Cracking the Comedy Code with ‘Onion’ Founding Editor Scott Dikkers

After Scott Dikkers added me on Skype for our interview, a notification came up that it was his birthday. Considering I was interviewing him on the April Fool’s Day, this would be like talking to Patton on Memorial Day.

Then it turned out that Scott Dikkers’ Skype birthday is a ruse, another April Fool’s Day joke. I should’ve expected as much from the founding editor of The Onion and and writer of Our Dumb Century, the feature Bad Meat, and the unmade-yet-hilarious E-Day.

I’ve listed Mr. Dikkers’ accomplishments, but you’ve probably never heard his name. That’s because he probably has the largest margin of ego to comedic genius output known to mankind, and he’s fine with being utterly anonymous. He just wants to get the best possible joke out into the world.

As a midwesterner, I can only nod and accept the nose to the grindstone life philosophy of Scott Dikkers. Of course, the man behind the Onion and a half-dozen hilarious shorts and features wouldn’t call himself much of a laugher. He’s too busy seeing the hilarious code in the joke matrix.

Do you prefer to write alone or in a room?

I prefer to write alone but I love working with a team to get feedback on my writing. You mentioned before my book, How To Write Funny, which will be the first in a series of books. The second book will be called How To Write Funnier which will be focusing on longform comedy pieces. The book after that will be on how to work best in teams. At The Onion I developed a system of how to create comedy in a writer’s room which is much different, I have since learned, from any other comedy room. There are a lot of mistakes that a lot of comedy rooms or writer’s rooms make because there are a lot of politics and alpha behavior. A lot of wasted time and confusion of who the real audience is when you’re in a writer’s room. At The Onion we came up with a system that I will impart in this book that counteracts all of those natural instincts people have in order to produce the best material. So, it’s a system I love and it’s the only way I like to work. It takes a lot of honesty and brutal honesty and thinking about humor on a more intellectual level than a gut level as well as requiring a keen awareness of the politics of the room. And people’s natural tendency to behave like chimps when in a group.

So will a future book be: How To Write Funny Screenplays?

Yeah, I’m definitely planning a book like that. I’ve written many screenplays and I’ve optioned a couple and I sort of feel like I deserve to be an authority when it comes to prose humor writing in my experience with The Onion. I feel sort of out of my depth when it comes to screenwriting but when it comes to other screenwriting teachers. I’ve written a lot more movies than other screenwriting teachers and I found that when I give notes on screenplays or help other writers write screenplays that so many of the rules apply. It’s a different medium so they are different, but yes I do plan to do that because I’ve accumulated tips and tricks that I’ve developed for certainly making a screenplay funny or writing a comedy screenplay because I think that so many of the same rules in prose apply. You just have to use dramatic structure, you can’t use comedic structure like you would in a comedy article.

Can you explain that further?

Sure. So, comedic structure is the escalation of a joke like you would see in a sketch or you would see in an article on The Onion. That structure might’ve been used for a vaudeville bit or a short subject film in the silent era, a TV commercial. You can get away with that purely comedic structure as all you’re is setting up a joke concept and then you’re escalating it to some sort of punchline or button at the end. A lot of people who write comedy screenplays think they can just put that in a comedy screenplay and they realize very quickly that it completely falls apart after page ten because no audience can sit still and pay attention to a feature length film that has that structure. It would be the most agonizingly long SNL sketch you ever saw.

What you have to do is use dramatic structure, which we all know from the various books and classes has the inciting incident and the rising tension and the reversals. You need to have character that has empathy that we’re going to follow through this journey and there’s going to be a resolution at the end. These are all things that a dramatic movie absolutely needs but a comedy movie needs them also so the audience can sit still for ninety minutes. They need that deeper structure. When you look at some of the most frivolous comedy movies, you think it’s just a string of jokes but there’s always that bare-boned structure there. It has an inciting incident and there’s often a love story to make you care about the character. There’s always those awkward moments where you wonder why this attractive woman is falling for this idiot, but it doesn’t matter because it’s just there to make you able to sit through the movie.

Like a series of comedic sketches all in a row.

Exactly. A good example is Anchorman that feels like a string of really great jokes. It’s a super-funny movie but again there’s this love story arc where he and the Christina Applegate character have conflict and then they fall for each other and then he loses her. There’s a plot that you absolutely need and it would work in a dramatic movie as well. It’s similar to a lot of love stories. The fact that you simply use that plot as the skeleton as the clothesline and you decide which clothes to hang on it. If you want to make Kramer vs Kramer you can hang some dramatic clothes on that. If you want to make a comedy, then you hang a lot of silly jokes on it, which is what Adam McKay and Will Ferrell do masterfully.

In How To Write Funny, you discuss avoiding cliches at all cost. Can you give us an example of cliches to avoid in comedic scripts for TV?

There are almost too many to name. If you see a joke in another TV show, especially a joke you’ve seen more than once, then don’t use it. That’s a simple rule, but it can be tricky because there are certain structural things a TV script needs, and you don’t want to confuse those with cliches because the structures have to be the same. They work and they’re tried and true and go back a Millennia. Those aren’t going to be changed.

Okay, here’s an example of a cliche that you still see and it will not die. I remember seeing this on Gilligan’s Island and I Dream Of Genie in the 60s and it remains in wide use ever since and that is: when you need to motivate a character to do something in a script, and it’s something that character would never do; you basically have another character opposite say, “I want you to do this crazy thing!” And then the main character will say, “nope, never. I will never do it!” Then cut immediately to them doing it. That’s a cliche that you still see and it shocks me when I see it. The person who did it the first time was a genius. Because it’s a great way to get around that really serious story problem. The problem being motivating a character to do something they would never do. How am I going to get them to do it? I could take someone hostage or force them to do it, nah I’ll just make a joke about it. You get a laugh because it’s so jarringly opposite of what you expected and once you’re laughing you’re forgiving story problems, especially in a comedy.

If you could clarify: Big Bang Theory is one of the most popular shows out there, and yet the zany roommate idea is a cliche and overdone.

Yeah, that’s why you have to be careful not to equate successful structures with cliches. That’s the center in eccentric structure, and it works. There are so many sitcoms like that, and as long as you create characters that you haven’t seen in that structure before, it works. Yes, they are at a college, but they are nerd geniuses so that is something we’ve never seen before. So there is an element of originality to it.

Which proves it’s all about the characters?

You want to use all of these tried and true structures when you do TV and movies but you want to give them a little twist, something modern, almost a veneer. Give them a different job, race or character traits and that’ll make it feel completely fresh to an audience. That’s all it takes and that’s really the best way to do it because you don’t want to take a chance making a new structure no one has tried before since we’ve been telling stories for hundreds of thousands of years, we know what works and we don’t need to reinvent that wheel. You try at your peril. I’ve tried and it doesn’t work.

People need to be comfortable.

Yeah. It needs to satisfy that deep mammalian brain need for storytelling.

In How To Write Funny, you have some jokes that you say could be tweets or thrown away even as the book goes along. Were those born from the writing exercises or were they edited?

I just wrote those chapters live, stream of consciousness, and I didn’t go back and edit. I don’t think I fundamentally changed any of the jokes in those sections because I wanted it to remain true to my line of thinking. I knew it would only be helpful if it was raw, and I did come up with some jokes that weren’t funny because that’s a huge part of being a comedy writer in that so much of what you generate is going to be terrible and embarrassing. You’ve got to show that and be honest about it which you never see. I always wanted a book like this as a kid and there wasn’t one. People have tried to write it, and the way I wanted it to be was incredibly useful. It would de-mystify the process. I think a lot of people are daunted by comedy writing because they think there are people that are comedy geniuses and that they could never do that which I don’t buy for one second. Those people have practiced and worked at it and those people are able to understand writing stuff that’s terrible and then keep going. Those are the skills that lead someone to be great at comedy writing. It’s not a God-given gift of just being incredibly funny.

With digital distribution, YouTube and the fact you can shoot relatively high-quality comedic shorts on your phone, what would present Scott Dikkers say to a Scott Dikkers born twenty years later?

It is amazing looking back on that. The computer I’m talking to you on now is a more powerful movie-making machine than Orson Welles had when he made Citizen Kane by a factor of ten. That’s just mind-blowing. When I was coming up, there was no internet, no YouTube, no nothing, you couldn’t get your work seen. The only way you could get a film seen was to send it, send the physical film, and there was no video either. It was film that you had to shoot, and develop, and cut physically with a razor blade and tape, and you had to mail that film to a film festival in the hopes that they would show it. And then who was watching that? I don’t know, some people who showed up for that film festival, nobody important. And there were many film festivals and I did that as a teenager and one of my films, that is not on YouTube, I should post all of these up, they’re just for kicks, but I sent it off to the Ann Arbor Film Festival. I think I was like 18 or something. And it won an award! I don’t know what the award was, best comedy, or something like that, but their projector shredded the film. So they sent it back to me in a paper bag. All these shreds of film just saying “Sorry! Here’s your award and we destroyed your film.”

Thankfully I had transferred it via telecine to videotape before sending it, but in those days you couldn’t send videotape to a festival, it was all film. So the idea of getting seen by somebody who hires comedy writers for like a TV show or a movie, that just seemed like an impossible ivory tower that you could never get seen by. How would you ever get an agent? How would you ever even apply for those jobs? It’s just some inner circle that was unfathomable. I guess to my younger self I would say “It’s going to be amazing in the future, because all that’s gonna be gone and now the whole entertainment industry is going to be democratized. So, your video will have the same chance of being seen by everybody in the world, essentially, with an internet connection, as Universal Studios’ latest release. You’re on an equal playing field. And there are probably some YouTube videos produced for no money, in a half an hour, with very little thought, that have got more views than some multi-million dollar feature films that have been produced.” Mindboggling.

So on some level that is a comfort, and it’s great that exists. On the flip side, it’s so incredibly crowded. Like everybody’s got a funny video now.

Right, there’s so much noise.

It’s way too much noise. You make a video, you put it out there, it’s a drop in the bucket. And there are some people doing it, god bless ‘em, doing consistent videos that are funny, and keep plugging away. I believe, all that said, the internet is still a meritocracy, and stuff that is really good will get seen, and will rise to the top, and will lead to opportunity. In the end I think it’s a wash, but it can be daunting to realize just how much work it is to rise above the din of all that noise and actually get seen.

Now there’s a whole other market in which people that are using SEO and there’s little tricks to get your video seen more by using keywords.

Yeah, so again, it’s the persistent who are going to succeed at that. They’re going to keep making videos, and by doing that they’re going to get more practice, they’re going to get better at it, they’re gonna learn all that stuff about how to promote socially and how to maximize views, all that stuff. Those people are going to do well and many of them are doing well and it’s leading to opportunities for them, which is great. And there are simpler ways to do it, obviously. There are people who come up with a funny Twitter feed idea and that gets noticed and then those people get job offers. That’s a wonderful avenue toward professional comedy writing that didn’t exist when I was a kid.

Why aren’t you making more videos? Because it’s cheaper than ever and the quality is outstanding now. Bad Meat came out 10 years ago, and I know you’ve been busy, but I just really like E-Day, so I want to know why you aren’t making more shorts or more features.

Thank you for saying so. I made two features and I look back on them with a fair amount of horror. I always thought that’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to make movies from a very young age. And I only got into cartooning and The Onion as a stepping stone to get to the point where I could make movies. Once I made a couple of features, I realized that as much as I want to do it, I should not be doing it. I just don’t have the proper temperament. I think it’s okay for me to write them, but I should not be making them, I shouldn’t be producing them and directing them. You have to have a certain personality to be a director, which I don’t have, and you have to have certain skills to be a producer, which I don’t have. So I’ve done all that and I’ve dabbled in all that, but the biggest lesson I’ve learned from it is that I shouldn’t be doing that. I do enjoy making shorts and I think, looking back, my short films are much better than my feature films. I work better in that format.

One of the personality traits that a filmmaker of features needs is one that I don’t have, which is to have a consistency of vision so from the moment you write the script to the moment you finish editing your movie and releasing it, you have the same vision. Because you’re a slave to that vision throughout and you can’t change it. I find that in that two-year process, or whatever that is, sometimes three years, I’m not making the same movie that I’m interested in making by the time it’s over. So if I make a short, that just feels much better for me. It’s quicker, I can stick to comedy structure, which is more my thing anyway. And why I don’t make more of them, I guess right now I’m just going through a period where I’d rather not do that much work. It’s really hard to make movies and make shorts. I was excited to be working on that TV pilot with Comedy Central, it would’ve been fun to work on an animated TV show, but it’s not something I really sit around fantasizing about. If the opportunity fell in my lap, that’d be great, I’ll take it, but I’m not really interested in doing all of the ground work necessary to make that happen. I still make an occasional animated cartoon, I still do animation work for hire, I do a fair amount of book videos for Scholastic, for example, which is so much fun.

They’re an amazing company, I love working for them. But yeah, I don’t really feel a burning drive to create shorts that often. Sometimes I’ll do it, but the way I do it, I don’t want to necessarily go out and promote myself like “Hey, I’m this guy who was editor of The Onion for a long time. Here’s my new video,” and try to get views that way, or whatever.

So I’ll often make a video and just slip it on a generic YouTube channel with no attribution and just see what happens. That’s just really fun for me, it’s like a cool experiment, and I’ve done that a fair amount.

You’re so ego-free. I mean, let’s go from The Onion where, as you said, nobody’s name is on it and now you’re talking about just releasing videos on random channels. Do you feel like that’s held back your career in a way? Because so many people have to peacock and say “Hey, look at me, look what I did,” while you’re just creating great stuff without even really having to raise your hand.

Yeah, I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with me. But I don’t have that gene. I just don’t have that “Hey, look at me!” gene. All I want is for there to be great stuff in the world. First and foremost, I want to enjoy great work, great comedy, I want to see it. Secondarily, I want the rest of the world to see it. I owned and edited The Onion for 15 years, I could’ve changed the name to Scott Dikkers’ The Onion and I absolutely did not want to do that. I could’ve become the Stan Lee of The Onion with my little face on the cover with the note “Hey readers, excelsior!” or whatever. But for me it was all about the work and what made The Onion funny was that it was this big, faceless media empire giving you the truth. If you attached a real life personality to that, it wouldn’t have worked.

And imagine the death threats.

And imagine the death threats. Yeah, that would’ve been fun. We got plenty even without that, so god help us. With my cartoon, I did my daily comic strip for 10 years, and that strip worked because it was one of the characters in the script writing his journal every day. So my name didn’t make sense on that either because it would’ve destroyed the internal logic of the strip. For whatever reason I’m a total introvert and a recluse and I can be by myself for days and weeks and be totally happy, so the idea of going out there and putting my name and my face on things and saying “Hey everybody, look at me! Look at what I’m doing!” that runs so counter to who I am and what makes me comfortable. I’ve had to get comfortable doing it to a certain extent and I do, but I realize I’m doing like one percent of what you’re “supposed to” be doing in the entertainment business, for example. So it totally has limited my career, but I’m totally fine and comfortable. I’m happy with my level of success and I don’t regret doing things that way, certainly.

Would you say that when you’re creating on a day-to-day basis the ultimate goal is to make yourself laugh?

That would be like discovering the Holy Grail, if I could come up with something that made myself laugh. It’s happened a handful of times.

Do you not laugh usually at the things that you’re creating?

No, I’m not a laugher. Because I’m a professional in the humor business I see the code. I’m like Neo in The Matrix, I just see these green letters, I’m not laughing. There are certain types of things that will make me laugh and I sort of go into that in the book. Like when a joke combines a certain number of these funny filters to almost overload the sensory input in my brain so I can’t deconstruct it intellectually, then I’ll start laughing. I can literally count the number of times I’ve laughed at produced comedy entertainment on one hand in my entire life.

And some of it was my own, maybe one or two of those things was my own, but a different kind of laugh. I’ve laughed a lot in meetings and in group writing situations where people are getting carried away with a joke or whatever. I’ve laughed a lot obviously doing that. I  laugh a lot in my personal life, at real life things that I see, those are funny, but that’s totally different than laughing at something that somebody else created in order to make me laugh, some sort of comedy product. I laughed at Anchorman, I laughed at Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. There was a TV show I laughed at. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed at Monty Python, even though that’s the Rosetta Stone of modern comedy.

I sat and just watched Monty Python in awe. My mouth was hanging open and that was me downloading the Kung Fu program in The Matrix. I was sitting there going “Oh my god, this is amazing.” But yeah, something that actually makes me laugh is rare. But I guess your question is a good one because, yes, the goal is to create something that makes me laugh and because I’m such a hard laugher, that’s why I go so over the top and work so hard to make stuff as funny as possible. Because I know that’s the only possible way there’s going to be any sliver of a chance that I myself will laugh at it.

So one of my other laughs I wanted to recall is the book Our Dumb Century, which I co-wrote and edited. Most of my projects, movies, books, whatever they may be, if I look at them years later, all I see is agony. I see “Oh my god, that was so hard.” I just remember every detail of every joke and everything. It’d be almost like going through and looking at the studs of a house that you built. Like, that one’s nice and straight or whatever. Or like a lot of movie directors can’t rewatch a movie because all they see is mistakes.

This is so funny, Robert Zemekis told this story, of all people, he can’t watch Back To The Future because it’s painful to him. “Every shot looks so much worse than how I imagined it. I had so many ideas for how that shot could be so great, but we didn’t have time we were running out of light, so we just had to do that thing.” I look at that movie and it’s like a perfect movie so it’s shocking.

So imagine me, I have not made a perfect movie, I have that problem times a hundred. I look at it a it’s like “Oof, that could’ve been a lot better.” But Our Dumb Century is a book that somehow defies that pattern. I can read Our Dumb Century and I can actually start laughing. There are so many secret nuggets of humor in there that are masterful and the team that worked on that book with me are some of the greatest minds produced at The Onion all coming together for one great project, and I really think it’s kind of our crowning work.

I was reading an interview that you gave about Our Dumb Century and you were saying that the old formula is that comedy = tragedy + time, but you found that after distilling that, comedy = tragedy, especially with what The Onion did right after 9/11. So turning that back around into today’s fast-paced Instagram, Vine, Twitter, and YouTube, if comedy = tragedy, is it almost too fast of a turnaround to write certain comedy nowadays? Do we need to put time back into the equation?

No, absolutely not. I think that The Onion’s 9/11 issue is a great example, another crowning achievement that came out two weeks after 9/11. Rob Siegel was the editor then and it was the same team that worked on Our Dumb Century, minus me, and they did an amazing job. They proved that comedy = tragedy and that comedy is a great coping mechanism in times of tragedy. If you can’t laugh, then where is your humanity? That’s kind of like what people were saying, that satire is dead, is what all the people were saying after 9/11.

Those writers at that time at The Onion had learned how you create humor out of tragedy. You have to have the right target. It’s so easy to make a joke with the wrong target after a tragedy, and that’s when people get upset. If you’re blaming the victims, or whatever, but to go after the hijackers on 9/11 and have them be surprised that they’re in Hell and just show them getting raped by demons? That’s incredibly cathartic and funny and wonderful. It takes a lot of skill to create humor out of tragedy. People do it instinctively really well, like at a funeral, often that’s where you’ll laugh the hardest at a joke because it’s this atmosphere of “Oh, we’re not supposed to laugh.” That’s the pressure cooker. Just like when you were in school and you weren’t supposed to laugh, that’s when things are the funniest.

I call them the Church Laughs because I would always crack up in church.

Totally, the Church Laughs. Those work because you’re kind of in the midst of a very serious situation. I guess I’ll use that word again, it makes you feel so human to be able to laugh and enjoy a joke in that moment.

And now you’re teaching at Second City?

Yeah, I developed this program called Writing With The Onion and I teach a lot of what’s in the book, How To Write Funny, and other Onion writers come in and teach classes as well. I do do that like 1 or 2 nights a week. Enjoy it greatly, it’s so awesome to see all these ambitious, young comedy writers coming in trying to raise their game. I just love being surrounded by that.

Photo by Nicki Fietzer.

Cracking the Comedy Code with ‘Onion’ Founding Editor […]