If you’ve been on the internet the last year or so, you’ve seen articles from ClickHole, The Onion’s internet-parodying sister site, on people’s Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. Listicles like “15 Things Only People On A First Date With Buckethead Say,” quizzes like “Which One Of My Garbage Sons Are You?” and Moby Dick as clickbait “The Time I Spent On A Commercial Whaling Ship Totally Changed My Perspective On The World.” Who writes this stuff though? It takes a team of comedic minds, and one of them is Matt Powers, who went from Onion intern and freelancer in New York to taking the leap and moving to Chicago to join the web’s premiere site for listicles that confuse your poor aunt. Matt told us about the process that gets all this weirdness online and how maybe you too can one day get paid to do something like that.
What do you do over the course of a day? Is it a lot of goofing around until inspiration hits, or is comedy serious business?
It’s a pretty healthy mix of both. Our weeks are filled with pitch meetings, draft read through meetings and video check-ins to keep us on track with our publishing schedule. Meetings are typically in the morning and then the rest of the day is spent writing at our desks. I work with a group of extremely funny, talented people who make all of these processes hilarious and highly enjoyable.
What’s your favorite part of your job? Your least favorite?
I love our long Wednesday headline pitch meetings because delightfully insane things come out of them, like the running joke that ClickHole has no idea what fire trucks are.
My least favorite part is that I have to use the word “listicle” way more than any human being should.
How did you manage to snag a job at ClickHole?
I was very fortunate to get an internship at The Onion after graduating from college. Following that, I began contributing headlines and later returned to intern for the Onion News Network writers. Months later, I was in the right place at the right time to land a writers’ assistant job for the wonderful and way-too-short-lived Onion Digital Studios (I highly recommend watching the ODS show “Lake Dredge Appraisal” if you haven’t seen it!). I was able to meet a lot of amazingly talented people who helped me improve a great deal. Years later when ClickHole was started, I was asked to submit a packet and was very, very excited when it worked out.
What type of person will be good at web comedy writing?
A big part of the job is collaboration, whether it’s talking through big packets of headlines or giving notes on articles. This process is integral to making content that isn’t bad. Being open to suggestions and critique is definitely an essential skill.
Who will suck at it?
Someone who is too protective of any one of their jokes might have a tougher time at a place like ClickHole. An idea that you feel is really strong and funny may garner no support in the writers’ room, and into the trash it goes. If that would really frustrate you every time, you would not have fun in pitch meetings!
This seems like a dream job, writing faux-viral comedy, do you see it like that? Or is it just a job?
I feel very fortunate to have this job, because there are a lot of great parts. There are normal job frustrations, like having to hit a quick turnaround deadline or the occasional day with long hours. But then you are walking through a haunted house with a camera crew and an 82-year-old actor dressed as a homeless man and you remember that this job is incredibly fun and weird.
If someone wants to work at The Onion or Clickhole, what should they do with their life to make it happen (besides not sending freelance work to you guys)? Is there a way to break in to comedy writing that doesn’t involve years of writing for free and tweeting to get noticed?
I can only offer my own, limited experience, but I’ve found that never turning down an opportunity, no matter how small it seems at the time, will help you immensely over the long run. Getting involved with writers in your local improv/sketch/standup scenes is good way to find projects to work on. Not everything leads to something, but even projects that ultimately go nowhere will hopefully push you as a writer. You may occasionally work for low or no money (unfortunately), but you’ll meet amazing writers who can help you improve and spread your net wider for more opportunities.
Is it funny to you guys when people think a Clickhole listicle/article/quiz is a “real” one like BuzzFeed?
It’s never our goal to trick people into thinking we are a real internet aggregator. We throw away tons of jokes because we’re worried they are too close to something a real, non-satirical site might actually run. A better reaction is when our readers get a cathartic laugh from one of our articles that clearly hits on something frustrating or dumb that is mindlessly repeatedly a million times on the internet. There is a role for internet aggregators and there is a role for us, and I think it’s best when those don’t become muddied.
How important is being a team player at a place where people don’t get their own bylines but things wind up going viral?
Definitely important! Oftentimes, one writer will pitch a headline and another one will write it. Then the other writers will give notes, our editor will make his changes, and our graphics department will come up with an image, so there are a bunch of different people are all involved in one idea. The lack of bylines accentuates that process in a really positive way. Also your mom won’t find out if you wrote a really raunchy article which is nice.
What skills beyond being able to write funny sentences are necessary to thrive at Clickhole/in web comedy?
In addition to being adept at collaborating with fellow writers, being able to self-edit is a good skill to have, as well the ability to clearly articulate your thoughts and opinions. Being able to dunk a basketball would also be cool.
Follow Matt for more jokes at @MattPowersESQ