Parody newspaper The Onion was recently featured on This American Life. The 15 minute segment sits in on their team's weekly process for introducing and vetting funny headlines on Monday and Tuesday for the paper. It's an interesting look inside the creative process of a team trying to tell jokes in print. Normally explaining a joke saps it of any of its humorous qualities, but the writers at The Onion review, argue over and kill these funny headlines with academic precision.
It begins with every team member presenting 15 headlines. If at least two people vote 'yay,' the idea survives to see another day. They generate over 600 headlines at the beginning of each week, with most dying immediately on Monday morning. The key here, like in any team brainstorming session, is quantity: it takes lots of ideas to arrive at the few that are worth pursuing. What's different from standard brainstorming rules is the criticism: discussions immediately erupt over the relative humor of "Local girlfriend just wants to do stuff," as opposed to the similar, "Nations girlfriends call for more quality time." Ideas that feel like winners are cheered, whereas the losers like "Nations girlfriends" are immediately jeered. Theirs is a tough room.
Why does this work, whereas most teams would struggle and shut down under that kind of criticism? One answer is The Onion's strong culture. They have been around for 20 years developing an extremely strong sense of their own voice. Some team members have been there from the beginning, while newer team members have a powerful identity to live up to. Another answer is simply that there is power in their quantity of ideas mixed with a strong, collective editorial voice, even a critical one. The process needs to produce 16 winning headlines to print each week. The same process might not be able to take a product to market over a period of months, but it is extremely efficient at getting a funny newspaper out the door.
A few interesting points that came up during the segment:
- Some headlines get laughs right away, yet those are rarely ones that survive into print. They think they lack depth.
- Silliness is a hot button issue at The Onion. The team agrees that every silly joke needs an 'X' factor to be compelling, not just silly.
- They worry about how to innovate and avoid being stale and a parody of themselves.
- The biggest internal battle is between the old and new guard.
- The younger writers have a bigger tolerance for being silly.
Listen the full segment during the first 15 minutes of This American Life's episode, Tough Room.