The genius of America’s finest news source lies not in its content, but in its form.After the horrific Orlando shootings, which left 50 dead, my Facebook feed was filled with posts about the massacre. This was hardly a time for levity, but many of the posts linked to a humor website. Not just any website, though: the links were pointing to the famous satirical news site, The Onion. Several articles on The Onion’s homepage addressed the shootings, and the inability of the US to do anything about such attacks because of the government’s shameful capitulation to the gun lobby. “Frustrated Nation Out Of Ideas To Solve Gun Violence Problem Except For All The Obvious Ones”, reads one headline; “Tearful Gun Manufacturers Thankful They All Made it Out of the Massacre Safely”, reads another. There’s even a mock op-ed written by an AR-15 assault rifle: “It’s an Honor to Continue Being Valued Over Countless Human Lives”.
But perhaps the most cutting Onion headline shared on my Facebook feed was a more generic one, which Onion staffers had written back in 2014: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens”. The short article that follows the headline is essentially a series of variations on this core joke, a common formula with Onion articles. But people generally don’t read The Onion for its full articles; it’s the famously witty headlines that draw people to the site.
Elsewhere, I’ve complained about the limited bite of political satire in the United States, in the form of popular shows like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show. In some sense, The Onion has the same nebulous political centre of gravity: vaguely left-leaning, but hardly a stalwart of radical progressivism (it supported US military intervention in Syria, for instance). One writer, Emmett Rensin, has suggested that “The Onion has become America’s finest Marxist news source,” but this seems like a bit of a stretch. The genius of The Onion lies not in its content, but in its form. The satire is so sharp because of its pitch-perfect imitation, and subsequent subversion, of media forms old and new. Its mastery of parodic headlines is just one manifestation of this.
I’ve complained about the limited bite of political satire in the United States, in the form of popular shows like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show. In some sense, The Onion has the same nebulous political centre of gravity: vaguely left-leaning, but hardly a stalwart of radical progressivism (it supported US military intervention in Syria, for instance).
For a publication that contains so much topical humour and that skilfully skewers the latest technologies and trends, The Onion has had surprising longevity. It was founded in 1988 as a humorous college newspaper, and it first found its success in college campuses across the American Midwest. Its first big transformation came with the (relatively) early days of the internet—The Onion launched its website in 1996, after its editors realised that unattributed Onion articles were becoming wildly popular on various Internet forums and mailing lists. The website brought them into the national limelight, though it had little effect on the content of the publication: its main draw was still its remarkably clever headlines, which mimicked the standard Associated Press journalistic style, but revelled in the unexpected and the absurd. (A typical early headline: “Clinton Deploys Vowels to Bosnia.”)
The Onion moved to New York in 2001 and began to expand its media presence, even signing a tentative deal with Miramax films, though this later fell through. The Onion eventually found success, not through tie-ups with big studios, but by producing its own video content. This began in 2006, with the launch of The Onion’s YouTube channel, and continued in 2007, when the publication launched the Onion News Network (ONN), a spot-on parody of 24-hour cable news channels.
I remember being sceptical when The Onion started producing video content. The publication had found its niche with brilliant headlines; would it be really be able to scale up the humour and translate it to such a different form? Luckily, my scepticism was misplaced. ONN has produced a series of intensely funny shows. Again, the humour derived from the mastery of the form, the sharp satirisation of the vapidity of American news, and the larger cultural rot that this suggests.
I remember being sceptical when The Onion started producing video content. The publication had found its niche with brilliant headlines; would it be really be able to scale up the humour and translate it to such a different form?
In fact, ONN is often most successful not when making direct political points, but when it veers off into the absurd. This detours can be political too, but in a more subtle way; the absurdity points to the hollowness of present-day American pop culture and the shallowness of most American political discourse.
This is perhaps best exemplified by a segment called In the Know, which features a panel discussion of media pundits taking on the pressing political issues of the day. A sampling of these issues indicates the segment’s surreal comic sensibility: “Are America’s Rich Falling Behind the Super-rich?”; “Should Animals be doing more for the Animal Rights Movement?”; “Are Violent Video Games Adequately Preparing Children for the Apocalypse”? The segment also highlights one of ONN’s many strengths—its uncanny ability to find actors who perfectly fit the role of media hacks, and who are able to deliver increasingly insane lines with gravitas and self-seriousness.
If In the Know purports to take on serious political issues, another segment, Today Now! sends up the forced levity of morning talk shows. The segment is often surprising dark (one episode is called “How to Channel Your Road Rage into Cold, Calculating Road Revenge”), and that’s largely the point: the hosts can only speak in the language of superficial smiles and chipper banality, even when discussing the most disturbing issues.
The segment is often surprising dark (one episode is called “How to Channel Your Road Rage into Cold, Calculating Road Revenge”), and that’s largely the point: the hosts can only speak in the language of superficial smiles and chipper banality, even when discussing the most disturbing issues.
This style is brought to its logical extreme in a Today Now! spin-off called Porkin’ Across America, which features one of the morning show hosts traveling the country to sample various pork dishes. As the episodes proceed, though, the host’s cheery facade starts to break down, as he slowly reveals that his marriage is falling apart. To this day, I can’t bring myself to watch the entire series, so cutting is its cringe-inducing dark humour.
And this is just scratching the surface of The Onion’s comic riches. I haven’t even had the chance to discuss its brilliant TED Talk parodies, nor—a more significant lacuna—the website ClickHole, a parody of clickbait sites like Buzzfeed, which manages to skewer the inanity of viral sensations while becoming a viral sensation itself. Suffice it to say, The Onion has succeeded in keeping up with the times, while honing a sensibility that reflects the peculiar pathologies of American culture and brings some comic relief even in the darkest times.