Mike MacDonald — From London to The Onion

Posted on February 3, 2015

How Mike MacDonald scored an Onion editorial internship.

It was the summer of 2009. Michael Jackson had just kicked the bucket, the swine flu had been declared a pandemic, and I was a less-than-academically-inclined graduate student fiddling around with a pesky thing called a dissertation.

Most of my classmates were tackling some fairly heady subjects: energy policy in the EU, electoral reform in Canada, curing AIDS via statistical analysis. I, on the other hand, had opted to examine satirical news, a relative treasure of untapped riches in the academic world.

I had contacted people from all sorts of satirical news outlets — The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, et al. While trawling The Onion’s website for a communications contact, I noticed they were hiring editorial interns. I applied, but considering I had zero background in comedy or writing, I didn’t expect to even hear back, let alone get the (non-paying) job.

Fast-forward two weeks and one transatlantic flight later, to minutes before my interview, me frantically pacing outside the offices of The Onion in New York City trying my best to keep my breakfast down.

It quickly became apparent in the interview that my skills around a coffee machine were far more coveted than my ability to write a joke. In fact, we didn’t talk about writing at all. Or jokes. It was arguably the least funny interview I’ve had to date.

Fortunately for me, though, I always could brew a good cup of coffee. Boom: hired.

For the first few weeks, I did little other than deliver packages around the city, fetch burritos for the writers, and take the office dog out for walks.

After a month or so as a glorified errand boy, I finally got the opportunity to write a few jokes.

I distinctly remember being so proud of my material; each joke was so witty and so subversive, such a perfect embodiment of some important zeitgeist. In my mind, it would only be a matter of days before I would be on an equal footing with The Onion’s stable of comedy-writing veterans (all of whom had 20+ years of experience).

Confident, I stood up in front of a few of the more seasoned writers and read off the first joke.


I soldiered on to the second joke.


Then the third joke. Still nothing. By the time I got to the tenth joke, you could all but see the tumble weed slowly blowing past my sad-sack face.

“Who hired shit for brains?” one of the senior staff writers yelled out after I finished reading.

Everyone in the room broke out into hysterics. Well, everyone but me of course.

I’m not going to lie, that night was pretty difficult. It may have even involved a teary call home to my mom, though I think I’ve repressed the memory well enough, now, that I can reasonably claim no such thing occurred.

But I didn’t completely block it out. And I certainly didn’t forget the lesson: writing comedy is no easy task. In fact, it’s insanely difficult.

In many regards, it’s like writing poetry; you have to place the perfect words in the perfect order for it to actually work. And much like poetry, it takes several rewrites and a lot of tinkering before you get something that works well. Which is an important consideration, since there is nothing more painful than reading unfunny comedy.

Of course I didn’t know any of this then. I slapped together 15 jokes in a coffee shop 20 minutes before I read them out to the writers. I learned quickly that if you wanted to be successful in this field, you needed to write material well in advance, fastidiously rewrite and edit it, workshop your stuff with other co-workers, then read it out. And you’ll probably still get a few crickets.

Comedy has all kinds of rules you ought to be following, but since there are very few comedy writing programs out there, nobody really enters the field with much experience. One day I was studying regression analysis at the London School of Economics, the next day I was writing fart jokes for arguably the funniest publication in the English speaking language.

Because there’s no formal certification needed to work in a writer’s room, there’s always a niggling feeling that you’re somehow a fraud. I don’t imagine that feeling ever goes away (at least, it hasn’t for me).

But if you’re dying to earn nominal sums of money for writing jokes, you can…

…just expect to start out as the punchline.

Mike MacDonald studied at the London School of Economics.

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