‘That was the first headline idea that we had’: The origin story of The Onion’s most hilarious cover

July 18, 2019

Sometimes, your first idea is your best.

In the late ‘90s, editors of the satirical newspaper The Onion were contemplating a book of front pages, much like the one in their office that showcased The New York Times.

The idea for the eventual bestseller, “Our Dumb Century,” was a series of 20th-century front pages from famous news events — Onion style, of course — from the Titanic to the Iraq war.

And of course, Apollo 11.

“That was the first headline idea that we had for the book,” said Scott Dikkers, one of The Onion’s founders and its longest serving editor-in-chief. “I don’t remember who thought of it because it was just so obvious — the moon landing.”

Editor’s note: Click here  for the unedited cover.

The Onion was about a decade old at this point, Dikkers said, and the book would continue the brand’s evolution toward satire and away from sophomoric college humor.

Despite the fact that the Onion has rarely employed journalists, the page’s giant NSFW headline felt spot-on to media types.

“I knew that was a phrase that people used in journalism, like a real ‘Holy shit!’ story,” Dikkers said.

The font played an important role in their thinking, too.

“I loved the idea of second coming-size type on the front page,” Dikkers said. “We were pretty sure no newspaper had ever put ‘Holy Shit’ on the front page in banner headline type, so we wanted to make sure that happened.”

Dikkers was 4 when the lunar module landed in the Sea of Tranquility. He said he watched with his family, whom — like most people that day — were utterly astounded.

Therein lies the joke.

“The real moon landing coverage is very sober and very august and Neil Armstrong had no emotion in his voice, so it was fun to have that contrast — that’s how you get irony, is with extreme contrast and extreme opposites,” Dikkers said.

Chad Nackers, the current editor in chief, said the profane headlines were a more natural response to the events 50 years ago.

“I think that kind of sums up the kind of shock and awe of accomplishing something like that, how you would think that the astronauts would really feel about that moment,” Nackers said. “It seems like the response that any normal person would have if they did that (walked on the moon).”

Unlike other news events, like the Kennedy assassination (“We must have come up with 200 different jokes and we just couldn’t nail it,” Dikkers said), the moon landing made for easy satire.

The story itself was assigned to the “genius” David Javerbaum, the only person at that time to write for both the Onion and Harvard Lampoon, who went on to win Emmys for his work “The Daily Show” and run God’s Twitter account.

“He captured that dry tone and just put a bunch of swear words in it,” Dikkers said.

He said that for the book, the staff brainstormed a headline, then the story was assigned to a writer, who in those days wasn’t likely to turn in more than a few graphs.

“So what I would do is I would lay out these pages with the three-paragraph story and a lot of blank space, and I would give it to the whole staff and have them just write in with pen on the printout,” Dikkers said. He said the seven or eight writers on staff would add their own takes and jokes, and from there it was easy to see where the satire was going.

“It’s really like a room of funny writers riffing on a subject and I just sort of put them all together on the page,” he said. “It was so fun.”

Nackers agreed that in the end, the stoic nature of the astronauts and journalists made the joke land.

“It’s such a highly quoted statement that Neil Armstrong made,” he said. “What comes to mind first when you think of that moon landing? When you think of him making a great speech … his words were so powerful and just kind of capture everything that’s going on, and I think this is just like The Onion’s version of that.”

Dikkers left the Onion in 2014. He wrote “How to Write Funny” and “How to Write Funnier,” the basis of his “Writing with the Onion” program at The Second City Training Center in Chicago.

While it never actually appeared anywhere other than a book, the moon landing front page is one of The Onion’s most enduring pieces, and Dikkers said he gets pleasure from recounting that particular evolution of comedic styling: the serious to the satirical.

“It was really cathartic really and really satisfying to finally give the moon landing … the emotion that it deserved.”

Read the rest of our Apollo 11 moon landing coverage here