Madison’s Onion on the cusp of comedy superstardom
"It's a scary thought when I think, 'What if I submitted to the Onion now? Could I get in?' And I'm the editor," Robert Siegel said. "We don't even follow up on the good submissions we get."

What are Madison’s two biggest exports?

Hot dogs and Onions.

No one locally underestimates Oscar Mayer’s popularity, and most sing its praises.

But The Onion? It’s tough to gauge the national significance of a parody newspaper that’s been distributed free in piles downtown for 10 years.

Until now.

The Onion’s first book, “Our Dumb Century,” arrives in stores Thursday. It features 159 fictitious newspaper covers with more laughs per page than a dozen Leno and Letterman monologues combined.

So when “Our Dumb Century” creeps up the best-seller list (and it’s bound to in the next couple weeks), will Madison finally realize comedy’s brightest writers and editors work in an anonymous sixth-floor office on State Street?

“A lot of people here regard The Onion as this snotty, obnoxious college rag. Even in town, there are people who think we’re a University of Wisconsin-based publication,” says Robert Siegel, Onion managing editor, pausing from disgust.

“Here, usually the question is, `Do you guys get paid?’ ”

Yes, they’re paid, and the fact is “Our Dumb Century,” overseen by Onion chief Scott Dikkers, touched off a bidding war for publication rights. Crown Publishing, a subsidiary of Random House, won with a bid of $450,000 and has printed 150,000 copies, available for $14 each.

In addition, an hourlong “Our Dumb Century” TV special is in the works with NBC for this fall. But the book marks The Onion’s effort to turn laughs into loot and to force many New York and Los Angeles show business execs to grab a map and find Madison.

“This may be the major event in Onion history. This is what we’ve been counting on for years,” Siegel says. “It’s going to let us reach a huge audience. Going online in 1996 took us to the next level, from Madison publication to national one. But not everyone surfs the Net.”

Another misperception about The Onion: Its audience isn’t exclusively Mountain Dew-swigging college students. “Our Dumb Century” likely will make those students’ parents (or even grandparents — really, honest) laugh more than them.

The book, which includes hilarious stories with most headlines, finds more fodder in Woodrow Wilson than Mr. T, and it covers each decade evenly.

When it’s suggested the book is smarter than The Onion’s newspaper product, Siegel objects.

“When you’re writing a history book, it’s going to seem smarter,” Siegel says. “But we used the same writers and the same process that goes into the paper. The difference is we’re making jokes about William McKinley and Steinbeck so we seem brainier.”

Siegel also says that The Onion’s full-time writing and editing staff – Dikkers, John Krewson, Todd Hanson, Maria Schneider, Carol Kolb, Mike Loew, Tim Harrod and David Javerbaum – deserves considerable credit.

“It was hard to put the book together,” Siegel says. “Our comedy has become so intellectualized, I almost never laugh. I hear an idea, and I say robotically, `That is funny.’ ”

Intellectualized humor? Consider this Siegel statement that would be a good Onion writers’ motto: “If you make a joke that’s stupid and people get it but think it’s dumb, that’s bad.”

Like every Onion staffer, Siegel started writing for the paper several years ago. A University of Michigan graduate in history and a Long Island, N.Y., native, Siegel moved to Madison in 1993 to be with his girlfriend, a UW graduate student.

When he read The Onion in a coffeehouse, he walked to the paper’s offices and asked to write for it.

Now The Onion, which isn’t hiring, receives countless resumes.

“It’s a scary thought when I think, `What if I submitted to the Onion now? Could I get in?’ And I’m the editor,” Siegel says. “We don’t even follow up on the good submissions we get.”

Siegel is also The Onion’s youngest writer or editor at age 27. The oldest, Dikkers, is 34.

Next year, The Onion will begin selecting “best of” items from the paper’s archives for its second book. “Our Dumb Century” is virtually all new material.

The Onion also hired a New York public relations firm this month – the first time they’ve spent money on promotion – to help boost the book and other projects.

Of course, it speaks volumes about The Onion’s success that the paper has been featured in dozens of publications from Time to Wired magazines and The Washington Post to Minneapolis’ alternative weekly – then it hires a PR firm.

But that decision also displays how high The Onion’s hopes are for “Our Dumb Century.”

“I’m a detail person and instead of beaming with pride, I’m worried, `Is it being marketed properly?’ I care so much about it, I’m a bundle of nerves,” Siegel says.

” But I can step back and enjoy it. I know it’s something I’ll look back on and say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe we pulled that off.’ ”

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