Silly? Yes, but There's Nothing Moronic About the Onion and Its Staff

Since the country was a colony, history has been measured in headlines:

"Men Walk on Moon"

"Nixon Resigns"

"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.

The Onion: Reporters of Funny
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"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.

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