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The Onion Loses Sight Of What Satire Really Is

Let’s talk about the way The Onion isn’t doing satire the right way anymore.

That’s an awfully blunt way to start this blog post off, but sometimes you have to be blunt with these things. Some people don’t get it if you’re not being blunt, and I get the impression that the folks over at The Onion right now might be some of those people. Frankly, they’ve lost sight of what satire is. Last night, this abominable thing appeared on Twitter:

Of course, this was not received well because it’s entirely uncalled for – who says that about a nine-year-old child? – and the tweet was deleted. CEO Steve Hannah issued an apology to both Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I imagine that whoever sent that tweet doesn’t have a job anymore. (At least I hope so.) A beautiful commentary on the tweet appeared on Tumblr last night. I reblogged it because I think everyone ought to read it.

This is not satire. This is the exact opposite of satire. This is saying things for pure shock value.

The Onion had a perfect opportunity for satire last night. When Seth MacFarlane made that horrible joke about Wallis being old enough for George Clooney sixteen years from now, essentially turning a nine-year-old into a sex object, the obvious joke to make would have been something along the lines of, “I’m Chris Hansen with Dateline NBC. Why don’t you have a seat over there, Mr. MacFarlane? I have the chat logs.” They completely blew it, however, and instead perpetuated the sexist, pedophilic humor by writing that tweet. Somewhere up in Comedian Heaven, more than a few people facepalmed.

Let’s talk a little bit about what satire’s supposed to be. In that post I reblogged on Tumblr last night, note-a-bear defined satire as such:

Satire, for the record, is not merely replication of vile realities with a change in the tone of your voice (or just your name to give the appearance of humorous intent). It is actually a rhetorical construction, it serves a purpose beyond an easy (and most certainly beyond merely crude or crass) laugh. Satire is an effort to expose the inherent hypocrisy and/or harmfulness of some system of power.

This is an excellent definition of satire. Satire doesn’t simply ‘say’ things. Satire goes beyond that. The proper way to write satire is to make it look almost like you’re taking it seriously, but make sure that there’s a facetious element to it. If we look at, say, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s shows, they’ve got this down pat. They report news ‘stories’ and produce ‘editorials’ that are done with mock gravity and seriousness, and yet the way they expose things for what they are is what makes it so funny. Their stories make a point, which is what satire is all about.

Satire has its roots in Greco-Roman writing, but it’s come and gone various times over the course of human history. It popped up in the early 1700s at one point, more or less hanging around until the mid-1800s when it was thought to be not gentle enough and so it faded into the background. The satire that appeared for the rest of the century was lighter (see Gilbert and Sullivan, for example), but it didn’t exactly make any blatant attacks. It remained that way until the early 1960s, when two of my biggest comedy heroes comprised half the cast of Beyond the Fringe. Satire became the cool thing to do for a while, then again faded out – it had been a fad. As culture shifted and more and more targets became  acceptable, satire came back into vogue, and it holds a fairly strong place in today’s comedic culture.

There’s a reason that I have a picture of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore on my bedroom wall (and have since 2007). Peter and Dudley, the two aforementioned cast members of Beyond the Fringe that I adore to death, knew how satire worked. Peter helped rescue and fund Private Eye, the UK’s equivalent to The Onion, and wrote articles for it on a somewhat regular basis. He also impersonated Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to his face. However, it’s important to note that the two men were fully aware that Derek and Clive, the drunk recordings they released later, were not satire at all – that was shock value humor, and they knew it. Of course, that shock value humor influenced a ton of people – possibly even Seth MacFarlane and his team of writers. Depressingly, people weren’t picking up on their very intelligent earlier work.

The Onion was founded in 1988, and it for the most part has succeeded in its role as a satirical mouthpiece. There are even cases of it being taken seriously, which I find hilarious. (Literally Unbelievable chronicles many of these incidents.) To this day, it still seems to hit the nail on the head when it comes to political articles, but when it comes to pop culture, it’s declined steadily over the past few years. The writers are going for shock value and trying to get people to click on things. They’ve bought into social media’s need for pageviews and hits, so their stories are becoming less satirical and more stupid. The Onion is becoming a source for people who like low comedy, and those of us who enjoy satire are becoming disillusioned and angry.

I used to want to write for The Onion. I’m not so sure I want to anymore. The people there have lost sight of what satire truly is, and it’s just not the same. We don’t need to use shock value to be funny. Not everyone needs to swear or make dirty jokes. We can be funny without that. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize that, and especially unfortunately, many of them seem to be currently working at The Onion.

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