Published on November 21st, 2011 | by Sharilyn Johnson


The Onion News Network: A Paley Panel Pointform

Just because yours truly couldn’t make it down to this year’s New York Comedy Festival, don’t think for a second that Third Beat wouldn’t find a way to cover of one of the Paley Center’s fantastic panel discussions.

After all, it’s practically tradition! Alert readers will recall our coverage of panels on Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien, The Colbert Report, and Women in Late Night.

Third Beat correspondent Bob Smith jetted down to New York City, and filed this report on the Onion News Network panel.

The 2011 New York Comedy Festival
Behind the Scenes at the Onion News Network
At the Paley Center for Media

Curated by David Bushman

Moderated by Brian Stelter, New York Times reporter

Liz Koe, Producer
John Harris, Writer
Carol Kolb, Head Writer
Dan Mirk, Senior Writer
Lang Fisher, Writer

Kolb: “We consider ourselves CNN on steroids”

Mirk: “We’re foxier than Fox….and the most morally corrupt”

On the actors they have for the show:

Lang: “Some of our actors are actually ex-reporters as they know the rhythms and style that’s used in the news. Actors actually found it hard to be so robotic.”
Kolb: “They’re too full of life.”
Mirk: “They need to take themselves so seriously”

The difference between the show and the paper.

Harris “It has to be bang on.”
Fisher: “Our graphic artists really make the show what it is. We took great pains hiring the right graphic artists for the show.”
Stelter: “Yeah, when I watch the show it looks exactly what I’d expect to see from the main news networks, even better sometimes.”

A common theme or a topic they come back to:

Mirk: “We love horse jokes…I think we have had 8 stories with horses.”

Their favourite videos:

Kolb: “Sony releases stupid piece of shit that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do”
Fisher: “How to dress your effeminate son for Halloween.”

On a video they couldn’t make work:

Mirk: “We had an idea for a story about scientists who finally were able to breed a monkey with a melon head, but we couldn’t really make it work because you can’t just put a melon on the head of a monkey. I suggested we get a dead monkey.”

On making the leap from webisode to full 30-minute program:

Kolb: “A big concern was that we didn’t want it to feel like 12 clips put together….. We’re able to develop the characters now.”
Mirk, “Yeah, for example we explain that Brooke as a child worked for the Russian Space Agency…so it creates a bit of a back story.”

On the surreal nature of their jobs:

Fisher: “I never thought this would be my life. One time I remember I was at a horse stable, standing next to a goat, holding a Pakistani child, and I thought, ‘This is what I do for a living’, and I forget it’s weird.”
“ (another time) We were working on the story where the joke was no one should masturbate on 9-11 and I was just thinking about in the elevator and I turned to a co-worker and said, forgetting other people were in the elevator, ‘So, I think if we’re going to shoot 9-11 Masturbation…yup’”

On directon of the show:

Harris: “We don’t want to ever trash the little guy”
Fisher: “We say, what’s wrong with the world?”
Mirk: “Horses.”

Harris: “We’re more on a macro level, rather than say the Daily Show which is more specified with their satire. It’s more tonal with us but we do try to incorporate topical issues.”

On their second season premiere:

Mirk: “We were trying to come up with the most unbelievable story to kick off our first episode of our second season, and we came up with ‘Meteoroid hits Earth and ends Humanity’ and for our second show we didn’t even mention it like it never even happened.”

On reactions they’ve received:

Fisher: “We ran one story about the Olympian Shawn Johnson getting injured at a gymnastics competition and the joke was that she had to be put down like a horse who breaks it’s leg…..we learned that she later had to tweet ‘I’m still alive’”.

A story was was also ran about a child with cancer being granted a wish with the Make a Wish Foundation. He wished for infinity wishes, and the story ran that he was basically bankrupted the Foundation by asking for a yacht, a house, etc. The Make a Wish Foundation had to issue a statement that they only grant one wish.

On some of their favourite TV news personalities:

Harris: “I actually can’t hate Glen Beck because he has to be the savviest mutherfucker, you have to give him respect.”

Fisher: “The worst anchors are the better for ONN. I love watching Nancy Grace with her crazy eyes. We have to work hard to be worse than them.”

Audience Q&A:

Q: In regards to foul language, do you fight the temptation to put it in everywhere?

Mirk: “We only use swears in jokes where it makes sense.
Fisher: “Has to make sense, we don’t want cheap laughs but if it adds to a joke as a whole…”
Harris: “It’s cathartic, like when you watch the news and just think something is so stupid”

Q: Who and what are your influences?

Mirk: Shakespeare
Kolb: Letterman, but news in general
Fisher: Seinfeld
Mirk: Southpark
Harris: I really like Jack Handy’s writing
Koe: SNL, Letterman

Q: How could one get a job at a place like the Onion?

Fisher: “I always tell people, do stuff on your own. Your own blog, twitter. You have to treat comedy like a job and put your ego aside. We have a super tough room so you have to.”
Harris: “Yeah, it’s fucking hard….You have to learn how to take criticism and not have your feelings hurt. Then you’ll know your own the right path.”

Q: How do you balance the ‘Funny’ vs. ‘Being Brilliant’?

Mirk: “Has to make a good point, but be silly.”
Kolb: “At the core, we’re a lot less political.”

Q: What would your Make a Wish be?

Kolb: “Not going to Disney Land.”
Fisher: “I’ve always wanted to go to Gibralter.”
Koe: “To have a 3rd season of ONN, but also not to get cancer.”

Q: How many hours of work do you put in?

Fisher: “Usually we start at 10am until about 8pm but we work weekends and sometimes go into the morning like 1 or 2 am.”

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About the Author

is the author of the book Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z. Called "one of the city’s most discriminating comedy critics” by NOW Magazine, Sharilyn has been covering comedy for longer than she cares to admit. She served as the comedy reporter for Winnipeg's Uptown Magazine for five years, and was the host of the radio show Laugh Tracks for three seasons. Her work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, The Apiary, and on CBC Radio's national comedy programs LOL and Definitely Not the Opera.

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