The other day, I spiraled down one of those deep Internet sinkholes. Bottom was this Fury Files interview with Seth Reiss, head writer of The Onion. If you’re not familiar with The Onion, it’s a site of high-rent satire pantomiming as lowest-rent news, self-described as, “America’s finest news source.”
It riffs on the topics of the day, whether those are domestic developments or global gossip or foreign affairs or whatever, and sometimes, inevitably, this creates a wide spectrum of emotion. The Onion makes people laugh, of course. It also offends some (The Onion might even state that as its intended goal). It offends people, because they take the writing and commentary seriously, and seriously consuming comedy on extraordinarily serious issues is no good for anybody.
Here’s a six-minute interview of Reiss and colleague Will Tracy titled “The Onion vs. Iran” so you get their general less-than-serious nature:
I’m no authority on The Onion or its comedy, but I do respect the literary brilliance behind much of the humor and enjoyed reading Reiss’ thoughts on comedy and, more importantly, effective comedy and what specifically grants it those characteristics.
And in his explanations of how to make good comedy, Reiss offered a small kernel of brilliance that can be applied to all forms of writing and benefit writers of all forms. Reiss says:
It’s easy to write capital J jokes. But lowercase J jokes that land as capital J jokes are very, very, very hard. And that’s what The Onion, when it’s really on, does so well.
And if you are a new writer, you want to make capital J jokes because they are noticeable. But ultimately, they are not in voice or too annoying or too easy or too cliche or not truthful or real.
The desire to land a “capital J joke” is something everything writer (particularly young ones) can relate to, I think, in some form or another.
It can be the temptation to overwrite a scene. It can be the lure to employ too much detail or the wrong kind of detail.
It can be the insistence on cramming a quote into a space in which it may not fit, likely because a) you’re overrating its importance or b) you don’t want part of your reporting efforts to die in the notebook. It can be the deadly urge to turn phrases and impress readers with prose.
On a most fundamental level, it’s any form of force.
When reading anything – Internet, newspapers, magazines, books – I tend to seek out underlying similarities of effectiveness. A news story surely reads different than an essay, but the most common similarity I always seem to come back to – the singular trait that satisfies me as a reader – is a careful and understated attention to detail.
Sometimes, when a talented writer strings together details and words, it can produce a beautiful snapshot. A brilliant sentence stands out, yes. But more typically, the totality of a great piece leaves me feeling a sense of awe and admiration for the work than any single section or snippet.
It’s those stories that I read through a few times, as if each time reveals another layer that was easily overlooked because the writer wasn’t implanting neon signs in his or her paragraphs. (Eli Saslow of the Washington Post routinely makes me feel this way).
And that, I think, is the precise moment when a lowercase J joke lands like a capital J joke. The touchdown is quiet.
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