Tasked with following up the breakout book “Our Dumb Century”, Onion Writers Mike DiCenzo and Dan Guterman headed up a project which would be daunting all by itself. “Our Dumb World.” sets out to satirize not only the big nations of the world but almost every commonwealth, protectorate and island on the globe. I talked with DiCenzo and Guterman about how this book is a departure for the Onion, the missteps along the way in its creation and why it is not a toilet read.
I’ve really enjoyed the book. I can’t say I’ve read all of it because it’s dense. Amazingly dense.
Dan Guterman: Yeah, it took about 14 years to write.
(Laughs) Which means you started this book before “Our Dumb Century.”
DG: We did. We actually took a break from this book, whipped out “Our Dumb Century” in about three weeks and then returned to this book.
You guys weren’t there when the Onion did “Our Dumb Century”, correct?
DG: No we weren’t.
So was this intimidating to mastermind putting together a follow-up?
Mike DiCenzo: Absolutely. It started a couple of years ago when Scott Dikkers [early and current Onion Editor-In-Chief] came back to the Onion and basically just walked into the Onion and said, “We’re doing an Atlas of the world.” Especially for me and Dan, we wanted to work as hard as possible to make it a worthy follow-up to “Our Dumb Century” which both of us loved and worshiped.
DG: We both were practically introduced to the Onion through “Our Dumb Century”. I remember picking up a copy and being completely blown away by its intelligence and density and pure funniness. It was a big deal for us to do the follow-up.
Filed Under Print
For the past few years, the Onion followed up to its first book “Our Dumb Century” with repackages of headlines that have run already in the print and online editions. While it was great to have those in a more archiveable format, the true successor to that breakthrough book is the Onion’s “Our Dumb World.” Breaking from the newspaper parody format, the book applies the Onion voice to an Atlas targeting almost every country on the planet (with some resentment - a couple of sections are called “The Seriously Who Cares Islands” and “More Fucking Islands.” Death is also wished for the population of the small nation of San Marino). The results create a book with even greater joke density than the mock front pages of its predecessor. With as much as that did make it into the book, it’s hard to imagine what ended up on the cutting room floor.
The book is designed to be read a couple of ways. The restless can flip through and get a quick hit here or there, but many of the countries entries have a unified theme, a central joke that much of the entry can hang on: Turkey becomes a country desperate to be moved from the Middle East to the European section of the book, Sudan’s problems were solved by American petitions, slogans and bumperstickers and Antigua becomes a giant wedding reception hall.
Humor books are traditionally just tossed off and churned out, so the attention again to production value here is amazing. The Onion book would be easy to mistake for an actual coffee table Atlas at first glance with full color photographs, detailed maps and charts and lavish design.
Filed Under Print
Here’s a small excerpt from the audio version of the recently released Onion book “Our Dumb World.” The book is a parody of an atlas and this piece covers our neighbor to the north, Canada - its history, its people, its language and its inferiority to America.
Filed Under Print
I have two (2) copies of the upcoming book “BORAT: Touristic Guidings to Minor Nation of U.S. and A. and Touristic Guidings to Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” to give out to some lucky readers. The book not only captures the voice of the character, but are pretty uncompromising in taste, containing multiple photos of genitalia, both male and female. (Part of the joke are the tiny censor bar covering only a small part of them, bringing rise to a “Why Did They Even Bother?” moment multiple times.)
There’s a little repetition in gags from the movie that may turn off some. But if you followed the Borat publicity blitz last year, you shouldn’t be surprised - Sacha Baron Cohen recycled many lines for Borat’s multiple late night talk show appearances, each time dropping one big thing that was new to keep it fresh. The book is much the same, bringing a bit more depth into the insanity of Borat’s assertions about his country and our own. For a taste, here’s some sample pages from the book I received earlier.
I got some sample pages in my inbox the other day for BORAT: Touristic Guidings to Minor Nation of U.S. and A. and Touristic Guidings to Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. It’s been a year since the Borat film and though I think the film holds up for the most part, part of me thinks if there’s a backlash, we’ll see it here. If the repetition by fans didn’t ruin the humor for you, the callbacks from the book will likely ring pretty strong. And even if you can anticipate Borat rhythms, I still laugh when he mixes up things like “martial artist” and “murderer.”
From these pages the Borat book looks like it won’t have the joke density of other works, but the attention of detail still looks to be there in the design. With the askew yellowed pages and distressed type, it certainly looks like a book made in the Borat’s version of Kazakhstan. That can only add to the humor.
It’ll be interesting to see how the second half of the book on Kazakhstan compares with the earlier fake travel guide Molvania, which targeted a fictional slavic country. Most of the sample pages below however are from the U.S of A side of the book. Thumbnails below. Full sizes after the jump.
It looks to be solid bathroom reading - if you can do that without worrying about Borat taking a picture of you “making toilet.”
One of the things people wonder about “The Colbert Report” is: “How long can they keep this joke going?” At almost two years now, the character of “Stephen Colbert” shows very few signs of wear. The book “I Am America (And So Can You!)” is a little risky to the persona. You don’t have the contained screwball charm of Stephen Colbert, the person, to back up the jokes. For more than a few of the jokes to land, you have to have that character in your head and read in his cadence. The writers even somewhat acknowledge this in the second chapter:
“That was a joke, in case you couldn’t tell. I don’t blame you if you couldn’t. Can’t tell if someone’s making a joke if you can’t see that person’s face. Big reason I don’t like books. No faces. Can’t tell when they’re being funny.”
Of course, quite brilliantly, they put a picture of Stephen’s smiling face right in the margin there. Still, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book as someone first exposure to Colbert. But for members of the Colbert Nation, this book is just about perfect.
The book is constructed as opinions on facets of American life (including Family, Religion and Sports) and everything considered to oppose it, which is roughly every other chapter. The essays have plenty of lists, pull quotes and factoids - making it perfect for jumping right in anywhere instead of reading cover to cover. In keeping close to the show’s segment “The Word”, the margins of the text have additional jokes in red - although these are more throwaways rather than counterpoints as they often are in the show. It can get a little distracting going back and reading each little joke as you go through the text, but if you’re reading in nuggets rather than chapters, tracking down every joke should be just fine.
Probably because I did read it straight through, some of my favorite parts of the book are the breaks from the character in Stephen Colbert via essays from characters who agree with Stephen Colbert. My favorites among them are God on why he doesn’t answer prayers and the reader’s soulmate who tortures us with the knowledge that she/he would have been right there if we had just made a different choice with our lives. Perhaps some of the most brutal gags in the book are in “The Fun Zone” section particularly in a word find for racist words and a match the ball sack to the neutered dog game which includes Bob Barker as one of the choices.
Not every Colbert show joke makes it into the book - particularly surprising is the lack of an “Alpha Squad 7 Tek Jansen Adventure” - I don’t think it’s even mentioned in the book. Maybe this might take away from Colbert’s calls on publishers to pick up the unpublishable book on the show. Or perhaps, it’s just perfect for the sequel.
One of the most valuable parts of the book is the complete transcript of Colbert’s now legendary address at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner. It’s one of the shining lights of satire in this century and done straight in the face of those who needed to hear it most. This book’s not for them, but for those who recognize truthiness when they see it and find reveling in it, rather than cursing it, to be the best way of getting through to 2009.
TV writer Jane Espenson had a very smart take on how the media gets jokes wrong. At issue is the Sarah Silverman jokes about Britney Spears at the VMAs. The material is definitely harsh, but the way it’s reported does it make sound harsher. What Jane notices is that they don’t put the beat in with the joke. So it’s printed like this:
She is amazing. She is 25 years old and she’s already accomplished everything she’s going to accomplish in her life.
Not even seeing the bit, Jane knows that there’s a small pause in there that changes it from something that just sounds mean to something that’s a mean joke. (And yes, there is a difference.) And she’s right. You can see it for yourself here:
(An aside, I’d happily use the MTV embeddable player - but it doesn’t play the VMA video. It makes go to MTV’s site to watch it. So I can’t prove my point right here. Why make an embeddable player for videos that you won’t allow people to play?)
So how print media should report the joke is:
She is amazing. She is 25 years old and she’s already accomplished… everything she’s going to accomplish in her life.
It’s a world of difference. That pause is what allows comedians to get away with saying some of things they say. Even if they are speaking a truth, or even just something that we all would admit to privately, that pause gives the social function of saying “we don’t mean that.” It often preserves the dignity of the target of a joke because that pause says, “This is a joke. It’s not meant to be taken to heart.” (Although reportedly, this was not the case here with Britney Spears supposedly crying after hearing Sarah’s routine.) I don’t think what Sarah Silverman said were the nicest jokes, but they weren’t anything that anyone reading the tabloids hasn’t thought about Spears over the past year. Putting the pause in there let us acknowledge our thoughts but not own (and condemn) someone to that judgment.
Jane puts the word “beat” in between the above clauses, which is typical in screenwriting. I don’t think it’s necessary for the general public, a simple ellipsis should imply the pause. But being that overt is sometimes necessary… it’s hard to be funny in print than anywhere else because you’re dependent on the reader’s sense of comedic timing in some ways. Their own brain has to put in the breaks. Particularly with transition something like stand-up to print, which a lot of time isn’t necessarily funny just on paper without the cadence and persona of the performer.
It’s one of the things I’ve been struggling with in the Stand-Up Comic Database. Many comics have great one liners that apply themselves to the page (or, in this case, screen). They just work. But a lot of other comics don’t transfer well. I hope a lot of time that if I put a pause (...) here or an emphasis there, that I’ll be giving a heads up to visitors about how that comics hits that line and lands the joke. If there’s a joke in there that’s not set up right, please feel free to inform me about it on the appropriate comic’s feedback page. Because I don’t want to be like mainstream media and not get the joke.