Last year’s news of the Onion’s relocation from New York to Chicago and the resulting loss of staff brought with it several questions about the comedy institution’s future and whether it would be able to maintain its exceptionally high standards.
I think most fans would agree any fears they might have harbored have been allayed as the paper continues to churn out some of the funniest, biting social satire available anywhere. Onion, Inc. is still transitioning to a new staff at the Onion News Network, but if the first crop of videos and background of new head writer Andy Miara are any indication, relax, you’re in good hands.
Miara comes to the ONN job with years of experience writing and directing sketch comedy around New York and Chicago. His sketch group, My Mans, which includes new Saturday Night Live featured player Tim Robinson, sold a pilot to Comedy Central and he’s a faculty member at The Second City in Chicago.
I met up with Miara last month to talk about his sketch group, working with Bob Odenkirk, and what we can expect from ONN with him at the helm.
So how long has My Mans been together?
We’ve been doing shows for four years or so. The three of us had met over at Second City and kind of broke off together and started this group. We really just broke off with that mentality to do the exact shit that we wanted to do the most and then see what happens. We just finished a weekly sketch show we had done starting in late spring at (Improv Olympic).
What happens now that you got the Onion job?
Now we’re to figure out what to do, what the future holds… It’s tough. You’re around for a while, everybody is 100% dedicated to the sketch group moving forward, and then at a certain a point, other people get different professional opportunities, which is to me such a sad thing about sketch groups. I mean our thing was we just loved doing it together more than anything else. And now we’re trying to overcome that problem of the group that splits up because everyone has individual stuff to do.
Are the other guys going to help out with the Onion? [Editor’s note: This interview occurred before Robinson had been announced as a new SNL cast member.]
So Mark (Raterman) is over there now writing. And Tim (Robinson) has some TV stuff that he’s going to have to work on for probably the next several months or whatever. He was cast in a new CBS show – one of those midseason shows. That guy, he’s just fucking brilliant. Tim is the guy who looks like a cross between an eagle and a shark. [Laughs.] Mark is the dark-haired, deadpan serial killer one. But yeah, the goal is still to reconvene whenever possible.
The pilot you did for Comedy Central was hilarious. You got Bob Odenkirk to produce it?
Thanks. Yeah, that was his wife Naomi’s production company. She manages Tim and they were very involved in the development of it. Initially I wasn’t going to direct the pilot because I felt that I didn’t have enough TV directing experience. But Bob got really fired up, and really felt that I should direct it. So he became a big bug in the ear of Comedy Central. So part of their thing was, if I was going to direct it, they wanted to have somebody as a mentor, as a godfather kind of thing. They got excited about him doing that. I think he was executive consultant or whatever, but his job was primarily being a resource for me, which was just a blast. He’s such a luminary and is so smart about stuff.
That seems to be his reputation. I mean just from what I’ve read about his collaboration with Tim and Eric, it sounds like he’s willing to help out new people.
Yeah, it’s really amazing. He just has a genuine interest, just a pure interest in comedy. He gets excited and then combines a passion for the stuff with more savvy than anybody else about making sketch comedy work on television. He was incredibly helpful in articulating and sort of being able to say, “Here’s what’s going on, and here’s how you can communicate that to your production team, and here’s how you can think about casting, and here’s how you could broaden it into something that could be built out a little more into something.” That was just crucial.
What was the idea behind the pilot?
We were in a touring company together and we’d always talk about how we liked the little ideas that happen in the van or backstage or in between rehearsal or whatever. Like the stuff you do when you’re messing around in between your work, it was always the funniest. So we would go out and do these live shows where we would just test these micro little bits, and the reaction would be like, “YEAHHHHH!” It would just be so enthusiastic and then it would peter out, because you can’t just do tiny bits for forty minutes. So we started messing around with how you could create this structure that could support it. And you know, a lot of people had messed around with narrative sketch comedy where you take almost like a parody format and then mash sketch on top of it. But the thing that I’d always felt with that was the story parts were always so boring. You’re like, “Who gives a shit if they fucking know each other? Whatever. Just get back to the funny sketch part.” We were trying to mess around with a way of having a narrative show that didn’t involve plot at all, so that it just came together if you’re really precise about the characters’ loop through it. It didn’t have to make any sense, but you could understand how they’re reacting to stuff moment to moment. We’d create these frameworks that we could just jam every single bit we could think of into them…And that was kind of the nice thing about Comedy Central. Because it was a micro-budget they were incredibly hands off. And so our whole time working with them, they were sort of just like, “Do your thing.” I mean there were times where we would get notes from them and have to make adjustments, but for the most part it was like, “Just do what you want to do and then we’ll see.” Of course they didn’t pick it up, so maybe they should’ve given us more notes. [Laughs.]
Are you always thinking of new sketches? Has that just become a regular part of your thought process?
Yeah, it sort of depends. Like when we’re really in the thick of things with My Mans, I’m more thinking about the show constantly and how we solve different show problems and how we can move things forward in the show. And if I’m not working on that, then yes, constantly! It’s a weird thing.
I’m fascinated by how it all boils down to a joke, you know? All the bits that you guys turn into sketches, another person could reimagine as a standup bit. Like instead of acting it out, just verbalizing whatever that joke is. It’s just interesting how people view it differently.
Yeah. Well what I like about our stuff in particular is that it’s like a marriage of idea sketch and character sketch. Second City and Chicago sketch generally is so character, behavior, observational-driven, where acting is really valued and character is really valued and recognizable human behavior is really valued, and getting a laugh off of, “Yeah that guy WOULD say that in that moment!” And I think there are other sketch communities, like at least a while ago when I was in New York, where it’s much more idea-based. Like, “Here’s a premise. I’m not playing a character, I’m just playing a guy, and I say this thing and you say this thing and we all say this thing.” I think both of them are great and both of them have limitations to them. So I think part of our thing was always trying to marry those two together, where you could pull out a bit that’s a great idea, and that could be articulated as a joke premise, and then to also ground that with a character who actually reacts in a way that you can identify with. Like if you were in that situation, you would probably react in that same way too, even if it’s this absurd alternative universe.
So when did you start the Onion job?
I started talking to them since May and started a month ago. So I’m a total newbie.
You had done some work for them before though?
I had, way back in 2007 when they were just starting ONN. I had done some work with them at the very early stages, like even before they had really conceptualized what it was going to be. I had been doing some writing for them, but nothing since then.
Did they seek you out? How did it come together?
So they moved from New York to Chicago and for a variety of reasons when they were moving here, the existing staff wasn’t going to move. And a lot of it had to do with they had other professional opportunities, but they had more or less been the same people from the very beginning. So in coming (to Chicago) they were reconstituting everything from the ground up, so the first thing they were looking for was a head writer. And one of my friends that I had met doing comedy work in college had been the guy who was the original executive producer of ONN and had been with it for a long time. He’d thrown my name into the mix as like, “Hey if you’re going to Chicago you should talk to Andy about this.” They had contacted me as part of a pool of people to submit on the actual show, which I did with frankly zero thought that I would actually get the job.
What was the submission process? Did you send them sketches?
They had also put out a call at the same time for staff writers, so everybody was doing the same thing, which was twenty ideas for videos, which was like a headline plus a paragraph describing how the video would go. And then they sent out a couple headlines that had been approved, that their writers had written, and then they wanted scripts based on those. That was the bulk of it, which was like incredibly fun to do, because they’re such little puzzles, you know? Such a little haiku of getting all the words right, because I think everybody sort of approaches it with the Onion paper in your head a little bit. But a good paper headline was not always a good video idea. The challenge was trying to sort out the difference between those two and figure that out, then work through the scripts.
As head writer, are you going to try to keep with what’s been done there previously or are you bringing any new tone to it?
Well I came into it as just the hugest fan. To me the Onion was one of two or three comedic institutions that were like solid gold. I mean my big thing coming in was like, “I don’t want to fuck it up.” It’s so good and I’m such a huge fan of the stuff that they’ve done that the first priority is keep doing good stuff. And then there’s a big push over there to do more timely material. The paper has been just knocking it out of the park by really changing their writing model to be able to fast track timely stuff. And there’s a big push on the video side to do that sort of thing. So I think there will be a little bit of a scaled down version of what the existing offerings were, with a little bit more timely stuff. And then there’s already been a big investment in local talent. Because you know it’s such a unique voice, and people who have experience writing it are so far beyond anybody else in terms of what they’re able to turn out when it comes to Onion material. But Chicago’s such a great comedy town, there are these really brilliant comedic minds here, and it’s a big priority to develop and cultivate local talent. So to me the three things are: keep doing what’s good, add in this timely thing, and then as the new staff becomes mixed in, to be open to what’s going to change with that. And if the voice shifts a little bit or ideas shift or new parameters shift because it’s something that the staff is really good at cranking out, that’s awesome. But that’s definitely a secondary priority to continuing to do good stuff.
Do you guys have a studio?
Part of the reason for the move to Chicago was they bought their own studio. In New York they were just renting studio space. Now the writing office and the production offices and studio are all on the same floor. The idea there is you can just be so much faster about it. You can have an idea in the morning and shoot it in the afternoon and get it all done. The idea was timeliness and responsiveness should be a priority. One of the CEO’s things was if we’re really a parody of a news organization, we should do what news organizations do which is turn around timely content that people are interested in.
The paper is known for having an extremely selective system for choosing headlines. Is it similar for you?
It’s such a volume deal. We have a small staff, but a larger group of contributors who every week are submitting ideas. This past week I reviewed 800 ideas for two videos. So it really is a process of fighting it out. What I’ve always loved about the Onion is that it has to be funny first. Once you’re in the category of stuff that’s really funny, the next question is what’s it trying to say? Does it agree with our point of view? It is one that’s worth saying? Has it been said before? You really put it through the ringer so what you wind up with feels polished and strong. Everybody gets on board with that part of the process. Strong contributors are going to submit a list of 20 ideas in a week and if they get 1 or 2 approved just to the consideration phase, that’s a good list. That’s the bar you’re dealing with.
You’ll have to put your other stuff on hold, right? Just cause there’s so much work involved.
Yeah for now, and that was part of my consideration in taking the job. It was not a no-brainer for me. It is an incredible opportunity for me, but I loved what I was doing before. I was teaching and I was directing and I was out in LA working on shows and working with people that I think are awesome. But it’s also fun to apply yourself to one thing.
How’s everything going writing sketches for the campaign season? Are you guys ever consciously trying to make political statements?
I think with the Onion it’s always “What’s funny?” rules. I mean it really is just “What’s funny?” makes it out. There’s a desire to be resonant, there’s a desire to speak to something, but nothing about making statements. There’s no discussion about things that matter. [Laughs]. We’re pretty much 50/50 with stuff that hits Obama and stuff that hits Romney. We’re contracted to do about 8 videos before the election.
Is there ever a day where you envision the Onion doing the Daily Show model and coming up with new videos daily?
I think it’s feasible. They have great writers and we have great writers. They have way more content that they have to turn out than we do. I don’t know if there’s an interest in doing that. I think there’s such an interest in those evergreen pieces that really stand up. You know, there are jokes in the crawl, there are jokes in the background. So much more work goes into those videos than needs to. [Laughs.] They are way funnier than they have to be to get passed around. That’s the stuff everybody at the Onion is so passionate about – the density of jokes, the density of layers of what’s going on. There is so much energy around continuing to do that kind of stuff. I think if you moved to a daily model, it would bump those out of the picture. I think there’s an interesting balance. There is something incredibly cool about having a great take on something that’s really funny that you do on the day after some big story breaks, but we have to keep that balance with other things. There’s certain daily stuff that depends more on character. The Onion has always been about having one joke and hammering it into the ground. It’s not like you have a character riffing on something. The ideal is some sort of balance between those two.
Phil Davidson writes about, performs, and produces comedy.
The Onion News Network will be releasing several new videos leading up to Election Day, including a new one today.