What Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show does for television, the Onion (www.theonion.com) achieves online, and in its weekly print newspaper and radio show. The Onion satirizes the news.
Slate, Huffington Post and Salon are known for dishing out opinion, but The Internet has come up short in providing humor. Many sites are serious, earnest, and focused on news, not laughs, which is what The Onion specializes in.
The Onion’s web site lampoons the news, politicians, celebrities, athletes, and global companies. It takes news stories and turns them upside down and inside out to reveal the truth that most newspapers can’t quite reveal because they play it straight and relish balance. Just as Mark Twain used satire to make fun of slavery in Huck Finn, the Onion’s mocking tone reveals an often serious purpose.
But Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for TV & Popular Culture, sees major differences between the Onion and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. “They share the same satirical territory but The Onion satirizes newspapers while the others satirize TV news,” he said. The Onion fabricates stories while the TV satirists use actual news as their starting point without fabrications.
For example, satirizing the drug cartels that have wreaked havoc on Mexico, an Onion story “Mexico Killed in Drug Deal” reported that 111 million Mexicans were caught in the crossfire of a drug war. Tourist Alan Curtis heard gunshots, hid in an alley, and when he returned to the street he found 8 million dead citizens. As Thompson suggests, that tourist was invented to make a point. Though the article exaggerates, it reveals the truth about how the drug cartels have perverted law and order in Mexico.
Since so many people can’t figure out if the stimulus program is working and what’s going on economically, a September 2010 Onion story “Something about Tax Cuts or Earnings or Money or Something in Recent Economic News” captures the country’s confusion. The article noted that “Experts have become increasingly concerned over a new extension on rates or compromise that could signal fewer investments and dollars and so on.” Its humor has its finger on the pulse of what the country is thinking and feeling.
The Onion is neither liberal nor conservative and functions as an equal opportunity offender. It has satirized President Obama, George W. Bush, Gillette’s 3-pronged razorblade (why not four or eight?), and even the famed New York Yankees. Indeed its editor Joe Randazzo has noted The Onion doesn’t specialize in reporting the news but instead, “We make news. That’s why we’re the best at it.”
One article said, “The New York Yankees just acquired every major leaguer owned by the 29 other teams,” making fun of Yankees’ massive financial resources. Another Onion story, “Obama Set to Release 200,000 Men from U.S. Strategic Bachelor Review,” mocked our penchant for reality shows and the country’s policy of releasing oil reserves.
Its entertainment news is equally barbed. A recent article on the Rocky Horror Show cult noted that its baby boomer audience is too tired to put on their boas and wigs and appear at midnight shows anymore.
The Onion originated as a weekly newspaper in 1998 in Madison, Wisconsin. After outgrowing Madison, it moved its editorial office to New York in 2001 and its business office to Chicago. Its satirical wit quickly struck a chord, attracting nearly 700,000 readers. In 1998, it launched online and easily wooed readers. More than three million individual visitors read the Onion online weekly and 60% of its audience is aged 18 to 44 years old.
The Onion is organized into Home, Video, Sports, Politics, the World, Economy, Sci-Tech, Entertainment and Opinion. Some its noteworthy sections include:
In addition to its online and print presence, the Onion is exploring new territory. The Los Angeles Times reported in September 2010 that it was developing a satirical TV series with Viacom cable network. Expect to see more of The Onion on TV in the future, directly competing with the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
Gary M. Stern is a freelance writer based in New York City.