I applied for The Onion’s fellowship and there’s no punchline

tl:dr I didn’t get the The Onion’s fellowship, but I had fun.

Three or four of you may recall that I managed to eke out a 12-year career as a travel writer, back when the world wasn’t on fire 17 different ways and disease-ridden Americans weren’t banned from entering nearly every country on Earth. The same folks may also recall that I left travel writing, and freelance writing in general, in 2015 as each year I seemed to be working harder for less money while spending a large portion of my time doing things that weren’t technically writing, like sourcing photos and endlessly researching listicles.

At the time, I foretold the end of travel writing as a full time career and, a few months ago, I declared that my prophecy had just about crossed the finish line.

I turned to the Dark Side, working in marketing for a couple years, which included a few evil genius flourishes, if I may say so. Apart from my awesome, page-turner books that you should buy immediately if you haven’t already, I haven’t done much writing since. Well, I have done some writing, but I wouldn’t include that stuff among any requests for writing samples. Kinda dark. Having the stupidity and selfishness of humanity thrown in one’s face all day, every day as the world descends into an irreversible “Fury Road” situation tends to break one’s spirit.

My point, finally, is that I missed writing for fun, if not for pay, so when I ran across the The Onion’s fellowship announcement for 2020/2021, knowing I would be competing with actual comedy writers, presumably hundreds of them, I decided that I’d take a swing. If nothing else, it would help pass the time during this infernal pandemic.

First order of business: Write the required 15 sample headlines for the application. I had my work cut out for me. Over the years, internal and external forces had led me to believe that I was terrible at headlines and one-liner jokes. My wit has always worked best in a narrative format. But I love a challenge, so I got to work.

Remember when Upworthy was a wildly successful clickbait site? While basking in their success, Upworthy editors made a slideshow called “How to make that one thing go viral (just kidding).” In it, they talked about their rigorous headline writing process. Writers were required to “crap out” 25 headlines for every piece of content. Here’s their explanation:

I decided to work on my headlines the Upworthy way and just write a shitload of them rather than painstakingly crafting a few. After about a week of spending idle moments taking headline notes on my phone, I had north of 130 headlines. Cutting that down to 70 headlines was pretty easy, as many of them sucked and seemed unsalvageable. Getting the list down to 15 required some help, so I kindly asked a few people for input.

One montage of feverish cutting and editing later, I had my 15 headlines.

  1. Pro-Weed Activists Are No-Show at 4:30 Hearing
  2. Colgate Debuts Mask That Protects From Virus, Whitens Teeth
  3. Just Moved To Vermont To Escape Relentless Memes, ‘Florida Man’ Dies In Electric Toothbrush Explosion
  4. Toenails: What’s Their Deal?
  5. Survey: Remote Workers Crave Excitement Of Putting On Uncomfortable Clothes, Driving 45 Minutes To Offices Full Of People They Don’t Like
  6. ’50’ Is The New ’30’ Says Guy Who Just Turned 50
  7. After Years Of Lobbying And ‘Juggle-Ins,’ Portland To Add Unicycle Lanes
  8. In Response to Coin Shortage, The Federal Reserve Bank Announces They Will Now Accept ‘Pretty Shells’
  9. After Review, Fire Officials Formally Change It To ‘Stop, Drop And Roll Into A Lake’
  10. Poll: 83% Of Respondents Said They Wanna Know What Happened To The Damn Jetpacks They Were Promised in the ’70s
  11. Moscow Officials: Vocal Putin Critic Who Jumped From Balcony After Self-Inflicted Beheading, Wearing Self-Pinned ‘Snitches Get Stitches’ Note Was ‘Textbook Suicide’
  12. Fall Fashion: Whatever’s On Top Of The Clean Clothes Pile, If Any
  13. Generation X Admits That Generation Z Might Have It Worse Than They Did, Maybe, Whatever
  14. 2020 Election: Trump Floats Possibility Of Required In-Person, Nude Voting In Rooms Full of Bees
  15. Colorado Dispensaries Say Over Half Their Staff Are Just Customers Who Wouldn’t Leave

A lot of strong contenders didn’t breach the top 15. Here are the 55 that didn’t make it past the semifinals.

  1. Marvel Reveals Christopher Mintz-Plasse To Be Next Wolverine, Michael Keaton Pissed
  2. Explosive Diarrhea: Nature’s Twitter Feed?
  3. QAnon: Literal Puppets Are Deep State Puppets
  4. COVID In Sports: Pro Football Hemorrhages Fans As They Realize They Can Get Drunk Without Games
  5. Insurance Providers Add “Shrinkage” To List Of Preexisting Conditions
  6. Viral Video: Kitten And Shark Are Best Friends
  7. Poll: Free The Nipple Campaign Has ‘Mathematically Impossible’ 132% Approval Rate Among Boys Ages 13-17
  8. Quarantine-Weary FDA Officials Endorse ‘Whatever Will Get You Through This Clusterfuck Diet’
  9. Mall Of America Pumps Allergens Through Ventilation On Nice Days So Shoppers Can Kinda Feel Like They’re Outside
  10. Abandoning Their Speed And Affordability Advantages, Commuter Buses Luring Hold Out Drivers By Only Using Gridlocked Lanes, Charging for Parking
  11. ‘Because We’re All Effed, So Why Not?’ Says Townspeople Who Elected A Stapler As Their Mayor
  12. With 2020 Olympics Delayed A Year, Officials Unsure What To Do With All The Condoms
  13. Lesser Known, Far More Lucrative Deodorizer Research Assembly Mobs Post-Rally Sturgis For Weeks, Citing “Barf And Tinkle Motherload’
  14. With Americans Barred From Most International Destinations, Paris, Texas Is Besieged By Confused Visitors Who Thought They Booked Cheap Flights To The Real One
  15. ‘Ignore Everything, This Is All Normal’ – Antichrist
  16. Speed Walker, Celebrating Race Victory, Injures Self While Trying To Run
  17. Twin Puppies Are Best Friends And Here’s Video Of Them Playing And That Was It, Because There Was Literally No Other Feel-Good Stories In The Whole World Today, Just Like Yesterday, And the 96 Days Before That, But Honestly The Happiness Really Died Back On November 8th, 2016, And We’re This Close To Jumping Off The Roof
  18. After Totally Avoidable, But Horrendous Fall Down Stairs, Hat On Backwards Guy Blames Sun
  19. ‘We Need To Invent A Safe Way To Infect People With Viruses, Making Them Immune’ Says Leading Anti-Vaxxer
  20. Smug New Telsa Owner Lectures Friends On Climate Change While His Car Charges At Home Powered By Coal
  21. Facebook Reportedly Considering 529-Billion-Page Print Edition
  22. Eight Years Later, North Dakota’s ‘Move The Deer Crossing Sign’ Lady Still Doesn’t Get It
  23. Languishing In Bad Press, Vatican Considering PR Boost With Game Show Called ‘Who Wants To Be A Pope?’
  24. ‘Now What?’ Is Merriam-Webster’s 2020 Word Of the Year
  25. Crew Working On Street Being Torn Up For Third Straight Summer Admit They Just Wanted To See How Long They Could Get Away With It
  26. Capitalizing Every Word In A Headline ‘Weird,’ Says Prospective Headline Writer
  27. Dyslexic Magician In Trouble With PETA After Pulling Hat Out Of Rabbit
  28. Reigning World’s Strongest Man Champion Drops Out Of Competition After Burning Roof Of Mouth With Pizza
  29. Hot Tub Guy Who Always Badgers Guests To Get Naked Blames COVID For Slow Summer
  30. ‘This Is My Dream Job’ Says Middle School Bus Driver Moments Before Being Re-Captured And Hauled Back To The Asylum
  31. The Surprising Meditative Powers Of Snorting Amphetamines
  32. Seven Fun Quarantine Crafts Projects To Get You Through The Longest, Loneliest, Wrist-Slitting Winter In The History Of Humanity
  33. ‘Hawkeye’ Movie Delayed Indefinitely Because No One Cares
  34. Bathroom Sink Attendant In Fancy Restaurant Says The Job’s Wincing Awkwardness Is His ‘Happy Place’
  35. Makers Of ‘Pokemon Go,’ Wanting To Win Back Quarantine-Bound Players, Launch ‘Pokemon Sit Still For Three Hours’
  36. Town of Laughing, Arkansas Installs Stocks On Capitol Lawn, So Stupid Criminals Can Literally Be Sentenced To The Laughing Stock
  37. Man With Prominent ‘No Fear’ Tattoo Rescued From Tree
  38. First Week Away From Home, College Freshman Says Learning to Boil Water Was ‘Like Some David Blaine Shit’
  39. International Space Station Re-Installs Long-Discarded Fax Machine So American Astronauts Can Renew Health Insurance
  40. Belated FDA Study On Muscle Milk Reveals ‘Not A Trace Of Muscle In It’
  41. Months After Launch And Bleeding Money, Developers Admit World Not Quite Ready For Popsicle Sharing App
  42. Stoned Girl Thinks You’re Hilarious
  43. Pretend Fragile Peace Between LARPers And Ren Fest Actors In Pretend Jeopardy, Pretend War Imminent
  44. ‘No, We’re Not Running Out Of Ideas!’ Shouts NBC Exec Before Storming Out Of ‘Bosom Buddies’ Reboot Presser
  45. Comedy Writers Brace For Lean Times In The Event Of Biden Victory
  46. Popular Halloween Costumes For 2020: Unmasked Frat Boy, Unmasked Republican, Unmasked Human Centipede
  47. New Years Eve 2020 Postponed To 2021
  48. ‘We Just Wanted To Live The Rest Of Our Lives In Peace, Where No One Would Find Us’ Say Prince, Michael Jackson and David Bowie, After Shocking Revelation They’re All Alive And Sharing A House In Kansas City
  49. No Clean-Up Necessary At Site Of Pro-Bath Activist And Pro-Shower Activist Melee
  50. Man Who Spends Weekends Driving His Sports Car Slowly Around Popular Beaches Still Hasn’t Found True Love
  51. Sister’s Reaction Video Of Mom’s Reaction Video Of Brother Having An Allergic Reaction Is Priceless!
  52. Album Of The Year Goes To Limp Bizkit, Who Didn’t Actually Make An Album This Year And We Just Want To Keep Encouraging That
  53. Creators of Showtime’s ‘Masters Of Sex’ In Rush Production Of COVID Spin-Off ‘Masters Of Masturbation’
  54. With Quarantine Remote Work And Childcare Limiting Them To Less Than 2,000 Steps Per Day, Neighborhood Parents Band Together, Throw Fitbits Into River
  55. Finally Saying The Quiet Part Out Loud, Newspaper Changes ‘Local’ Section To ‘Idiots In Your Area’

What did I learn? I’m not as bad at headlines/one-liners as I thought I’d be. My process wasn’t particularly sophisticated. I would think of a topic, more often than not something in the current news cycle, then write something ridiculous about it.

Though not exactly comparable in style, I would sometimes imagine my headlines being read by the late master of one-liners, and native Minnesotan, Mitch Hedberg. If it sounded good coming out of Mitch’s mouth, it went on the list.

It’s been difficult to summon the urge to write funny shit the past few years. It somehow seems frivolous, what with every “worst year ever” being unimaginably overshadowed by the bullshit of the following year. But I was wrong. You need humor to break up the despondency or you’ll slowly lose the will to live.

And that’s that. More humor to come. (I hope.)

If you know someone who needs a funny writer, tell them you know a guy that applied for The Onion’s fellowship and would have totally gotten it if the application hadn’t been tragically misplaced by an unpaid intern – or so I have imagined it.