Transcript for Stephen Thompson on "The Onion" and Regionalism

Jim Fleming: Stephen Thompson considers himself a Wisconsin boy. It's the place he calls home, even though he makes his living these days as a reviewer and editor and editor at NPR Music.

But before NPR, Thompson did something audacious, he joined his friends on the now celebrated satirical newspaper "The Onion." "The Onion" was born in Madison, just like To the Best of Our Knowledge.

Thompson did his part by launching the non-satirical part of the paper, the art section known as the AV Club. He told Steve Paulson that at the time, in the pre-Internet era, it seemed unlikely that "The Onion" would ever be more than a regional paper.

Steve Thompson: Well, I think that one advantage that The Onion had, you know specially early on, was that it didn't come from a traditional humor-center and so it didn't have this filter of, like a bunch of, you know, no knock on people who went to Harvard to become comedy writers, but it didn't sort of come from this place of formal training and, you know, a certain amount of privilege.

It came from a lot of, sort of, working-class folks who, you know, they went to the University of Wisconsin, you know, generally, you know, which is a public university, and generally on in-state tuition and, you know, some of those people had even dropped out, you know, by the time they were really, you know, writing for "The Onion."

But I think it really benefited from that outsiders perspective.

Steve Paulson: And, did that affect the content do you think? Or your particular slant on what made something funny?

Thompson: Well, you know, absolutely. I think that there was a lot of day-to-day experience in a lot of the writing. I think that a lot of The Onion's sort of template comes from drab, unfulfilling everyday existence, a little bit, and there's an editor at "The Onion" who is still there named John Krewson, who is a very good friend of mine, and he always used to give new writers and new employees what he called "the Krewson test"  and it was sort of these series of, you know, what's the worst thing you've ever done for minimum wage? And, you know, specifics like what's the difference between a Hobart [??] and a Bun-O-Matic? And you know, one is like the industrial grade coffee maker and one is the industrial grade meat slicer.

Paulson: [Laughs]

Thompson: And you know, you didn't have to get all the questions right, but the idea was, he really liked to have, and "The Onion" really liked to have people who knew what it was like to work a terrible, terrible job, you know, and I think that informed a lot of The Onion's humor, that there's a certain amount of populism to it, that comes from not having had all these high [xx] training.

Paulson: And what's interesting is it went on to become a huge success, while it was still based in Wisconsin. I mean, it gained a national following, so  obviously this sensibility was not --just-- appealing to people in the mid-west.

Thompson: Right. And [??] the internet came a long at just the right time for us, you know. Because we had certainly built up a certain amount of feelings of being isolated from, this sort of, somewhat imaginary power brokers in, you know, in New York and Los Angeles, you know. We sort of felt like, "Oh, they're there and we're here."

And there was a certain amount of attraction to those places and, you know, a number of Onion writers in the early days, kind of en masse, moved to LA to become TV writers and a bunch of them are still very, very successful at it today, you know.

So there was somewhat of a sense of we're this somewhat isolated pocket of people and if we wanted to reach a national audience we would have to leave and go there, and- but, when the Internet came along all of a sudden, you know, we were on the Internet and like, I think within six weeks, there was and article about us in the New Yorker, and we were kind of, you know, we were kind of like "Oh!" you know, all of a sudden there is this great equalizing presence that allows us to compete on a level playing field.

Paulson: It is worth pointing out that "The Onion" did move its offices to New York back in 2001, and you've just been saying that, you know, you could do a lot of your work on the Internet, why did you end up moving to New York?

Thompson: Well, the comedy staff moved to New York in part because they felt, you know, they sort of felt isolated and, you know, they wanted to sort of be among other comedy people.

 

 

Part of it is, you know, the editor-in-chief at that time, Rob Siegel [sp?], he was from Long Island and so New York was home to him, you know. So there was a certain pull of New York for him and then for a lot of the comedy writers who were under him, you know, there was some sort of a sense they had been in Madison for a long, long time and they wanted to, you know, rub elbows with people who, you know, they had sort of professional connections with.

There was, you know, sort of a sense of this is our home town, we've been here for a long time and, you know, maybe we can branch out and find bigger and better things. That was sort of, you know, their mindset and I didn't want to pay twice what I payed for my mortgage for a studio apartment so...

Paulson: [Laughs]

Thompson: You know, at the time I was about to become a dad and I didn't necessarily have that gnawing desire to become a new-yorker.

Paulson: You know, there is a this trope in American culture that if you want to make it big, in the literary scene or on Broadway, you have to go to New York. If you want to make movies, you have to go to LA. Every place else is kind of like the waiting room, you know, waiting for something bigger and better to happen, how much truth is there in that cliche?

Thompson: I mean, I have always sort of raged against that cliche, you know, because I've seen, you known, really intriguing art spring out of other places, and I always think that any sort of great collaborative art simply comes from chemistry between or among, you know, a few people and that can happen, I saw that happen in Madison, Wisconsin and so I was, I've always been somewhat defiant of, "Oh, you absolutely, positively have to be in New York" specially since we have the sort of democratizing influence of the Internet.

At the same time, you know, I've sometimes been guilty of kind of, reflexively ignoring, you know, what goes on there, and you don't want to do that either, you want to stay somewhat plugged into what people are saying there but you know, through the power of social media and traveling, I feel like you can have it both ways.

But at the same time, I've never tried to make it as a screen writer and, you know, I've been lucky enough carve out most of my career in either Madison, Wisconsin or Washington, D.C.

 

 

Paulson: You stayed in Madison for a while, even after a lot of "The Onion" staff went on to New York City.

Thompson: Correct, and a lot of my staff in the AV Club had gone to Chicago. And Chicago had sort of become you know, the hub of where a lot of the, sort of, entertainment writing was coming from.

I happened to stay based in Madison because I had a family, and I had a house, and I love Madison. I mean Madison is very, sort of etched, into each individual strand of my DNA and it was very hard, you know, it took NPR really, to get me to leave Madison.

Paulson: OK, so you follow music --really closely--. I  mean you are an editor and a reviewer for NPR, how much do you think it matters for up-and-coming musicians where they're based? I mean, if they are in, I don't know, in the mid-west or the south, or the south-west, is that a strike against them?

Thompson: I don't think it is and, you know, I think, as much as anything sometimes being based in a place like Brooklyn, you know, every once in a while, you have artists there [??] can sort of catch lighting in a bottle and have a lot of people be interested in them but, you know, at the same time I feel like there's also a lot to be gained from sort of building up a little bit more slowly in the place that you call home and sort of developing you know, your life chops [??] and your regional reputation and, you know, you look at a band when you talk about Wisconsin everybody sort of talks about "Bon Iver" and the fact that "Bon Iver" has stayed based in Eau Claire, Wisconsin and really made that a big part of its specialness and its identity. The fact that it sort of captures you know, what it's like to be in the, you know, in the upper-mid-west and what it's like to be  in the winter in Wisconsin, and I think that's become a big part of, kind of the allure and the cache of that particular music.

Paulson: And it is worth pointing out that when Justin Vernon, the front man for "Bon Iver" just got his Grammy, he kind of made a point of that and, you know, sort of gave that shout out to Eau Claire, Wisconsin and to all those sort of people who aren't sort of in that more highly commercialized circuit.

Thompson: Yeah, that guy wears Wisconsin like a badge of honor, you know, when you see him on talk-shows, you know, he'll perform on David Letterman and you'll see like a bucky [??] badge or head poking out of his solar plexus. And for somebody like me who has, you know, fairly deep Wisconsin roots, there's real joy in that.

But, you know, if you are from the American south-west there are going to be elements to the culture there that are going to creep into your music in interesting ways and I think if you have, every ambitious musician based in one city, you kind of losing a lot of, these kind of regional dialects and what ultimately adds to musical uniqueness that is going to be very important to an artist's, you know, sort of success and importance.

So I think, a little too much emphasis is payed up to, "Oh, you have to be in Brooklyn" because I think that can sort of bleach out some of what might make you interesting.

Paulson: You now have lived in the Washington, D.C. area for some years now, you're from Wisconsin, you grew up here, you went to college here, do you think of yourself essentially as a Wisconsinite?

Thompson: Yes. Absolutely. I mean, I've really grown to love living in Washington, D.C. and I've found that, generally the more I travel, the more you really get a sense that people are, you know, I think, I like to think are fundamentally nice wherever you go and you can always find great people anywhere.

Washington, D.C. is full of terrific people, you know,  but at the same time I think leaving Wisconsin has made me probably more of a die-hard Wisconsinite. I never miss a Packer game, you know, I never miss a Badger game, you know, more and more there's kind of this, you find other people who are from Wisconsin or have a connection to Wisconsin and you kind of speak this little special language with people and I definitely, probably more, think of myself as a Wisconsinite now, than I did when I lived in Wisconsin.

Paulson: I guess that's an old story, often you have to go away to really appreciate where you came from.

Thompson: Well, judging by how hard I cried when I left... [Laughs]

Paulson: [Laughs]

Thompson: ...I think, I think I appreciated living there when I was there.

Paulson: Thank you, Stephen this has been fun.

Thompson: Oh, my pleasure, thank you.

[Music]

Fleming: Stephen Thompson is an editor and founder of NPR Music, and a founder of The Onion's AV Club section, he spoke with Steve Paulson.

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