going to invent it. You need to be open to receiving that as soon as it comes. You can be the first to use it.
If you’re too set in your ways and you’re locked into strategies, methods, and techniques that you think are the best, you’re lost. That’s how a company like Xerox lost the personal computer war to Apple, which was a couple of guys in a garage. Xerox had everything. They had Xerox PARC, where they brought Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and all these other smart people to envision the future of computing. They came up with a personal computer.
Steve Jobs asked for all the notes later from Xerox, and the person at Xerox was like a receptionist who got the call. She asked her boss, “Are you sure you want to give all this away, all this great information?” He said, “Fine, go ahead and give it to them.” They figured, “We’re doing it the best way. At Xerox, we’re doing everything perfectly. There is no better way to improve the way people create or process information. We got it handled.”
We did a great video at The Onion about Blockbuster being a living museum where you could go and see them because they were still in existence in the mid-2000s. People were already watching Netflix videos, and it was almost like you were living in this strange cross-section of eras where you can rent movies from Netflix in Washington, you can go down the street to Blockbuster and rent a tape on the same day. That was Blockbuster’s field to dominate. That was theirs to lose. They gave it away to Netflix.
There is a story, too, where the Netflix founders went to meet with them. It was like Ford versus Ferrari scene. They turned them down.
The Onion, in its first year, went to visit the alternative weekly newspaper in Madison to try to get some seed capital, which we never got. We got laughed out of the office. Now that the publication is out of business.
We talked about adaptability. Adaptability is one of those nine characteristics. You have to demonstrate it.
Being on the cutting edge and being aware of what’s new and adopting that, that’s what adaptability is. How else are you going to adapt to a business landscape anyway?
How do you overcome that fear of that? You will talk to a lot of leaders, especially ones who fail if they will admit it. If they have humility, they will admit it. People get in that position, and they get scared. They say, “What we’re doing has been working. If I take this risk, what if it doesn’t work?”
I am a conservative business person when it comes to business and I’m mostly not a business person. I’m mostly a creative person, but I would always try something in an arena where I can afford to lose. If The Onion is plugging along well, we’re making money with this newspaper, and we have an opportunity to do a radio news show, I’m not going to put all my eggs in that basket. I’m going to try it, do it on the cheap, and see if it works and gets some traction. If it does, I will put some resources into it. I would do the same with any new idea. I would try it, test it, and see what happens.
In episode 14, we interviewed Selena Coppock. She is a comedian. She wrote a book about being a blonde and the stereotypes around being a blonde. She is also one of my best friends growing up. She has got a great story, and she put an album out a few years ago. She talked about punching up, never punching down, and the importance of that not only in comedy but also as you build brands, as you look at brand identity, and as a leader. You talked about it in your book, and I was hoping you might define that for me here. Talk about the line. Is there a line?
There is a line in comedy and people always do talk about don’t punch down, only punch up, but there is a whole other side to that. I was trying everything. I punched down a lot and got a lot of angry letters, and I learned. Eventually, I landed on this idea of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, which comes from old progressive journalism from the mid-20th century.
That means you should punch up. You should make fun of establishment, authority, figures, and anything that is big and powerful. Bring it down to size. People love that. Audiences love it, but you should also lift up, not punch down, but lift up the people who are disenfranchised and people who are poor and the victims. Anytime you can elevate them and de-elevate the powerful, the audience love that in comedy.
How does that translate to businesses and brands? Audiences for comedy are the same as a field of potential customers for a brand. In comedy, they have to like you in order for you to be funny, especially if you’re a standup comedian. Companies, too, need to be liked. There needs to be a general positive feeling you’re getting from a company.
If they’re making fun of old established traditions, Apple is a great example. They came in making fun of IBM. That made people like them. They are the underdog. They’re punching up, and they are also lifting up. They had a woman come in with a sledgehammer and slam the Brave New World a video. It wasn’t ‘50s businessmen in a gray flannel suit. The subtle idea was we’re new, we’re into new things, and we’re into feminism. There were a lot of subtexts in that people got, and they do the same thing with their different ad campaigns.
They were using Apple a lot as an example here. They’re taking somebody like Gandhi and using him as a symbol. That communicates so much subtext about, “That is an oppressed people. That is somebody who lifted up and oppressed people and fought against a big established authority.” That is the attitude and mindset that Apple wants its customers to think about them.
The fifth theme that you had here is using these instinctive strategies to build a world-class team that tirelessly works to make products. It’s good that customers can’t help but fall in love with them. I bring this up because it talks about the team. Team Ability is one of our nine. You’re an introvert. You read books on leadership earlier in your career, and you talked about becoming now the Owner, In Charge, and Editor at The Onion and saying, “Now I have a team, what am I going to do?” There was no org chart. There were no titles. There were no work hours. It was flat. There was the meritocracy that we spoke about, but it was mission-focused.
You also said that you wanted to keep people focused on the mission. You didn’t want to be their friend, yet you displayed what servant leadership that you love them all, but you had a high standard and expected them to meet that standard on a daily basis, but also, it wasn’t a place for a community. You went to bat for them time and time again and answered the call every time the company came back to you.
There is the book, The 5 Levels of Leadership. The level five leader is the egoless leader who doesn’t care who gets the credit. He doesn’t care what people think of them. It is effective at leading a group. There is a level four leader who is the on-hands manager who can delegate and get people to do what they need. I used that because I knew that as an introvert, I was never going to be the general on the field, barking out orders, and leading giant teams.
I have to be in that position a few times. It’s unnatural for me. I’m much better locked in a room and having a lieutenant go out and do that stuff. It’s much easier to manage five lieutenants than it is, for me, than to manage armies of people. We had a huge army of people when we started The Onion News Network videos. It took a lot of crew and people. Even The Onion itself, ultimately, there are hundreds of people on the writing team. There are some core writers, freelancers, and contributors. It’s like this huge expanding pool of people.
When that type of level five leader is an introvert and doesn’t want to go out and talk to anybody, it’s easy for people to think, “He doesn’t care. He is not invested in us.” By showing up when it matters for people, they stop caring about your individual style. They don’t care that you’re an introvert. They don’t care that you never come out. I have a reputation at The Onion as the guy who never came to the Christmas party. They would have these big, storied parties where people would talk about him for weeks after. I will be like, “I’m not interested.”
It’s better not to know.
They knew that I would be there when it mattered. When it came to making sure they got good health insurance or whatever, that’s when I would go to bat. I would always be happy to fund the Christmas party. I’m happy to make sure there is a good band there. The other thing is about what you said in terms of it being about the work and not about a group of friends. That was especially challenging for The Onion because it started almost like a punk band. It’s like people getting together and riffing. It never felt like a business, especially to the writers. They would show up and have fun. They would get to do this fun stuff. They never saw the business side of it.
When it grew into a money-making business that had responsibilities, fiduciary responsibilities, and all this stuff, it was difficult for a lot of them to think of it as a company. They are like, “We’re just family here. We’re just friends.” For me, making sure that it was always about the work focused people on putting all their comedy energy onto the page. When it’s a group of friends, you’re going to be making each other laugh.
I can’t tell you how many times I would emerge from my hole of an office and tell people, “More of that on the page.” I didn’t like when people were joking around the office and not working. I liked when they were working. They were funny, and they would make each other laugh. I was like, “Put that energy into your next list of ideas that we’re going to read at the meeting.” Ultimately, I figured that if you want friends, a group, or a community, do that outside of work.
There has been a lot of funny in The Onion over the years. I pulled the list here. I don’t know if it’s the list. It’s a list I found of the top Onion articles. I will say a couple of them, but I want to know your opinion, too, of what you think some of the tops are. We got stuff like, “Harry Potter Books Spark Rise In Satanism Among Children.”As far as we know, you get one chance at life. Why are you giving 80%? Give it your all. Go all the way with it. Do what you would do if you knew you couldn't fail. Click To Tweet
That was a funny story that was one of the ones that early on was believed to be true by people. There were a lot of Christian websites that reposted it. We got people upset and inflamed. They were writing letters, thinking that it was true, and being scared for their children at school and stuff like that. That is one of those examples where people who should know better are believing what they read.
If you watch the movies, there could be some sense. I could see how you could interpret that.
I can’t. I saw the movies.
“Johnson & Johnson Introduces ‘Nothing But Tears’ Shampoo To Toughen Up Newborns.” I’m buying that.
It’s one of those pure irony headlines. I don’t think Johnson & Johnson got angry and sent us a cease and desist letter for that one because it seems so obviously not true. We talked about don’t punch down, punch up. Here we are talking about torturing babies. Sometimes, there is one rule in comedy and that is there are no rules. Sometimes, you can punch down, and it still works.
In that instance, especially babies buying Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo, they are probably first-world babies. They’re doing fine. George Carlin was good at this. I learned this from him. He was good at recontextualizing the target of his joke to make it so that they were comfortable. You had to afflict them as opposed to being the afflicted that you had to comfort. That’s a situation where we’re recontextualizing babies and allowing people to laugh at torturing.
That is the exact same formula as the previous joke. We’re recontextualizing those kids as first-world kids who statistically bought toys and got hurt by those toys. That is early in The Onion. The Onion is big enough now, where if you did that, you probably get a couple of letters. You get letters from parents, and I have gotten a thousand of these letters. They all are written exactly the same, almost as if by some template that someone gave them. They say, “Dear The Onion, First of all, I want to say I have an excellent sense of humor. I have even enjoyed The Onion’s humor for many years, but this time, you have gone too far.” To them, we have crossed a line.
Where is the line? The line is if you’re afflicting the afflicted, you have crossed the line. If you’re comforting the comfortable, you have crossed a line, but everybody has their own personal line. Everybody has their own personal tragedy or their own personal disability. If you’re making fun of their thing, you have crossed the line for them. You make a calculation at a place like The Onion, and you figure, “If they’re a small enough percentage, I’m going to make fun of them for the benefit of everyone else. They’re going to be fine because they’re not truly an oppressed group.” I’m getting philosophical.
There is another one here I like. It says, “Heartwarming: When This Subway Employee Had To Walk 20 Miles To Work Because He Couldn’t Afford A Car, The CEO Of Subway Drove Alongside Him To Cheer Him On.”
That one is after my era. That shows you The Onion’s comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable formula right there because we’re comforting the poor minimum wage worker of Subway. We’re laughing at the CEO. It may seem like we’re laughing with the CEO there, but the subtext there is, “That guy is a jerk.” We can all relate to the minimum wage employee because we have all been that guy. There are more parodies in there, too, because we’re parodying that new click-bait style of headline writing with the heartwarming colon, the BuzzFeed style.
What are your top 2 or 3?
One of my favorites is from our first original book, Our Dumb Century. We did a look back at the 20th Century through fake front pages of The Onion. We got to cover every major news event of the 20th Century and come up with what we thought was the best, funniest headline for every story. There are many good ones in there that still make me laugh when I see them. One of my favorites was the moon landing in 1969. It was, Holy Shit, Man Walks on Fucking Moon.
The reason I love that so much is because I was four when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. I remember seeing Walter Cronkite doing that on the news. I remember watching it on the news. My parents are being wowed by it. All the media was straight. What Neil Armstrong said on the moon was flat, “One small step for a man.” Where’s the excitement? Where’s the passion? This is like a holy shit moment ever.
If there was a holy shit moment in journalism, this is it. Use the S-word. It was this cathartic thing to use that headline. The story ended up being funny, too, because we reproduced the whole conversation of Neil Armstrong and mission control. Neil Armstrong was like, “Holy fucking shit, are you believing this shit? I can’t fucking believe it.” Those are the first words on the moon. That was a lot of fun.
One of my other favorite headlines was in the paper and the website also. It was an editorial. We do fake news. We also do these fake editorials. It was an editorial by the CEO of the Gillette Razor company. The headline was, Fuck Everything, We’re Doing Five Blades. There was a blade war going on. There were all these multi-blade razors and everything. There had never been a five-bladed razor.
The article is funny, and I highly recommend that to anyone who wants a good laugh. Google that headline and read that article because he is so cocky. He’s a great character. The reason I like that headline is A, it’s a funny story, but B, it’s one of those times when there is a holy grail in comedy. When you think you’re coming up with a joke that is hyperbolic, and it couldn’t possibly ever come true, it comes true. A few months after that, Gillette unveiled the five-bladed razor. It’s the first ever five-blade. I love when The Onion predicts the future like that. It feels satisfying to know that you nailed it.
There is so much intentionality within each one of these stories and these headlines that you do.
We overthink them so much. We talk about them and discuss them. We tear them apart. There is a lot of intentionality in all those headlines.
I’m thinking about that process. To put the publication out, have the amount of content in each publication, and go through this level of detail for each one, the amount of hours and dedication is mindblowing.
It’s a labor of love. That is the only way it can happen.
I told you we were going to do a quick hit session here on Outrageous Marketing. I’m going to go through the thirteen. I’m going to throw it out. You give me your top line, and what does it mean? Live your mission.Business is seduction, and you need to get people to love you. So woo them. Click To Tweet
I found my mission at age four was a comedy, and I have been living it ever since. I feel like that’s the key to a happy life. It didn’t matter to me whether I was making money at it. It didn’t matter to me who liked what I was doing. I enjoyed doing it, and I was doing it. I knew I’d find my audience. I knew I would eventually make money at it at some point. That is the first thing out of the gate you have to do. You have to figure out what your mission is on this planet.
A good way to figure out that mission is, what do you do in your spare time when you’re not at work? I’m not talking about playing video games or watching TV, but what do you do for other people that makes the world a better place? That’s your mission because you’re doing it for fun, anyway. “If you can figure out a way to make your work fun, you will never work another day in your life.” I forget who said that. Was that Michael Jordan? It’s true.
As far as we know, you only get one chance at life. Why are you giving 80%? Give it your all. Go all the way with it. Do what you would do if you didn’t know you couldn’t fail. That is the only way anyone is ever succeeded at anything. Take a leap of faith. Take a chance. We always think that being obsessed is a bad thing. It is if you’re doing something terrible. If you’re doing something good, and this is making the world a better place, being obsessed is a good thing. We all love it.
Any movie you’ve ever watched is about a character who is obsessed. That’s the only character we care about. When people are obsessed, they draw other like-minded people to them. It helps you build a team. It helps you build a tribe. It’s a powerful thing to be obsessed. We learn as adults to be more tempered. As kids, we’re all obsessed with something. We give it our all, and we go nuts. When we grow up, we’re supposed to be buttoned down. We’re supposed to be more calm or whatever. I never grew up. I still have that same youthful passion and obsession with comedy that I had at an early age.
I refer to it as the relentless pursuit. Make people love you.
It’s easier to say than done. In Corporate America, there’s a big lesson to be learned. Many people think of their companies as a business. They were like, “We’re providing a service and product. Here is our product. Do you like it? Give us money. It’s a transaction.” Wrong. It is a seduction. You need to get people to like you and love you. For God’s sake, woo them.
Don’t go up to them in the street and say, “Do you got $100?” It’s not the way to do it. We all know that analogy. We can follow it through. You have to do nice things for them. You have to do thoughtful things for them. You always have to be there for them. That means good customer service, amazing products, good follow through, and a good environment, everything. That’s what that means.
Focused on building fans, not profits.
For me, it was never about money. It was about building the fans. It’s what I learned from Disney because that’s the real commodity. A former higher-up in Google wrote that essay, 1,000 True Fans. We know now that’s the commodity. The real equity in this life is a group of people who love what you do. If you focus on that and don’t care about profits, the profits will follow. You have to be patient.
Fire on all cylinders and keep looking for new ones.
In business terminology, that means different verticals. I’m in the comedy world. I’m in entertainment. It’s like, “If I’m doing print, I should be doing radio. If I’m doing radio, I should be doing TV. If I’m doing TV, I should be doing a book. I should do a stage play. I should do street art. I should do every known medium.” Everybody has a different way they receive things.
In this day and age, you can interpret that any way you want, but you could interpret it as we need to be advertising in every medium. We need to be present on every social media platform. A big company that can afford that or anybody that has time for that knows that you never know where you’re going to find your next customer. You have to be everywhere. That saves The Onion’s life more times than one, being in more than one cylinder, not having all our eggs in one basket.
Find the best people.
It’s easier said than done. They do big business seminars about how to find A players in your industry. It’s a whole field of study on how you do this. The way I did it at The Onion was I followed some of the earlier principles that you mentioned. I was obsessed. I focused on fans, not profits. I was continually trying to make my product better.
It attracted like-minded people who wanted to do the same thing. Any company is going to do that. Name anybody in special effects in movies. They want to work at Lucas. They want to work at ILM because it’s the best. Why? It’s because those people are obsessed. They do it because they love doing it. Where else would you want to work? The best people are going to find you if you’re doing it right.
Free or creative.
This is a big one because a lot of companies think it’s important to keep a chair warm from 9:00 to 5:00. Anyone who does any creative work does not work well in that environment. They need to have the greatest flexibility possible. At The Onion, our writers were weird, and they were misfits. Sometimes, somebody would be depressed and not come in for several days.
They would have to feed their cat medicine. They couldn’t handle anything else for a week while they fed them the medicine. That was always forgiven. It was like, “If you can send in your jokes, it is fine.” For me, it’s always about, “Can you do the work? I don’t care where you are. I don’t care how you do it, but can you do it? It’s fine. No other restrictions.” Creative people need to be as free as possible.
It is okay to play ping pong at 1:00 in the afternoon.
It’s okay to work at 4:00 in the morning if that’s when you get your muse. Sleep all day. I don’t care.
Don’t accept conventional wisdom.The best people are going to find you, if you're doing it right. Click To Tweet
That’s what we were talking about before, about always doing things the way they’ve been done or the way you think they should be done. We always have to keep our minds open to new ways of doing things. For me, conventional wisdom is immediately suspect. I don’t just accept it. I always think, “If everybody else is doing it, there must be something wrong with them.”
I think back to the Dark Ages. Everybody was a Catholic. Everybody believed that the Catholic religion was true. If you didn’t believe that, you would get tortured or burned at the stake. If I were alive then, I would have gotten burned at the stake. I’m alive now, I can look at that, and I can say, “Everybody else believes it. I don’t buy it. I’m going to look for a different way. I’m going to figure out a different way to do this.”
Serve the brand, not egos.
The system for generating ideas is a pure meritocracy and not about who you like the most because that’s our fallback. That’s how we’re going to do it, anyway.
Heighten your brand identity.
That’s about finding the most outrageous version of your brand identity and playing that character to the hilt, to the point where people recognize you with delight because they know your character archetype.
Use quantity to achieve quality.
The best idea never came from a list of one idea. The best idea came from a list of 300 ideas that everybody read through, poured over, looked at shortlists, and discussed. I don’t believe in committee decision-making. There should always be somebody at the top who is in charge and was the final say. That person needs to finally say, “That’s the winner.” Try it. If it doesn’t work, scrap it and pick a different one.
I was a young captain. I got into Special Forces. I got dragged into the battalion commander’s office one day. He said, “We need you to go to DC to go to a conference.’ I said, “Thank you so much for selecting me. It is truly an honor.” He said, “Friend, sometimes being the only guy makes you the best guy.” I will never forget that. I was the only guy who could go. Do things that are press worthy.
For a long time, we were struggling at The Onion to get noticed. This was before the internet. There was no going viral. It was like, “How do we get more press? How do we get people to write about us?” We thought we were doing pretty good work, but we couldn’t get any attention. We started sending out press releases whenever we put out a new issue. Nobody would write about us. Nobody would listen to these press releases.
We ran an article that got us a big lawsuit threat from the Governor of Wisconsin. He was going to sue us. All the newspapers or call us. We got all this press. I realized, “That is how it works. You have to do something that is press worthy.” Don’t just send out press releases. Call attention to yourself. That is part of being outrageous. What’s the most outrageous thing a college humor publication could do, which is what we were at the time? Piss off the governor.
Last one, embrace the outrageous.
Lean into that character archetype that you are and see how far you can take it. Disney was all about, “How can I be the most outrageously family-oriented brand?” For him, that was not just movies, books, etc. The way to lean into that and make it the most outrageous is, “How do we create an entire world that people can escape into that is beyond a movie and TV show?” They entered this magical bubble, this kingdom, and everything is family-friendly. Who would have thought of that? Nobody would have thought of that unless you were thinking, “How can I be the most outrageous version of this character that I’m playing? “
If you think about it, what are you doing at Disney World? There are people dressed up as characters running around, and you love every second of it. You are spending so much money to put a smile on your kid’s face.
Everyone told them not to do it. Everyone told him it was a mistake, and he mortgaged his house to pay for a Disneyland in Anaheim.
What is next for me is more comedy. It’s all I care about. It’s all I’m doing. I’m working on more comedy books. I started this new comedy podcast called Scott Dikkers Around, where I try to be funny for ten minutes. For a long time, I was writing books and stuff. I was missing the performing aspect of comedy because when I was at The Onion, I did a lot of performing. I would always do voices on the videos or the radio show. I realized that muscle was atrophying. I had to get back because there weren’t a lot of stages to go on during a pandemic, either. I have been doing this podcast for all. That has been fun, and I should be accountable to come up with new material every week.
Should we send all the former presidents and politicians to jail?
If a common criminal is a suspect of a crime, they are arrested and put on trial for the crime. The elites and the politicians get away with it. We don’t put them in jail like a common criminal. We don’t go to their house and bust them at 3:00 in the morning. Everybody is upset that Donald Trump got raided. The Left was upset when Hillary Clinton got raided.
It’s delightful that they are getting raided. That’s how we should always treat politicians. They get way too much special treatment. Treat them like common criminals. I would have loved to have seen a Donald Trump thrown to the ground and cuffed like a common criminal. Imagine how satisfying that would be to the American people to see an elite treated like all of us. That’s punching up. Let’s bring them down to our size. We know they always get away with it anyway. Even if it’s for a show, let’s see it.
Scott, as we close out, the Jedburghs had to do three things every day. We call them foundation habits. They had to be able to shoot, move, and communicate. If they did these three things with the utmost precision, they could focus their attention on more complex challenges that came their way. What are the three things that you do every day to be successful in your world?
I’m tempted to answer basic health things that I do. Everybody will tell you things like a gratitude, exercise, meditation, and stuff like that. I don’t know if that’s what you’re looking for or if you’re looking for more task-oriented things.The best idea never came from a list of one idea. Click To Tweet
Whatever comes to your mind.
There are those things, but I’ll focus on comedy-related and task-oriented things. I have to write comedy every day because if you’re not writing comedy, what comedian or comedy writer are you? You have to do it every day. Number two is I have to help someone else be better at comedy every day. When I was at The Onion, I would always hire people who were completely green and had no comedy experience.
One of the best parts of my job was mentoring them and teaching them how to do comedy on a fundamental level. Since I left The Onion, I have been teaching comedy online and at The Second City. It’s incredibly rewarding. I love comedy. I want there to be more in the world. I want to give as much as I can to people who want to learn about comedy to do better.
Number three is I need to enjoy some comedy. I need to laugh at something. I need to find something funny, and I need to be playing the game as an audience member, not as a creator. I have gone many months where I didn’t enjoy any comedy. I just produced it. If you ever want to completely empty yourself, try that because it’s soul-crushing. When you see any type of comedy, you don’t even see the comedy anymore, and you see the code of the matrix because you’re in the business. It’s like, “That is a misplaced focus joke with a meta-humor twist at the end.” You need to be able to sit back and get a good hearty laugh. Those would be my three things.
Can you separate yourself from looking like that?
You can’t, but I have learned to, at least like a wine taster can enjoy wine, or a film critic can enjoy a film. Maybe on a deeper level, but they’re still enjoying it. I can still look at it critically and appreciate it while also enjoying it. I used to be intellectual about it, and it was hard for me to enjoy it. That has been a life improvement in a few decades.
We spoke about a lot of different topics here that you covered in Outrageous Marketing and your life building The Onion. We tied a lot of that into these characteristics of the performance. We talked about the five SOF truths. At the end of these conversations, I talked about all nine throughout this thing. I picked 1 of these 9 characteristics, drive, resiliency, adaptability, humility, integrity, curiosity, team ability, effective intelligence, and emotional strength.
In our conversation, what I have learned about you in what we talked about here now, elite performance demonstrates all these nine, never at one time. Depending on the situation you’re in, there will be a combination of a couple of them. When I think about one that I would sum you up, it comes down to curiosity. With curiosity comes drive, resiliency, and adaptability.
You have to have humility when you’re curious because you’re not always going to get it right. You have to have integrity because you got to do the right thing. You will display team ability. You will use effective intelligence and think about your experiences in the past and emotional strength. All of these things come into your ability to wake up every day and ask yourself the question that you posed earlier, which is, “Am I doing it the best that it can be done?”
I feel like writing comedy has to be approached fundamentally from a mindset of curiosity. “What’s funny about this? That’s amusing. Why is that?” Try to write out joke beats or get at the core of what makes that funny. Comedy is one of those things that you can’t repeat the same formula. Every joke has to be completely from scratch.
In any other genre, if you want to make somebody cry, there are a few things you can do. You kill a horse in a movie, and everybody will cry. In a scary movie, you show a creepy clown with a knife, and you’re done. They can bring all those things back. In comedy, if you bring a banana peel or a rubber chicken, everyone will be like, “We saw that before. What do you get as new?” Curiosity is more fundamental than I would have thought before this conversation. I appreciate that. Thank you.
You demonstrated this in your whole career. Coming here, meeting with you, and coming to Minneapolis for the first time is truly an honor. I have learned a tremendous amount about journalism, industry, building brands, and reading a book. Speaking with you resonates with all thirteen of your points. I feel like I’m living every day as we build this show. I’m living my dream. I remember the days when I was walking around Boston University, holding The Onion in my hand and truly an inspirational organization and a career that you built. Thank you for sharing it with me.
You’re welcome. Thank you so much for coming all this way to talk to me. I’m glad you enjoyed your visit to our fair city.
- Scott Dikkers
- The Onion
- Outrageous Marketing
- YouTube – The Jedburgh Podcast
- @JedburghPodcast – Twitter
- @ItsScottDikkers – Twitter
- @TheOnion – Twitter
- How to Write Funny
- National Lampoon
- USA Today
- Fox News
- The Onion News Network
- Episode 69 – Past Episode
- Global SOF Foundation
- Episode 14 – Past Episode
- The 5 Levels of Leadership
- Our Dumb Century
- Holy Shit, Man Walks on Fucking Moon – Article on The Onion
- Fuck Everything, We’re Doing Five Blades – Article on The Onion
- 1,000 True Fans
- Scott Dikkers Around
- The Second City
- Harry Potter Books Spark Rise In Satanism Among Children – Article on The Onion
- Johnson & Johnson Introduces ‘Nothing But Tears’ Shampoo To Toughen Up Newborns – Article on The Onion
- Fun Toy Banned Because Of Three Stupid Dead Kids – Article on The Onion
- Heartwarming: When This Subway Employee Had To Walk 20 Miles To Work Because He Couldn’t Afford A Car, The CEO Of Subway Drove Alongside Him To Cheer Him On – Article on Clickhole