Before Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert became establishments in news satire, there was The Onion. Thursday, "America's Finest News Source" turns 25.
Two college students founded the fake news organization, which began as a newspaper in Madison, Wis. "It really started as something very local that was intended mainly to ... sell pizza coupons," Editor-in-Chief Will Tracy tells Morning Edition host Renee Montagne..
It still has that Midwestern touch, he says.
"We still have a lot of Midwesterners writing for us, and I do think that there is a distinctly Midwestern aesthetic and voice to the paper," Tracy says. "It's sort of an unflashy, flat, unpretentious sort of voice that we have."
Part of that regional bent comes through in The Onion's daily-life humor and its stories about "Area Man" (who Tracy says seems to be a Midwesterner).
"I think that's one of the things that separates us from maybe other fake news outlets is most of what we do, actually, is focusing on the everyday minutiae, more so than what's happening in Washington," he says.
Stories like the one with the headline "Area Man Knows All The Shortcut Keys" is funny "because you know somebody like that," Tracy says, "and it's put in that sort of news voice which elevates it to a certain level of importance that it doesn't actually merit."
The Onion takes on subjects with serious weight, too, making political points. These can be painfully funny stories. Take this headline from 2009: "U.S. Continues Quagmire-Building Effort in Afghanistan."
"You're just replacing one word. You're giving people a headline that they have seen ... and you're just making that one-word switch. And that's kind of the beauty and the kind of simplicity of the formula," Tracy says.
No topics are off limits, either, no matter how uncomfortable they may make some readers. "War, genocide, rape, disease — just the worst things on earth — we have made jokes about all of them," he says.
"What you have to be really careful about is what the target of the joke is," Tracy says. "And if the target of the joke is wrong, if you're targeting the victim or someone who doesn't deserve our ire, then it doesn't feel right and it also doesn't feel funny."
On the business side, The Onion has been struggling along with real news organizations, but it's also made moves to adapt.
"As a company, we were smart in that we focused on digital," says Onion President Mike McAvoy. "We launched video in 2006 with The Onion News Network. And while print has taken a turn and that's no longer a profitable business for us, the rest of the company has thrived."
While the medium is changing, the stream of jokes continues. So will The Onion still be around, making readers laugh 25 years from now?
"There's always a slight looming terror of running out of jokes because we've done so many jokes, and we have this manic insistence on never repeating a joke that we've done," Tracy says.
"But then, we're able to remind ourselves that, oh no, there's still awful people doing awful things every day, so that'll give us more material in reality to draw from."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Before "The Daily Show," before "The Colbert Report," there was "The Onion," offering daily news satire with headlines and stories bridging that tricky gap between really funny and really offensive.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And today, "The Onion" turns 25, an anniversary reached by staying true to the humor of the two college guys who founded it.
MONTAGNE: To learn more about the secret to the success of "America's Finest News Source," we reached "The Onion's" editor-in-chief, Will Tracy, and company president, Mike McAvoy. Good morning.
WILL TRACY: Good morning to you.
MIKE MCAVOY: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Let's go back because this is, you know, it's a big anniversary. I kind of wonder if the two college students who started it would have ever imagined that it would be going in 2013.
TRACY: It really started as something very local that was intended mainly to - what? - sell ...
MCAVOY: Pizza coupons and ...
TRACY: Pizza coupons, yeah.
MCAVOY: ...Sell advertising.
MONTAGNE: Well, it was Madison, Wis. I mean, I'm looking at some front-page headlines from the very earliest days: "Pen Stolen from Dorm Study Area," "Rubik's Cube Solved."
TRACY: We still do stuff like that - you know, like "Rubber Band Needed." We'll still do something that is very, very small, that we make it into - like, it's breaking national news, the biggest above-the-fold news story in the world right now.
MONTAGNE: There are the big stories about world events, but there's the constant stream of small stories, like "Hung-Over Couple Unaware They Broke Up Last Night." There's stuff, you know, that we can all relate to.
TRACY: Right. And I think that's kind of one of the things the separates us from maybe other fake news outlets - is that most of what we do, actually, is focusing on the everyday minutia, more so than what's happening in Washington right now.
MONTAGNE: I'm also wondering if it made a difference that "The Onion" came into its own in the Midwest. I mean, grant you, Madison, Wis., is like a little island of free-spiritedness or progressive politics, but it's still the Midwest. Do you think that made a difference?
TRACY: I mean - I think so. I mean, I came from Portland, Ore., which is a little island of humorlessness. But we still have a lot of Midwesterners writing for us, and I do think that there is a distinctly Midwestern aesthetic and voice to the paper. It's sort of an unflashy, flat, unpretentious sort of voice that I think we have. And I think you can tell, reading "The Onion," that this was not something that came from New York or Los Angeles - I think.
MONTAGNE: Right. I agree with you. And I think part of it is, there's an everyman voice in "The Onion." In fact, there...
MONTAGNE: ...literally is an everyman voice, who seems to be...
TRACY: That's right.
MONTAGNE: ...always doing something with his girlfriend, or his ex-girlfriend, or with his friends.
MCAVOY: The area man.
TRACY: Yeah, the area man seems like a Midwesterner. I think you're supposed to sort of picture a guy from Mundelein, Ill.
MONTAGNE: OK. So just opening up - absolutely a random "Onion" in August of 2003 - this is very typical - is a guy sitting at his desk, and he's at his keyboard. The story is "Area Man Knows All the Shortcut Keys." In a way, what is so funny about that? - but it made me laugh the minute I looked at it.
TRACY: Because you know somebody like that. And it's put in that sort of news voice, which elevates it to a certain level of importance that doesn't actually merit. All of that combines to make it seem funny, and you immediately recognize that and go, oh, yeah. That's perfect.
MONTAGNE: (Laughing) Sorry. I'm pulling myself together, even - because there was more on the page. This is "Genetically Modified Chicken Lays its Own Dipping Sauce."
TRACY: We do a lot of very grotesque food stuff. I think there's sort of a lot of very disgusting meat products and fast food products and factory farmed products that we do jokes about in "The Onion." To me, there's something Midwestern about that as well.
MONTAGNE: One thing about satire is, it's meant to discomfort. But some of the things in "The Onion" are serious goes at making political points. These are painfully funny stories - like a 2009, front-page piece that was headlined "U.S. Continues Quagmire-Building Effort in Afghanistan."
TRACY: You're just replacing one word. I mean, you're giving people a headline; that they have seen that headline, they recognize that headline; and you're just making that one-word switch. And that's kind of the beauty and the - kind of simplicity of the formula.
MONTAGNE: This kind of writing has gotten you in a little bit of trouble over the years. One recent one last spring, "The Onion" took a lot of flak when it did a story on R&B star Chris Brown breaking up with his girlfriend - or former girlfriend - Rihanna, who in real life he had famously beat up a few years ago. He was in your story crying about the break-up, saying she was the woman that he had thought that, you know, one day he would beat to death. Do you ever think you go too far?
TRACY: Yeah - to me, there's no subject that is off-limits. I think that we have made jokes about things much worse than Chris Brown and Rihanna; you know, war, genocide, rape, disease, just the worst things on Earth. We have made jokes about all of them because I think our philosophy is there's no subject matter that is off-limits. What you have to be really careful about is what the target of the joke is. And in that particular example, the target of the joke is Chris Brown. And if the target of the joke is wrong, if you're targeting the victim or someone who doesn't deserve our ire, then it doesn't feel right; and it also doesn't feel funny.
MONTAGNE: Well, I have an example, and I'm looking at a rather yellowed page from three years ago, 2010. The headline in the story is: "Massive Earthquake Reveals Entire Island Civilization Called Haiti."
TRACY: That was actually a headline that I wrote. It's a perfect example of a tragic event that - what is the target of that joke? Who's the bad guy there, the tectonic plates? Like, who is the bad guy in that situation? In the end, it kind of ends up being us and the Western media that is sort of the target in that joke.
MONTAGNE: And, you know, reading it, it is oddly funny, but you feel bad.
TRACY: That's a good place to be. We like to be right in that spot; right there. You kind of feel sick to your stomach, but it's kind of funny.
MONTAGNE: You know, I'd like to put this one to you, Mike McAvoy. I gather that like the rest of print journalism, "The Onion" is struggling a bit now. Is the print version on its way out?
MCAVOY: As a company, we were smart in that we focused on digital. We launched video in 2007 with The Onion News Network. And while, you know, print has, you know, taken a turn, and that's no longer a profitable business for us, the rest of the company has thrived.
TRACY: You know, the thing with the erosion of the print business is that what we're doing, what we're going through, is what other media organizations are going through and what real journalism sources are going through.
MONTAGNE: Well, have you thought of what a headline in "The Onion" might be, 25 years from now?
TRACY: Oh, my God. Even just hearing you say those words, there's always a slight looming terror of running out of jokes because we've done so many jokes, and we have this manic insistence on never repeating a joke that we've done. But then we're able to remind ourselves that, oh, no. There are still awful people doing awful things every day. So that'll give us more material, in reality, to draw from. (Laughing)
MONTAGNE: Will Tracy is the editor-in-chief of "The Onion." Mike McAvoy is the president of the company. "The Onion" turns 25 today, and thank you for joining us.
TRACY: Thank you for having us.
MCAVOY: Thanks for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.