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Oct. 12, 2016
The Northwest Missouri State University community on Wednesday heard tales of the foils and successes of “America’s Finest News Source” when its co-founder and longest-serving editor-in-chief opened the University’s 2016-17 Distinguished Lecture Series.
Scott Dikkers, who led The Onion’s rise from a small, unknown college humor newspaper to an internationally known comedy brand, shared his story with an audience in the Charles Johnson Theater Wednesday night in addition to speaking with students in creative writing, political science and communication courses during two afternoon class sessions.
“I hope that students and others will hear my tales and perhaps be inspired to pursue their own dreams because starting The Onion and making a living in the comedy business was my dream,” he said. “I learned a lot of things along the way, and I hope to share some tales that will delight and inspire those who want to chase their dreams.”
With the delivery of a stand-up comedian, Dikkers recounted to his audiences how, after discovering MAD Magazine, he realized he could make fun of things. He learned how to write funny and took his first steps toward building a comedy career when a comic strip he created took first place in a Wisconsin high school newspaper contest.
After finding some success with a comic strip that was picked up by dozens of newspapers, Dikkers was approached by two entrepreneuring students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who were interested in starting a humor magazine. They opted to make it a newspaper to avoid higher printing costs, and a few months into the project Dikkers took over ownership of the newspaper. He quickly began gathering a talented team of writers who helped set a new course for the publication and satirical writing.
“The Onion wasn’t the funniest publication in the world when it first hit the streets in 1988,” he said. “It took us many years to learn how to craft good humor and be really consistent with it.”
Dikkers and his staff flipped satire writing by making their headlines the punchlines of their jokes. Unlike most satire writing of the time, Onion stories established the joke with their headlines and built on them through the format of a parody newspaper – in an era when readers increasingly prefer shorter stories.
“Once your headline grabs people because it’s funny and they get the joke, they know what they’re going to read,” Dikkers said. “It’s almost like you’re making a promise to them. ‘Here’s the subject matter we’re talking about. Here why it’s funny. Now if you want more jokes, you can read on.’ We’d always put a picture next to it to further roll out the red carpet. It was all about reeling people in to actually read. It was all about getting their attention.”
The internet helped catapult The Onion to international fame. Eventually, the publication moved its office to New York and launched a video enterprise. Several of the original writers Dikkers hired have gone to successful careers writing for late night television shows and sitcoms.
Dikkers, who left The Onion in 2014, has authored several best-selling humor books. In 2014, he published “How to Write Funny” and developed curriculum through a partnership with The Onion and the famed Second City Training Center to offer courses in comedy writing.
Speaking in a creative writing class Wednesday afternoon, Dikkers offered advice about writing and publishing to students who voiced interests in everything from screenwriting to writing for video games.
“I don’t believe there has ever been a better time to be a writer than right now,” Dikkers said. He added later, “It’s almost like an arms-race going on in the self-publishing industry where people are literally putting out a book a month.”
Dikkers emphasized the importance of self-marketing and urged students to invest their time in their missions, regardless of the career field.
“I always tell comedy writers, go do standup, go do improv because you’ll learn so much about yourself and about what jokes work and about confidence and how important that is to selling your work,” he said. “You want to be firing on every cylinder you have. Then you’ll be ready; if an opportunity comes you’ll only be more experienced. Get yourself out there in every way you can.”
Dikkers’ visit to Northwest was made possible through funding by the James H. Lemon Lecture Series, established in 1994 by Northwest alumna Beatrice E. Lemon Hansen in honor of her grandfather. After fighting in the Civil War, James Lemon moved to Nodaway County and became a member of the Missouri House of Representatives. He is credited with introducing House Bill No. 311 in 1905, which established the Fifth District Normal School, as Northwest was originally known.
The objective of the Distinguished Lecture Series is to enhance the academic environment through individual discipline and interdisciplinary topics. Supported by the Office of the Provost and the Office of Student Involvement, the series presents the Northwest campus and surrounding communities with opportunities to hear from extraordinary individuals from around the globe. Scholars, world travelers and leaders in their fields visit the Northwest campus to share their wisdom, insight and experiences.
The Distinguished Lecture Series continues Tuesday, Oct. 25, with Dr. Joy Ladin. She is the Gottesman Chair in English at Yeshiva University and the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution. Her memoir, “Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders,” was a finalist for a National Jewish Book Award, and she was named to the 2012 Forward 50 list of influential or courageous American Jews.
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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