Splitsider

Friday, April 15th, 2011

On My Time Working at The Onion News Network

Hi there. My name is Chris Kelly. I'm a comedian, writer, actor and public street-crier in New York City. For the last four and a half years, I've had the immense privilege of working at The Onion News Network. In fact, I've probably spent 70% of my waking life in New York City working to make our videos there. Last week, I accepted a job to move to LA and be a staff writer for Funny or Die, and while I am extremely excited to head west, I feel like I should take a sec to be real indulgently weepy on this public website about my amazing time at the ol' ONN. Plus, not a lot is written about what it's like to work there, so why don't I open my big fat mouth about what it was like for me?

In short, working at The Onion News Network literally changed my life. I started as a production intern in the fall of 2006, months before The Onion News Network launched. I found locations and did production work for zero dollars, all so that I could occasionally sneak into the Writers' Room and try to not masturbate in front of all the white boards full of jokes. The Onion was always a big comedic influence on me; in college I would occasionally print out articles from the paper to read aloud during improv rehearsal, just like that guy you hate.

My friends still get excited their first time in The Onion's main Writers’ Room. “This is where it all happens!”, they’ll say, and I respond with a nonchalant “yeah,” because I’ve been there for years now so it’s no big deal, only I’m actually secretly still thinking, “I know, right!?!? How am I allowed to actually work here!?”

My first couple years at The Onion, I worked as the Locations Director, where I spent my days pretending to be passionate about finding the best abandoned prison to film an eleven second scene in, and my nights writing jokes. I started my “writing career” at The Onion as a headline contributor; all interns and employees are allowed to contribute jokes if they ask, but most fall off or don’t contribute consistently. I made it a goal to write headlines every single week without fail. I would write extra jokes, I would write three times as many jokes as I needed to turn in ahead of the deadline so that I could ask friends to help me whittle them down before turning them in, I would sit in on writers’ meetings to hear what was getting through and what wasn’t each and every week. I literally studied day and night. I remember being up until three or four in the morning many nights, writing after a fourteen-hour day of finding locations or working on set as the 1st Assistant Director on shoots, just to get better as quickly as possible.

My first headline idea got approved about three months in. It was just a crawl joke that would scroll along the bottom of a video, but I was so excited that I called my mother. I told her that I was going to be paid ten dollars for the joke, so I was technically a professional writer now. I still remember what it was: “Nation’s Cable Installers To March On Washington Sometime Between 10 And 2”. It’s an okay joke. (No it’s not, it’s lame.) If I saw it in a packet now, I don’t think that I’d circle it. But at the time, I was over the moon. I made everyone I know watch the video.

Eventually I got more and more jokes through, both crawl jokes to scroll at the bottom of the screen and actual videos. My first idea that was turned into a full piece was “Online Dating Revolutionizing The Way Women Get Their Hopes Up”, which would start my storied career of making mean fun of sad, middle-aged women. After about two years of pretending to be The Onion News Network’s Locations Director, and secretly trying to be a writer, I got asked to write scripts. After that, I eventually stopped finding locations altogether, and became a full-time staff writer. Last Friday, I left The Onion News Network as both a staff writer and director. If I could tell little twenty-three year old Onion Intern Me that, I bet he'd cry. So would eighteen-year-old me who was busy printing out Onion articles to read to friends who weren’t listening.

I am well aware that my time and trajectory at The Onion News Network is and was not common. I didn’t see too many other interns become writers, and even now if The Onion is looking for production interns, and they sniff out an applicant that secretly wants to write, they don’t bring him on. Because it just doesn’t happen; The Onion doesn’t want you to write there. So I consider my ability to become a full-time writer there one of the biggest cons of my life, right after convincing Heather Wiland I was straight for the three months we fake-dated in high school.

I am so insanely grateful for my time at ONN, and while there, I experienced the most amazing highs and hilarious lows you can imagine. For example, I now have a Peabody. Seriously, how dumb is that? When I was twenty-five, I got to dress up like a Fancy Man and win a Peabody that now sits on my bookshelf next to a Dr. Fartz keychain that occasionally farts and scares me in the middle of the night because its batteries are dying. I have been lucky enough to be a part of every single one of the 350-plus Onion News Network videos that have ever been made. I got to learn comedy from some of the funniest, smartest people in the entire world. From sitting in the back of writers’ meetings in 2007 taking notes quietly to participating in them as a staff writer in later years, I learned more about writing than I could ever explain here. I came in a fanboy and left a writer, and the fact that I was able to do that had better never not overwhelm me, because I am goddamn proud of it.

I also had some “terrible” times at The Onion. I put “terrible” in quotes because they were probably the most important, as well. (How precious!!!) For my first couple years, I sweated “slate pick,” when only a limited number of scripts where chosen to be put on our “filming slate” to be made into full videos. If I didn’t get one of my scripts chosen, I thought it was a referendum on me as a writer and as a person. I pictured being run out of New York and having to become some sort of adjunct professor. After all, people had found me out, they had finally realized I had just been tricking them into thinking I was funny. My first couple months as a script writer, I would sweat through my shirt as all the other writers gave notes on my scripts. Surely I was getting more negative notes than anyone else at the table, I thought. And I probably was. But it really did make me better, because I was afraid, and because I wanted to be good. One of my favorite moments at The Onion was getting my idea “Gunman Kills 15 Potential Voters In Crucial Swing State” through to get filmed during the 2008 War For The White House video segments we did. I wrote the idea and the script, and I remember as the slate was being picked, knowing it would definitely get on. I knew it was good. It was mean, it was dark, it made a good point. Later on, it was referenced and shown on Charlie Rose, and again I called my mom.

In my time at The Onion, I don’t even know how many ideas and scripts of mine were made; I’ve been very fortunate. What I do know is how many ideas and scripts of mine were not made, and that number is one million billion. There were days when all the writers had to write a hundred ideas, and a great writer got three or four chosen. Maybe one ended up becoming a video. And that’s how I learned that one of the most important things a writer can do is just keep writing. If something doesn’t work, move on and write something else. Keep coming up with ideas and then more ideas, and then when you’re tired and feeling loopy and stupid and drained, write ten more. I learned at The Onion to kill my darlings, to let ideas go, to take my favorite idea that I ever came up with and set it aside, because I was wrong about it and would realize that later when I wasn’t being so selfish and wrapped up in “I have to get an idea through or I’ll be a failure til the day I die!”. I learned to have a tough skin, to turn my fear into working harder, to fake it til I could make it, to sit in the back and listen and listen and listen, and finally, eventually, to know that I was funny and prove it.

The Onion was also the most fun place I have ever worked (after the independent movie theatre I worked at where I peed in one of the lobby plants and then shat on the roof). We got to make a lot of dumb stuff. There were many days when I got to say, “I can’t believe this is what I do for a living.” We filmed in mansions and pools, shipping yards and NASA training facilities. I wrote a video that called for a bunch of half-naked (and completely naked) sluts to be rolling around on a Staten Island highway at six in the morning, and it happened. During a shoot about a woman with an eating disorder who ate furniture, I laughed the hardest I ever have in my life. Two weeks ago, the entire Onion staff went to Medieval Times in a party bus. I threw up that night and loved it.

The people at The Onion are also some of the most wonderful people I have ever met. I worked long hours with them each and every day for longer than I was in college. I was up with them at four in the morning to shoot something in a goddamn sperm bank, I went to their Christmas parties and watched as two of them married each other, and I will never forget when The Onion helped me through the death of my mother. She was diagnosed with (and then died from) cancer during my time at The Onion, and I was allowed to leave and visit her whenever I needed to. As she got sicker, I’d fly out Thursday nights to California, miss work on Fridays, then come back on the red-eye Monday, and everyone was supportive. When I had to take a sabbatical during her final months, I was allowed to still contribute jokes and get videos made, and was told I could come back whenever I was ready. To get to write with some of the funniest people I have ever known at an institution I have always admired, and then have them care for me during the worst time of my life was — and still is — the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me.

At The Onion, I also learned that anything can be funny and nothing is off-limits. In my time there, my ideas and scripts were never edited for being too mean or too inappropriate or too dark, only too old or too done-before or too lamey. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a job with as much creative freedom. If we wanted to run a video that no advertiser would sponsor, we’d just run it without an advertiser. The most common email complaint we would get from people was, “I normally think everything is funny, and I love The Onion, but this ONE specific video about [something personal to me] went too far.” Moms complained when we said Justin Bieber was actually a 51-year-old pedophile in disguise. Conservatives complained when we ran a video about a girl who was tragically not Glenn Beck that was hit by a car. We got bomb threats after a video I was in about new anti-smoking ads that were telling teens it was gay to smoke. Everyone thinks everything is funny, until it affects them in some way. (Basically what I’m say is: the guy who called in that bomb threat is clearly having crazy gay sex right now.) But I learned at ONN that nothing is off-limits as long as you’re making fun of the right person, pointing out a legitimate stupid thing about the world, or saying something that is true. Hell, while my mom was sick with cancer, I had to sit in a studio and watch one of our morning show segments about “an inspirational hero who bravely refused to believe that he had cancer,” all while in full hair and make-up to show that he was clearly about to die. It was a really terrible experience to watch it being filmed, but it was funny.

I leave The Onion News Network still thinking of myself as a wide-eyed high school kid with no professional writing experience, but then I remember that’s not true anymore. I got to write at The Onion News Network for over four years, and that blows my mind. And I know that any of my successes there were because of a combination of luck, timing, and the generosity of other people giving me a chance.

And my willingness to move set pieces and find locations for a couple of years first. Never underestimate the importance of doing grunt work at the start, of working catty-corner to your ideal job, of eating your share of shit. Because while you’re eating that shit, you can also be writing down a joke for later.

Chris Kelly was a writer for The Onion News Network and is about to be a writer at Funny or Die.

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  • Colin Perkins
  • http://twitter.com/bradfordevans Bradford Evans

    Loved this. Great piece. Good luck at Funny or Die, Chris!

  • Colin Perkins

    This article provides some awesome insight into a brilliant world we rarely hear about. On a serious note, I'm really sorry to hear about your mom. Whenever you get sad and miss her, just remember that she would want you to get me a job at The Onion.

  • Adam DeMarie

    I loved this article. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us, Chris.

    One common theme that's jumped out at me as I read pieces like this, listen to WTF podcasts, and even read the book about the Leno/Conan debacle The War for Late Night, is how hard the most successful comedians work. Louis CK dumps his act every year to stay fresh, forcing him to write more, and in the process, has set the standard for modern standup. Mike Birbiglia rented out an office space just to write his one man shows, where the final draft of the scripts have names like "Draft Script 25", and forces himself to write every day. Conan O'Brien describes his comedy as running for his life, putting himself in a position where he has no choice to be give it his all, in every setting. Even Jay Leno (who's artistic abilities certainly can be questioned) writes jokes for his monologue nonstop between shows, and hates having to take weeks off.

    Of course, with a place like The Onion, you have no choice but to work hard if you want to succeed, with each writer famously having to submit hundreds of headlines on a regular basis. But, what stuck out to me was that Chris made a decision that he was going to succeed no matter what it took. He didn't just fade away, like the rest of the interns, he kept pushing and kept submitting. A common phrase I keep hearing is "I'm going to work harder than anyone else" and it rings true here. Yes, to be successful you need to be funny, but it's becoming clear that hard work may be just as important.

  • Megh Wright

    "After all, people had found me out, they had finally realized I had just been tricking them into thinking I was funny."

    Seriously, wow, thank you so much for sharing this. As a wannabe-writer who has been stuck in a receptionist's body for two years, doing the shit work, getting the coffee, always sweating and answering calls while I'm eating lunch, it can be fucking difficult to remember the bigger goal. Good for you for graduating from the school of hard knocks, and thank you so much for sharing the experience.

  • ScoopChang

    Damn, between this and the Megan Ganz interview, feelin' positively green over here. Nevertheless I'm appreciative, because they're both extremely interesting and insightful peeks beyond clandestine curtains of wonderment and whimsy!

  • Patrick Kelly@facebook

    nice work, chris. good luck at FOD.

  • Tim Dufrisne@twitter

    This post totally blew me away. Thank you.