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Friday January 28th

Writers make an a-peel-ing blend

Onion staffers to hit campus Thursday

Eventually, any journalist might tire of conducting interviews.

Not Peter Koechley, staff writer for The Onion. But it might help that in the newsroom of his satirical weekly newspaper, few outgoing calls are for quotes.

The Onion, self-proclaimed “America’s Finest News Source,” relies on the imagination and dauntlessness of its staff to fill its paper with exciting and controversial news.

And it’s all made up.

Koechley, along with co-worker Joe Garden, will be at the University for the Carolina Comedy Festival — educating students on The Onion’s blend of comedy and news at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in 100 Hamilton Hall.

It seems that Koechley was destined to occupy a cubicle at the snarky, ironic publication, whose loyal readership flocks to the paper’s Web site if they can’t get their fake news in print.

The Madison, Wis., native started his own independent newspaper while still in high school. He then moved to New York to attend Columbia University and became the Onion’s first intern after sending the paper a copy of his publication.

He described the transition to being a staff writer as a “big hard jump,” but he said he’s gotten the hang of things.

“It takes a long time to learn The Onion sensibility,” Koechley said. “It took many years of practice to really nail it and feel comfortable knowing what should be in and shouldn’t.”

Inventing content is a collaborative effort, with staffers voting on headlines and articles and deciding what will have the greatest comic effect. The fact that the articles are fake makes them easier to write, Koechley said, because writers don’t have to conduct interviews or be factually accurate.

“I get to make up all the quotes, which makes it easier, and imagine the whole scenario,” Koechley said.

So while regular journalists toil away at hard-hitting questions or make sure quotes are accurate, writers like Koechley are able to utilize their imaginations.

One of his favorite stories came from the last election and featured Vice President Dick Cheney in a surrealistic way.

“One of my favorite ones, because we were embroiled in the campaign for so long, was ‘Cheney Vows to Attack U.S. if Kerry (Elected),’” said Koechley. “I had him quoted as saying, ‘Realize you’re making a grave decision; I will wreck untold devastation.’”

With stories like that and the minds who create them, The Onion’s office seems like it would be a madcap environment.

Not so, according to Koechley.

“We’re low-budget, we have an OK office, and we come here and basically sit around a Staples conference table,” Koechley said.

“It’s not a laugh riot. There’s a lot of jokes to go through every day, and you have to keep sharp with a lot of energy and focus. It’s way more fun than most jobs, but there’s a lot of serious.”

As expected, when writing faux stories using real public figures, Onion writers can take a lot of heat.

Feedback comes in often, Koechley said, but it’s usually from people who enjoy or dislike stories based on their own beliefs.

“Every article we write we get people saying we went too far, but we get e-mails about just about everything,” Koechley said. “People like jokes about things they don’t care about — like it’s funny when you made a joke about cancer but not about race — but we try to make fun of everything.”

But The Onion isn’t completely irreverent, and its writers and readers note that the publication does read like an average paper.

“We write (Associated Press) style, and we want the structure and tone to read like a real newspaper, but you also have to understand how to break those rules and what’s funny,” Koechley said. “We break the rules for jokes, but not if it doesn’t help the joke. We make up facts all the time (but) if it’s not part of the punchline, we want the facts to be true.”

The inspiration for a joke can come anytime and anywhere, prompting Koechley to scribble it into the notebook he carries.

“The Onion is a way of thinking about things and framing things, and there’s a way to turn a lot of situations into an Onion situation.”

Often, he might just write down lists of headlines that make him laugh, but Koechley’s humor slants toward the political and also “a lot stupider.”

But while he doesn’t take in much stand-up comedy, he cites the late Mitch Hedberg, Neil Hamburger and Jon Stewart as some of his favorite comedic personalities.

Koechley is now working on a story with the headline “A Gentleman Doesn’t Disclose Who Sucked Him Off.” While this might not tickle everyone’s funny bone, Koechley believes The Onion provides humor for all.

“When I didn’t work here, I liked the variety of jokes in one issue, so we try to aim for that: a wide variety of jokes in every issue and a way to reach out to a lot of people,” he said.

Currently, conservatives might not enjoy The Onion’s treatment of the Bush administration, but at least “The Daily Show” is in its ranks.

“There’s never been a better time for fake news, but Bush is hard to write about after a while,” he said.

“I think that for what it’s worth, ‘The Daily Show’ is something you can trust what angle it’s going to take, and you can get the info from it, and I think The Onion is a same way.

“People who read The Onion understand it. It’s a newspaper they’re familiar with and can relate to. Other newspapers are a lot more unreliable or boring. It helps a lot we don’t have to use facts: If the news is boring one week, we can make it up.”

So while Koechley joked about not getting into UNC, it seems he is getting the last laugh.

“The Onion is like a character, and we all write for The Onion,” he said.

“It’s a big joke that were all a part of.”

 

Contact the A&E Editor at artsdesk@unc.edu.

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