By Rachel Tennenbaum
Dan Mirk is a college success story. He graduated from UC Santa Cruz in 2006 and is now a staff writer for the Onion News Network, a satirical news source, in New York City. He came back to visit Santa Cruz for a weekend, and City on a Hill Press had the opportunity to get together over some donuts and ask him a few questions. It is worth mentioning that this is Dan’s first interview, and he did a great job.
How did you become a staff writer for the Onion News Network?
I graduated from UCSC in June 2006 as a literature major. I moved to New York five days later, not really knowing what I was doing. I found out where The Onion’s office was located, went to the library, typed up a cover letter, put on nice clothes and went to The Onion to drop off an application. I started talking to a guy in the elevator who turned out to be in charge of producing the Onion News Network, and he asked if I was interested in interning. I started off as an intern and then it eventually became my job.
I thought I was going to be a waiter [when I got to New York]. The same day I applied at The Onion I applied at a Starbucks. I thought I’d write on the side, but now I get to do it all the time.
How is the creative process for you?
I carry around a notebook and write down ideas. Sometimes I’ll go to a coffee shop and just sit down and try to write down a bunch of stuff. Most of the time it’s not very good — out of a couple of pages of writing only a few ideas will work.
[Ideas] are really hard to come up with. It needs to have a point. It needs to say something original. It has to be on a topic that you probably haven’t heard a lot of jokes about already. It has to feel current but not too timely — it can’t be about the headline of the day because by the time the video came out it would feel too old. And it needs to be funny also.
Is it interesting working with satire?
It is. It’s a really good way of making people think about things. It’s an interesting way to express an opinion, through making people laugh. But you have to have a sense of humor that matches the style you’re working in — how will this joke be a headline or a news story? How would it be covered on TV? We always want to make sure the points we are making are something that we can stand behind, something we believe in.
Have you seen the effects of the Onion News segments?
Nobody’s contacted us, so far, but what I do see are blogs. I never thought I’d care about what bloggers have to say, but I read these blogs and I’m really excited when they say something good. And when they say “Oh, it was stupid,” it really gets to me. You sort of send these things out in the world and never see any audience response, so it’s nice when you do.
What’s it like working with an Internet publication?
Well, The Onion is published in a few major cities, but the Onion News Network is online. It’s great. You can say what you really want to say, and there aren’t a lot of restrictions. There’s the ability to not be censored and produce the work you want to produce without worrying about people breathing down your neck saying what you can say and what you can’t do. And not about ratings — we’re not worried about our show getting canceled or anything like that.
Do you keep up with the news?
I try to stay abreast of current topics and read the newspaper pretty frequently, but probably not as much as I should. I feel like I’m pretty much working all the time.
What’s the job like?
It’s kind of like your entire life job. You never really stop working, and if you’re not in the office you’re trying to think of ideas and work on scripts. It really takes over your entire life. But it’s good. I really like it — there’s nothing I’d rather be doing. I’m thrilled with it.
How’s your first interview going?
It’s going great. Any time you can be eating donuts and talking about your job, things are okay.
How was life at UCSC?
I really liked it a lot. That’s why I came back to visit. I think it’s a great place to go to school. Porter College!
Did you plan a lot for the future when you were an undergraduate?
I can barely keep it together day to day, much less plan for the future. I think pretty much everything you do prepares you for something later on. But I was involved with SCTV and KZSC, and that was helpful. And the experience of going to college was really good. It prepares you for having to live on your own and having responsibilities.
Do you like living in New York?
I think it’s a really great city. There’s a lot of opportunity there, a lot going on. Anything you want to do, you can do in New York. It’s a really huge city, but you can get around so easily. It feels like the whole world is right there. I see a lot of people from Santa Cruz in New York all the time.
Any advice about getting a job you like?
I would say, do the thing that you like. If you have an interest that you really like, make sure that you do it. Go into that field, and make sure you don’t stop doing what you love. Even if you can’t get paid for it, then get some other job you’re getting paid for and can live on but don’t care about so much, and keep focusing on the thing that you like doing. If you focus on it long enough it’ll become your job, and even if it doesn’t — at least you’re doing what you like. Don’t get stuck in a job that you hate; you want to enjoy your life. And try to write a good cover letter.
Have you always been funny? Into humor?
I’ve liked The Onion for a long time. If you’re able to write funny stuff you’re not necessarily funny to talk to — that’s how it is with some writers. It’s kind of a quieter group, but you’re able to work on stuff and make something funny over a period of time. But it’s not like being a stand-up comedian.
I’d never really tried writing humor before. It’s cool getting to write for an organization that I really like and respect. It’s really exciting to get to be a part of that.
How does satire improve life?
Makes people laugh and that’s always good. You could always use more laughter. It makes people think, and those are two very important things. Those are things that a lot of people don’t do a lot in day-to-day life. Something that makes you see the world in a new light, that’s important, or a different angle that you didn’t see before.
Any crazy stories from working at The Onion?
Well there’s this guy who has those roller-skate shoes, and he’s always roller-skating around the office. And once we filmed a panda for a video segment, and we had to drive to Washington, D.C. to film it. I had to drive the truck.
You’ll find yourself talking about something on the phone or listen to bits of conversation and hear the craziest thing because of what you’re working on, like, “We need a panda. How will we make the panda look like it’s talking?”
Originally we were thinking of a panda doing sign language. Then we thought, ‘A panda suit would cost so much money.’ Then you’re like, ‘Wait, what are we talking about? Just a man in a panda suit, that’s crazy.’
And it’s funny, people not realizing that it’s a joke. They weren’t thrown off of the fact that the panda was speaking English. It means we did a good job because it’s really realistic. The jokes come from how straight we play it. But then maybe it’s not that funny, or maybe a little of both. At least they’re watching.
Anything you’d like to add?
Enjoy your time at Santa Cruz while you can because college is much different from the working world. It’s just a really awesome time, to get to be around so many people who are the same age and going through he same experiences. There’s nothing else like that, so make the best of it. It’s over very quickly.
Try to do something that you think is going to help the world. Don’t do some dumb job where you’re just making money and taking up space. There are a lot of problems in the world. Try to do something that improves life for everyone else around you. Try to do something you really feel passionate about.
Check out the Onion News Network at www.theonion.com