With each passing day in the news cycle’s endless presidential election coverage, the likelihood of the word “President” preceding the name “Donald Trump” is becoming all the more likely. Sure, there’s still a general election against likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to endure, but with the Republican nomination in his grasp, the New York real estate mogul is that much closer to the White House.
Enter Scott Dikkers, the founding editor of The Onion. Along with a team of co-writers, Dikkers wrote and published Trump’s America: The Complete Loser’s Guide in a mind-numbingly fast six months. Like previous Onion books Our Dumb World and Our Dumb Century, Trump’s America does more than just tell joke after joke on every page — it satirizes the potential 45th President of the United States’s future with an intelligence that renders it all the more believable. (Which is f*cking frightening, to be honest.) But as Dikkers told us, fear isn’t the best response to Trump’s political rise and continued popularity. Instead, we should all be pointing and laughing our asses off.
The Onion has done several books like Trump’s America before, but they had a much longer lead time. This was done in mere months.
They usually take about two years, and it’s not two years of respectful, eight-hour workdays and 40-hour work weeks. It’s two years of obsessive work, where you don’t leave the office, you miss a lot of night’s sleep, and you eat, breathe and think this project. But I’ve managed to do enough of these now, and learned a lot from the new owners of The Onion, that I know how to be more efficient with my time. We had a bigger team working on this book than I’ve ever had, so that helped. They went through this program at the Second City, and they were fantastic.
I want to say we did the book in six months. We started in August and we finished in early February. It was amazing, but it took over my life even moreso than the other books did. I’d get up, work on the book, not eat and then go to sleep. Some days I wouldn’t go to sleep, instead working on the book until I couldn’t focus anymore. My family was very understanding about it, but my son was 7 years old at the time, so he didn’t understand what was happening.
Well 20 years from now, when all members of the media have been disappeared by President Trump’s security teams, your son will have this fine record of your work.
Exactly. It’ll be at the Trump Shoah Memorial, and he’ll weep at the engraving of my name while his grandchildren amusedly look on from a distance.
[Laughs.] Oh my God!
I hope nobody actually said that.
Well, it’s in the New York Times.
In all seriousness, you shouldn’t vote for Trump because you want to see a reality television show. You should write the network television representatives and make sure he gets a deal, if you really want that. However, it’s very important that we laugh at it — regardless of how horrible it is. In my life laughter has been my go-to coping mechanism for just about anything that’s happened to me. I love it. It’s why I’m in the humor business. It’s the only thing that works for me, and I’ve seen it work for other people. So whenever people say “That’s inappropriate” or “That’s too serious and you can’t laugh at it,” I’m like, “Shut up!” That is so wrong. We need to be able to laugh.
True, though it’d be false to assume doing so is an easy task. I suspect Trump’s America required a lot of thought.
A lot of thought and ditch digging-type work. Especially at the beginning of the book, to figure out who this character is at his core. That’s what you need to do when you’re writing a piece about somebody. You gotta figure out who they are and create a comedic archetype, like The Onion did brilliantly with Joe Biden and many others in the past. Until you’ve nailed that, you can’t really write about it, so that was the first task. It’s tricky because Trump is like a walking cartoon. He’s an archetype from the Commedia dell’arte writ large. He is the braggart captain character. Thankfully it’s a character I know very well. I love it, and it’s one of my favorite comedic archetypes. Ted Baxter from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Ron Burgundy, Ralph Kramden from The Honeymooners, Daffy Duck — all of these classic characters. It’s even the archetype we created for The Onion itself.
What’s the process like behind a book like this, especially for humor? Trying to be funny isn’t as easy as writing a joke and moving on to the next one.
Right. Spy magazine really set the bar for humor writing in the ’80s and ’90s. It was evident their writers and editors were really thinking about the jokes and articles they published. At The Onion, we wove that same attention to detail into the culture. In comedy, sometimes big egos are involved. People don’t like telling their buddies in the same groups that a joke sucked. It’s all about support. So at The Onion, we encouraged everyone to point out if something sucked and say it — before the readers had a chance to do the same. It actually helps and supports your teammates to be honest about it. This helped The Onion get better and better until, low and behold, we’re lauded for our “brilliant satire” at this point. Which is crazy.
But it works, so we applied this to Trump’s America and gathered a bunch of funny, talented people in a room to write jokes, go through them all and be honest about it. Once we weeded out the jokes that weren’t working, we were left with everyone’s best. Early on in the process, that marked the way we were going to go with the book. It helped us find the funniest things about this guy if he were actually president. The constant feedback loop helped us zero in on the things we found to be the funniest.
It reminds me of a story I heard about Steve Martin hosting Saturday Night Live. Some of the younger writers assumed he’d be this funny, boisterous type throughout the writing process, but he was very serious and calm. Whenever he liked a joke, he didn’t laugh out loud. He just said it was funny and moved on to the next.
It’s a craft. A lot of people just assume that it’s a fun thing some people do for fun. Sometimes they can, but their work probably won’t be as good.
The book is rife with lots of great in-your-face bits, like “Meet Our New First Penis,” but I love the little things. For example, the forward “written” by President Trump that included his famous, black Sharpie-written signature.
I appreciate that. We made a font out of his handwriting because he’s written so many notes on other people’s letters.
He’ll print out articles and send them back to the authors with mad scribbles.
A lot of those are online, so we scanned them all and created a font with his handwriting so we could recreate it when he scrawls on the Constitution, for example. It was a lot of fun.
The book is divided into sections. Was there a particular one that, after everything was ready printing, you were the proudest of?
I like the whole. I like how they’re all put together. We wanted the book to be easily digestible, and you can get a joke almost anywhere you are, but if you go through the sequence you get these sections. Though I really like the environment section, “The Environment: Hippie Crap,” because that’s one thing about Trump that a lot of people don’t know about or maybe don’t care as much for. He doesn’t believe in global warming, he wants to get rid of all regulation. He’d love to scrap the Environmental Protection Agency, for example. Somebody was calling him on this and his quote was, “We’re going to be fine with the environment.” So that was kind of a softball for us, and it was a lot of fun to do.
Another one was “President Trump: America’s New Boss.” That one had the most pressure to be the most definitive. So many other people had written jokes about that, predicting jokes about what Trump’s first 100 days would look like or whatever. The pressure was really on to nail those things, and nail them well. To make them funny, but also make them satirical and somewhat relevant. I’m pretty proud of it.
Considering the process you’ve described, I imagine a lot was left on the cutting room floor. Good stuff, too. Was there anything you really wanted in the book that didn’t make the final cut?
You have to make a determination at some point about your own personal, subjective taste versus what you believe an audience is going to enjoy. I tend to like obscure, madcap and non sequitur stuff. So I have to keep a check on that because a lot of people don’t really respond to that. There’s plenty of that in the book, but there was one piece we cut that I enjoyed. It didn’t really fit. It was an editorial by Tony Bennett and the headline was “What to Do If Trump Steals Your Signature Two Thumps Up Gesture.” It was just a very sad editorial in which Bennett spelled out how Trump had ruined his life by taking on this two thumps up gesture and making it his own. Before, the singer had used it after every concert and introduction, but now he was just a shell of a man because he didn’t have it.
We also didn’t really do anything directly about the wall. You’d think we would, but we ended up doing an analogy piece about the Trump Space Wall that’s going to protect Earth from aliens instead. There were a bunch of different ideas about the Mexican wall, but it felt like everyone had already done those jokes. So we though the analogy would work better. Lots of little bits about it throughout the book, but there’s no one section dedicated to it. I’m pretty happy with the wall coverage in the book as it is.
Trump’s America: The Complete Loser’s Guide is now available at Amazon and wherever books are sold.