Tim Keck and Christopher Johnson

​The Onion: Area men ignore homework, say college newspaper will lead to fame

The Onion launched on August 29, 1988, with an alarmingly alliterative headline: “Mendota Monster Mauls Madison.” But the real story behind the founding of the fake-news juggernaut is even more absurd.

In his junior year, Tim Keck sold calendars to dorm dwellers and dropped out of the UW to start his own newspaper with the cash. He invited classmate Christopher Johnson BA1989 to join him, but their early plans derailed when Johnson abruptly moved to Brazil. Keck bought a plane ticket and went after him. Six months later, both were back in Madison and living in an apartment below a man who blared a Rolling Stones compilation on repeat. For relief, they visited Johnson’s uncle. One day, he watched the young men make onion sandwiches as they debated newspaper names, and he suggested they call it the Onion.

Keck then poached two comic strip writers from the Daily Cardinal — including one who quit the Onion “somewhere around 14 times” during its first year — and a revolving cast of friends filled in the rest of the haphazard content. “When I saw it, I was like, this is really, really bad,” Keck says of the first issue.

The duo kept publishing every week for the next year, until the lack of sleep got to them both. “We went to a bar and said, let’s stop this. Let’s move on.” They sold the newspaper to other staff members for $20,000, and after Johnson finished his philosophy degree, the two hitchhiked back to Brazil.

From The Park

​Homegrown journalism as political satire, the Onion was started by UW-Madison juniors Keck and Johnson. It begat a new genre of irreverent humor.

Source: ​© The Onion, reprinted with permission

Keck eventually made his way to Seattle, where he founded the Pulitzer Prize–winning alternative weekly The Stranger. Writer Dan Savage left his video store job in Madison to join Keck and started an advice column about sex. That column, “Savage Love,” is now syndicated nationwide.

Johnson ended up in Albuquerque, where he also founded an alternative newspaper, the Weekly Alibi.

As for the Onion? The quit-happy comic, Scott Dikkers (attended 1988–89), became the paper’s longest-serving editor-in-chief. Though the Onion ceased print production in 2013, it has evolved into a large digital-media organization with several spinoff products. No joke.

The Onion is the most well-known humor publication to come out of UW-Madison, but it wasn’t the first. Or the second.