The Daily

First Person

Letter from New York, 2005

January 26, 2015 | by

Adventures in tastelessness at The Onion.

Photo: Casey Bisson, via Flickr

I used to be an editor at The Onion. This was in 2004, when most of the original writers were still there—just a handful had gone off to Hollywood. I was hired by my friend Carol Kolb, who’d just been made editor in chief.

Carol is the funniest person I have ever known. One time we went to a German restaurant together, and our server was a cross-dresser. The cross-dresser was the newer kind. He was a man, dressed as a woman, but I think the polite thing is to use the female pronoun. She didn’t wear any makeup, and she didn’t have styled hair. She wore blue jeans and a shirt from the Gap. Her chin-length red hair was lackluster, and looked a little oily. She was about forty years old, and she behaved like a forty-year-old woman—tired, kind, a little weary.

I went to the restaurant a lot, and for whatever reason, she never confused me, but Carol, I have to say, was uncomfortable. It was as if she couldn’t decide whether this was just a guy who had accidentally put on his wife’s clothes that morning or she was a woman who had just given up all hope. Carol had trouble ordering—she stumbled over her words and couldn’t meet the server’s eye. I noticed she kept looking nervously at the server’s breasts and hips. It wasn’t too big a deal, and the server handled it like a forty-year-old woman would, not taking it personally and not acknowledging that it was happening. When the server walked away, Carol said, “I am so embarrassed. I was acting like somebody from Spencer, Wisconsin.” She made her eyes glaze over as a hayseed’s would if he met Divine. “I was like this!” she said, “I just couldn’t get it together.”

Another joke of Carol’s was to say, on a crowded subway, “Did you hear about Maria’s new boyfriend?”

I enjoyed this, so I’d always go, “What? Maria’s dating someone?” I’d be pleasantly surprised. “How long’s this been going on?”

Carol would act like someone who has a secret she shouldn’t tell. I’d pressure her to spill. After some back and forth, she’d say, “He fucks her with a gun.”

Whoever was around us would begin to eavesdrop, and then we’d just play out the scene. It changed every time. Sometimes I started to bring up Maria’s new boyfriend, and then it was even better. When I told Carol about the gun one night on a subway, beside a modestly dressed brunette, Carol immediately said, “Was it loaded?”

I said it was, and she said, “Well, was the safety on?”

I’ve been thinking about Carol and those days at The Onion lately because of what happened at Charlie Hebdo. I’ve been remembering a time when The Onion’s advertising team, who just wanted us to be “a little more tasteful, a little more cautious,” tried to bully Carol.

We’d done a few jokes the ad guys didn’t like. The only one that comes to mind immediately was about Weird Al Yankovic writing a parody of “Tears in Heaven.” This joke came out the week his parents died. I don’t have Carol’s ferocious comic instincts, and so I admit, a bit shamefacedly, that I sort of sided with advertising, and a few other cowardly writers did, too. But Carol didn’t back down, and I admired that. She never backed down. Also, in her defense, the ad guys saw—and complained about—the material they didn’t like by sneaking our proofs off the editorial printer, which always just seemed slimy.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the people in the advertising department got very, very worried about what Carol was going to do. In fact, the writers had already had the headline meeting and none of them thought there was anything funny about Katrina. They were just staying away from it. I don’t know if they were right—maybe there was something there, in the government’s bungled handling or something—but they all felt just sad and scared and a little sick about it. Nobody was laughing.

But understandably, the advertising wing was working itself into a lather imagining all the tasteless jokes we were going to try to publish. They had even begun to decide, without consulting us, that this was it, they were taking a stand. This time they would not let Carol decide. “We will go to any lengths to protect the dignity of the citizens of New Orleans,” they more or less declared. The “president” of the company called Carol into his office, sat her down for a serious talk, and let her know that he felt strongly about this. He understood she would want to cover Katrina, but he “knew she would use good taste and good sense,” and that he wouldn’t have to take it any higher or play cards he didn’t want to play, should she choose to test him.

I don’t remember who had the idea. But one of us suggested we mock up a fake front page for our Katrina issue. We’d leave it lying in the editorial printer for one of the advertising people to find. We all got together and brainstormed the most offensive, terrifying, tasteless, wrong headlines we could think of, knowing that those little schemers would be watching the printer.

We turned in maybe fifteen headlines apiece. None of mine made it. We chose five, laid them out, and, to make it more realistic, Carol scribbled some editorial comments in red pen. One headline was so outrageous that it still makes me laugh a decade later. It was written by John Krewson. The art guys illustrated it with a newswire photo of African Americans wading through chest-high water. It evoked America at its worst—it was racist and insensitive and I remember every word, but The Paris Review editors drew the line at gun-fucking.

We left the page on the printer for a few hours before it disappeared. Then there was a long, icy silence from advertising. Stony glares. The phone call came. Carol went over to the president’s office. He held up the page. At this point, I would have broken. Any ordinary human would, I think, have broken. Carol said, outraged, “How did you get that?”

Amie Barrodale is soon to publish her first short story collection, You Are Having a Good Time.

22 COMMENTS

17 Comments

  1. terry | January 26, 2015 at 1:45 pm

    I needed that today. Awesome

  2. Hayseed | January 26, 2015 at 4:17 pm

    I’m not American, but it seems so American to me that this editor lady wouldn’t back down from making fun of Weird Al the week his parents passed away, and she’s described as a hero. Who cares?!

    Wow, snap out of it, the world has real problems.

    Are these people even real?

  3. NYC Lawyer | January 26, 2015 at 7:01 pm

    I think this is one of the most awful things that I’ve read in a while. Are we supposed to view Carol as a hero because she wasn’t afraid to make jokes about people dying and suffering due to Hurricane Katrina, and because she showed callous insensitivity to someone whose parents just died? I’m trying very hard to figure out what is admirable or heroic about Carol’s actions. She is monstrous. I don’t find any of that to be funny, and I do read the Onion. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean that we *glorify* hideous, offensive speech. It just means that people like Carol have a legal right to almost anything that they want…and I say “almost,” because even in the US it is not an absolute right. It is nit an absolute right in France and other countries around the world, either.

  4. Daria | January 26, 2015 at 7:23 pm

    I expect better of the Paris Review than to publish articles by writers who talk about “cross-dressers.” That word was obsolete before the 90s, and use of it reveals ignorance. And that wasn’t a bit of satire that offended me, that was part of a matter-of-fact statement. Transphobia is so 20th century.

  5. Rijst Tafel | January 27, 2015 at 6:09 am

    The comments are even more funny than the article. At least, to this reader from Europe …

  6. gareth | January 27, 2015 at 6:32 am

    I’d like to start this of in a reasonable tone so that you take this seriously. Picture me smiling inquisitively as I ask: what the fuck is wrong with you, you miserable bigotted piece of shit? Can you not hear yourself? If you’re unsure what is polite (read: not small-minded, offensive and shameful) maybe read a book (you seem capable of using the internet, too). You are not talking about a cross-dresser, you are not talking about a man, you talking about a trans person, and while you may be confused, it doesn’t sound like they are. Consider how much you sound like some white asshole in the 60s saying “I guess you’re supposed to call them ‘African Americans’ now.”

  7. Amie Barrodale | January 27, 2015 at 8:49 am

    What I liked about Carol was that she made me laugh. I don’t usually take anonymous comments to heart, but for some reason–maybe it is exhaustion, maybe it is that I was writing about my friend–these are hurting my feelings. So if I made anyone feel like these make me feel, then I’m sorry. It wasn’t my intention.

  8. dicktits | January 27, 2015 at 4:13 pm

    What a cocktease not giving away the headline.

    No one gives a shit what you call the man with tits. Only in the world of oversensitive fat lunatics that reside in comments sections could anyone possibly be offended by the term cross dresser.

  9. F.A. Flores | January 27, 2015 at 6:16 pm

    Wow. I expect readers for the Paris Review to not be sooooo easily offended. Obviously the writer of the article wasn’t directing any hatred toward this ‘trans-person.’

    Also, there’s a difference between ‘transphobia,’ and being socially awkward and/or not being sure how to behave in the presence of a ‘trans-person.’

    If you got really worked up about this, then you have serious issues.

    The actions of Carol made me laugh, good for her!

  10. Abe | January 30, 2015 at 8:26 am

    My father was a trans ad-man who died during hurricane Katrina, so I’m clearly the most offended here.

  11. Sara Woods | February 1, 2015 at 7:29 pm

    Amie,
    I’m a writer too, and a trans woman. I like to read TPR, and saw the headline for this come up on my tumblr feed and clicked on it, as I’ve been someone who enjoys The Onion from time to time and likes hearing behind-the-scenes stories. I started reading it and as soon as I got to the first sentence in the second paragraph, my stomach dropped. I work in a place where I have to interact with the public on a daily basis, and every single day I try my fucking hardest to NOT think about what is going through the heads of those people who are clueless about trans people. I have had all the bullshit stereotypes about us drilled into my head since birth, and it’s a big part of why it took me until I was 29 to come out. What you describe at the beginning of this piece will now go through my head every single time I have to interact with a stranger at work and am worried about what they are thinking about me. Sure, that’s a big part of my daily experience already, and I get plenty of overt shit spewed at me, but that’s easy enough to ignore. It’s the people who are ~nice~ but can’t fathom who I am or what my story is. I’m just a bizarre oddity that makes them uncomfortable. I think that’s what weighs on me most. Do you realize it’s amazing that I even have a job? One where I can be out? I’m sure it was the same for the waitress in that restaurant. Obliviousness is a privilege. So kindly fuck the hell off.

  12. DKH | June 17, 2015 at 3:46 pm

    Ruh-roh, the language police didn’t let this anecdote go unremarked. The buzzwords “transphobia” and “privilege” made their dutiful way into the commentary, along with a bunch of–ooh, naughty!!–profanity and insults. Should there be a trigger warning in 108-point type emblazoned at the top of the page so that all the SJW sheep with their useless gender-studies degrees will know to be Very Offended and lecture us all on What Is Appropriate and How People Shall Be Called Because There Is A Correct Way And There Is Your Ignorant, Slanderous Way.

  13. Narj Westerhalen | January 26, 2016 at 11:50 am

    Oh, I get it.

    Let me try:

    To all the fuck buckets of ass vomit masquerading as intellects scolding plain old regular folks for being too easily offended, go fuck a gun with the safety off. But, don’t get a big gun. Otherwise, your tiny bits of urine soaked penis will slip out, you preening bearded fart huffers.

    I win.

  14. Phyllida | January 26, 2016 at 11:59 am

    Boring and transphobic. I expected better.

  15. Jorge | January 26, 2016 at 5:35 pm

    I’m not at all bothered by the trans stuff (since Barrodale uses respectful pronouns, and the transphobia is presented critically and also, apparently, accurately).

    I’m just a little disappointed by the punchlines of the first and last anecdote. Both of them lacked any … wit. Like, are they meant merely to shock? When you wrote “another joke of Carol’s,” I had to actually stop and reread the previous paragraph, because I had apparently missed the first joke of Carol’s (since to me the waitress story just seemed like an awkward interaction recalled fondly). Was the “joke” that Carol made a funny face? Seriously? Couldn’t you have imagined her using a bit of wordplay or something? Onion stories usually have more layers than this one.

  16. Mark W | January 28, 2016 at 4:55 am

    To the people whining about transphobia: Not all men who wear women’s clothes want to become women. It’s people like you who are perpetuating gender stereotypes and making crossdressing taboo by suggesting everyone who dresses as a man or woman wants to BE a man or woman.

    Clothes are for everyone.

  17. James Frichner | March 21, 2016 at 12:10 pm

    Amie,

    Thank you for this insightful and highly interesting article. Please don’t take the hate directed at you to heart, there is a good chance that these people are huge fans of the onion who merely assumed that you would pick up on the sarcasm in their ridiculous complaints.

    More importantly, you have nothing to be sorry for, because in your description of the potentially trans waiter you were both respectful and humanizing. Maybe these people should found a commune where you are not allowed to look at another person at all without verbally notifying them of how much you respect them and offering a pre-apology whenever you are not exactly sure which box they are trying to squeeze themselves into. Also, Carol sounds hilarious and anyone who can’t see the bravery and skill level it takes to deadpan in a situation where your job is probably not a very fun person to be around. In fact, it’s these people, who will make borderline death threats over a perceived lack of tolerance, who truly scare me.

    Anyway, you shouldn’t be bothered because all these commenters are likely trolls. I loved the article and I would kill for a chance to read that lost headline.

5 Pingbacks

  1. […] A look inside The Onion. […]

  2. […] writers have in the past described repeated battles with its advertising side over what it publishes, culminating with the […]

Leave a Comment