Head writer of The Onion Mike Gillis headlines Greenlee’s First Amendment Days celebration

Mike Gillis, head writer of the satirical site The Onion, plans to bring humor to a discussion of law, comedy and how the First Amendment is essential to his work in his upcoming lecture at Iowa State.

“I’m so happy that I got invited. I think it’s going to be a really fun talk, and I can’t wait to chat with people about the First Amendment,” Gillis said.

Gillis’ lecture—The Onion: Comedy, Controversy and the First Amendment—will be held in the Memorial Union Sun Room on April 17 at 7 p.m. The event is a part of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication’s 22nd annual First Amendment Days celebration.

About Mike Gillis

Gillis began his journey to The Onion and satire writing when he read his first copy back in middle school.

“I immediately was struck by how honest it seemed to be about what it was like to be an American on a day-to-day basis,” Gillis said. “It wasn’t this profound, poetic experience, the way novels make it out to be, and it wasn’t this unbelievable catastrophe, the way that news stations can make it out to be.”

Instead, he said it was about the Midwestern goofiness of obsessing over whether to stop at this rest stop or that rest stop, the mundanity of American life.

From then on, Gillis thought that writing for The Onion, or even contributing a single headline, would be a dream come true. But he didn’t see it as a realistic possibility, believing there was “no way” he could do creative writing for a living. Gillis decided to double major in creative writing and cognitive science at Dartmouth College to have a backup plan.

After graduating, Gillis found he hated working in a normal office and began to seek a way to write for The Onion.

“I wrote hundreds and hundreds of headlines and explored every angle to get the writers’ room’s attention,” Gillis said. “And eventually, they took pity on me and gave me the chance to contribute. From there, I conquered the world.”

He’s been at The Onion nearly 12 years now, starting as a contributor before becoming a staff writer and working up to his current role as head writer.

As head writer, Gillis said his role involves a nice combination of what a staff writer does, generating headlines and writing articles, and some additional aspects. He works with editing other writers’ drafts, develops a broader vision for where The Onion will go and serves as more of a mediator in the writers’ room.

“It’s a lot less just me purely expressing my opinion of ‘this joke stinks’ or ‘this joke is the best thing ever’ and more me trying to accommodate everyone’s sensibilities, respect what they’re bringing to the table and get the best version of them into The Onion,” Gillis said.

Writing for The Onion

On a more day-to-day level, Gillis and everyone at The Onion have meetings to narrow down what can start as 1,500 or 2,000 headlines per week to the 40-50 headlines that ultimately get published.

Meetings are divided into timely meetings, where they address the pressing news of the day, and evergreen meetings, where they address more constant topics of the world such as the Midwestern rest-stop predicament.

In the meetings, writers read their headlines aloud, and the room immediately votes on each one to determine whether it moves on to further discussion.

“The two main sounds in the writers’ room are laughter sometimes and, most of the time, just soul-crushing silence, in which you feel like you’ve failed completely at your job,” Gillis said.

Gillis explained that this process replicates how readers experience a headline, whether they’ll get it immediately and laugh or find it confusing.

Gillis said some of his favorite headlines are those that defy any kind of logic.

“I think of them as 3 a.m. deranged headlines, where you wake up in the middle of the night with an idea that’s maybe just a dream or kind of like a surreal vision, but you try to put it into a headline form,” he said.

For example, Gillis’ first “3 a.m. deranged headline” was “Washington’s Hobby Lobby Lobbies To Strengthen Hobbies” with the sub-head “‘We’ll Lobby For Hobbies All The Way To Abu Dhabi,’ Says Lobby Rep Robbie Stobby.”

Another recent favorite was “Climate Protesters Terrified After Mona Lisa Extends Big Tongue And Starts Licking Up Soup.”

Gillis said some issues are less pressing, and other issues are so big and intractable, the best response can be saying “this is ridiculous” and making fun of the situation.

“So I really like those moments where there’s a lot of tension around certain political issues and The Onion takes a left turn and just decides not to really issue a grand statement,” Gillis said. “Instead, we’re just playing around with the facts on the ground, and we don’t have a solution or a striking criticism that we’re going to issue here.”

Upcoming lecture at Iowa State

Looking ahead to his lecture at Iowa State, Gillis said everyone attending can expect a funny discussion of the First Amendment and humor.

He said talking about humor and law in general tends to fall flat, similar to what E.B. White said, “Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”

“It’s similar, but it’s as if you murdered that frog’s family in front of them, and then you’re describing those deaths to that frog in as boring a tone as possible,” Gillis added.

In contrast, he said the fun thing about discussing humor and law is that while it can seem very abstract and inapplicable to the average person’s life, he’s seen from his own experience how important it is.

“I can say, as head writer of The Onion, somebody has been doing this for about a dozen years now, it’s really vital to what we do, and we wouldn’t be able to publish funny, interesting jokes without parody law protections and fair use protections,” Gillis said. “And so it’s in many ways a privilege that I’m able to not think about free speech on a daily basis.”

Gillis said his talk will stem from there, discussing how everyone should consider the relevance of free speech in their lives and the importance of defending it.

Gillis said he is looking forward to his lecture at Iowa State. For him and everyone at The Onion, he said that doing talks like this is always a great opportunity to meet longtime fans of the publication, as well as students who are interested in comedy and figuring out their voices in writing.

First Amendment Days

First Amendment Days is a weeklong celebration of First Amendment freedoms – religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. A diverse assortment of speakers, events and activities are offered on campus every spring as a creative way to engage students and the entire Iowa State community to better understand the power of free expression.

First Amendment Days 2024 will take place April 15-19, with a variety of events celebrating this year’s theme “Humor Me.”

  • Tuesday, April 16, “First Amendment Days: Pun-damental Rights,” pun battle, Ames Public Library, 7 p.m.
  • Wednesday, April 17, “A Revolution was Once Televised: Norman Lear Sitcoms and Satire,” Novotny Lawrence, associate professor and director of the Black Film Center & Archive, The Media School, Indiana University Bloomington, 169 Hamilton Hall, 11 a.m.
  • Wednesday, April 17, “The Onion: Comedy, Controversy and the First Amendment,” Mike Gillis, head writer, The Onion, Memorial Union, Sun Room, 7 p.m.
  • Thursday, April 18, Feast on the First, Central Campus, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
  • April 18, 19 and 27, “The Crucible,” ISU Department of Music and Theatre, Fisher Theatre, 7:30 p.m. (April 28 performance at 3 p.m.)

First Amendment Days is organized by the First Amendment Committee, which is made up of members of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication and the Iowa State Daily Media Group.

Learn more about First Amendment Days events on the First Amendment Days page.

Learn more about Mike Gillis’ lecture on the ISU Lecture Series page.