Since the country was a colony, history has been measured in headlines:
"Men Walk on Moon"
"Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job."
That last one, heralding the election of President Barack Obama, may have run on the front page of a joke newspaper, but The Onion has gained so much cultural relevance, the White House press office saved a copy. Billed as "America's finest news source," the weekly also happens to be the only national news source with the luxury of writing the headline before the story.
"Gore Upset That Clinton Doesn't Call Anymore"
"Middle East Conflict Intensifies as Blah, Blah, Blah, Etc., Etc."
"Mail-Order Bride Comes in Wrong Color, Size"
These, and tens of thousands of others, have come out of the Tuesday morning headline meeting, now held in a back office of the Onion's small and cluttered Manhattan headquarters. Every week, a dozen unshaven white guys amble in with laptops and coffee cups to spend an entire day deconstructing jokes to the molecular level.
They start each week with 500 potential headlines and then slowly chip away until they strike comedy gold.
"My personal favorite headline that I ever wrote was when President Bush asked the media to lay off his daughters," says Todd Hanson, a story editor. "And, so, I wrote, 'Jenna Bush's Federally Protected Wetlands Now Open For Public Drilling.'"
There were no such instant classics in a recent meeting. The group spent 15 minutes debating whether "Montessori School of Dentistry Lets Students Discover Their Own Root Canal Procedure" was worthy of an entire story. They haggled over "Area 5-Year-Old Notes Duck," and "Greyhound To Offer Direct Service From Kansas To L.A. Porn Director's Driveway" with no real consensus. But when editorial assistant Brian Janosch suggests "INS Deports Lou Dobbs," the room erupts with ideas and laughter.
"Lou Dobbs, born Luis Dominguez..."
"Put him in a room with 17 other people who look exactly like Lou Dobbs."
"He'll see it and it will make him so mad, putting him in a sombrero with a huge moustache."
All of this meticulous silliness began 21 years ago, when a couple of Wisconsin college students discovered that small-town satire is a wonderful way to sell beer and pizza ads on campus.
"It was bunch of people with minimum-wage jobs who had either graduated or dropped out of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and were looking for something to do with their lives that was remotely interesting, so that they wouldn't feel like total failures," said Hanson.
As a new book, "Our Front Pages: 21 Years Of Greatness, Virtue, And Moral Rectitude From America's Finest News Source," displays, the early Onion was crude, in more ways in one. Early front pages were devoted to one story, like "Pen Stolen." But at the publication's heart was always a brilliantly simple device: jokes as journalism, in all variations, from op-eds to 19th-century muckraking to the info-graphic cheeriness of USA Today.
All the better to break the news that "Area Bedroom Has That Weird Jeff Smell, Housemates Report."
'It's for the Love'
In the 1990s, the Onion expanded to markets around the Midwest and online. By 2000, the paper had outgrown Madison, and when operations moved to Manhattan, it was only natural that they adopt the august tone of a big city Paper of Record.
"Bush Refuses to Set Timetable for Withdrawal of Head From White House Banister" may not fool anyone as news but the paper's story about Congress demanding a retractable dome on the Capitol made actual front pages in Beijing.
"That ran in Chinese papers pointing out how greedy the Americans were and, then, when they learned it was a satirical paper," says Joe Randazzo, Onion editor in chief, "their follow up said, 'See, in America, newspapers make money by telling lies.'"
Is Randazzo making money?
"$40 billion," he deadpans.
"No, I am not sure," he says. "We don't get paid. It's for the love of it."
It would be easy to point out that while the newspaper industry is reeling, the Onion is thriving, with a circulation of 400,000, best-selling books and a Peabody Award for the online Onion News Network. But this news-gathering machine enjoys unfairly low overhead. A tour of the Onion empire takes about four minutes and proves that they have clung to a dorm room aesthetic, despite their success.
"The problem is, jokes can be on any scrap of paper," explained features editor Joe Garden. "The [cleaning staff] is instructed not to clean. I think that's the mania that guides us as writers: Don't throw anything away."
Unlike their counterparts at the New York Times, the Onion's foreign correspondents travel no farther than Soho for lunch. The art department consist of three guys who spend the day photo-shopping heads of state onto funny bodies. And their ombudsman is an intern who posts complaint letters on the bulletin board for all to mock.
"Hopefully, the Onion's editorial cartoon was meant to be facetious otherwise it was a misinformed supposition about stay-at-home moms," read one.
"There was an Onion News Network video that recently ran about Shawn Johnson the gymnast being put down by her parents," said Randazzo, the editor in chief. "And that brought a lot of very confused phone calls from 14-year-old girls Monday after that aired. I think we are really blessed in that we have been allowed to operate completely independently for as long as we've been around, which means we don't have any kind of corporation to answer to, we don't have any censorship or standards board."
'Things That Are Stupid'
"God Answers Prayers of Paralyzed Little Boy: 'No' Says God," is a fairly obvious indication that they consider nothing out-of-bounds. They even, famously, found the humor in 9/11. After much internal debate, the Onion devoted an the entire issue to the attacks, with headlines like "Hijackers Surprised to Find Selves In Hell" and "Hugging up 76,000 percent." Raves far outnumbered complaints.
"I think you would find that most of our writing, although it's ironic or bitter, there's always a heart there, like there might be a desire, deep deep down, for some of us that things could be better," said Randazzo. "Or maybe we are just jerks."
"We're just making fun of things that are stupid," said Hanson. "So if everyone in the world stops being stupid and starts being smart, I suppose we will have to look for another job. But I don't think that's going to happen, because it hasn't happened in the first 20,000 years of homo sapiens existence."
So keep it up, "Soulless Man With Cordless Phone."
These guys have a paper to fill.