A view from the writer's seat (from l to r): Seth Reiss, Joe Garden, John Harris and John Krewson show a piece of wire bent into a dick shape that also spells Seth's name in cursive | Photo: Megan Ganz
Megan Ganz is a comedy writer. As an assistant editor for satirical newspaper The Onion, Ganz belongs to an elite group of joke writers who provide one of the most important voices in comedy every week. In their writing sessions, Onion staffers reduce several hundred jokes to the select few that make it into the paper. This time-tested process has produced faux headlines such as: "National Organization for Women Turns 39 Again," "Supreme Court Overturns Car" and "Ebert Victorious!" (immediately following Siskel's death) -- all classics that live on indefinitely as readers repeat them to each other over beers at the bar, or while passing around a bong in a living room. Ganz is a longstanding contributor to The Onion, and she not only knows what makes a joke funny, but also understands the importance of asking herself what a joke is trying to say, or where it's trying to go. The Apiary recently caught up with Ganz to discuss her writing technique, joke dissection and the art of standup.
Who are your heroes? Who inspired you to reach where you are now?
My heroes? Well, I suppose I'd have to say my mother and father. But only because they actually fight crime. If you're talking more figurative, inspirational heroes, then probably a lot of the stuff I grew up reading. Someone mentioned to me recently how it's weird that comedians always list their "influences" as people they're into now (like, for me, Patton Oswalt, David Sedaris, Rowan Atkinson, Steve Coogan and Daniel Kitson), and I totally agree. So, to be honest, my true influences were Dave Barry, Louis Sachar, Bill Cosby, Mad magazine, Charles Shultz, and Bill Watterson, because that's what I was into before I formed my sense of comedy or even knew what comedy was.
What was your first real job in comedy?
I had an internship at Mad after my junior year in college. I'm not sure I would have come back to the city if that office hadn't been such a wonderful, fostering environment. The editor-in-chief actually pulled me into his office on my last day, and straight up told me to move to New York and do comedy. I'd never had anyone with any level of credibility tell me I was funny before that. It's one of the big reasons I had the courage to apply to the Onion's writing fellowship.
What are some of your favorite parts of the job?
One of the other writers, John Krewson, told me when I started that no one likes writing -- everyone likes having written. That's my favorite part. After I write the first draft and the jokes are all out on the line, and I get to tweak and mold it and talk about it and dissect it with the other writers. Actually just being in that writer's room in general is my favorite part. I'm one girl surrounded by eight or nine guys who think about and like to talk about comedy as much as I do. It's like being a really nerdy loner in 8th grade and then finding the mathletes in high school, only in this case the mathletes are a bunch of cynical assholes who think the dismemberment of very small children is hilarious.
Please describe the 'Youngs vs Olds' phenomenon you've encountered.
It's not really a thing we talk about a lot around the office anymore, but there was a time when a lot of new people got brought on to the writing staff in a relatively (for the Onion anyway) short amount of time. About six people in maybe four years. And all of a sudden it was nearly half and half new 20-somethings and veteran writers that had basically been on the paper since the beginning. There's about a 14-year gap between the two groups, but what's stranger is that, for the first time, the Onion was employing people who literally grew up reading the Onion. I started reading the paper when I was 12 or so, and it blew me away. I didn't even know humor like that existed, but after I did, it was the only thing I could find funny anymore. So it's strange, now, to be producing jokes for a paper I idealized that much, and working with people who I consider my comedy betters, my idols. I'm editing the stories of the guys who wrote the funniest stuff I have ever read in my life. The first day I started as a writing fellow, I felt reading my headlines in front of them was like taking a shit on the table.
I've since gotten over it.
Are there any special activities you engage in to help you reach your weekly headline quota?
People always ask where I get my headline ideas, and it's always the most boring answer. I don't really know. Sometimes it's a word or a phrase I hear or some newsy cliche I read on CNN, but sometimes it just pops out of thin air and I write it down. I'm not saying that like, "Oh, I am incredibly good at what I do, so I can't possibly explain it to the masses." There's just a weird middle-part there that I don't have conscious control over. I just hope it doesn't shut off, because I like being able to pay my rent.
Dissecting a joke in front of a room full of professional writers seems like a particularly tense process. How do you keep things upbeat so that it stays light-hearted once it's published?
You know, you'd think it would be really soul-crushing -- and sometimes, during long days, it is -- but for the most part, I think people that go work for the Onion are really into dissecting jokes. I mean, if you find a dry, text-heavy newspaper funny because it puts normal, everyday occurrences in news voice, (like "Drunk Will Show You, Everybody"), then you're probably into language and subtext and a lot of joke technique that has nothing to do with how many shoes women be buying. Am I right, fellas?
So I think, as much as we might bitch about it during that fifth hour of our Tuesday meetings, we'd all put a bullet between our eyes if we worked at a sitcom that told us "Okay, people seem to really like when the red-headed one falls over. Stick that in anywhere." But although we enjoy it, dissecting jokes doesn't really make us laugh. What usually makes us laugh is when someone starts taping their eyebrows to their forehead or Joe Garden makes his belly talk. I think you get to a certain level of comedy sophistication and you come full circle. Then the only thing that makes you laugh anymore is when someone shoots a bean out of their nose.
How did you end up doing stand-up as well? Did that come as a surprise or was that always one of your aspirations?
I started doing stand-up because A) I wanted to see a joke I wrote reach an actual, physical person in less than three weeks and B) I was hanging around too many comedians and starting to feel like a groupie. I'm not very good at it, I don't think. I don't have the drive to be better, and I prefer the writing of the jokes to the telling of them. But it's a creative muscle I should probably flex, so I'll keep at it for the time being. Especially because I don't want to get to a place where I can only write jokes in headline form.
What advice would you give to aspiring female comedy writers?
Oh, Jesus. Um. Get used to being the only girl in a crowd. And don't do jokes about your yeast infections because you think it will make you more bawdy, and therefore more like the dudes. They don't think it's funny either. And honestly, who aspires to be a male comedian?
--Andrew Singer is a contributing editor for The Apiary. He performs regularly as "Soce the Elemental Wizard."