By all rights, there shouldn't be such a thing as a "comedy institution." The minute something becomes an institution, it's practically begging for a comedic takedown. (That's why every generation feels compelled to murder Saturday Night Live, only to see it rise from the grave so that another generation may slay it.) But we live in a time with two comedy institutions that are virtually invulnerable, repelling all critics' slings and arrows, shaking off virtually every attempt at parody. Those two institutions? Parody newspaper the Onion and cartoon sitcom The Simpsons.
Everybody likes to slag on The Simpsons—and everyone has a theory about which season represented the death of the show—but as The Simpsons enters its 26th season (!?!), any given episode is still funnier than any Seth MacFarlane animated sneerfest. Characters have continued to evolve and die and be introduced into the world of Springfield, and the show has taken on a vocabulary and a reality of its own.
The Onion has not only survived 9/11, the internet, the 24-hour news cycle, Fox News, and Glenn Beck—it's thrived. Even as the media has transformed into parody, the Onion manages to find another level of parody from which to attack it all. Most recently, they've launched a new site called ClickHole to mock the content clown-car that is BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post, and it's quickly becoming the most underrated comedy site on the internet.
The current writing staff of both The Simpsons and the Onion are appearing on the Words & Ideas Stage at Bumbershoot this year, and they're not-to-be-missed affairs. The writing staff of the newest Simpsons season—J. Stewart Burns, Kevin Curran, Rob LaZebnik, Carolyn Omine, Michael Price, and Jeff Westbrook—will discuss how they keep the jaundiced citizens of Springfield fresh for another season. They might even offer up some secrets from the upcoming Simpsons/Family Guy crossover episode that many comedy fans believe to be the first sign of the apocalypse.
The Onion writers who will be appearing—their names aren't specified, though press materials assure us it's "the core writing staff of the Onion"—will discuss what it's like behind the scenes of one of the most secretive comedy organizations in the nation. You haven't heard these stories before; the only time I can recall the Onion making their backroom process transparent is the funniest segment of the comedy documentary The Aristocrats.
Both of those panels are required viewing, of course, but there's one other comedy panel that's even more intriguing. Local celebrity Ken Jennings (he of the longest Jeopardy! winning streak of all time and one of the funniest Twitter feeds this side of Rob Delaney) will be in conversation with local writer George Meyer (formerly of Late Night with David Letterman and rumored mastermind of the funniest seasons of The Simpsons ever) on the topic of comedy. This is huge: two of the funniest residents of Seattle onstage talking about what's funny and why. Not only are both men hilarious, they're also incredibly smart, and they're both obsessed with the history and science of comedy.
These three panels should be very high on the list of any Seattleite interested in making people laugh—writers, comedians, wiseasses—and if you attend all three, you'll probably leave a much funnier person. Other people go to Bumbershoot to "listen to music" and to "socialize" with "friends" while spending time "outside," but you know the truth: Comedy is born in the dark, slouched away from the sunlight, in weird-smelling rooms full of nerdy people. It's not pretty, but that's okay: Neither are we.