Scott Dikkers, founding editor and former editor-in-chief of The Onion, called on students to follow their passions by recounting his experiences founding the satirical publication in the Intercultural Center Auditorium on Monday.
The Georgetown University Student Association and the Lecture Fund collaborated to bring Dikkers to campus. More than 300 people attended the event, which was titled “The Funny Story Behind the Funny Stories.”
Dikkers encouraged students to choose careers based on their passions.
“Live your mission. Don’t worry about the money; just do what you love, obsessively and without hesitation,” Dikkers said. “You don’t want to work hard, you don’t want to work smart, you want to work right.”
Dikkers said that his journey toward comedy came as a result of a bleak childhood, which included a suicide attempt in the third grade and his parents’ divorce in middle school.
“I learned that if you made the bullies laugh, they wouldn’t beat you up. So I learned to write funny and draw funny,” Dikkers said. “The main thing I learned in school was that humor was a coping mechanism for just about anything life throws at you.”
Dikkers said he began to see his interest in comedy as a potential career when a comic strip he wrote for a local high school paper won first place in a Wisconsin state journalism contest. Shortly after, he sent comic strips to news syndicates every week for years until The Daily Cardinal, the newspaper of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, turned one of his strips into the daily comic “Jim’s Journal.”
Eventually, the comic ran in around 100 college papers and Dikkers self-published the series in a book that made national best-sellers lists. “Jim’s Journal” caught the attention of two college students with the idea to start a humor magazine — The Onion — at UW-Madison.
According to Dikker, the working title for the publication was originally The Rag, but the group settled on The Onion.
“The Onion seemed like a great name for a newspaper. You peel back the layers to get at the facts. I don’t understand why it’s not in the acceptable pantheon of newspaper names like ‘The Herald’ or ‘The Beacon’. Of course we’ve ruined it now for everyone,” Dikkers said.
Dikker said that one of The Onion’s strongest features is its unique staff.
“Most of our writers were at some point on prescription drugs and came from broken homes. Our head writer for many years was clinically depressed, actually suicidal. … We hired an agoraphobic, a pathological liar and a conspiracy nut,” Dikkers said. “These were our A-players. They were smart, they were bitter and they had no prospects in life, so they appreciated the soapbox.”
Dikker recalled that these writers, coupled with The Onion’s brand of humor, garnered controversy for the publication.
“We got a lot of calls. We got one from the Taco Bell Corporation at one point because they did not at all like our story ‘Taco Bell Unveils New “Morning-After” Burrito,’” Dikkers said.
In the mid-2000s, The Onion launched The Onion News Network, an original online video content platform.
“When we started the new video arm, we started to have a lot of the same problems we had when we started the paper. People kept calling us angry, because they were confused and thought it was real news,” Dikkers said. “We had exposed ourselves to a whole other demographic of people who don’t read and only watch their news.”
According to GUSA President Joe Luther (COL ’16), who worked with the Lecture Fund to invite Dikkers to campus, the event comes as the result of a long planning process. Luther is the former editor-in-chief of the satirical publication The Georgetown Heckler.
“This is something we’ve been kicking around since February. We talked with The Onion about sending actual writers but … we made the judgment call that the perspective would be more helpful and have a broader appeal if it was the founder of the publication,” Luther said.
Luther said he particularly resonated with Dikkers’ comments on following one’s passions.
“I liked his emphasis that it’s not how much you’re making or materially how well you’re doing, it’s just about if you’re pursuing what you love. It was really great to hear that as long as you’re doing what you love, you could be happy,” Luther said.
Sam Matta (COL ’19), an attendee, said Dikkers’ remarks were both humorous and informative.
“He did a good balance of making it funny, but he spoke a lot about entrepreneurship and the work that it takes to actually be a comedy writer, which was really interesting,” Matta said.
Luther agreed that Dikkers’ talk was useful, especially to those looking to learn more about comedy.
“I think he imparted a lot of wisdom and knowledge to the crowd. I was blown away to see so many people there interested in satire and its effects on society … and I really, really hope he hires me someday,” Luther said.