Onion News Network writers on the blurry line between ridiculously real TV news and IFC parody

One of the more fascinating features of IFC’s Onion News Network is how this fake parody of TV news relies heavily on people with real experience as anchors and reporters on local and cable news programs. Its star, Brooke Alvarez, is really Suzanne Sena — former host and reporter for E!, Extra and FOX News. Brad Holbrook, who plays morning anchor “Jim Haggarty,” used to be a local news anchor in New York City. Jill Dobson, who played “Madison Daly” on ONN, took that job after working on-air for FOX News.

Several writers/producers convened on Friday night to talk about their TV series, which began as individual web videos for The Onion, at the Paley Center for Media as part of the New York Comedy Festival.

Turns out real TV news anchors and reporters are better-suited for ONN’s parody. “Actors have too much life and soul,” quipped head writer Carol Kolb. “They also can’t talk quickly enough.”

To mock TV news as deftly as possible, they needed to look and sound as close to realistic as possible, even if the stories they were reporting about could not be more ridiculously fake.

“That’s the biggest part of the joke, that it looks like what it’s aping,” said writer John Harris.

Their work has been so successful, at least in producing fake news graphics, that FOX News hired away one of the ONN graphics people.

Much like your real local TV news, the ONN staff loves any opportunity to produce a segment that involves animals. They mentioned horse stories more than anything else.

And when their seems to be a real overlap between ONN’s fake stories and what’s actually going on, that’s more luck and circumstance than planning. Take, for example, this ONN piece which reported that President Barack Obama’s approval rating soared after he punched a Wall Street banker. Roll the clip!

Senior writer Dan Mirk said the timing worked out that this piece aired after Occupy Wall Street had begun and become newsworthy in its own right, even though the ONN piece was written months beforehand. “Fortunately people didn’t start loving bankers,” Mirk said.

Some real cable news people have been in on the joke on-air with ONN, including Glenn Beck and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. Here is Glenn Beck on the true background of Brooke Alvarez:

The ONN writers/producers also watch more network and cable news than they otherwise would, because of their jobs. Writer Lang Fisher said the more horrible they are, the more fun it is for her watch professionally. At the same time, however, she added: “We have to work really hard to be worse than they are…They’re all entertainers. They’re all ratings-hungry.”

ONN’s second season airs Friday nights on IFC.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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