Interview: Mike DiCenzo and Dan Guterman, Head Writers, The Onion’s “Our Dumb World”
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.
What were some of the missteps at first – what was some of that trial and error?
DG: A lot of it had to do with our complete ignorance of the entire world. (laugh) For these meetings, we’d site around the table and assign out countries to each person and I’d say about 80% of these countries that were mentioned we’d have no idea. We had never heard about before.
It was hard to sort of sit down and riff about the country. You’d have to go off and do laborious research.
MD: Usually when we get assigned article and headlines – when we sit around to brainstorm them. It’s a fairly simple process. We’ll know the crux of the joke is and could toss out ideas. I remember one of the first few weeks, Dan was assigned Cameroon. And we were trying to brainstorm – just get the basic facts out there to play off of. I believe there was completely silence for 30 seconds and someone just tossed out “macaroon?” (laugh)
DG: And now we have an 800-word entry on macaroons.
An interesting thing about the book is how it’s a departure from what the Onion has been known for: news parody with headlines and stories off the headlines. This is a different form for the voice.
DG: That’s exactly right. We’ve always done newspaper parody. We wanted to keep the Onion sensibility the same but transfer it to this new format. It took some trial and error to find how to do that.
Wasn’t Cameroon the one that’s the map inaccuracy entirely?
DG: Yeah, that’s right. That’s how I solved that problem.
That’s what seemed hard about it – you want something that accessible to a lot of people who probably have heard as little about these countries as you have. But at the same time, with the Onion being one of the smartest things out there in humor, you want for anyone who is up on Cameroon or anything like that. You want to give them a couple of jokes that they’ll enjoy.
MD: We definitely tried to find a balance for every entry where it would be accessible but also true to the country and would say something unique about the country. We wanted to avoid all those easy jokes.
Just from looking at how long some of the entries are for the more obscure countries, there must have been a point where you thought, “God, can’t we just add another page for France.” Were there temptations?
MD: Yeah. At first, we wrote the same length for every nation.
MD: Because it was a mistake. (laughs) That’s why we did that – because we were wrong to do it. But then we quickly realized that the South Pacific Islands did not deserve 1200 words and we should give some more room for Russia. And there were some instances where – though we wanted to include every country in this book – it would have killed us to write something about a nation like San Marino. It would just make everybody in the room very angry that they would have to devote out of their busy schedules to write about this nonsense protectorate inside of Italy.
It would be hard to tell that some countries were left out. One thing about “Our Dumb World” is that it’s a hardcover book. And traditionally, humor book are thought of as toilet reads. This really isn’t that. I wouldn’t want to sully it with my toilet fingers. (laughs)
MD: It could be a toilet read if you were deathly constipated. (laughs)
DG: It’s perfect for people who are not doing so hot in their digestive system department.
There’s a lot of that quick short stuff in there for you to get a quick hit off of. But it’s so dense with material. And it’s such a lavish and beautiful book – how do you feel this book is best experienced, if not on the toilet.
MD: To answer that seriously, I feel that rather than flipping around from joke to joke, if you want to flip around and read it, it’s best to take in a whole country at once. You can start at any country. It’s good to get a feel for the country. The maps and the facts and the histories all work together. With almost every country, you’ll get a bunch of jokes that all work together.
A lot of the countries are unified by theme or a central idea, like Thailand as a child sex area.
DG: It’s the kind of book you can flip around and get one off jokes on every page but the more you devote to a certain entry, the more you get out of it. It’s got many different layers. Compoundly the experience is much stronger than just flipping around.
Now when you mentioned Scott said, “we’re going to an Atlas”, was there any other discussion about other formats or forms to take the voice?
MD: When he walked in and said, “I like for us to do an Atlas.” The feeling in the room was fear from going away from what we traditionally did and also excitement about it. Because we do write newspaper parodies a lot. It was, although challenging, a really nice break from what we usually did. It inspired a lot of new ideas.
How many jokes ended up on the cutting room floor? Because there’s so many in the book, I can’t imagine how many didn’t make in it.
DG: True to Onion form, we wrote the book three times over. I think, in a way that is our strength. When we have a challenge or a new project, the way we deal with it is not by trying to cut corners or find compromises or even question whether something is feasible or not. We just throw as much work as we possibly can at the challenge. Literally, everyone on staff put in hundreds and hundreds of hours into this book.
Themes of different nations sometimes changed over time. So jokes that pertained to a certain theme had to go. There was a lot of rewriting and writing.
It must have been to some degree – like on the Bolivia and Columbia pages – there had to be some serious thought to how to separate out the coke jokes so that each was it’s own contained unit.
DG: Exactly. There was a lot of those situations. We wrote so many jokes that it changed our perspective to the world around us. I will say that after we spent thousands of hours writing, the people in Ethiopia don’t have it so bad. (laughs) At least they never had to write a 300 page book in a year.