What I Learned From Writing for The Onion (For a Month)
In April/May of 2010, I spent four weeks as a freelance writer for The Onion News Network.
Besides looking great on a resume, it was an awesome gig and a huge learning experience. Not surprisingly, I get asked about it pretty often.
So here's everything I know about how to get a job writing for The Onion, and what I learned from my (short) time doing it.
How I Got a Job Freelance Writing for The Onion
Getting a job writing for The Onion is not easy. But there's no big secret to it, either.
The Onion has a jobs page on their website.
Yep. That's the big story behind how I got hired to write for The Onion: I went on their website and applied.
But here's the thing -- I did this at least twice with no luck before I got accepted.
Here's how it worked back then:
I would check the job listings frequently (obsessively), and every once in a blue moon, there'd be a position on there called Freelancer or Freelance Writer. You'd send in an email with your resume and samples, and they'd send back an application for you to complete. You had to return two things:
A list of 20 headlines and concepts for video sketches. (All the job listings I ever saw were for The Onion News Network -- their video leg. I never saw anything for editorial positions.)
A completed script for one of their news segment sketches based on ideas or concepts they provided.
Like I said, I went through this process (the final product is often known in the industry as a "packet") at least twice with no success. It doesn't sound like much, but it is TOUGH. I labored over those 20 headlines like you wouldn't believe. Even the best ideas start to look like shit after you've stared at them for a week.
And the scripts. Man, those were hard. They never gave you blockbuster concepts to work with, and I think that was on purpose. It was always some kind of dry, subtle joke -- they wanted to see what you could do and how far you would take it.
But the third time I applied was a charm. I'll never forget opening my email and seeing these words:
The Onion News Network would like to congratulate you on being selected as a Contributor for the IFC series. We had a huge number of applicants, and we are thrilled with how strong this group is.
I remember texting my wife -- girlfriend at the time. She was in class and stepped into the hall to call me. We both basically screamed on the phone for a couple of minutes.
Side Note: I haven't seen any writing positions listed on The Onion's website in years. Granted, I don't check as frequently anymore, but I think the only way to get in with them these days is to be recruited, know someone there, or come up through the ranks as an intern or writer's assistant.
If you REALLY want to get a job writing for The Onion; email them. I've heard stories of people that have done this. They say they won't take anything unsolicited, and there's a 99% chance they won't, but who knows? Serendipity just might strike for you.
What It Was Like to Write for The Onion
They put us to work right away. This was back in 2010, and The Onion was going into pre-production on its very first TV show -- The Onion News Network on IFC (The Independent Film Channel).
It would be a lot like the Onion video content we knew and loved, except in a half hour format and with recurring anchors as characters.
We were required to turn in 25 ideas a week; an "idea" being a headline or concept along with a short explanation of the joke and how the segment would play out.
Some weeks, we'd get really brief feedback on our lists. Other weeks, not. Then, by mid week, they'd compile all the ideas they liked. Some would be marked down as "one liners", or jokes that would be pulled in to scroll across the bottom of the screen during the show. Others were segmented by where in the show they might fit in, with some of them designated to move to the scripting stage (where the staff writers would take over).
The process moved fast. My job, along with the other freelancers, was to come up with ideas. We weren't really consulted or informed about anything else surrounding the show. No meetings to discuss casting. No phone calls to brainstorm around our jokes. It was our job to pump out creativity and let the full time staff filter everything out. Everything was done over email.
In the end, only one of my ideas actually made it into the show -- unless I missed a one-liner somewhere along the line, which would be easy to do.
Funny enough, the idea of mine that made it to production was one from my submission packet -- I'm pretty sure it's the reason they hired me. And they actually chose to open the entire series with it, which was pretty cool.
I recorded the pilot when it aired and probably watched it a dozen times with my family. One of the coolest moments I've ever had as a writer.
What I Learned Writing for The Onion
This was a huge learning experience for me in a very short amount of time. I could probably talk for days about everything I learned working as a writer for The Onion for four weeks, but if I had to boil it down, here's what I'd say:
Ideas are cheap.
Or, in their case, jokes. They made us come up with so many sketch ideas and headlines. Huge lists of them. And once they were dead, they were dead. There was no reusing ideas that didn't quite make the cut in previous weeks. No iterating on almost-there jokes. When an idea was rejected, it was time to move on. Always bigger and better jokes, or ideas, out there to be found.
I also learned how to really dig into an idea to see if it had any potential. They were constantly pushing us to see past the headline. Is it just a funny sentence or is there room to explore and expand this into a 3 minute sketch? Is there substance?
Creativity is a muscle.
What I loved about The Onion's writing process was the sheer volume of it. 25 ideas a week. No excuses. Often times, I'd turn in more than 25, along with a big list of one-liners I knew weren't big enough for full sketches. For one thing, it forced me to dig deep and get past those first initial ideas that came easily. It also helped me learn The Onion's editorial voice through repetition, which is something that can't be overstated.
I am not that funny.
I had one great idea and I used it up in my application to get the job. I wrote a few other funny jokes throughout, but nowhere near the level of The Onion's top writers. I wish I could show you these lists of approved ideas I got in my inbox each week. Reading through them was an absolute blast; these guys and girls are so freaking talented and funny.
At the end of the project, they opted to keep a few of the freelance writers on -- alas, I was not one of them. And I didn't expect to be. To be a professional humor writer, you have to be insanely funny and creative. I'm a good writer, and I got their voice, and I have a few good ideas, but I was never going to make it as a full-time writer for The Onion. And that's okay.
In The End
Writing for The Onion was one of the coolest experiences I've ever had, and I feel lucky to have gotten the opportunity.
I mean, I got to see an idea I had sitting in my living room acted out on TV with a real script, real actors, and real production value. That was awesome, and I'll never forget it. And to top it off, I actually got a paycheck. People paid me real money to come up with jokes. That was incredible.
And I'd like to think that, even though the gig was short lived, I learned a ton by being bold enough to jump into the deep end with pro comedy writers.
Even if I didn't really belong there.