Monday, September 27, 2010

An Interview With The Onion's Founding Editor...

...Mr. Scott Dikkers

It seems everything Scott Dikkers touches turns to something funny...and successful.

After all, this is the fellow who helped found
The Onion back in 1988, then shepherded it from a college newspaper to an internationally acclaimed humor brand and, in the process, launched the world's first humor website.

Named by Rolling Stone as one of America's top-ten favorite writers, Scott is the author or co-author of numerous best-selling humor books, including, among others, The Onion's OUR DUMB CENTURY and OUR DUMB WORLD as well as YOU ARE WORTHLESS: DEPRESSING NUGGETS OF WISDOM SURE TO RUIN YOUR DAY. (A sample "nugget": "You're no good, you're not great-looking, and you're going to die someday and it's probably going to hurt.")

He is also the creator and artist of the comic strip Jim's Journal, one of the most popular Generation X-oriented strips in history. The strip, which appeared in 200 newspapers and a best-selling published collection, created humor by poking fun at other humor, a style that Scott called "anti-humor."

Scott has written and directed several films that include "Spaceman" and "Bad Meat" (starring Chevy Chase) as well as episodes of "The Onion News Network." He also has voiced numerous cartoons, including MTV's "Celebrity Deathmatch" and Saturday Night Live's "TV Funhouse."

(For a complete catalog of Scott Dikkers' work, please click here and here.)

Dikkers Cartoon Company

These days, Scott is at the helm of a new venture, but one that reflects a lifelong love: cartooning. He recently left his position at The Onion to found Dikkers Cartoon Company in Brooklyn, New York.

The company's website launched in May of this year and it's a humdinger, with gorgeous illustrations, streaming cartoons, games, even a gift shop.

And here's something you might not expect: all of the content at Dikkers Cartoon Company is rated for general audiences. That's right, Dikkers cartoons are appropriate - and funny! - for all ages.

This is one of my favorites, which you can watch by clicking here:

There's much more to experience over at the Dikkers Cartoons website and, remember, you can take your kids with you!

The Interview

Hearing from Scott Dikkers that he enjoys your humor blog is like having Ralph Lauren walk up to you and say, "Those are some sharp pants." It's a compliment you treasure, a day you remember. It's a gift for which I am truly grateful.

I also am very grateful to Scott for graciously agreeing to share some of his thoughts on comedy, his career and the nature of success. I hope you'll enjoy reading his responses as much as I enjoyed our interview.

Growing up, Scott, were you the kid who always had the class laughing, or the kid who wrote and drew funny things but kept them to himself?

Sort of both, I guess. I alternated between being the kid who was quiet, introspective and bullied, and the kid who had everybody laughing. But I think those two extremes are closely related. In 6th grade the other boys in the class locked me in the storage shed at recess. Could that even happen now? We had no supervision at recess when I was a kid. When the other kids found out I could draw, they stopped doing that sort of thing. Why, I don't know. My drawing skill had some value, apparently. So, I continued to use what limited power I had to entertain in order to boost my social capital, because it seemed to work. And since entertaining was just about the only skill-like attribute I had, I didn't stop with drawing. I became a pretty serious class cutup. Every day at school I was like Seinfeld developing new material. My comedy friends and I would try out jokes in class and assess the audience reaction later. I used to do impressions of teachers. Once, when a teacher was late in 9th grade I got up and wore glasses like him and started teaching the class as him, and this went on for like 10 minutes. Kids laughed but also paid attention and did what I asked, so I started asking them to do outrageous things. That was really fun.

You recently left your position as editor-in-chief of The Onion to found Dikkers Cartoon Company. How did you feel when the alarm clock went off that first morning of your new venture?

Well, it was good, but it's actually a feeling I'm fairly accustomed to. The Onion is and always has been a very small, privately held company. I owned it before I sold it to the current owners. So, it's not like I left an evil corporate job and went off to start my own bootstraps thing. That being said, I love making cartoons, and I love starting new things and I love the early stages of a new thing. I feel very much at home in that world and wake up pretty ecstatic in the morning. Getting up to go work at The Onion was the same way, though, usually. So, pretty much my whole adult life I've been waking up feeling extremely fortunate that I'm making a living doing what I love and doing my own thing.

Also, you must have had, what, 18,000 business cards left over after you switched jobs? What did you do with all of them?

I've probably given out a total of 3 business cards in my entire life. So, I always have stacks and stacks of boxes of those damned things in my desk drawer at any given time. At some point, somebody's going to figure out that I never use them and stop ordering so many boxes for me.

What do you think is the general public's biggest misconception about cartoons?

People think all cartoons now are made by computers. I tell people I'm making animated cartoons and they always say, "the computer can do all the inbetween drawings, right?" Yeah, that would look really good.

Some people may be surprised to learn that your cartoons - in addition to being funny - are surprisingly tender. Can you talk a little bit about this aspect of your work?

Thank you for saying so. Before The Onion got started, I made my living as a cartoonist. My daily comic strip ("Jim's Journal") had those same qualities. It seems to be the place I gravitate to when I'm drawing. Not sure what that's about. Also, over the years, I think The Onion, though it's main mission is to be funny, has had a lot of tenderness, too, believe it or not. As crass and outlandish as some of the humor is, I feel like there's always a respectful element to it at its core, that's essentially kind and pro-humanity. Most of the time.

We've all heard the adage that comedy = tragedy + time. Does your particular style of humor have its own formula?

No, that's pretty much the formula. Except in parody, I guess. And some types of character humor. Interesting story (or, if you're not in the comedy business, a boring story): At The Onion, we experimented with lowering the value of "time" in that equation, which is how you create comedy that's perceived as edgy & risky. We did this with our book, Our Dumb Century. We made jokes about the Titanic and Hindenburg disasters, about all the people who died, and nobody found those jokes offensive because these things happened so long ago. But then as we got closer to the present, we were doing the same types of jokes about the Space Shuttle Challenger and the Oklahoma City Federal Building, which was bombed just a couple of years before our book came out. It was then that we discovered the Grand Unification formula: comedy = tragedy. Adding time to the equation is just a way to make it easier to write the jokes -- the thing that makes the jokes "appropriate."

When 9-11 happened, not only were people saying you couldn't make jokes about it, certainly not right away -- and maybe not ever! -- they were actually saying maybe humor itself was dead. The Onion, having learned this lesson about how to reduce the "time" part of the equation to zero, was able to produce a full issue devoted to 9-11 just a couple of weeks after it happened. We'd learned that the best, most fulfilling humor is the kind that can make you laugh at even the worst of times. It's a coping mechanism. We want to laugh, to release tension, and when we can, it has the power to make us feel alive and human even in the midst of tragedy and death.

Of the many aspects of your creative career - drawing and voicing cartoons, writing, editing, directing - which has been the most surprising? In what way?

The most surprising was directing live-action movies. I thought I would love it. I thought it was what I was born to do. But it turns out that I really don't like it, and I don't believe I have the skill set that you would ideally have in order to be good at it. That was a real shocker to me. Animation is much more suited to my personality. The pace is slower, there's no getting up at 5 in the morning and going out to shoot in the snow. Post production is my favorite part of making a movie, and cartoons are all post production. It's like a dream.

Can you settle a bet, please? One of my interns is insisting that you attended professional truck-driving school, while I say you can't believe everything you read on the Internet. The truth?

Trucking school is in fact the only schooling I have ever received.

With which cartoon character (of all time) do you most closely identify? Why?

Charlie Brown. Because he wasn't insufferably cheerful, which every other cartoon character seems to be.

What is the worst piece of advice you've ever received? The best?

I wish I could remember the worst advice I've ever received, because it would probably be really funny. But since it was bad, and I didn't take it, it's long forgotten. But I'll try... There was a local reporter in Wisconsin who recommended I not buy into The Onion when I did (when it was a year old). He never thought it would go anywhere. My dad suggested I pay for college by joining the Army. That was bad advice. Nothing against the Army, but I'm not the type.

The best advice I've ever received was from the cartoonist John Kovalic, who was a successful cartoonist who had just gone into syndication right before I published my first comic strip, and before The Onion was around. He tossed off this advice, and probably has no idea how much of an impact it's had on my life. But he was extolling the virtues of deadlines, how creating fixed deadlines for yourself was important for creative people to actually get things done and develop their skills. Without deadlines, you're liable to be tinkering with the same project for months before you show it to anyone. And you'll never grow. After that, so many of the entertainment avenues I forged for myself had deadlines built in, so that I was assured of actually producing work on a regular basis and getting better every day -- a daily comic strip, a weekly newspaper, etc. Great advice!

You've enjoyed tremendous success in your creative endeavors. What's your definition of success in the broader sense of life?

Kind of you to say. I still feel like I have a long way to go, but that's my own demon. What is success? I have no idea. I think about that question a lot, though. I think it's like a white whale. We're never totally satisfied with the level of success we have. Are we? I suppose the simplest way to think of it for me is you're successful if you're loved at home and engaged at work. And you own a swimming pool filled with thousand dollar bills.

As anyone who's tried it knows, being funny is serious business. What do you do for fun when you're not crafting humor?

How good of you to point out that writing comedy is not fun! Everyone who doesn't do it for a living thinks it is. But of course it's not. I go rock climbing. I used to go to water parks, but they don't have those in New York, so that's a bummer. I think they should build one at ground zero.

Are you currently engaged in any blood feuds, the details of which you'd like to get off your chest?

Yes, I am in a blood feud with Verizon. I keep threatening to disconnect my land line, and they keep giving me terrible customer service. They seem to be trying very hard to lose my business. But I'm addicted to the sweet clarity of my land line.

What's the best thing regular old consumers can do to encourage the popularity of general audience animated cartoons like the ones you're making?

Just watch and enjoy and share! Especially with the kids.

Anything you'd like to add?

No, ma'am. Thanks for the delightful interview, Anna! Keep up the great work.

Thank you, Scott.
And we wish
you and Dikkers Cartoon Company
every kind of success!


LTYM said...

I can't wait to go look at his website.

And a water park at Ground Zero? Brilliant.


Sue Wilkey said...

As long as you call the Ground Zero waterpark like "Enduring Freedom Splash Zone" i don't think anyone would mind.

Robin said...

Awesome interview, I'm a huge fan of The Onion!

Amy W said...

Great interview! I love the Onion so much and, as a former Madison-ian, have always identified with it.

I love his advice about deadlines, I need to do that for myself more as I wallow in projects on a regular basis.

Also, my favorite bit: "I suppose the simplest way to think of it for me is you're successful if you're loved at home and engaged at work. And you own a swimming pool filled with thousand dollar bills." So true! ;)

Lisa Page Rosenberg said...

Fabulous interview, fascinating subject. The Onion's right-after-9/11 issue set the bar for comedic tone and pitch.

A humdinger indeed.

B. Freret said...

Fantastic job, Anna, and I'm delighted to 'discover' DCC!

Ann Imig said...

I fell in love with my husband in a conversation over our common affection for Jim Anchower, Smoove B, and many of the other Onion "columnists"

No joke.

I'm excited to watch those videos with my boys--I just previewed them and they are WONDERFUL.

Great interview. Meaning...I did not skim!


Lori @ In Pursuit of It All said...

Ok, despite raging bitterness over NOT winning the Enterprise Bottle Opener, I couldn't not read this post. I've been a fan of The Onion for years (long before it was chic and trendy) and this was a brilliant read.

And I'm totally with Scot on the business card thing. I could build small residential neighborhoods with all the unused cards I have.

Beth Kephart said...

Anna — this is such a great conversation, with so much wisdom, tenderness, and humor. Thank you for giving us this inside look at a special artist.

Jun Kitatani said...

Wow, what a nice column and interview. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Very cool stuff.

Unknown said...

this was a fantastic two probably cracked each other up between the lines.


Fragrant Liar said...

Onion lover here!

In Austin, you could go to just about any restaurant and pick up one. Every Thursday, that's exactly what my friend and I did. Haven't found the treasure troves yet in Florida, but I do get Onion online.

Enjoyed this interview, Anna, and Mr. Onion.

Fragrant Liar said...

Oh, and I'll be checking out the Dikkers Cartoon Company ASAP!

Fragrant Liar said...

Oh, and I'll be checking out the Dikkers Cartoon Company ASAP!

sam said...

Onion is a great website but was not knowing that it was the first in this niche. We so far so good but i doubt that collegehumor and wil take its place in the near time.

lisahgolden said...

This is great! I used to read The Onion as a hardcopy in Madison. It's still one of my favorite websites.

The questions and the answers are great fun.

Irish Gumbo said...

Simply smashing interview, Anna! I love the Onion, and now I have something I can share with my daughter, too. Great work!

Terry Hoffmann said...

Fabulous interview Anna! Why aren't you taking over for Larry King?

When Pigs Fly said...

Thanks for giving us this interview. Fun to hear about such an interesting guy.

Marinka said...

Oh, great. Now that I know that the computer can't do the inbetween drawings, my dream of being a cartoonist is dead. DEAD.

Paige said...

god youre so lucky you got to interview him. hes my idol.

HermanTurnip said...

Genius! Thanks for the links. I now have two new additions to my bookmark bar, and another reason to shirk my responsibilities on a daily basis...

Janene Murphy said...

I love The Onion, so I had to check this out -- what a fantastic interview! I loved Scott Dikkers sincerity as well as tidbits of wisdom. I wish him great success with his new company. From what I've seen so far, it's going to be great.

Maggie, Dammit said...

As a Madisonian I have always felt very possessive of the Onion, so when it blew up I felt sort of jealous and annoyed. My therapist says this is normal, though, so no worries.

My favorite headline of all time said something to the effect of "Millions of Oprah Viewers Await Further Instuctions." That, and "Nike to stop making shoes, focus on advertising." Timeless stuff. Speaking of timeless, the comedy=tragedy portion of the interview was especially intriguing to me. I remember the 9-11 issue, and grinning instantly before I'd even read a word. Just because they'd done it. And really, who else could have? I trusted them. And I guess that's the humanity piece Scott mentioned.

Lovely interview.