The Onion, on Stage: The Brilliant News Satirists Skewer TED Talks in a Live Show
There's a sucker born every minute, and apparently a lot of them wind up at foreign news organizations.
By now, most Americans are familiar with the Onion — a fake news outlet founded in 1988 that's full of wickedly funny satire. It was the pioneering frontrunner to the Daily Show, the Colbert Report, and countless fake-news humor sites that have sprung up its wake. But members of the Fourth Estate in countries like Bangladesh, France, Russia, Denmark, and Singapore clearly didn't get the memo and have famously linked to, rewritten, or outright plagiarized Onion stories as fact.
In the lead-up to the presidential election last year, for example, the Onion posted a story with the headline "Gallup Poll: Rural Whites Prefer Ahmadinejad to Obama," which was then republished, with reverence, by Iran's Fars News Agency.
This speaks to the gullibility of foreign reporters but also to the verisimilitude of the Onion's pseudocoverage: If it didn't look like an AP report and sound like an AP report, it wouldn't be taken as one, and the publication's staff has become remarkably astute at simulating journalistic prose.
"One of my favorites was a story about a Chinese woman who gave birth to septuplets and had one week to choose one, because according to Chinese tradition, all but one have to be thrown out," says Scott Dikkers, the Onion's editor in chief, on and off, since its inception. "That was believed not by the Chinese but by a group of American Christians. They set up a prayer website to pray for those babies.
"We also ran a story about how the U.S. Congress was going to leave Washington, D.C., unless the city built them a new Capitol dome with a retractable roof and stadium seating. A major newspaper in China, the Beijing Times, reran that story verbatim, as fact. That's one of the first times that happened, and we realized there was a whole new level here. We're producing this work to entertain our audience here, but when somebody else believes it and runs it as true, that's another level of entertainment not only for us but for our audience."
The trend of Onion stories taken seriously is one of the many topics that will be addressed March 10 at the Parker Playhouse, when Dikkers and a colleague will present "An Evening With the Onion," a lecture tour that satirizes lecture tours while offering a behind-the-scenes look at the Onion's "newsgathering" process. Dikkers sees the tour, whose program is still being ironed out as of this writing, as the latest in a long line of satirical forms the organization has lampooned.
"The Onion newspaper is very much a parody of newspapers, and our first foray into another medium was a comedy CD in the early 1990s," he says. "The next thing that came was the internet in the mid- to late 1990s, a new medium to parody and ply our trade of making fun of the form as well as the message. Then we did a book, which was a new medium, and then TV. We have a long, proud history of forging into these other mediums to continue to expand the sort of things we can do. So our live presentation is kind of a parody of a live talk — like a pretentious, important TED [Technology, Entertainment, and Design] talk."
Back in 1988, Dikkers could not have foreseen the Onion's rise. At the time, it was a 25,000-circulation newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin, produced by a handful of students working for free and living in an off-campus dormitory. "We stayed up all night writing and driving the paste-up boards to the printer at 3 in the morning. It was almost like being in the production of a poorly planned movie, continually, week after week. We had small local advertisers, one of which was busted years later for laundering cocaine money. We got paid in cash a lot in those days for the advertising. It always just seemed like this would either be our last issue or our best issue or both."
The breakthrough, and eventual monetization, of the Onion coincided with the launch of its website in 1996. Almost overnight, comedians, Hollywood tastemakers, and the general public began to take note. "Because we were the first humor website, we started to get a lot of attention," Dikkers says. "We started having an easier time getting national advertisers, which had always been a struggle in the past, because we weren't on the map."
These days, after a movie and an IFC television show that skewered 24-hour cable news — it was one of the funniest shows on TV, so naturally it was canceled before its time — the Onion continues to thrive in its bread and butter of stone-faced news satire, occasionally providing trenchant commentary behind gut-busting headlines.
Today, the website operates out of an expansive floor of a Chicago office building, where the staff of a dozen full-time writers and editors and a larger core of stringers offer videos, opinion columns, and news divided into categories like business, sports, science/tech, entertainment, and "breaking," just like the Huffington Post. TheOnion.com is an embarrassment of riches for the ADD-addled web surfer, a seemingly endless buffet of jokes sharing the same real estate: A recent visit featured an article about Bob Dylan "laying off 2,000 workers from his songwriting factory" above a story headlined "Republicans Reach Out to Women With New 'No Punch Pretty Lady' Bill." This was next to a news clip about a man who panics after "Accidentally 'Liking' 381 of His Ex-Girlfriend's Facebook Photos."
There are even some real headlines on the site, which is confusing until you realize that in a world where CNN has become another infotainment network, the Onion has inevitably become something of a genuine news site.
"The line is getting oddly blurred, with young people saying they get more news from the Daily Show and Colbert and the Onion than they get from so-called legitimate news," Dikkers says. "We relish that and play with that in our presentation and set it up as: If that's the way it is, then we are the new news source. We are the legitimate news source for the world."
We spoke to Dikkers before the February 25 Oscar awards ceremonies — when the Onion became the subject of a very real news story after it tweeted an unfunny joke calling a 9-year-old actress a "cunt." The backlash was strong and immediate, and the Onion issued an apology. Hopefully, that was a rare misstep and the Onion will go back to being bitingly funny and keeping its news fake.
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