- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 10, 2001

NEW YORK The move from Madison, Wis., to a newly refinished fifth-floor space in upscale Chelsea will neither tame nor inflame the staff at the country's foremost newspaper lampoon, the Onion.

The scribes promise that the move and its attendant pay increase will not prevent them from continuing their mission: to write like George Carlin in grade school, to catch the wry in pop culture and to ensure stories with banner headlines like "Bush: Our Long National Nightmare of Peace and Prosperity is Finally Over," will continue to hit the streets and the Web.

"We're still geeks, and we always will be," says Todd Hanson, head writer for the 12-year-old publication, which started in 1988 as an alternative newspaper for students at the University of Wisconsin.

"Coming here is just a chance for us to be someplace where there is more comedy like ours, more alternative comedy. But we won't be selling out or going mainstream. I doubt that Winona Ryder will want to go out with me," he said.

"We're not gonna have some ultrahip humor all of a sudden," says writer Chris Karwowski, who joined the Onion eight months ago. His leap to the publication was typical before the move he was working at a sandwich shop down the street from Onion headquarters in Madison.

Mr. Hanson and Mr. Karwowski, like most of the eight-member staff, have Midwestern roots, a late-'60s/ early-'70s birth date and a Greenpeace cum Granola appearance longish hair, well worn clothes and a smart irreverence spiked with irony.

Mr. Hanson was a college dropout and dishwasher before he became a paid Onion staffer in 1997. He wrote headlines for around $20 a pop to augment his minimum-wage income before that.

"I was also a third-shift convenience store clerk, and I worked at an answering service," Mr. Hanson said proudly.

The troupe is still completing its move, and it shows. The Onion quarters still has plenty of sawdust on its newly finished hardwood floor. The primary furniture comprises a new pingpong table and Foosball game, the latter compliments of Crown Publishing, which released "Our Dumb Century," a book of satirical front pages written by Onion staffers that was a New York Times best seller in 1999.

It is one of two best-selling books by Onion writers, and the group plans a third. And two movie deals are in the works "Canadian Girlfriend Unsubstantiated" and "10th Circle Added To Rapidly Expanding Hell."

Miramax bought "first look" rights from the Onion, meaning it may choose to develop other story ideas and make them into films.

"It's still in the cocktail party stage," said editor in chief Rob Siegel, a Long Island native who has spent the past six years in Madison. This week, he and his crew will attend a Miramax mixer in their honor.

Not that they know what to do at these big city affairs.

"We're awkward. We stand in the corner by ourselves," Mr. Siegel said.

His high rank at the Onion earned him a spot on the Conan O'Brien show. The late-night television host is a longtime fan of the Onion.

"It was really cool, I got my own dressing room, and a limo picked me up," gushed Mr. Siegel, a man who is obviously still getting used to the limelight.

The staff's childlike fascination with the machinations of the world gives the Onion a fresh perspective, which is boundless in its willingness to discuss any issue. And Mr. Siegel is aware of that.

"We aren't big newshounds around here," he said. "The only reading we do is People magazine and maybe USA Today, the more lowbrow stuff. You won't find us reading the Economist or Nation."

"Silly ideas written in [Associated Press] style," is how writer Tim Harrod puts it. Clad in a black Atari T-shirt, khakis and an Onion ball cap, he speaks with the twist of a comedian, which is what he was at one time. He joined the staff in 1996 after submitting some headlines.

"I knew that this was a pillar of very high quality," he said, his seriousness being anybody's guess. It's that deadpan a common trait among most Onion staffers.

"I'm just glad that we didn't collapse in the dot-com crash. We survived, so I guess that's how we got to move here," he said.

The Onion is also distributed in Milwaukee, Chicago and Denver, for a combined circulation of around 200,000. New editions are planned for New York this summer and for San Francisco next year. TheOnion.com Web site also gets about a million visitors a month.

An Onion news meeting is like that of any other well-trained, professional comedy unit, like "Saturday Night Live" or David Letterman's show.

Cracking jokes is interrupted with ideas and one-liners. A reply to one headline idea: "That's so stupid, that's good." A concept for a new addition to the stable of traditional philosophers, albeit a Generation X one: "The great philosopher, Mediocrates."

Out of the meetings spring the stories that tickle and tantalize.

"Drug dealer outraged by racial profiling."

"Psychiatrist cures patient."

"Control freak wishes she had more free time."

The world according to the Onion is acerbic and iconoclastic, in which every thing is fair game to be mocked, and nothing is sacred.

An idea could spring from anything, such as a walk through the FAO Schwarz toy store or a walk to the deli.

The change of venue means a new backdrop for Mike Loew, the Onion's graphics editor. He and photographer Chad Nackers are responsible for the photos that grace the Onion pages, which are as eye-catching as the stories.

The photos are often of every man, who are really staffers with overlaid mugs.

Mr. Nackers, for example, grew his beard to go with his Christ-length hair to convincingly portray Jesus in a shot. The 27-year-old is growing it out again, this time for a series of photos for the Onion's file.

"You never know when you are going to need Jesus," said Mr. Loew, who refers to himself as a "mild mannered Midwesterner." Reflecting his humble roots, the 28-year-old University of Wisconsin graduate calls the new deal with Miramax a chance to mix with the "fancy people."

The two Appleton, Wis., natives have been friends since the eighth grade. Both are still getting used to New York living, but their work has been eased by the move to the Big Apple.

"We used to have this one alley with graffiti in Madison where we would shoot any shot that called for that," Mr. Loew said. "Now we have a whole city full of them."

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