The Truth About Seattle’s Real Fake News – The Needling
The Needling is a satirical news-site that bills itself as “Seattle’s only real fake news.” Since its creation just over three years ago, comparisons have been drawn to The Onion, and Almost Live!, which was Seattle’s answer to Saturday Night Live back in the day. The Needling boasts a follower count of nearly 50,000 on Instagram alone.
Lex Vaughn is founder and editor of the Needling, as well as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has written for the Seattle Times and other high-profile newspapers.
I sat down with Lex to discuss our mutual love of comedy, and how one goes from writing hard news to writing hilarious jokes. We began by addressing the comparisons to those celebrated humor institutions.
Dan: How do you feel about that?
Lex: Well, we're very inspired by The Onion.
Dan: Do you remember Almost Live? Or did you ever catch that in reruns?
Lex: It is the highest compliment we can get here.
Dan: Have other people brought that up?
Lex: Yes. It really is nice. When you see in the comments that it's almost like its back.
Dan: If Almost Live had a Twitter account, it would be The Needling.
Lex: Yeah, that's very cool.
Who Is Lex Vaughn?
Dan: Your real name is Lex Vaughn? I thought it was a fake name. I thought, "that's the perfect name for someone that's writing fake news."
Lex: Well, yeah, Lex has got that villain (thing) going for it.
Dan: After researching you, I'm much more intimidated than when I asked you for an interview. Because you don't just write parody news. You've written for the Seattle Times, the LA Times… You've been published in the New York Times, in The Washington Post. Writing about business, politics, and incarceration. And I have to believe that, once in a while, those overlap.
Lex: Yeah. Yeah.
Dan: And you've won a Pulitzer!
Lex: Yeah, I have one of those. At the Seattle Times I led some breaking news coverage, about the Oso mudslide, that won a Pulitzer. It's a very weird award to win. Because it's like, when we got that news, you know, for me, it was just kind of a solemn thing. It's like, okay, well, I did my job, right? Thank you for the acknowledgement. But then everyone else I knew was celebrating. For me, personally… I was there. I saw things that were not great.
Dan: The acknowledgement is something to celebrate, but yeah, it's definitely a weird, bittersweet thing.
Comedy Looks Easy, But It's Hard
Dan: Are you still doing serious journalism?
Lex: No, I haven't done that in a while. I do put a significant amount of time into The Needling. I know it's comedy. It's entertainment. But it's actually very difficult and intensive to do. I almost feel scared to admit that to people.
Dan: Because good comedy is smart. And your comedy is smart. I mean, besides the ideas, which are important, it's that perfect phrasing. Jerry Seinfeld will whittle something down to just the right words, no extra words.
Lex: I'm a big fan of comedy podcasts. And it's been really educational to listen to some of my favorite comedians talk about what they do to get their craft really good. Even the funniest people you can think of work on that a lot. What I realized is a lot of my favorite stand-up comics are actually good writers first. Jerry Seinfeld puts a lot of work into writing first. And same thing with one of my most recent favorites that I want to put out there in case you haven't heard of her: Taylor Tomlinson.
Dan: I’ve interviewed her! I think her current special Look at You could boost her profile, x10.
Lex: She's got two hour long Netflix specials, before she's even 30. She's incredibly funny, at a really young age. And she's kind of a writerly person.
Dan: Just doing personality radio, I've studied comics. It's very similar, because you don't want to get up there and read your jokes. You have to perform it. But I do write everything down ahead of time. And if I think I have a punchline for something, I'll make a note of it, because you'll forget later.
Lex: Oh, yeah, definitely. I think it's helpful to study the comics, for sure. We also do a monthly "real fake newsroom" workshop. People want to learn how to write satire. And one of the biggest things I teach in that workshop, right from the top, is a certain kind of humility. Because if you really want to do this, and work on being good at it, you kind of have to not get too attached to anything you come up with, right? You have to be willing to come up with a lot of ideas. And then… without a lot of personal attachment… see what resonates most with people. And just go with what worked, and throw out the rest. Don't think about it too much.
Dan: "People" being… The people in the writers room.
Lex: Yeah. I mean, we have regular contributors. And then some people just like, you know, one offs, because we have a lot of followers now.
How to Build a Comedy Brand
Dan: How long has The Needling been active?
Lex: A little over three years now.
Dan: It just came to my attention this year. And I'm like, where have you been? Because I grew up in Spokane. I'm in the Tri-Cities now. I lived in Seattle for 16 years. So I totally get everything. I just think it's fantastic. It tickles me. It's good stuff!
Lex: It's good to just kind of let it grow by word of mouth, you know? We haven't done any big advertising campaigns or anything like that. We definitely need more Patreon supporters. So it's not like a full time job or anything. I just figure if the content is funny, and it's good, it's gonna get shared widely.
Dan: Do you have a quota of articles that you're shooting for?
Lex: No. Our quota as a publication is that we publish about five times a week, usually during the weekday, because I figure people need Comic Relief toward the end of the work day. That's when people most want it. So that's our goal. Because you need to want to do this. If you don't want to do it, there's nothing I'm gonna' be able to do to make you do it. We're not a company. I don't have grant funding or anything. This isn't a job. You're not getting your health care from me. I can't make you do anything. So people really do it for the joy of it. And the connection that they get with our community. It really is kind of a cool community of people who follow us. And part of the fun is just the comment section, too. Because people get really witty there.
Dan: Are you on Tik Tok?
Lex: Not yet. That's a whole other thing. I think our strength right now definitely is our writing. And that's actually a really cool thing. We live in an age where I think everyone's like, "people have short attention spans, they don't really read things anymore." Well, there are definitely people reading our articles, not just the headline. People read the full articles, because we deliver some pretty good punch lines in there. And if you don't read the article, you're missing out.
Dan: You definitely stop the scroll, as they say, with your headlines.
Repressing the Laughter
Dan: Were you holding back this person, this comedic person when you were writing for serious newspapers?
Lex: I think part of what happens is… when you're in traditional journalism, you're at least ideally supposed to be this completely objective reporter who doesn't have any of their personal opinions or bias… which means that you're repressing that a lot, you know, and my imagination would kind of go wild a little bit, with what I really thought of some people, you know, some of their statements or whatever. And I think that my imagination was a little bit of my outlet for that.
Headlines and Punchlines
Dan: There are some stories that are just absurd. They're not really based on actual news events. Like the couple giving up their firstborn to the Fremont Troll, in exchange for Hamilton tickets.
Lex: Yeah, yeah, that was a really good one. I actually heard from a certain source that the lead producers of that play on Broadway found out about our piece. And so it's just really fun to see how far some of our pieces go. They have a little life of their own. It's really fun.
Dan: That's how you know it's good. I mean, that's the whole point of social media, when it gets shared like that.
Dan: You have national headlines. "Florida bans LGBTQ from the alphabet." That's very funny and topical. And Senator Patty Murray was involved with the whole "do we stay on Daylight Savings Time or get rid of it?" And you have her embezzling an extra hour of sunshine.
The Secret Mission of Satire
Lex: I think part of the goal might be too idealistic. With this website, I want people to care about local news. I think it's really important to care about what's happening right where you live. You have the most power right where you live. Your vote for mayor, for a congress person, is more powerful. So it's a little bit nerdy on my behalf.
Dan: Yeah. You can live, and exist, and just be distracted by entertainment or whatever… Or you can get involved. And if you want things to change, you have to get involved.
Lex: Yeah. And you know, even during the Trump administration, which I was not a fan of, there were things to focus on here in our own backyard. But I don't want anyone to get too cynical, which might be unexpected from somebody who writes a lot of satire that is dark and everything. I actually don't like giving into cynicism. I still want to inspire people to think, and do, and just try to make the world a little bit better.
If you would like to help Lex Vaughn make the world a little bit better - and funnier - you can support The Needling on Patreon. And if you're feeling funny, you can submit headline ideas to The Needling here. But if you wish you were more funny, you can sign up for The Needling's class on writing satire. Whatever you do, keep reading The Needling for sharp, local comedy.
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