For the past eight years, the Onion has turned Vice President Joe Biden into a Trans Am–loving metal head who sets up a fog machine at the State of the Union and washes his car while shirtless on the White House driveway. On The Gist, Mike Pesca talks with Onion head writer Chad Nackers about how he and his team created a character to satirize Obama’s teetotaling veep. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mike Pesca: Before he was vice president, what was Joe Biden’s character in the Onion?
Chad Nackers: I think he only made one appearance. I think it was when he was running for president in 2008. And I can’t even remember the headline. It wasn’t really a “Diamond Joe” type. It was like that he was running for political reasons or something like that.
Nothing specific about the guy he became.
He didn’t really develop as a character even when they were campaigning in 2008. But you kind of got this feeling about him—I think it’s that shit-eating grin he has. At least it was for me. And there seemed to be this spark of something.
The first headline we had done was “Biden Shows Up to Inauguration With Ponytail.” It kind of had this thing that he was just fucking around. That wasn’t even an article; it was just what we call skybox, where we just have a photo with a headline. What’s weird is in a traditional comedy format, it’s so opposite. You know, he doesn’t drink in real life. He’s kind of—he’s a straight-edge. That first full article was “Shirtless Biden Washes Trans Am in White House Driveway.” And I think that got backloaded with a lot of details of his past, and it kind of combined them. He’s digging through bills that are five years old mixed with packs of Doral cigarettes. And a lot of those details were just things I remembered from high school or something. I went to high school with guys who went to Cinderella concerts and things like that.
Molly Hatchet, maybe.
It was like that stuff was all kind of connected—the muscle cars with hair metal music. So it seemed like a good fit for him. It’s sort of also weird that the real-life Joe Biden drives a Corvette or something. That’s the interesting thing, where our fictional Biden has converged at times. And even how he’s covered in the media, there’s the Uncle Joe coverage of him. So there have been moments where the fiction converges.
You know what he reminds me of? He reminds me of Matthew McConaughey’s character in Dazed and Confused, Wooderson. Maybe he’s hanging around the high school two years later, “All right, all right.”
And he is in a way, because he was in the Senate in ’73. He’s been around forever. It’s like he’s still hanging out.
So how do you know this milieu, if we describe it as “what a 17-year-old would think is cool in 1986”?
I graduated from high school in 1991, so I lived through this. My mom found an old picture of me the other day where I was holding up a Twisted Sister concert tee. I didn’t go to the show because I was a little bit young, but my mom worked at a middle school, and one of the students went and picked me up a shirt.
I also was hooked up with all these terrible metal bands—dubbed cassettes, like, Krokus and things like that that are pretty deep cuts.
Autograph, Slayer. We are, I think, the exact same age. And I remember that milieu. And I also remember that when you grow up in that age, not only did you have to insist that Ratt was more than a one-hit wonder or even a one-hit wonder, you had to say, “And they’re better than this crappy music by Prince.”
I always had a soft spot for Prince. But there’s a lot of dudes with jean jackets that had used a marker and drawn the Def Leppard logo as best they could on the back of them, and they wore those jackets every single day in class. So I had sat around those kids, and maybe I had some things in common with them.
Do you remember an argument you may have had with the staff, where one was saying, “No, I think our Biden would do this,” and the other would say, “No, I don’t think our Biden would do that”?
I think the original headline for the Trans Am was that he crashed it into the White House. But then we thought we should dial it back, and it makes more of a world if he’s doing something a little more mundane like washing his car.
That’s also in great keeping with the Onion’s gestalt, where the great headlines are “Dude on Couch Thinks You Care About His Fantasy Football Team.”
Other characters might go into more of a fantasy element sometimes—Obama will do things where he’ll be meeting with drones, or they’ll come to the door and it’s an animal or something. But Biden is solidly in our world. There’s no crazy flights of fancy with him. He’s just navigating this regular place, and it’s kind of amped up.
As you paint this guy with his love of the Trans Am and Milwaukee’s Best and the bands he likes, it must have struck you that Joe Biden, the Onion’s Joe Biden, is in every way a Trump voter, right?
Oh, I don’t know about that. I feel like he has a pretty big heart, so I have a hard time believing that he’s in this realm.
I know, but this is the Trump voter, where we in the elite media aren’t supposed to understand the hard-working, hardscrabble former machinists. And these are all guys who we went to high school with, and maybe they don’t hate anyone, but there’s something about Trump’s appeal that speaks to almost every guy exactly like Joe Biden.
Maybe. It’s so hard to divorce myself from what he actually is. But I guess it’s kind of true. You know he would be concerned with new factory jobs and stuff like that.
And political correctness. He definitely doesn’t like political correctness.
It’s a tough one. You don’t want to think it’s true, but you don’t want to think it’s true about relatives you have, too, right?
Yeah. And sometimes relatives inspire parts of Biden, too.
Is there any evidence that actual, real-life Joe Biden knows and acknowledges the character he’s become in your pages?
We did a Reddit Ask Me Anything, and he replied to that on Twitter. I think we replied that Diamond Joe would never drive such a piece-of-shit Chevy. Rumor has it that they have some framed pictures of some of these articles in the office.
Oh my God.
I cannot confirm it, but it makes me very happy to think that. I’ve actually seen a couple articles where he was aware of it. We had a party in D.C. after the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and invited him. It was a party for Joe Biden. And he decided not to come. I think he went to the Vanity Fair party or something.
Of course he did. Because as much as he talks about his Scranton roots, this is what a society swell chooses to do with his free time.
We had an ice sculpture of one of the articles where he jumps a motorcycle over a D.C. memorial, so it was him flashing the devil sign on top of a motorcycle. We got one of the best ice sculptors in the world happened to be free and made that for us, and it looked beautiful.
When he was given the task of solving cancer, did the Onion touch that?
We didn’t. When his son died, we actually held off for about three or four months from doing any Biden articles. He’s had a pretty hard life and some real tragedies. We try to steer clear of that stuff, and if he’s talking about a tragedy in his life, it’s like the cops snagging his weed or something, you know. It’s nothing too serious.
Do you think your Joe Biden will recede into the pages of history?
You’re going to get a pretty heavy dose of Biden in the last week or so. We’ve got a lot of stuff planned. I think some of it will be touching. When they were talking about him as secretary of state for a moment for the Clinton administration, I was like, “Ooh, that could be fun.” But in a way, it might be best just to let him have his eight years, and then he goes off into the sunset.
I’m sure people have asked you how you satirize Trump, who’s his own self-satire. But what do you do with Pence?
Pence has a lot of potential. I think his Christian-right leanings can be pretty fun. I like the fact that Pence just seems like he’s so serious. And there can be fun with that. He seems like he just doesn’t want to have fun or enjoy life whatsoever, so that could be a pretty deep well.
I sense the Onion’s not going to turn Trump goofy. You’re not going to satirize him to the point where the late-night comedians will make him seem slightly stupider than he is. That’s not going to be your tack, because that’s your version of what would be normalizing him, turning him into a regular political boob.
Yeah, and it’s hard to be hyperbolic with someone who just only speaks in hyperbolic statements. What we sort of did over the election was tap into this sadder side. Because it’s going to be two-sided: If he has such low self-esteem, he needs this constant validation and admiration, and that there’s another side to that that is this loneliness. And I think that’s what we kind of got into. He’s tricky. There’s a really fine line if you want to play with the fact that he basically seems mentally ill, and that’s kind of offensive to mental illness and people with mental illness. It’s almost kind of making light of that, so it’s not a punchline.