Daniel Mirk was a staff writer for the satirical website The Onion from 2006 to 2012. He is one of the creators of the Peabody Award winning Onion News Network web series, the IFC television series of the same name, and the Amazon Studios pilot Onion News Empire. Daniel has also written for Comedy Central, Funny Or Die, and The Upright Citizens Brigade. In 2013 Daniel was nominated for an Emmy for his work on the writing staff of the Comedy Central special “Night Of Too Many Stars: America Comes Together For Autism Programs” hosted by Jon Stewart.
An Interview with Ella Talkin
In Daniel Mirk’s satirical world a patriotic American teen refuses to take high school Spanish, Lena Dunham eats a sandwich, sparking a debate over media depictions of women eating sandwiches, and Al Qaeda hijacks the Internet with an adorable photo of a piglet in wee little boots. Mirk’s satirical work reminds us how vapid and silly we can be, and I love that he cares enough to let us know.
When I first sat down in the school library to troll through his body of work it was midterms. The library was the kind of intense quiet only brought on by high dosages of non-prescription Adderall. Cackling away at Daniel Mirk’s tumblr where he posts his multi-media hilarities, I swiftly shattered that quiet.
Mirk was the senior staff writer at the Onion from 2006-2012. He was also the senior writer of the Onion News Network TV series on IFC as well as one of the creators of the Peabody Award winning Onion News Network web series. He’s written for Funny or Die, Upright Citizens Brigade, Broadway Video’s Above Average, as well as several Comedy Central pilots.
I got coffee with Mirk on campus when he visited for the Living Writers Series in Winter quarter, 2014. In the cafe he’s cheerful, but dressed all in grey like the weather. It’s raining and gloomy–in a Keats sort of way and Mirk says he prefers the NYC cold to Santa Cruz’s because it’s right in your face, not sneakily seeping into your bones. I go to ask my first question and I’m cut off when an employee accidentally blasts some soft-core dubstep at full volume. She turns it down and the subtle wompwompwomp of that filthy base remains as our interview soundtrack.
I think we’re going to begin with a bit of a wild card question round. I have several random questions–just say what comes to mind when I ask.
Up a tree or on a boat?
I guess I would prefer to be on a boat.
You didn’t climb a lot of trees in your Santa Cruz days?
Well the problem with being up a tree is you’re kind of stuck. Like a cat. Being on a boat seems at least–I don’t really want to be on a boat either but at least there I feel like I wouldn’t fall to my death.
Shower sing-along song of choice?
I tend to make up the lyrics to songs that are top 40 hits and then I make up the lyrics because I don’t really know them. I also tend to sing that Tom Jones song–she’s a lady, wowowowow she’s a lady.
What person in the media do you hate that you love to read about?
I guess Kim Jon Un. Any dictator really is usually pretty fascinating because they’re pretty horrible but there’s sort of this opulence to the way they live their life–just this insanity that they often have. Quadafi was like that too.
Putin yeah yeah, he’s someone in the media who’s truly a monster but there’s sort of this arrogance–this odd psychological thing to observe. It’s fascinating to watch someone in this position of extreme power manifest their crazy. And it’s tricky because you want to laugh at them but then you know how awful they are so you need to strike a balance in your own mind. Like I understand that they’re funny and that this is insane behavior but you can’t forget that they really are horrible people.
Who are you rooting for in Game of Thrones?
Well I guess I’m not really rooting for anyone. I think the production is good, and that they’ve done a good job casting it. That Geoffrey kid, he’s so easy to hate! They found somebody that you really want to see killed–a kid you want to see die. And that’s a tough thing to pull off.
So this is the obligatory Santa Cruz question: what is your spirit animal and why? And it can be a human–for example mine is Liz Lemon from 30 Rock.
It would need to be some kind of animal that enjoys being comfortable a lot. Maybe a cat. I don’t really like cats a lot but I respect them. I like that they’re so mean and that they seem to understand that humans want to take care of them and they just don’t care.
Alright, now the real questions. I understand that right after you graduated UC Santa Cruz you just showed up at the Onion offices in New York City and got talking to a guy in the elevator who turned out to be the producer of the Onion News Network.
You’ve said that job opportunities are all about knowing the right people but that kind of seems like chance so I was wondering if you could elaborate on that whole experience?
Getting a job is largely about knowing people. That doesn’t mean that you have to know them right now, it’s not like nepotism or something, you just need to go out and meet lots of people and become known to people as somebody who can do good work. There will always be blind luck but the more you work and the more people you know the more likely that a job’s going to come up and you’re going to be the person that they call on. So one thing at the Onion that I saw often was we’d get these interns and they’d say that they want to be writers but you would be shocked how few of them actually took that opportunity to show us their work. Everyone’s really busy and no one is going to be seeking out opportunities to help someone for no reason. They have to come to you and want help. And if they give you help, you need to keep following up on that.
Hearing about those interns makes me think about the role of the Humanities in our education system. It’s this kind of ancient idea that getting a classical education in the Humanities will make you this excellent scholar but there’s so much practicality that’s not present in our instruction. We’ve got this very structured environment, we’ve got these very certain requirements for everything we do and if we meet them then we’re good. But then when we graduate so many of us don’t know how to apply the kinds of things we’ve been taught. Do you wish you had had any more practical lessons, more emphasis on vocational things in your UC education?
My UC education was really wonderful, loved going here. I will say that I think school in general doesn’t prepare you for a lot in life. The way that school works with assignments is very linear. When you leave school most likely you’re not going to be getting assignments from anybody. You have to figure out your own assignments. There’s also just constant failure in real life which school doesn’t prepare you for. In school if you get an A on something that’s great and if you get an F on something that’s the worst that can happen. Regular life is just filled with F’s.
I think that there should be a class where you work on an assignment for a really long time and right before you turn it in a professor says “actually we’re going in a different direction, we no longer need that assignment.” Or where you turn in an assignment and you just never hear back on it. Cause that’s what most of life is. It just means working hard, putting out enough work that eventually something does stick and that you’ll get rewarded for it. But those are few and far between.
That’s why it’s really good to find a community of people that you can show things to so that you are getting continuous feedback and it’s also really good to start kind of building up work and putting your stuff all in one place. I tell people, you should really start a tumblr or a website. Start a Twitter–I know that sounds lame but if you want to write get your writing out there in these ways that anybody can see. In school you get so caught up in essays about Hitler versus Bismarck–and those are cool to learn about but it’s not like work anybody outside an academic setting is going to look at. Now if you want to be a writer you have to be thinking about a wide audience–like a David Sedaris essay for example. Anybody can read that and enjoy it. You have to keep an audience in mind which I feel like school doesn’t quite prepare you for.
I should also emphasize that real life can be really fun. When you get those rewards, when you put your work out there, you get something published and you get some nice comments on it, or make people laugh, that feels so good because you really earned it. It feels so much better than getting a good grade. It feels more important. It’s extremely rewarding and it’s really fun. If you love it, it’s so fun.
When you were talking about making your work applicable for a wider audience it made me think about how publications you’ve worked for like the Onion, Funny or Die, and UCB have an overwhelmingly liberal audience and I’m wondering what experiences you’ve had crossing that bi-partisan divide. Is it limiting to be so aware of your audience? Do you find yourself trying to give them something that you know they’ll enjoy?
Well you’re never going to please everyone, there’s going to be an audience for what you’re doing but there’s going to be some people who just don’t like it in the same way that you might like hip hop music and there’s no country song that will ever come out that you’re going to like. It’s the same way, some people are going to really love it and so many people are going to think it’s just not for them. But going back to the liberal conservative thing, you never want to feel like you’re preaching to the choir with the political stuff. You always want to feel like you’re challenging something but you always want to be coming down on the side of truth. You always want to be making points that hold up to rational thought that ring true to people. You want to make points that you could make in a real debate outside of the context of writing or comedy. Specifically about the Onion and satirical writing, have it be a point that you can defend in an argument that would hold up to scrutiny. So it’s not really about being liberal or conservative as it is making a point that’s true. Often times the things that feel hypocritical and feel false tend to come from the conservative side. But that’s also just to do with my upbringing, there’s certainly shit that liberals say that is also hypocritical and worth making fun of. At the Onion we always try to do that but sometimes it feels like there are just so many glaring problems on one side of the aisle. What you always want to be doing with satire is making fun of the problems with society and people in power who are abusing that power, people who are hypocritical or bigoted or hateful. You want to be tearing those things down. It’s not going to be funny if it doesn’t ring as true.
Do you prefer skewing celebrity culture or political culture?
Oh without a doubt political culture because it’s so much more important. Celebrity stuff is so easy to make fun of but it doesn’t really matter. The best stuff to write about is stuff that really matters to people and affects their lives. Like The Onion was wonderful because we were allowed to do these political jokes and take aim at these more sort of important targets. A lot of places really don’t want that, they want stuff that’s more about celebrities. I want to do those celebrity jokes that have a broad appeal but doesn’t feel slimy–like those Leno Late Night jokes.
You wrote a satirical article for Funny or Die about Chris Brown who had this very public violent incident and in your piece on him you are suggesting that people who are separating his music and his personal life are in the wrong. What role can satire play in instances like this where there is a non-political figure whose negative actions have the possibility to affect public opinion even if they cannot affect policy?
Chris Brown is a celebrity who I think is infinitely worthy of ridicule because he genuinely seems like a horrible person and he represents a problem with society which is abusive men so if you’re making jokes about him then you’re also pointing out the problem with this larger trend. It seems like there’s a thing worth making fun of which is that he’s a monster but we’re still paying to see him. That riff feels like a good riff for comedy. Satire is a good way to go about it. Any time that there’s a juxtaposition that seems wrong–like you can just feel like something’s wrong with it.
There’s a mental trick that we’re all playing on ourselves that we think it’s ok not to like him but still support his music. You’re not really going to change a lot of people’s minds just by joking about it, but if you make them think about it hopefully one of them will change his mind and not want to give money to an abusive monster then you’ve done something good. Sometimes people will say, “You’re doing these political jokes and that feels so important.” It’s still just comedy at the end of the day and I don’t think it’s ever going to affect policy, but you can still hopefully change some people’s minds here and there and at least point out that there are problems.
Kind of in that vein I’m wondering, do you ever find it a challenge locating the line between good and bad taste when you’re commenting on an individual figure? Every so often there will be a scandal at a place the Onion where they’ve just kind of gone too far with satire. Do you struggle with that?
You want to be careful that you’re choosing the right targets for your jokes, so you always want to be making fun of the person not the victim, the person who is powerful not powerless. So like if there was a joke that made fun of Rhianna instead of Chris Brown would just like feel in poor taste. You can kind of just feel what the right thing to be making fun of is. It can be dicey because sometimes you’re trying to make fun of something and you can inadvertently end up making the opposite point. Because with satire what you’re saying is in subtext or you’re saying the opposite of what you mean. You’re hoping people realize you’re trying to make the opposite point and that’s what the joke is. So it’s good to get feedback from other people whose opinion you respect and other writers.
I read on your tumblr that you hardly ever laugh out loud at internet videos but in this interview you’ve mentioned a couple of times how you love seeing people laugh at your things. Is there a certain way you measure positive reaction to your videos, anything you hope?
Well one funny thing about the Internet and about TV and film in general is that you write this stuff and you think its funny and you hope its funny and you put it into the world but you never see anyone’s reaction to it. You’re really never sitting over someone’s shoulder and watching them watch your video so you never hear any of the laughter. We put out hundreds and hundreds of videos over my time at the Onion and I think I’ve maybe seen people watch them a dozen times. A lot of the work you’re doing you’re putting it out there but you’re not really seeing any reaction to it. So it is really fun to get to be in those rare instances when you’re showing it to an audience and you’re actually hearing them laugh. So yeah I don’t really laugh at that much stuff but I feel like most people when you’re watching something online, you could think its funny but you’re not laughing out loud, because its a very solitary experience.
You’ve worked in all these different mediums and some of the projects take months, but things like the UCB Sketch Cram is written, filmed, and performed in a day. So I was wondering if you could talk more about that process.
Yes, it is. And with Sketch Cram you do it all in a day and what’s really fun about that is you start in the morning with nothing and in the evening you have a full show. And you get this really immediate feedback and that’s really cool, you don’t usually get that in most other settings–seeing people laugh at your work right away. But what’s also a lot of fun is when you write a lot you get good and writing, it almost becomes like playing a sport or an instrument–you kind of want to switch it up and do something new just to work a different muscle. Like I guess if I was to be a guitarist and I was playing the same songs over and over again and then I’m called up to do this jazz performance and its really spectacular because its so out of the norm. Writing can be kind of the same thing. If you’re so used to writing the same kinds of things over and over and you’ve written so many fake news articles and you’ve been writing so many sketches it can be really fun when its different–like suddenly write something narrative, or something super super short or a movie. Once you’re confident in your skills, to then go test those skills in a new environment, that’s fun, that’s interesting.