Wall Street Journal
August 1, 2012
By Caroline Porter
On Tuesday night, in a room typically reserved for bottle service at a swanky Chicago nightclub, the president and CEO of The Onion managed to offend the audience of some 400 professionals, the city of Chicago, the United States, and the human race – all without uttering a word.
“I call this ‘The Artist’ presentation,” said Steve Hannah afterwards, sitting in dim lighting in a back corner couch, underneath a photo of nude bodies shaped into the face of a human skeleton.
During his presentation, he put up one slide with the words “Tu Stultus Es” meaning “You are stupid” in Latin.
At another point, he put up a slide “We’ll Be Back Momentarily” and decided to make a phone call on stage while the audience waited. He later explained that his performance was in a similar style to the French silent film that won an Oscar last year, though he had the idea a few years ago.
A handful of minutes earlier, Mr. Hannah sat in a chair on stage and clicked through a series of slides and videos, showcasing his satirical media company’s work without acknowledging the audience. It was part of The Onion’s collaborative welcome party with Chicago’s Better Government Association (BGA). The event, which included a banjo performance by Illinois’ Liuetenant Governor Sheila Simon, earned generous laughs from the crowd, many of whom were young adults the BGA hopes to sway.
Each guest was allotted two tickets for two free drinks, with a choice of wine or beer. The after-work crowd mingled and hovered over the black and white leather furniture and the exposed brick and beams of the upstairs Paris Club. An open glass ceiling acted as a saucer of light, pouring out a gauzy glow on the crowd, as they cupped their drinks and picked at mini lobster crostini and steak tartare. One wall was covered in fake grass, another blanketed in black and white photographs.
Andy Shaw, the current leader of the BGA and a former TV reporter in Chicago, welcomed the crowd and introduced Mr. Hannah, his fraternity brother at Colgate University in the 1960s, as a “cocky tennis player” in his youth.
Mr. Shaw explained that young people are the “missing piece” at BGA, which focuses on watchdog journalism and citizen engagement in Chicago, where keeping the politicians accountable is comparable to “Patton’s march across Europe.” The theme of the event, “Corruption isn’t funny, but sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying,” earned a reference.
During pauses in the sold-out show, murmurs from the adjacent room and bar floated into the main room, where some audience members retreated to chat and drink.
Kerry Wilkins, 29, munched on a mini burger near the name-tag registration at one point during the evening. Ms. Wilkins, who works in marketing at an investment bank firm, did not want to comment on the BGA.
“I read The Onion pretty frequently on my iPad, and I’m interested to see what the commentary on Chicago will be,” she said.
Ms. Wilkins is not alone in her enthusiasm for The Onion’s recent move to Chicago, where about 100 employees work in the River North area of the city.
“Welcome, The Onion. You’ll fit right in,” said Ms. Simon, who proclaimed Tuesday officially “The Onion Day” before she began her rendition of “He’s in the Jailhouse Now” on her banjo. The Lieutenant Governor, who plays regularly with her band Loose Gravel, is working on a bill with the BGA to improve government transparency.
The BGA’s Young Professional Board, which hosted the event, succeeded in gaining the interest of one attorney in her mid-twenties. Aimee Roby, 26, said she did not know much about the BGA but thought the “relaxing night after work” was a good way to reach people her age. The fact that The Onion was involved didn’t hurt.
“We are the biggest, most terrifying, most invasive, most influential publishing company in the world,” said Mr. Hannah, who added that he was “super happy” to be here. The comedy scene, the tax credit and the Midwestern sensibility drew him in.