For someone who is not a fan of Donald Trump, Scott Dikkers has spent an awful lot of time getting to know the guy.
In fact, he did such a solid character study of the presidential candidate that some of the off-the-wall scenarios and factoids Dikkers invented about Trump for his new satirical handbook, "Trump's America," turned out to be true. That's comedy gold, and Dikkers should know: The Minneapolis native was a founding editor of the humorous news site the Onion.
At 51, Dikkers has been making people laugh for decades, ever since he sketched his own humor books while a student at Fuller Elementary in south Minneapolis. He was drafted into the launch of the Onion at age 24, but not before attempting to cast Al Franken's parents in a film during his high school years, and rising to campus comedy fame with a popular comic strip in Madison, Wis. He's authored several spoof tomes via the Onion, including "Our Dumb Century."
"Trump's America" imagines a world in which a business mogul and television star becomes president. Though the details are made up (like a spoof birth certificate that shows Trump's baby footprint in the shape of a man's Oxford shoe), the book tries to capture the essence of the Donald. That's what makes it funny, Dikkers said.
"No matter how hard you work to come up with a funny scenario, it's never as funny as something in real life," Dikkers said.
Q: Where did the idea for "Trump's America" come from?
A: I started a program at Second City in Chicago called "Writing the Onion." I teach people how to write prose humor. The fourth level is the master class, and we had this group of 20 really talented people. I needed to think of a project for the class, and this was one of the ideas on the list.
At that time, in the summer of last year, a lot of people were concerned that Trump was a flash in the pan, that this wasn't going to happen. But we all decided to do it, thinking there's a chance he'll do well, and even if he doesn't, he's a famous person people like to see made fun of. However, when we tried to get it sold, we couldn't get it published by a traditional publisher. They all told us Trump was going to be a distant memory by summer of 2016 when this book would come out. I had done a book earlier in 2015 making fun of Jeb Bush, and it was a total failure; it came out the same month he dropped out. They didn't want to get burned again.
Q: And you decided to forge ahead anyway?
A: We were doing this book with no advance and pouring a ton of hours into it, and I felt it was really important because Trump was becoming a major pop cultural and political phenomenon, and nobody was really doing it justice in terms of a satirical response. There were a lot of frivolous jokes about his hair, but I felt this needed a comprehensive treatment. So we worked feverishly, it took over our lives, we managed to find a micro-publisher, and we were able to come out pretty quickly after we finished it.
Q: It turns out some of what you made up about Trump came true.
A: I feel like we researched him pretty well and got his character down, and so when you nail somebody's character, you start inventing scenarios, and it's almost inevitable some of those things are going to come true. One was we did this introduction to Trump's presidency and meet the First Family, and we thought we should do "Meet the First Penis." It just seemed appropriate for some reason. And it just floored us when his penis actually became a thing in the race.
Q: How do you write about something like that when it's already so over-the-top?
A: When you do comedy, there are many tools you want, and one of them is hyperbole. You want to exaggerate reality to make it funny. When you write something that later comes true, which happens with the Onion a lot, then you know you really nailed it, because you nailed the character and the context of the character. Even though you come up with something you thought was outrageous and laughable, that it could approach real life, that's the crowning achievement of satire — modestly speaking, of course.
Q: How would you apply the same treatment to Hillary Clinton?
A: I don't know. Hillary is much more boring than Trump. Her husband was not boring; he was fun to make fun of. Here's part of the problem: The cardinal rule of satire, similar to the cardinal rule of left-wing journalism, is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. When you go after Trump, you're afflicting the comfortable, because he's a privileged, rich, white male, the top of the top 1 percent. When you go after Hillary, you're going after a woman in a culture that is still incredibly chauvinistic.
Women do not have nearly the rights or privileges that men do, and it's tricky to go after a symbol of that. Yes, she's a powerful persona, used to be secretary of state, blah blah blah. But she is maligned and hated in our political culture largely by misogynists who just hate the idea of a woman with power. If she wins and becomes president, then it's different, she becomes a little more fair game.
Q: What will it mean for the book if Trump wins the election?
A: I would probably sell a lot of these books, however, I think I will be receiving the royalties from my cell in Guantanamo.
Q: Has Trump seen it?
A: We had a couple of opportunities to show it to Trump and we haven't taken those. I don't expect that we would ever hear anything. He's got so much better things to think about. Early on, though, I was thinking 'Let's get him to see it and sue us,' and that'll be a great marketing strategy.
There's a section in the book on how to protect yourself from getting sued by the president.