Letter from New York, 2005


First Person

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.