Life at ClickHole: The Onion’s creative, internet sandbox
By Nicholas Kuklinski
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Growing up an avid reader of The Onion, Noah Prestwich, 24, took his desire to laugh and sought to make a career of it.
“I distinctly remember being in a bookstore with one of my good friends my freshman year of high school,” Prestwich, now associate editor of ClickHole, said. “And we were just sitting there reading an op-ed in one of the big Onion collections and just crying; just crying like stupid teenagers in the bookstore from what we were reading.”
Prestwich’s interest in comedy grew the more he was exposed to it, from The Onion, “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” “Mr. Show,” “Wizard People, Dear Reader,” and, as he put it, pretty much anything from Tina Fey. This interest developed into a passion he would carry into his collegiate career as a literary arts major at Brown University.
“When I was in college, I did all the comedy things: I was in an improv group, I was in a sketch group, and I was the editor-in-chief of this satirical newspaper,” Prestwich said. “I sort of just treated it as this job I made no money at.”
Before graduating from college, he set his sights on applying for The Onion’s 6-month writer fellowship. However, before even applying for the opportunity, he received an email about ClickHole starting out.
“I knew it was going to be a parody of viral media, specifically like Buzzfeed and Huff. Po. and Upworthy,” Prestwich said. “And I was interested in that, but I also didn’t know that much about it. I wasn’t someone who was really online all the time.”
Prestwich understood what The Onion’s format was, a satire publication playing the character of a newspaper giant, but knew that wasn’t what ClickHole was going for. It wanted to take what was frustrating about the internet, parody those frustrations and continue to expand on that idea.
“I just did some quick research on what the internet was like, having checked out of it for a period of time, and put together a packet,” Prestwich said. “And by some miracle, I somehow got this position as a staff writer on the first staff of ClickHole.”
ClickHole launched in June 2014 and has grown from what many believed to simply be a website parodying the concept of clickbait, to one with a broader voice parodying all voices on the internet.
“I think that’s what it had to become because the staff recognized that we are going to be limited if we don’t push it beyond the basic premise of a parody to BuzzFeed or a parody of listicles,” Prestwich said. “That’s what I like about ClickHole: it’s enabled me to write a lot of different formats.”
The Associate Editor’s Role
Prestwich’s responsibilities as the associate editor are to exclusively edit video scripts. Once he receives the writer’s draft he doesn’t consult the writer before making changes. His process consists of editing according to what he feels is necessary for the progression and story of the video.
“There are times before I get the script that I will have talked to the writer so we’ll have an idea together already for what the video should be,” Prestwich said. “So once I get the script, I go into it and try not to change too much usually. We have such talented, great video-syncretic writers that I don’t need to change much often.”
Prestwich described comedic writing, in large part, as overwriting a script and cramming in too many jokes. This allows for there to be plenty of options when it comes to scaling down a script before engaging it in the filming process.
“I’ll be taking some of those jokes out, or if I see a funny joke, I’ll be like, ‘Oh, that’s a funny joke but maybe we can make that joke in a different way or here is a different joke we can use in that same slot,” Prestwich said. “Or I can make what is called an ‘alt’ (alternative) so when it’s being shot they’ll shoot that ‘alt’ as well.”
All of these options are important when filming comedy, especially since comedy has much to do with timing. And if one take is off or if one line from the script doesn’t translate as well as previously thought to film, not having those other options could significantly limit the production.
The Typical Day
The work week at ClickHole starts off with one of the many headline meetings that will continue on through Friday. The first of those meetings takes place Monday morning and is focused on timely events.
“These are meetings based on what’s happening right now in the world,” Prestwich said. “So we’ll pitch, and when I say pitch, I mean email them to our editorial person, 10 to 15 headlines, some people even more, and we’ll get them printed out on a list before we go into the meeting.”
With each writer compiling their own list the overall product will end up consisting of around 150 to 200 headlines. Once in the meeting, Editor-in-Chief Matt Powers will go through each page of the list and essentially ask the writers if there are any headlines that spark their interest.
“Then we’ll talk about it, and we’ll riff on it, and maybe we’ll start saying beats that would be in the article and sort of writing the article out loud simultaneously,” Prestwich said. “What that’ll look like sometimes is it’ll be really natural, it’ll be great and everyone around the table will be trying to get their joke in.”
At the end of the meeting, the staff will have backlogged all the headlines they liked and prepare for their following meeting.
“Then we’ll have our evergreen meeting that operates essentially the same way, but there will be evergreen headlines being pitched that aren’t timely,” Prestwich said. “That’s where we get some of our crazier material and those are the most fun ones because there are just people pitching things that make them laugh for whatever reason.”
After the evergreen meeting, the staff will break for lunch, come back and select their drafts for the week. The rest of the day consists of writers either spending the rest of their time working on their draft or generating headlines for the next day’s meeting.
The Work Environment
After graduating from college, Prestwich came out to Chicago and has been there since.
“I think my first year at ClickHole, I felt like I had a headache the whole year because I was just learning so much about what I liked and what I thought was great,” said Prestwich.
Because ClickHole is only two-and-a-half years old and its staff is relatively young, everyone is willing to help each other learn and develop their respective crafts.
“I think because we have a really young staff, we have the freedom to feel we’re figuring this out together. None of us is an established pro, just making everyone else feel like, ‘Oh, I gotta pretend like I really know what I’m doing,’” Prestwich said. “We have the freedom to fail in a way that is interesting and liberating.”
The fear of failure might deter others from taking risks, but for Prestwich, along with ClickHole’s young staff, it is merely an obstacle for improvement.
“I’ve failed a lot since I’ve been here and have tried getting many headlines in that haven’t gotten in,” Prestwich said. “But the ones I have gotten in, I get why they worked, I studied how to write those headlines, and I’m still trying to figure it out, but I’m a little bit better at it now.”