On November 4, 2016, with four days to go in the strangest presidential election ever, the New York Times was worrying about comedy. “How to Satirize This Election?” a headline asked. “Even the Onion Is Having Trouble.” As the Onion’s managing editor, Ben Berkley, told the Times, “It’s hard to turn up the volume when the speaker is already blown out and everyone’s ears are already bleeding.”
The Onion, a joke website and arguably the most successful satirical outlet in history, was dealing with the same problem as every other media organization: a campaign that refused to abide by the long-established rules of the game. Traditional news outlets reacted to Donald Trump with institutional indignation, a chorus of disbelief in his electability, and an ambient sense of unreality that still permeates the industry today; meanwhile, comedians faced the difficult task of making fantasy funnier than any of this already was. Political humor is meant to chip away at the false sense of dignity attached to elected office, but Trump did that on his own. He was, it turned out, easy to mock but hard to satirize.
In an era marked by steep mistrust of traditional institutions, the consensus went, fake news was able to say what the real news could not
In this context, it makes sense that the New York Times would take an interest in the Onion’s creative tribulations. The Onion is a miniature media empire in its own right, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, with sister sites like the A.V. Club and ClickHole; it receives an estimated 6.5 million unique monthly visitors; it has spun off an extensive line of books and merchandise, as well as a branded-content division; and it has inspired innumerable lesser imitators. The Onion is also culturally influential in a way that is more difficult to quantify. Because there are no bylines, particularly timely or incisive Onion stories land with a voice-of-a-generation feeling; its longtime standard joke format — those clipped, Associated Press-style headlines — grant it an air of exaggerated authority.
During the George W. Bush years, a lot was said about the newfound importance of comedian-journalists like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but the Onion has been subject to much less scrutiny. Over three decades, it has morphed from a Midwestern student newspaper into a valuable, recognizable brand — one now at the core of a major media conglomerate’s efforts to appeal to young people. Along the way, it has changed the way we interpret the news, but, in so doing, it may have occasioned its own obsolescence. Now, like the legacy media organizations it was founded to ridicule, the Onion is struggling to meet the demands of the world it helped create: one in which satire has never been more ubiquitous or less relevant.
The first issue of the Onion was published on Monday, August 29, 1988, at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. On its front page was a faux-disaster story, “Mendota Monster Mauls Madison.” The two undergrads responsible for this inauspicious start had borrowed $8,000 from somebody’s mother and launched the paper from their dorm room. A probably apocryphal story has it that they were so broke they ate raw-onion sandwiches, but their poverty didn’t last long. By running ads for local businesses, the paper turned a small profit almost immediately — this was a very different era — and in 1989 the founders sold the Onion for about $20,000 to two other 20-somethings: Scott Dikkers and Peter Haise.
At the time, the Onion was a traditional college-humor paper — a Harvard Lampoon-style grab-bag of genres and styles. Then, in 1995, Scott Dikkers relaunched it in the form it more or less remains: a parody newspaper, based on USA Today. The Onion’s intention was to spread beyond the college market — it would soon be distributed in other Midwestern cities — but it also wound up popularizing a novel comedic mode. The fake newspaper article, like a straight face or a raised eyebrow, was a formal cue that shaped the text’s meaning. Scholars of satire call this technique the “innocent eye”: a detached narrator who sees society’s strange and arbitrary customs for what they are. In traditional satire, this might take the form of a foreign visitor or a noble-savage type, as in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or Denis Diderot’s Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage. The Onion’s use of the “newspaper article” as a narrator has the same effect: rendering, in curt, objective detail, the absurdity of an everyday banality (“Area Man Could Eat”) or a hypothetical news event (“Supreme Court Rules Supreme Court Rules”).
One particular innovation, credited to Dikkers, went on to influence the way the Onion still operates: writing the headlines first, then developing stories based on those headlines, rather than the other way around. “It’s almost like a billboard sign on the road,” Dikkers said in 2015 of this approach. “You’ll know immediately what it’s about and you can read more if you want.” The Onion, that is, was written as clickable content before content was clickable. This approach would later be compounded by the disruptive power of the internet. In the beginning, though, the Onion was just following the principles of the inverted pyramid: establishing a newspaper story’s most crucial elements in the lede, with more detailed and less relevant information doled out as the piece continues.
The Onion embraced the inverted pyramid and the conventions of the local paper with the enthusiasm of a devoted mimic, complete with columnists and man-on-the-street interviews. While its obvious ancestor, MAD, stayed true to its comic-book origins even after it morphed into a glossy magazine, the Onion’s rebirth as a newspaper required it to maintain a level of discipline. Rendered in blunt headline form, even a joke as broad and punny as “Jurisprudence Fetishist Gets Off On Technicality” felt like the work of a steady hand.
The Onion quickly had other company in the niche of news satire. In 1996, Comedy Central launched the Daily Show as a “Weekend Update”-style parody of television newscasts. Both the Onion and the Daily Show were born at times of incipient crisis for the industries they ridiculed. The rise of cable news — including CNN’s wall-to-wall coverage of the Gulf War in late 1990 and early 1991, and Fox News’s founding in 1996 — had ushered in a newly fragmented era of media consumption, one that broke up the monopoly of the big-city dailies and the three main television networks. This sudden swath of choices resulted in a lot of news to absorb, but it also prompted consumers to be more selective. With so many voices barking at you all day, it was difficult to know whom to trust, and, for many people, the solution was to trust no one. Faith in the mainstream press began a historic decline that continues to this day. By the middle of the ’90s, both the newspaper report and the evening newscast were already anachronisms.
Of course, another crisis for media was right around the corner. Just as the Onion was finally turning into a newspaper — in 1993, its editors added the A.V. Club, a non-satirical arts-and-culture supplement— readers had developed a new habit: they were posting Onion articles in early internet forums or emailing them to friends, after which the stories spread elsewhere, generally without attribution. This didn’t seem like much of a problem until, in 1996, an Onion article became one of the internet’s first viral hits. “Clinton Deploys Vowels To Bosnia” travelled so widely that it was even read, in its entirety, on the NPR show Car Talk. (A sample line: “The deployment, dubbed Operation Vowel Storm by the State Department, is set for early next week, with the Adriatic port cities of Sjlbvdnzv and Grzny slated to be the first recipients.”) Nobody knew that it originated from a little joke newspaper in Wisconsin, though, and the Onion wasn’t reaping any of the benefits. Like so many publishers before and since, Dikkers had initially resisted moving his paper online, but the unexploited success of “Clinton Deploys Vowels to Bosnia” convinced him otherwise.
“Not the Onion!” we say of the latest stranger-than-fiction news headline — a demonstration of both the 21st century’s surreality and the extent to which satire has become a lens through which to view it
TheOnion.com was an immediate hit. Before cat videos or the idea of the “social web” existed, the Onion stumbled upon an essential truth of the internet, which is that people like to share dumb things with their friends. The Onion’s profile kept rising. Offers poured in: there was an aborted pilot for a parody news show on Fox, a collaboration with MTV, several film options, a bestselling book called Our Dumb Century. The Onion’s online success diverted its original mission, and, slowly, it became what it used to parody: mainstream entertainment. In the guise of satirizing a newspaper, the Onion could aim for virality without ironizing virality itself.
In 1998, when new host Jon Stewart decided to take the Daily Show in a more political direction, Onion editor Ben Karlin became his head writer and eventual executive producer. As Stewart’s audience grew, so did the Onion’s reputation as a farm team of the country’s best political comics. From then on, the stories of the Onion and the Daily Show would be intertwined.
In 2001, to cement its status as a serious media company, the Onion did what serious media companies do: it moved to New York. By now, the paper was being distributed in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Denver, as well as Madison, and its first New York issue was slated to be published on September 11, 2001. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Like a lot of recently arrived New Yorkers, the Onion struggled to make sense of its place in a city in mourning. The editors decided on a direct approach, devoting an entire issue to the attacks. Published on September 26, 2001, it became known as the “Holy Fucking Shit” issue. Although its lead headline was “U.S. Vows To Defeat Whoever It Is We’re At War With,” the standout article remains “Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake.”
The issue was hugely popular, an ambivalent look at a tragedy that had already turned maudlin. It was also a turning point for the Onion, marking the moment at which it went from joke rag to legitimate cultural force: the country’s most honest interpreter of the news. As the decade wore cruelly on, the Onion underwent a shift in tone, away from the blasé dorm-room cynicism of the ’90s toward the more engaged skepticism of the post-9/11 Bush era. “After 19 months of struggle in Iraq, U.S. military officials conceded a loss to Iraqi insurgents Monday,” a typical article read, “but said America can be proud of finishing ‘a very strong second.’”
The Onion shared this strange new role — the nation’s sarcastic conscience — with Jon Stewart. Over time, a term arose for the kind of parody they pioneered: “fake news.” This phrase captured the tension at the heart of the form; it may have been fake, but it was still news, sort of. This was especially true in the case of the Daily Show. As polls consistently showed, for Americans under 35 the Daily Show had become a leading source of not just entertainment but information. Oddly, this fake news was itself nostalgic for an earlier era of news delivery — one that few in the audience were old enough to remember — when the daily paper and the nightly broadcast were the dominant voices of authority. In an era marked by steep mistrust of traditional institutions, the consensus went, fake news was able to say what the real news could not.
This consensus was complicated by the fact that fake news was becoming big business. In 2005, breakout star Stephen Colbert left the Daily Show to start his own program. Where the Onion made fun of USA Today and the Daily Show made fun of network and cable news, the Colbert Report made fun of the new titans of television: conservative pundits like Bill O’Reilly. Colbert was a gifted impersonator, so much so that he was sometimes indistinguishable from his source material. In character, he bloviated about American greatness and harangued his deer-in-headlights guests until they agreed with him. This gave rise to a curious phenomenon: studies indicated that many conservative viewers did not realize that he was making fun of them. Instead, they saw him as one of their own.
This confusion, in which function seems to follow form, is not unique to Colbert. “Not the Onion!” we say of the latest stranger-than-fiction news headline — a demonstration of both the 21st century’s surreality and the extent to which satire has become a lens through which to view it. Meanwhile, the website Literally Unbelievable collects the reactions of credulous Facebook users duped by articles like “42 Million Dead in Bloodiest Black Friday Weekend on Record,” or, more recently, Alan Sugar, the British business magnate and star of the BBC’s version of The Apprentice, wondering why Taylor Swift had gotten a swastika face tattoo. The Onion underestimates our gullibility, while, at the same time, it overestimates our ability to discern the literally unbelievable from the figuratively so. Like those surveys of Colbert’s conservative viewers, Literally Unbelievable serves a purpose, helping Onion readers confirm their sense of themselves as savvy, discerning, and ultimately unaffected by the news one way or another. Those fooled by Onion headlines belong to a unique category: people who are being mocked for not realizing they are being mocked.
By the 2010s, though, the Onion — like every other newspaper — was contending with dwindling readership and declining advertiser interest in its print edition. At its peak in the mid-aughts, it had had a circulation of 500,000 and was distributed in 17 North American cities. By 2013, it was available in three, and had left New York for Chicago as a cost-saving move. That December, it announced that it would cease making a print edition at all.
Although many other papers had folded by then, the Onion’s final print issue (lead headline: “Onion Print Revenues Up 5,000 Percent”) was significant in a way that previous deaths weren’t. While most newspapers established themselves in print and eventually siphoned their resources off to online editions, the internet had, early on, actually cemented the popularity of the Onion’s physical edition. Even in its online-only form, the Onion is more devoted to the inverted pyramid, the trappings of Associated Press style, and the quirks of the small-town newspaper than any actual newspaper. It still publishes horoscopes and editorial cartoons. Without a paper-and-ink edition, this scrupulous fealty to the traditions of newsprint feels quaint. There is, however, an important caveat: the Onion used to incorporate a range of article lengths, but every story is now less than 200 words. The days of an 800-word classic like “National Funk Congress Deadlocked On Get Up/Get Down Issue” are gone. The Onion’s headline-first approach has reached maturation.
By the time the Onion’s print edition folded, the fake newspaper article had become one of the most tired genres of online comedy. There are joke music websites like Metal Sucks and the Hard Times; there are joke ladyblogs like Reductress; and then there is the absolute worst satirical site of all, the Borowitz Report. Even as actual newspapers went out of business, their satirical versions proliferated. As the academic Simon Dentith has pointed out, parody often has this paradoxical effect: it preserves what it lampoons. This is how Don Quixote, a parody of the chivalric romance, came to be seen as the first modern novel. The problem is that fewer and fewer parody-news readers have any relationship with its source material. “The reference point is becoming lost for some people,” the Onion’s current editor-in-chief, Chad Nackers, recently admitted to the Ringer.
In 2014, in an effort to keep up with the times, the Onion launched ClickHole, a parody of BuzzFeed-esque clickbait. ClickHole could do what its parent site couldn’t — satirize virality — and it developed a voice that was, essentially, an online-only update of the Onion’s. It took the recognizable clichés of digital media — the breathless you-won’t-believe-what-happened-next headlines, the millennial nostalgia, the earnest slacktivism, the quizzes and listicles — and juxtaposed them, zero-to-a-hundred style, with the humdrum, the ridiculous, and the awful. In an early piece, “Seven Classic ’90s Toys That Weren’t Fun Anymore After 9/11,” the author writes, of Mr. Bucket, “We could seriously spend a whole afternoon remembering the kooky laughs this little guy gave us and still never erase the stomach-churning memory of United Flight 175 plunging into that second tower.”
Gawker once called ClickHole, accurately, “the only worthwhile website on the entire internet,” but it’s very hard to out-BuzzFeed BuzzFeed. This is true on an obvious level: a monumentally stupid BuzzFeed quiz like “What Is Your Inner Potato?” differs from ClickHole’s “What Is Your Knowledge Of An Egg?” only by a matter of degrees. But the problem goes beyond that. Whether in response to ClickHole, or simply because of its growing sense of legitimacy, BuzzFeed has, Borg-like, absorbed its tormentor’s sly self-awareness. Sometimes this manifests itself in material ways, as when BuzzFeed poached a writer away from ClickHole on the strength of his quiz “Which Hungry Hungry Hippo Are You?” Elsewhere, this shift shows up more subtly. One of ClickHole’s greatest headline gags, “The Time I Spent On A Commercial Whaling Ship Totally Changed My Perspective On The World,” led, upon clicking, to all 200,000-odd words of Moby-Dick. Then, a few months later, BuzzFeed made essentially the same joke when it posted Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach,” unaltered, as an 11-point listicle, with Marx himself bylined as a “BuzzFeed Contributor.”
In January of 2016, Univision Communications, one of the largest private media companies in the country, acquired a controlling stake in Onion Inc. The price tag — something in the range of $200 million for 40 percent of the company — means that the Onion was, in toto, worth significantly more than the Washington Post (bought by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for $250 million) or the Boston Globe (bought by Red Sox owner John W. Henry for $70 million). This deal was widely interpreted as part of Univision’s strategy to court a younger audience. “Comedy is playing an expanding role in our culture as a vehicle for audiences to explore, debate and understand the important ideas of our time,” a Univision executive said in a press release. The note-perfect corporate banality of that statement — people like funny things, says businessman — as well as the optics of the deal — media conglomerate buys joke website — invited obvious analogies to the Onion’s work: “Area Satirical Publication The Onion Sold To Univision (Seriously),” as an NPR headline went.
The Onion’s use of the “newspaper article” as detached narrator has the effect of rendering, in curt, objective detail, society’s strange and arbitrary customs for what they are
Univision’s acquisition of the Onion was quickly followed by another purchase, this time of Gawker Media, which had been bankrupted by a massive defamation lawsuit. Univision paid just $135 million for the company’s seven websites, then promptly shut down Gawker itself. Buying Gawker Media — now called Gizmodo Media Group — was another iteration of Univision’s efforts to reach millennials. Last year, the Onion migrated to Kinja, GMG’s publishing system, and it now joins Deadspin, Jezebel, and other post-Gawker properties as yet another asset in Univison’s digital portfolio. Since the move to Kinja, the Onion even looks like every other GMG vertical. A newspaper that once had an ironic relationship to its material form has become interchangeable with the websites around it. Today, though, the Onion is less a newspaper than a news aggregator. Skimming the Onion’s headlines — “‘The President Can Suck My Big Fat Dick,’ Says Rex Tillerson In Veiled Attack On Trump”; “Furious Meghan Markle Can’t Believe Harry Hasn’t Told Family She’s Black Yet” — gives the reader an idea of the news of the day, viewed in a funhouse mirror.
In 2015, the Onion had launched StarWipe, to satirize outlets like TMZ. Gawker’s reporting style had imitated celebrity tabloids — its tagline was “Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news” — while simultaneously making its readers feel witty and knowing. StarWipe, on the other hand, just seemed to hate celebrities. Its tone was chiefly one of boredom, and it displayed none of the schizoid reverence for its subject matter that Gawker had for gossip or ClickHole has for clickbait. StarWipe was shut down after less than a year; Gawker, of course, was destroyed by a petty revenge plot, fronted by Hulk Hogan and funded by Peter Thiel. Both of these endings were ominous portents. If celebrity gossip was too dumb to be parodied, and if semi-satirical websites could be killed by washed-up ’80s stars and billionaires, what would happen to the media if, God forbid, a celebrity ever became president?
The Onion has proven itself prescient, with a more consistent track record than many political pundits. In 2012, for example, it foresaw the rise of Donald Trump: “After Obama Victory, Shrieking White-Hot Sphere Of Pure Rage Early GOP Front-Runner For 2016.” But once Trump shifted from hypothetical sphere of rage to increasingly viable candidate, the Onion, like other satirical outlets, ran into trouble. During the election, its coverage of conventional politicians like Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz was reliable, because they check familiar boxes: the unprincipled establishment sellout, the creepy religious fanatic. But Trump, both in politics and in personality, defies this sort of easy categorization. “Obama was more of a traditional president as far as his decorum and even his preparation and policy,” Nackers told Politico this week. “He seemed like a pretty organized guy. You leap off of that and so things can be more surreal and absurd when you’re making fun of him. Whereas Trump is kind of starting from this point of already being kind of absurd.”
Satire relies on exaggeration — the space between what actually happened and what might have been, if we lived in a marginally more ridiculous world. Under Trump, though, there is no world more ridiculous than our own. The spectacular chaos emanating from the White House overwhelms both our critical faculties and our ability to make fun of it. The image of Trump painted by outlets like the New York Times is often much more bizarre than anything the Onion could invent. The Donald Trump who retires at 6:30 pm to wander, aimless and ghost-like, around the White House residence; who obsesses over choosing new drapes for the Oval Office; who awakens in the wee hours to stare blankly at his phone — that Donald Trump is very funny. The Onion, however, has largely preached to the choir (“Trump Administration Worried President Burning Through Minority Scapegoats At Unsustainable Rate”), depicting the president as merely dumb or evil. It’s true that Trump is both of those things. But pointing out the obvious doesn’t make for biting critique.
It’s often said, rightly, that Trump is the perfect president for an age in which politics is synonymous with entertainment. Our dominant mode of contemporary satire — the fake news show — should be primed for this era. Although Stewart has retired and Colbert has moved to network television, alumni from those shows are everywhere: Trevor Noah taking the reins at the Daily Show, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal, the Opposition with Jordan Klepper. Like the Onion, however, these shows have had a hard time meeting the challenge that Trump poses. Stewart’s signature trick, widely imitated by his pupils — catching a politician, split-screen, in a moment of hypocrisy — has little impact on a president who will deny what he’s said in the past if it differs from what he says today. In retrospect, this technique looks almost naïve: it presupposes a basic consensus about political norms that no longer exists. Twitter users will often find and retweet a Trump statement from several years earlier that contradicts whatever outrageous position he’s taken most recently. It’s funny, but it’s not like the president himself notices or cares.
In the Trump era, parody-news shows have ossified more and more into feeble pandering. The hashtag activism of John Oliver’s “Make Donald Drumpf Again” sums this up: the belief that, if we avoid using Trump’s name, it will sap him of his power like some kind of reverse Rumpelstiltskin. Unfortunately, the contemporary Onion often falls into the same self-indulgent trap. Like all great satire, its best work makes the reader feel complicit rather than smug (“Obama Gently Guides Michelle’s Hand As She Maneuvers Drone Joystick”). But the Onion has been forced to reckon with the internet’s insatiable appetite. Advertisers constantly demand more and better clicks, and there are not many alternative sources of revenue for online news, satirical or otherwise; though the Onion makes fun of the media, it is subject to the same market forces, since its sense of humor doesn’t extend to its business model. This means that the Onion simply publishes way more stuff than it ever has before — often the kind of material designed for a particular audience of angry, motivated Facebook users. (The Onion’s uneven election coverage reportedly triggered a significant increase in traffic.) The result has been some widely distributed pieces, like “IDF Soldier Recounts Harrowing, Heroic War Story Of Killing Eight-Month-Old Child.” However righteous and well-placed its anger, though, a story like that is designed only to placate. It’s not surprising or uncomfortable, or even very sad.
For a long time, “fake news” almost exclusively referred to news parody of the kind pioneered by the Onion. But since the 2016 election, as political observers tried to make sense of the result, fake news has come to mean something very different. It’s a favorite rallying cry, though its definition has changed over time. For liberals, fake news helped provide an explanation for Donald Trump: if a majority of white women voted for an accused rapist, or if a majority of evangelicals voted for a man of fitful piety, it was only because the internet made them do it. As soon as the mainstream press started using the term, though, Trump turned it against them (keeping track of everything he has called “fake news” is a sport unto itself), and its meaning has only continued to grow more slippery. It refers not just to parody or online misinformation but also to misleading or badly sourced reporting, minor errors in otherwise factual accounts, outright hoaxes, or pretty much anything anyone doesn’t like. In a supposedly partisan time, it has become a cross-partisan epithet. Amid all this, it’s startling to remember that, not long ago, “fake news” was just Jon Stewart mugging for the camera, or an Onion article like “Fuck, Roommates Want To Have Meeting.”
The Onion imitates the news; others imitate parody to make fake news that seems real. One kind of fake news has passed the baton to another
Fake-news sites are typically imagined as Macedonian content farms pumping out pro-Trump clickbait, perhaps with shadowy ties to Russian cyberintelligence; one BuzzFeed analysis indicated that fake-news articles of this kind were, in the last few months of the campaign, shared more widely than articles from the New York Times, the Washington Post, or CNN. What has been less remarked upon is the fact that a number of these sites use the cover of satire — that is, the disguise of Onion-like news parody — as an excuse for what they do. The proprietor of abcnews.com.co, an especially successful fake-news site that spread stories about paid protesters and Muslim supreme court justices, told the Washington Post that he takes pride in his work. “I like getting lumped in with the Onion,” he said. “The stuff I do — I spend more time on it. There’s purpose and meaning behind it. I don’t just write fake news just to write it.” At the same time, he acknowledged deliberately targeting conservative readers because of their gullibility, adding, “I think Trump is in the White House because of me.” Indeed, the entire business model of fake-news sites relies on the articles being taken seriously, going viral, and generating ad clickthroughs. The Onion imitates the news; sites like Hot Global News and Newslo go one step further, imitating parody to make fake news that seems real. One kind of fake news has passed the baton to another.
There are few better exemplars of fake news — and its legitimation — than Alex Jones, the red-faced, hyperventilating titan of InfoWars. While Colbert was starting his career satirizing conservative talk-show hosts, Jones’s singularly maundering monologues were launching the 9/11 truther movement and dozens of other popular false-flag theories. InfoWars is said to receive millions of visitors per month, though the majority of Jones’s income reportedly derives from the male-vitality supplements and other products he hawks on the site (like Wake Up America: Patriot Blend coffee). Jones’s gift for performance made him the perfect hype man for Trump, who famously appeared on his show during the presidential campaign, granting a certain authority to the unintentionally funny InfoWars; this trend continued when, after the election, InfoWars was briefly given White House press credentials. Like satire, InfoWars’s brand of conspiracy theory is crass, entirely made up, and a way to make sense of a complicated, troubling world — a black-mirror reflection of the Onion.
Recently, there have been rumblings of discontent at Onion Inc. Its traffic has fallen considerably since the highs of the 2016 election, and its diminished form under Univision indicates that it’s probably less valuable than it once was. Like all media outlets, the Onion has had difficulty adjusting to Facebook and Twitter’s algorithmic tweaks, which can, without warning, send readership spiralling. (An Onion headline from March: “Report: We Don’t Make Any Money If You Don’t Click The Fucking Link.”) In 2017, the Onion’s editor-in-chief and executive editor both left, reportedly over disagreements with Univision management; this spring, it was revealed that the two former editors were heading a new comedy website funded by Elon Musk, and had poached several other Onion staffers. Then, just a few weeks later, Onion employees joined their GMG colleagues in the Writer’s Guild of America, East. Their announcement was titled “Onion Inc.’s Groveling, Ungrateful Staffers Unionize.”
When we talk about the troubled state of contemporary satire, perhaps we should phrase it less as a fait accompli and more as a challenge: to pioneer different forms, different ways of responding to the world. Satirists have already begun to do this. During the 2016 election, the fictional political commentator Carl Diggler derided data wonks like Nate Silver, sometimes predicting primary results with greater accuracy than actual pollsters. The video producer Vic Berger created a series of surreal, slyly edited works — Ryan Trecartin with more air horns — that turned illuminating moments from the campaign into art. In one, the camera zooms in on an explosion of spittle bursting from the corner of Trump’s mouth. “Under President Trump, here’s what would happen: God is dead,” Trump says. “He is so, so stupid.” Berger’s collages, which use what already exists rather than starting from scratch, can be almost as informative, and often more affecting, than the numbing feedback loop of the day’s news. Experiments in satire like these are disjointed and frenetic — truer to how we consume news today.
Elements within the Onion have started some experiments of their own. Despite its difficulties, ClickHole has picked up some of the slack from its progenitor. It still publishes pieces of various lengths and forms, and it still feels bizarre and idiosyncratic in the way the Onion itself once did. It has also launched two spinoffs of its own: PatriotHole, a funny if occasionally predictable takedown of Breitbart and InfoWars; and ResistanceHole, a more promising venture. ResistanceHole takes aim at the sputtering liberals of the online anti-Trump movement (“Resistance Win! This Artist Was Going To Draw Trump And Putin Kissing, But Was Worried That Seemed Homophobic, So He Had Them Kiss While Thinking About Pamela Anderson”), a demographic that presumably includes at least some of the Onion’s own readership. In the age of fragmented media consumption, the Onion must cover its bases with a ClickHole for both the left and the right.
Beyond the pressures of the internet and the cataclysms of the Trump era, it may be that the Onion’s signature — the fake newspaper article — is, after 30 years, finally starting to wear thin. Since the newspaper article is no longer our preeminent source of information, news parody no longer resonates in the same way. Instead, it’s wallpaper. It predicts the future; it saturates the internet; its onetime pioneers host network talk shows. Satire isn’t dead, and Trump didn’t kill it. What has happened, rather, is that it’s failed to keep pace with what we’ve become.