American Psychos: The Onion Founder Scott Dikkers Discusses Writing Satire During Dark Times

Scott Dikkers, founder of the satirical news publication The Onion, is the master of writing satire. Here, he discusses the role of in today's challenging sociopolitical atmosphere.
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By Scott Dikkers

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The world may seem absurd to us now, but think about that. Has it ever not been absurd? Were humans perfectly well-behaved and sensible in some magical time in the past?

In fact, the world is probably less absurd now than it's ever been. But in a sane world, who needs satire? What’s so funny about sanity?

A lot of people probably think humor in satire comes from mirth or joviality. But it doesn’t. It comes from a burning desire in the satirist to right a wrong. The satirist looks at the world and sees how much better it could be if it would just correct the flaws in people, their instincts, their nature, their culture, or their institutions.

In fact, there’s more fodder for satire when everything’s going to pot. And rest assured, that’s most—OK, all—of the time. There’s always been something rotten going on. There’s always been something horrible, gruesome, unspeakable, something that compelled the satirists of the age to take pen to paper to exclaim, through humor, that things must change.

So, is satire harder now or at any time? No. We’re surrounded by a bottomless well of human cruelty, incompetence, and hypocrisy. The satirist is never wanting for source material.

But how do you know if your satire is inappropriate? How do you know if you’ve “crossed the line,” and are merely making light of tragedy?

Humor is nice. Laughter from what I call formulaic humor (quality, professional humor that has no satirical subtext) is enjoyable for a few fleeting moments. And maybe that's enough for some people. But for most of us, laughter that packs a satirical punch is more fulfilling, more enriching, more lasting. This kind of laughter is potentially healing.

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Sometimes people say you can't tell a joke after a tragic event. They say it's insensitive, or "too soon." But this reasoning fails to consider the restorative power of satirical humor. When a tragedy is joked about in a satirical way, we begin to recover from the tragedy. We begin to emerge from the terror and back into normalcy. Tragedies often put us in the "fight or flight" response. They make us feel fearful and terrorized. We’re stuck in the oldest part of our brains, the part we inherited from the reptiles, the realm of fear and survival. Satire has the power to pull us out of our reptilian brain, and up into our mammalian brain, where connection and social bonds are possible again. Finally, it can lift us into our homo sapien brain, the only place where critical thinking and humor can flourish.

It’s important to remember that the target of your satire must be a legitimate wrong or injustice in the world, otherwise it won’t connect with audiences. Good satire afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted.

I received letters from readers when I was editor-in-chief of The Onion thanking me for healing their depression, for making their lives worth living again, people who said they didn't think they'd ever laugh again after a personal tragedy or disaster like 9/11. The Onion’s 9/11 issue—released only two weeks after the attacks—featured the story, “Terrorists Surprised To Find Selves In Hell.” This gave all of us a chance to laugh at the idea of the 9/11 terrorists being tortured and impaled in the pits of hell after thinking they’d be getting 72 virgins.

For tips on how to write satire from Dikkers, including his 11 “Funny Filters,” check out the July/August 2018 Writer’s Digest.

Scott Dikkers (scottdikkers.com) is a comedy writer, speaker and co-founder of The Onion. Find his tips for humor writing in his books How to Write Funny and How to Write Funnier.

Online Course: Comedy Writing Workshop

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