Satire Is Hard: Why Most ‘Onion’ Ripoffs Don’t Work

Working as an editor for my college’s satirical newspaper, I learned one unassailable fact: we would never be as funny as The Onion. As proud as I was of the work we produced at that publication - the Kenyon Collegiate, for those Ohio liberal arts college comedy aficionados among you - it never came close to the consistency, scope or focus of America’s Finest News Source. Part of this, of course, is due to a limited talent pool and zero resources. Part of it is due to a blatant aping of their style (a working title for the newspaper was The Kenyon Carrot). Mostly, though, it’s because good satire is just frigging hard.

Yet like any experts in a field, those at The Onion make it look easy. Perhaps that is why so many satirical news publications have sprung up in their wake, not just in the fertile fields of central Ohio, but all over the web. These sites differ in tone, philosophy and, inevitably, quality, and their varying approaches raise some interesting questions about how satire works.

Consider your average Onion story: it runs like clockwork. Whether fanciful or hard-hitting, topical or universal, it operates with precision - a tight headline that neatly establishes the “game” of the article, a sentence of introduction, a number of escalating hits that push the premise as far as possible, and a closing zinger. Onion news stories are unquestionably satirical: they find something absurd or hypocritical and take it to its logical extreme.

Despite this clarity, they still run into that classic pitfall of satire: namely, people taking it seriously. The excellent blog Literally Unbelievable catalogues people on Facebook who are scandalized by Onion stories, and the publication’s Wikipedia page lists numerous instances of people missing the joke.

This phenomenon, of course, is not unique to The Onion. “We get to see a lot of self-righteous anger come out when people are mistaken,” says Sarah Pappalardo of Reductress. “For example, some people believed that the piece ‘8 Sex Positions That Will Blow His Mind And Destroy His Penis’ supported domestic abuse against men - like as some kind of feminist retribution.” Reductress’s Beth Newell adds that “social media and the comments sections of sites have allowed for a ridiculous amount of knee-jerk outrage from people who don’t read carefully.”

It seems that no matter how evident the satirical focus of an article is, someone’s not going to get it. In some cases, however, the misunderstanding goes beyond a few grumps on Twitter. One site that has dealt with more than its share of public confusion is The Daily Currant - the rumor-debunking site lists fourteen cases of Daily Currant articles being mistaken as factual in the past year (for comparison, The Onion had two). Daniel Barkeley, Daily Currant founder, would likely ascribe that to a difference in tone. “In a sense, I think of The Daily Currant as a single-camera version of The Onion,” he says. “It’s more realistic, more character-driven and privileges narrative and plot over one-liners. We write satirical news stories, our competitors write satirical news headlines…We leave the hard-hitting stories about seagulls with diarrhea to the other guys.”

This more realistic approach (and moratorium on diarrhetic seagull content) has produced articles such as “Ted Cruz Leaves The Republican Party,” and “Sarah Palin To Join Al-Jazeera As Host,” which infamously duped The Washington Post. Barkeley says such journalistic confusion has surprised him. “Unlike most sites we specifically label our site as satire. Perhaps an average individual could make such a mistake. But a journalist?…Those incidents did shake my faith in journalism a bit.” He adds that they don’t sweat the misunderstanding. “It doesn’t affect our creative process at all. We do our brand of comedy for those that appreciate it, and don’t worry about the other stuff.”

Some, however, find Daily Currant’s approach to satire irresponsible. LA-based hip-hop writer - and fellow Collegiate alum - Jordan Pedersen recently called them out for their article “House Republicans Schedule Obama Impeachment Hearings.” “I reached out to them recently via their Facebook page…and they actually responded in this incredibly pissy way,” says Pedersen. “Some friends of mine who’ve been similarly incensed by their articles hopped on, and it turned into this puerile flame war, with the Daily Currant basically calling all of us stupid and saying that their articles were ‘subtle’ and ‘only for intelligent readers.’” (Daily Currant subsequently deleted this exchange from their Facebook page.)

Ability to handle criticism aside, what is it about Daily Currant that has frustrated readers? “I think the thing that infuriates me the most about these kinds of stories is that they don’t get traction on the web because people think they’re funny,” says Pedersen. “They get traction because people confuse them for the truth. And that in turn creates an incentive for these kinds of sites to make up stories that people will think are real.

“It’s become this weird thing where the Daily Currant has tricked itself into believing that they’re brilliant satirists because they get a ton of page views, but what their high traffic confirms is actually the fact that they’re such terrible satirists that people can’t even tell they’re making jokes,” he added.

Kyle Scanlan of The Whiskey Journal echoed Pedersen’s sentiment in a conversation about his publication’s view of satire. “I think good satire should be intelligent and absurd, not indistinguishable from real life. Pranking people on the internet doesn’t take any skill. That said, we will laugh at you if you take an article like ‘Utah Found To Be Lame Colorado’ seriously.”

Further muddying the satirical waters is the site National Report. While Daily Currant abdicates responsibility for public confusion, National Report cheerfully admits to courting it. “We play off of societal fears and follow fringe trends,” says founder Allen Montgomery. “We have found that people use news sources not for information but to confirm what they already believed…It is our opinion that if a person is too lazy to check for multiple references (or at least one other source), or think critically about the news they are receiving, and they spread misinformation around as fact, then they are to blame, not us.”

National Report publishes Conservative-tinged articles like “Arkansas Department of Education to Approve Text Book That Defines Gays as New Species,” and, in a particularly audacious metacommentary, “Mainstream Media Falls For George Zimmerman Hoax.” They also engage in more active deception such as recently posting their article “Planned Parenthood Proposes Mobile Abortion Services” under a Pro-life Facebook video. For some, this concentrated spread of misinformation may seem far more nefarious than anything sites like Daily Currant are engaging in. For others, the fact that National Report owns this deception may put them in the clear, and indeed make theirs some of the most cutting satire of all.

Satire, like all humor, is of course somewhat subjective - what delights one person may infuriate another. Any attempt to question the status quo is admirable and necessary, and all these sites have their fans. While it’s worth asking if they’ve used their satirical tools effectively and responsibly, in a sense they’ve succeeded just by being funny. But not as funny as The Onion.

Matt Crowley writes comedy and writes about comedy. Follow him on Twitter.

Satire Is Hard: Why Most ‘Onion’ Ripoffs Don’t Work