CAROL KOLB INTERVIEW (2010)

Carol Kolb is an American comedy writer. She was the head writer at The Onion News Network when we spoke in April 2010, and has since gone on to write for the TV shows Community and Brooklyn 99, among others.


BW: Are there any comedians or comedic programming that influence your style?

CK: I was always a big Letterman fan when I was a kid. I like Conan O'Brien. I like that sort of thing.

BW: Can you tell me a little about The Onion News Network?

CK: The Onion newspaper is a satire of the stiffest types of news writing. We also parody publications like USA Today with colorful charts and dumbed-down writing. So, definitely, people have to be familiar with those other types of writing to find some parts of The Onion funny. In video, we really try to parody 24 hour news, like CNN or Fox News or whatever. That's our goal, to really make fun of that even more so than making fun of individual current events. Our humor isn't all that political. We try to mimic the intensity of a major news network. Like the crazy graphics and the "Breaking News!" and that sort of thing.

BW: How would you describe the comedy style of The Onion?

CK: I think it's kind of dark. We look for ideas that are a little, like, meaner or something. I think we don't really like nice humor all that much because it just seems a little boring or something. We really just try to be funny more than political. I don't think we have a big agenda here. And even if personally we have political opinions, we try to spread it out a little bit more between, like, making fun of the left, making fun of the right; making fun of rich people and making fun of like, stupid dishwashers in the middle of Iowa. We just sort of want to make fun of everyone.

BW: No one is off limits.

CK: Right.

BW: Would you say you're making fun of the reader? The person who consumes the news in addition to the people who are making it?

CK: I don't think we're exactly making fun of the reader unless it's an instance where one of our stories or videos comes to someone and they don't realize that it's humor. And then they react to it, which does happen. So in that case I think we are. With our videos we usually try to have a target in mind, especially if it's sort of a sacred topic or something that's a little off-color or whatever. We definitely always try to think about who we are making fun of. We try not to make fun of the homeless guy or the rape victim or whatever, when we do some joke that's about a horrible topic like that.

BW: You just described limits there to what you won't make fun of.

CK: Well I mean there's no topic that we won't cover. But we do at least try to think about who we're making fun of in a situation. Is it us for being callous about these things? Or the news for being so sensationalistic? You know, we try to make our stories have a clear target.

BW: What do you think is the future of television news?

CK: I think it's just going to continue to get crazier. I think there will always be some well-reasoned news sources out there but I think as far as TV news I think it's just going to be even more about ratings grabs, even more about personalities or getting noticed in this in this broadening field of news sources. So yeah. Even crazier.

BW: And The Onion is going to parallel that?

CK: Oh yeah, we're always trying to keep up. We're like, "Oh did you see how they have like this weird holograph?!" or whatever, just some weird, like, swooshy graphic. We're like, "Oh we gotta do that!" It is hard to keep up.

BW: Is there a ceiling of craziness? Do you think there's a breaking point?

CK: I don't know. I guess at some point people might just get oversaturated with the news or with the craziness and put down their computers and put down the TV and have a desire to live life again. But I don't know. I think that's probably many years in the future. I think the vast majority will just continue on with the craziness.

BW: I was on the The Onion’s Facebook fan page. And in the "about me" box it says "Tu Stultus Es," which of course you have to look up and then you find out it means…

CK: Oh yeah, "You are dumb" [chuckles]. Well for many years The Onion's motto was "You are dumb". And I actually got a Latin minor in college and then we translated it and started doing "Tu Stultus Es." And it was funny because that was the only thing I ever used my Latin minor for in my entire life. So I'm glad that all that time went into something.

BW: Someone asked Garrison Keillor about his approach to writing stories and he said, well I don't write stories, because stories don't have a bent. And insofar as I'm trying to get you to think a certain way about certain people, I’m not writing stories I’m writing sermons. I want to hold Keillor's distinction up to the way The Onion does satire. Do you think you're writing satire or are you writing sermons?

CK: Yeah, I guess we're writing sermons then, because we come into each story with an opinion in mind. We try to never be too heavy-handed or try to hit people over the head with the point. But we definitely feel, just to ground our story or ground the satire, we do need to be aware who we're making fun of and what we want people to think, what emotion or reaction we're trying to provoke. Like, we want someone to be angry at the conservatives after this piece. Or we want someone to think that this particular figure is ridiculous or we want people to be more aware of their callousness or something.

BW: So when you bring that to bear on a certain issue and you are trying to get the viewer or reader around to a certain position, is there a whole framework you're operating from?

CK: I mean we're just basically trying to make people laugh, and we're trying to make fun of people for being dumb, but kind of like everyone is dumb in a different way. So we're just picking the specific ways that various people are dumb. We just want to be mean and make fun of people and have fun.

BW: If it really is a dumb world, does that bother you?

CK: I guess it doesn't, because I'm not particularly political and I think if it honestly bothered me that much I would be out there trying to affect change and I'm not. I'm just making people laugh. So I guess I must honestly not care that much.

BW: Can satire carry a cultural remedy? Like the pill in the hot dog?

CK: It can but I think people are a little self-important about their humor and their satire and they think they're making more of a change when they are. They're preaching to the choir basically. I think that's mostly what we're doing with The Onion. People will laugh at the videos that make the point they agree with. I don’t think that any of our videos are changing their mind.
 

[Transcript edited for length and clarity.]

 

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