The Onion is pretty much the top of the mountain as far as comedy writing on the Internet goes. And Sam West, the Head Writer for Digital Content on The Onion, is just about king yak on that mountain. So getting to hop on the phone and pick his brain about all things “The Onion Talks,” a parody of the TED conferences, was pretty much one of the best things I’ve ever done. I also got in questions about Joad Cressbeckler, original Onion web series “Sex House,” and even a funny werewolf. The only thing I forgot to ask him was for a job.
Now how does one get the job of Onion Head Writer for Digital Content?
Sam West: Well, it’s sort of a different unit dealing. So I got a couple head writers, there is a newspaper, then Onion News Network, and basically this group is a bunch of us who used to work for The Onion News Network for a long time and sort of formed up this new unit that is just doing stuff for our YouTube channel, so they made me the head writer of that.
Nice. So you kind of came up through the ranks then and paid your dues, so to speak.
That’s right, yeah.
Now were you born funny or did you get bitten by a funny werewolf? How does this work?
Yeah, I was attacked by some hilarious weebles. No, I don’t know. Who knows.
Were you writing for your school paper as just a funny guy and you sort of stumbled into it?
I did some writing for more of a humor magazine in college and sort of always been involved in doing movies and videos and stuff like that, and that sort of lead me to The Onion. And then sort of was lucky enough to get hired and worked here forever and just sort of gradually rose through.
Now did you come up with the Joad Cressbeckler character, or did somebody else? And is that you guys’ favorite character?
I love Joad. It was one of the other guys who was previously the creative director of Onion Digital here. He actually just left to take another job; his name was Geoff Haggerty. Him and Jack Kukoda, who was also another Onion News Network Writer, who later went on to be the head writer of Onion SportsDome, Comedy Central and now writes for “Community” on NBC. He, I think was the guy who created Joad, although I might be wrong with that, so don’t make that a direct quote. Geoff and myself, we were sort of writing a lot of dialogue for Joad. He has sort of a distinctive style, so that is definitely one of the characters that I have always enjoyed writing the most, and I’m sorry we haven’t worked with him this election cycle because he was so much fun. He’s actually a really interesting actor too. He is this old guy living in a village and has a gigantic dog with like really long hair that goes with him every time. It’s pretty awesome.
So it wasn’t even stunt casting so much as you guys kind of got a little bit lucky finding a genuine character type?
Yeah, although he is not at all like Joad. I mean, he has the perfect look, but he is very much a New York actor and not like a backcountry, gun-toting man. And he plays the character so well. We got extremely lucky with him for sure.
The Onion had kind of a controversial move, I guess. You guys moved from New York to what was it, Chicago?
Yeah, to Chicago. It’s interesting; the group that I work with is still in New York. There are a few writers left over that decided not to make the move, and we have this YouTube deal in the pipeline anyway, so we are lucky enough to be able to continue working with The Onion and staying in New York, although the paper moved to Chicago, and the new Onion News Network is being concentrated in Chicago. So when we go into production and actually shoot stuff, we fly up to Chicago to direct and stuff like that, but for the most part, there is like a little tiny office hidden away with like five Onion writers in like a small room and the rest of the company is down in Chicago.
Now take me kind of through the writing process. Do you all collaborate on those videos or does somebody kind of come up with an idea and then you guys rework it and make it tight, or how does that go?
It’s a lot like that, yeah. It’s basically everyone will write a list of ideas, and we will get together and discuss them, and the head writer it kinds of falls to me to pick someone’s ideas. So we try really hard to make it a consenting big thing, particularly because with this YouTube product that we are working on right now, it is sort of like a lot of stuff in a short amount of time. So we want to make it as fun for all the other writers as we can. So basically, we will come with a list of ideas, we’ll talk things through, and then we’ll pick the ideas that we like the most, and then we’ll send them off to be scripted by the individual writers. And once we get a nice big pile of scripts, we sort of like sit around the table, discuss them and then revise them until we’re happy with them or till we run out of time, which we do. Whichever comes first.
Do you act in any of the videos, or do you subcontract that out?
We hire actors. We are very lucky to be working with some really great actors. I’ve been always amazed with the quality of actors we have been able to find. We do little voice work here and there, but, for the most part, we are all sort of, at least right now, the group is like five white guys in their late 20s, so usually the characters we are writing for is Joad Cressbeckler or some politician or a 50-year-old guy, so we usually have to go out and cast for those. But whenever we can, we love to insert ourselves in the video because it is free for The Onion and fun for us.
Have you ever actually been to the TED conference?
No, I never had. When we started conceiving of this Onion conference thing, we reached out to TED and tried to see if it would be interested in sort of collaborating with us and shoot one of these things at a real tech conference, but that really didn’t work out.
Is it just cause they are kind of self righteous and above that kind of thing, or was it more?
I don’t know if I’d say that. I would say there is a certain experience out there about their mission statement. What I remember them telling us is that after we sort of gave them our sort of like pitch, they reminded us that the concern of TED was “ideas worth spreading,” and they ultimately concluded that the satirical look at TED Talks themselves was not an idea that they themselves would like to be involved in spreading.
Understood, yeah. Then what can we expect from “The Onion Talks”?
Oh, you know … insightful thinkers, the most insightful thinkers of our time taking on the most important issues, such as: how loud men can be even louder. I think the first one we are rolling out is how to solve global warming in the job crisis by creating a car that runs on compost, although he doesn’t have a plan yet in mind; he just has to pass that once for everyone to implement the idea. It’s along those lines; insightful thoughts that no one has had before, things of that nature.
Beautiful. Now does that sniper from the preview video come into play at any point?
Yeah, I don’t want to give too much away, but he most certainly makes an appearance.
I am so excited.
I don’t know if ‘excited’ would be the right word, but he is there to protect, not to cause any problems.
That’s good to hear. Now do you see “The Daily Show” as kind of a friend or kind of a foe?
I think we are all fans of “The Daily Show.” Right now, what we are doing here with “The Onion Talks” and the other stuff we are making for the YouTube channel index, it is the first time we are sort of not really doing big news. It was just sort of news for The Onion. We saw this as a chance to branch a little bit and do some new things and see what happens with them and so, actually, I don’t know personally too many people on the staff of “The Daily Show,” but I know there are old Onion connections, and old writers from The Onion have gone on to “The Daily Show,” so I think in large part those guys are considered our friends. I don’t think we compete with them, although The Onion website is starting to make pieces more timely, which I think is sort of “The Daily Show’s” wheelhouse, so it will be interesting to see how those two interact in the coming years, I guess, or how they view each other.
Now what can we next expect from “Sex House” then?
Right now, the team that was behind “Sex House” is … we finished and are realizing “Porkin’ Across America” which is actually the first episode debuted on our YouTube channel, and I think it’s very much in the spirit of “Sex House” People will not immediately identify it as a follow up to “Sex House.” it is a different style of show that we are parodying, but I think you know it’s all the same writers, and it’s very much in line with “Sex House” in the way that it sort of takes these standards, these well-understood, well-tried shows and kind of take it in a different direction that you don’t really expect it to go. I think with that, that’s exactly what we did with the cooking show conceived with this “Porkin’ Across America,” so hopefully people will recognize it as a followup to “Sex House,” and we intended it to be well-received as the direct sequel to “Sex House.”
Finally, what has the reaction been from people who take your guys’ stories as factual news? I understand there was kind of a kerfuffle with the Middle East not too long ago.
Oh yeah, there was an Iran story that The Onion ran, and it was picked up by an Iranian news agency as being fact. I think it was something about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad polling stronger than Obama among rural whites, something like that. I mean, it’s always really funny to see those flare-ups occur because to us it’s just second nature. Even before we were working for The Onion, we all were fans, and we knew it was fake. I think everyone who hasn’t heard of The Onion is going to think going to have this moment of a double take where there is kind of a double take where you’re not sure how seriously to take it at first. And I think with international audiences, it happens even more, because in addition to that there is a language barrier, once you get across that it’s like does that satire play in that culture the same way it plays here, and it’s always sort of interesting to see those results.