The Onion's Former Editor: Satire Is A Careful Craft

Jan 9, 2015

Credit Steve Rhodes via flickr Creative Commons / flic.kr/p/epYJk

In the wake of Wednesday's attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, the former editor of America's Fake News Source The Onion, Joe Randazzo wrote an op-ed piece for MSNBC in which he states, "Satire must always accompany any free society. It is an absolute necessity." Virginia spoke to Joe about his experiences while at The Onion and why satire, in its many forms should always have a place at the table.

You can listen to the full interview below, and read selected quotes from Joe.

On what distinguishes Charlie Hebdo from America's satirical giants

“I think the thing that differs from  place to place and culture to culture is context. France has its own very proud tradition of satirizing politicians, of satirizing people in power, and a very, very proud and seriously taken tradition of secularism. So a lot of the  response to the cartoons themselves[…]was a discussion over, were these cartoons racist, were they inflammatory, are they offensive. And I think it’s hard for me to make a judgment on that. And what Charlie Hebdo’s role is in French society, because it’s a context I’m not completely familiar [with], or used to.”

On whether the aim of satire is to offend

“What I think a satirist tries to do is aim at the right target. That usually means making sure that victims who are powerless, or the dispossessed are never at the butt of a joke; that you’re aiming your joke at those in power. But I also think there’s something very legitimate inflaming for the sake of inflammation if the ideology you’re inflaming is ignorant, or for lack of a better word: stupid.”

On doing things for the sake of inflammation

“We wrote an op-ed in the voice of Rush Limbaugh after the Haiti earthquake—he had said some horrible thing about Haitians. And we were all very angry about the insensitivity, and his continues insensitivity. And we wrote an op-ed in which he basically called himself a monster, and you know, it was written by him and saying that he didn’t want to live anymore, and didn’t have the courage to off himself, and would someone please do it. And we were concerned that we would be sued—we weren’t concerned we’d be shot—but we did it for the sake of inflammation, because the ideas that he was spouting we found so offensive, that we wanted to needle those, and push those.”

On whether there are sacred cows

“There’s no sacred cow in the general sense—that’s a form of self-censorship I think is deadly—but it’s again the idea that: what is the point you’re making?”

On whether there are topics he felt they couldn't touch

“There’s always going to be topics that are sensitive and that are sensitive to the staff as a whole—and we didn’t always agree, either. People did not always agree on what was published. You know, for instance, when the Jerry Sandusky thing came out, there was a lot of sensitivity around re-victimizing the victims, or in any way injuring further that community that was struggling so much with what was going on there. That was almost unbelievably horrible, but all the joke The Onion published during that time were at the expense of either Sandusky himself or the power structure that enabled him to keep committing those crimes.”

On whether he was ever personally threatened while at The Onion

“There’s only one time that I in particular was threatened, and I happened to answer the phone and it was somebody who was complaining about an article that we wrote—I don’t even recall the exact joke, but it was in support essentially of marriage equality, and ridiculing those that were against it—he had promised, and offered to sodomize me, which I turned down his offer. But he also threatened to, you know, kill my family[…] Once it got to that point, became very scary. And he had called up a few other people randomly at Onion offices and made similar threats and offers, we did wind up calling the police. They essentially said, ‘Well, there’s nothing we can really do.’”

On whether the attack will have an effect on satire

“The people who committed these acts have already lost this war of ideas, and this proves it. It’s a violent and cowardly last resort, lashing out against a world that’s moving on and I think this is going to definitely embolden satire.”

“For all of the talk about the dangers posed by printing images of Mohammed, and you would wonder, ‘What is the worst that could happen?’ And this was it. We’ve just seen the worst that can happen, and we’re [going to] move on. A free society has to be able to embrace all ideas, and we will continue to do that. I think hopefully it will also open up a conversation about Westerners views of Islamists, and Islamic radicals, and moderate Muslims, and how these depictions may have inflamed people, and continue to talk about how we can have a pluralistic society. In no way is it going to chill satire, it’s only going to make it stronger.”