If you're a lawyer, you know you're making it if you win a lot of cases. If you're a doctor, you know you're making it if you heal a lot of patients. But just about the only way you can be sure you're making it as a humor writer is if people who the world has already decided are funny publicly proclaim your comic worth. So the staff of The Onion, the lacerating newspaper parody from Madison, Wisconsin, should have been delighted when Conan O'Brien came up to them at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen this spring and began to praise The Onion's new book, Our Dumb Century, a spoof of newspaper front pages.
Instead, the famously sad-sack young humorists were overcome by feelings of mortification and unworthiness. "Conan was really effusive with his compliments," recalls Mike Loew, who creates The Onion's graphic collages (sample: Stephen Hawking's head grafted onto a titanium-clad exoskeleton). "He told us we could die now. He told us Our Dumb Century kicked the ass of anything the Harvard Lampoon had done and made him feel like a comedy poseur and a network hack. We just kept saying 'Thank you' and felt increasingly uncomfortable." Scott Dikkers, The Onion's editor, says, "Obviously, Conan was mostly joking. We're just a blip in the national culture."
Last week, that blip made No. 1 on the New York Times paperback best-seller list, and this Thursday, Dikkers is slated to appear on Late Night With Conan O'Brien -- and still can't figure out why. "I'm not a performer; I want to be the man behind the curtain," he protests. Our Dumb Century's success aside, Dikkers's new TV-worthy status probably has something to do with the fact that The Onion's other fans include Chevy Chase, Douglas Adams (author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), and Chris Rock -- not to mention Andy Richter, Conan's sidekick. "I think The Onion's the funniest thing in the world," he declares. "It's even funnier than me. They're smart, and they're very naughty."
Last week's lead Onion story is typical. Under the headline NYPD APOLOGIZES FOR ACCIDENTAL SHOOTING-CLUBBING-STABBING-FIREBOMBING DEATH, the article describes how 27 policemen attacked an unarmed 38-year-old Jamaican immigrant in a doorway, shot him 175 times, threw phosphorus grenades, opened fire with 12-gauge riot shotguns, and then engaged him in hand-to-hand combat. Lighter features include a report on a new study that finds eggs to be GOOD FOR YOU THIS WEEK, though they "may be unhealthy again as soon as next Monday," and a look at a new Social Security "Early-Death Incentives" plan.
"They're saying things that are so depressing and horrible about life -- the godlessness, the pointlessness, the lies that lubricate society -- that you have to laugh," says Richter. Still, Dikkers is not cheered. "I guess we're getting to be less of the underdogs now," he grudgingly concedes. "But I still worry about all those people who don't know about us."