Scott Dikkers, founder and former editor of the satirical newspaper, “The Onion,” spoke to an audience of students and faculty last Tuesday, Feb. 23, at Elon University.
Expectedly so, Dikkers addressed his audience with humor and quick wit, living up to what one might expect of an editor of a satire publication.
To the audience, he detailed his entry into the comedic entertainment industry, the early stages of “The Onion,” and his five “nuggets of wisdom” for those hoping to start their own businesses or just follow desired career paths.
Though the founder of the world’s first humor website, Dikkers told his audience that he was “born into a family with no sense of humor.”
“I come from a long line of farmers and preachers,” Dikkers said.
He explained that his family, comprised mostly of Midwestern Baptists, believed that “joy…that was for the next life.”
It was this precise, humorless childhood that he said provoked and inspired his interest in comedy and entertainment, and that continues to inform his take on humor.
Later, during the Q&A session, when asked about how he continues to create new, humorous material, he said, “Childhood is the rocket fuel that will keep you going until the day you die.”
Dikkers explained that he was bullied as a child, and that it was this element of his childhood that taught him some of his greatest lessons about humor.
“Humor [is] a wonderful coping mechanism for just about anything life can throw at you,” Dikkers said. “Bullies, a parents’ divorce…this is a much better philosophy in life than toil.”
It was upon his discovery of Mad Magazine that he realized there was a bona fide industry that provided the public with a humor outlet.
“I was captivated by Mad’s biting satire that exposed all foibles of the human condition,” Dikkers said.
As a result of this discovery, he stated, “I became a class clown.”
Unfortunately for his desired career, the area where he grew up was not exactly conducive to entering into the comedic industry. He remembered that his local library “had one book about breaking into the entertainment business: ‘How to be a Ventriloquist’”
Due to his lack of connections and the lacking state of the Internet at the time, he decided that the best way to break into the industry would be to submit his work to various publications. He began by writing comic strips for the simple fact that they were “inexpensive.”
He also had previously won first prize in a Wisconsin state high school competition for comic strips, so he felt confident in his ability to become recognized.
Following a pattern of many young entrepreneurs, Dikkers explained that he received rejection after rejection during the early days of his comic writing.
“[I sent] so many comic strips that I can barely remember all of them,” Dikkers said.
Eventually, his relentless comic writing paid off when his comic series, “Jim’s Journal,” was adopted by “The Daily Cardinal,” a local college newspaper, for no pay.
The series went well for Dikkers, and once he had become a “local comedy celebrity” in Madison Wisconsin, he was approached by two students, Tim Keck and Chris Johnson, from the University of Wisconsin about starting a humor magazine.
The plans changed, however, when the trio requested a quote from a printer who told them it would cost about $5,000 to print a “glossy, full-color magazine.”
“We [didn’t] have 1 percent of that,” Dikkers said.
So he, Keck and Johnson settled for the cheapest kind of paper, which was news print.
After a few months, Keck and Johnson offered to sell “The Onion” to Dikkers, who was working as the de facto editor. Dikkers described the endless hours of work he poured into the paper and the help he welcomed from all around his town.
He offered some insight into his process of hiring new writers.
“We did not search high and low. We just searched low,” Dikkers said.
He explained that his best writers were the ones who “were smart…bitter, and [who] had no prospects in life.”
Although said with a sardonic tone, he admitted that often humor was for his writers, as it was and is for him, a coping mechanism and a productive outlet.
After several years as a newspaper and with the rise of the internet, Dikkers and his team of writers took their paper online with TheOnion.com in 1995.
Through this change of medium “The Onion” saw rapid evolution and expansion.
During this time, Dikkers explained that rather than taking a salary for himself, he was going to pay his writers, and thus became homeless.
For many, being homeless as a result of a job might be considered a low point, but Dikkers told his audience emphatically, “I look back on that time as one of the best periods of my life,” he said, “because I was doing work that was so rewarding.”
That is one of his main points of wisdom for those breaking into the professional world.
“Invest your passion, not your money,” Dikkers said.
He explained that when investing money there’s a huge possibility of failure and losing more than what is gained.
His others suggestions were to “live your mission” by always giving 100 percent.
He emphasized “be[ing] prepared to scrap everything” because failure is quotidian in new businesses but “if you only invest your passion” and you do fail, “all you’ll have [are] lessons learned.
His fourth principle is “trust your people” in order to allow your employees and peers to grow and learn.
Finally, he spoke about the ease of gaining access to information regarding people who have already achieved success. Following the steps these people took, he said, can lead young professionals to accomplishing set goals.
Extending the the old phrase “Don’t work hard, work smart,” he added, “work right.”