The Colgate Scene
Normal Is Not Funny
[Photo by Jeff Miller]
Daniel Cattau '72 sat down with Stephen J. Hannah '70 for a conversation about his life as a journalist, entrepreneur, and CEO of The Onion, "America's Finest News Source"
"Everybody in my family is funny. My mother was hysterically funny and had a very peculiar view of the world," said Hannah at his cottage overlooking a wide swath of the Wisconsin River north of Madison, Wis. "She believed in her own standard of 'normalcy,' which had no relationship whatsoever to anyone else's idea of what was normal or not."
From this rustic setting, Hannah, former managing editor of The Milwaukee Journal, wrote a syndicated weekly newspaper humor column, "State of Mind," based largely on Wisconsin oddballs (including Steve). "I was the champion of the guy who wanted to build the Bratwurst Hall of Fame," he said, naturally, over a beer.
"When hunters advocated establishing an open season on mourning doves — the state's official symbol of peace — I advocated open season on all the State Legislature's official symbols, including Holstein cows and people who dance the polka (official state dance). Neither the hunters nor the polka people found this amusing."
Hannah, who also has a home in suburban Milwaukee, commutes regularly to Manhattan, where he serves as CEO of The Onion, a satirical tabloid with a cult following of an estimated five million weekly readers — including its snappy website, theonion.com.
Onion headlines are raunchy, silly, offensive, and, invariably, right on the money. To wit, after the Katrina devastation:
Bush: "It Has Been Brought To My Attention That There Was Recently a Bad Storm."
But Hannah's job is no joke. The Onion is a privately held, accelerating enterprise with world-renowned comedy and sophisticated pop culture coverage (The AV Club), circulating weekly in print in seven cities (including New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver/Boulder, San Francisco, and its former home base of Madison, Wis.), a syndicated radio program, and bestselling books such as Our Dumb Century.
Hannah's wayward journey started in parochial school, where Sisters Immaculate and Dorothy Joseph treated Steve with the same disdain that Barry Bonds shows middle relievers.
"I got hit a lot," he said. "And I deserved it. I misbehaved. I did not get a passing grade in deportment until the fourth grade."
Hannah went to Colgate after being recruited to play tennis by the late Joe Abrahamson, but was more inspired by several English professors, including Wilbur Albrecht.
After Colgate, he spent a year studying literature at University College in Dublin, Ireland, but returned without a degree. He then worked as a police reporter at a small New Jersey paper, followed by a stint as a "general newsroom jerk" at CBS News. He pursued a love interest to Wisconsin, where he married his wife, Susan. They have two children: Brendan, who works for The Onion in sales and marketing, and daughter Jamie, a sophomore at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Along the way, Hannah taught tennis, worked as Midwest editor for Tennis Magazine, hosted a Charles Kuralt-type show for Wisconsin Public Television, held a variety of reporting and editing jobs in 17 years at the Milwaukee Journal, served as a media relations consultant to several large corporations, made investments, and eventually landed the job as CEO of Onion, Inc.
"One thing I do not want to do is suggest that I had anything to do with inventing, writing for, or bringing The Onion to where it is today," said Hannah. "I'm just a guy who got a call from a lawyer friend a few years back who said The Onion needed an angel investor. I recruited one. Eventually I invested in it, served on the board, and then got drafted (in 2004) to be CEO because the company was growing so fast. Basically, I got lucky big time."
Issue 41-36 [Enlarge]
DC: Does the world need The Onion more than, say, Dick Cheney and Martha Stewart?
SH: Is that a trick question? I know this: Dick Cheney and Martha Stewart provide wonderful material for The Onion. I like to think we are working together with Dick and Martha to make the world a much funnier place, only they are contributing sort of unintentionally and we are doing it on purpose.
The Onion, in the best tradition of satire, is funny and fearless, and, yes, brilliantly tasteless. Our writers live to deflate the inflated egos of politicians, celebrities, athletes, and the cologne guy sitting in the cubicle next to you at work. The world definitely needs The Onion.
I like what Ken Burns said about us: "The Onion, unlike any other entity in our media culture, offers a refreshingly honest look at our complicated life."
DC: Your career seems to have been designed by a Sherpa guide. How does Colgate fit in?
SH: Maybe, but he was a good guide. I've never had a job I didn't like. As for Colgate, I got a terrific liberal arts education. I also got my head snapped. Freshman year was a struggle. I spent most of my time chasing women at Cazenovia and Skidmore and sucking back beer at the Colgate Inn. I got humiliated in small classes. Frau Henry in German made a complete fool out of me, and from that I learned that you had better be prepared. I've carried the ghost of Frau Henry into every meeting or presentation in my professional life. She scared me straight — sort of.I think I learned how to think critically at Colgate. And I learned a little something about writing and communication.
DC: Did you fare any better with English profs?
SH: Definitely. Russ Spiers, Jonathan Kistler, and Joe Slater were great. They were real pros, dedicated to teaching. The best prof I had, though, was Will Albrecht. I took his survey course in American literature. The guy would light up a cigarette, pace back and forth, and talk passionately for an hour without ever taking a breath. He never so much as glanced at a note. It was Albrecht who got me really interested in Mark Twain, who, in my humble opinion, was the greatest humorist in American history.
Twain was funny, irreverent, and fearless. He was not afraid to address touchy topics — Baptists, powerful politicians, the French, race — that were totally taboo for most everybody else. George Bernard Shaw said that Twain taught him that "the truth is the funniest joke in the world."
In graduate school in Ireland, I was similarly smitten with Jonathan Swift and his Modest Proposal. So, in a sort of a roundabout way, I think my education prepped me for the job I've got today.
DC: How would you describe The Onion's worldview — early Neanderthal?
SH: That's not funny. You might hurt our feelings and we might retaliate. I think that could be a career-breaker for you.
Anyway, I once asked that same question of a former editor. He said, "The Onion is the view from the break room between shifts at the Land O'Lakes cheese factory in northern Wisconsin."
SH: I think it means the view of regular folks with a low tolerance for hypocrisy or sanctimony, a jaundiced eye, and, ultimately, the ability to find humor in absolutely everything — including the Amish and Mother Theresa. The paper's motto, as stated on our editorial page, is "Tu Stultus Es," which means, in a Latin nutshell, "You are stupid." The Onion exposes stupidity.
DC: Onion writers seem to be borderline sociopaths. Where do you get them?
SH: I'm going to forget you said that.
The majority of them are the original kids — only older — who hooked up with The Onion at the University of Wisconsin back in the late '80s and early '90s. On the Conan O'Brien show, our editor, Scott Dikkers, affectionately called them a "band of kooks and misfits." They are mostly Wisconsin products. I suspect they were the smartest kids in their high school classes and, for the most part, I doubt they were the kids who captained the football team or the cheerleading squad. That"s a good pedigree for seeing the world in sharp, satirical terms.
DC: Cheeseheads with an attitude? Does that humor really translate to more normal places, like Manhattan and San Francisco?
SH: Those are not normal places. But, yes, absolutely, it travels. You"d think we would mainly be popular with liberal bedwetters, but our reach is really broad. I think that's because The Onion is an equal-opportunity skewer. The Onion hammered Clinton just as hard as it hammers Bush. All swollen toads are fair game. We have millions of fans in all 50 states, Canada, Australia, England, and other seedy places around the globe. We get e-mail all the time from people in Vancouver, Paris, Baghdad, and, yes, even Boise.
Recently we got a request to send the print edition of The Onion to sailors serving on the USS Nimitz. We did. We also had a letter from a U.S. soldier in Baghdad, writing on behalf of his entire company, disavowing any connection to Britney Spears's pregnancy.
DC: As I understand it, The Onion editorial process is the reverse of regular newspapers. You write the headlines first, and then the story. Why?
SH: It's really pretty simple: People who know comedy writing say that if you don't hook the audience at the get-go, they're never going to get into the body of the story. So we start with the hook, and that's the headline. Many of our heads on page one refer to stories inside that don't exist. The headline is the whole joke. Get it?
Of course, it helps when you're not burdened by the facts. People remember the headlines more than the stories, anyway. I can't tell you how many people, seeing my shamelessly self-promoting Onion baseball cap in an airport, walk up and reel off their 10 favorite Onion heads of all time. Not just 18-to-36-year-old men, either. An insurance broker from Kansas City told me his company's business comes to a halt when the new Onion goes up on the web Tuesday afternoon. It's clear we are doing nothing to further productivity in the American workplace. But we are making it more fun.
Issue 37-34 [Enlarge]
DC: What would you consider great moments in The Onion's 17-year history?
SH: Well, I think The Onion really shines when people are shell-shocked and don"t know whether it will ever be OK to laugh again, like after Hurricane Katrina or the World Trade Center tragedy. The Onion's post-9/11 edition was universally regarded as brilliant. I can recite the front-page heads from memory, like:
Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves in Hell
I'd argue that you need to maintain a sense of humor especially at times like those, but at the same time there's more than a kernel of truth in it. More than you might find, say, in the New York Times.
DC: A friend first read The Onion but was completely fooled into thinking the stories were real. Does this happen often?
SH: Every week. We ran a phony story a few years ago about how Congress was threatening to move the U.S. Capitol to Memphis unless they got a new building with a retractable roof and luxury seating. The Beijing Daily News ran the story as gospel on page one. When they found out they'd been had, they wrote a stupid skin-back saying that The Onion was one of those capitalist newspapers that published lies in order to make money. Our editor said, "Yes, that's it exactly. We make stuff up in order to make money." Somebody looked stupid.
DC: Being CEO of The Onion sounds like all fun and games. You get to read jokes all day. Is that pretty much it?
SH: Not exactly. Being CEO of The Onion means building a business in print, on the web, in radio, in film, and along lots of other avenues. My job is to make sure we have the resources to allow these comic geniuses to behave brilliantly. My job is not to screw things up.
Running The Onion is also a daily exercise in restraint. There are a lot of people who want to partner with us, a lot of media outlets that want our content. Most are a bad fit. So we turn down deals all the time. We are paranoid about not compromising our brand. A few years ago Jay Leno's people contacted us and wanted to do a nightly Onion segment on the Tonight Show. Our editors and writers rejected the idea in a nanosecond.
DC: What do you think your late mother and Sisters Immaculate and Dorothy Joseph would say about this latest turn in your career path?
SH: My mother would pat me on the head and say, "Good boy, Steve." The nuns would say, "We are not surprised. He was always a bad boy and a goof-off. He's found his niche, such as it is."
DC: If you were to write your own headline for this article, what would it be?
SH: "Beaten by Nuns, N.J. Boy Becomes Almost Normal."
Cattau, a Chicago-area writer, is a former Dallas Morning News reporter who also taught at Illinois and Indiana. He and Hannah belonged to Delta Upsilon in the late '60s — a fact they discovered last year while conversing in an Irish pub in Madison, Wis.
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