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The Onion has lost its bite

The Onion's lead article, at the time of writing. Credit: The Onion

May 8, 2024 - 11:55am

The comedy landscape has undergone seismic shifts since The Onion‘s inception as a Wisconsin-based print weekly in 1988. Once the vanguard of satirical news on the internet in the late Nineties, the publication fell on hard times in the 2010s when its owners attempted to create an entire media ecosystem in the style of Vice and BuzzFeed (not that those two digital upstarts fared much better). And now The Onion’s latest attempt at a Left-leaning revival — under new CEO Ben Collins, a former “disinformation” reporter with little in the way of a background in satire, and primary financial backer Jeff Lawson — appears to be yet another misaligned understanding of the modern media ecosystem.

Since Collins announced his leading role in the venture in late April — boldly promising to save remaining jobs, let writers “do whatever they want”, and share revenue when feasible — The Onion has exhibited a tilt towards more overtly partisan content. Letting the staff “do whatever they want” has resulted in ham-fisted articles such as “Columbia University Gives Students Option to Finish Classes From Prison” and “White Person Way Too Proud of Using WhatsApp”. This is a marked shift from the universal appeal of its earlier work to content that resonates not just primarily but exclusively with a Left-leaning audience — even when compared to its obvious Obama-era pivot toward an explicitly liberal bias.

To an extent, this approach mirrors the tactics of upstart competitor The Babylon Bee, a Right-wing satirical site that has capitalised on its clear market positioning and disproportionately high Facebook use by Baby Boomers and conservatives to achieve significant revenue growth over the past three years.

The trouble is that the satire market is far more saturated on the Left. The Onion is now competing with a host of television shows, podcasts, and comedians — everything and everyone from Jon Stewart’s second tenure on The Daily Show to Chapo Trap House, Dave Chappelle to Hannah Gadsby  — that already have established followings. By choosing sides, so to speak, The Onion may alienate the most promising part of its potential audience — disaffected Xennial readers desperately seeking a revival of the type of comedy dominant in popular culture before the new millennium.

During the Nineties and early 2000s, The Onion‘s content succeeded because it was characterised by a broader, more universally accessible humour which leveraged everyday absurdities while not being overtly political. In place of predictable, partisan gags, these jokes contained insights about the human condition that could amuse anyone smart enough to get the joke.

Indeed, even as The Onion grew in its early days, it continued to range widely across the comedy and entertainment spectrum. The late-Nineties internet incarnation of the publication brought the golden age of its AV Club, which conducted in-depth interviews with a wide range of artists and creatives, many of whom held heterodox views that today might pigeonhole them into specific political or cultural media outlets.

In 2024, The Onion needs more than just a revival of its creative spirit: it requires a redefinition. The Nineties precedent is informative. What could conceivably work — but might now be impossible considering the ideological leanings of the staff — is a return to the smart, big-tent humour that characterised the publication’s roots.

With no background in comedy but plenty of experience in ideologically-oriented media, Collins clearly believes a segmented audience is the way to go. Yet even safer, liberal-leaning properties such as SNL have recently found room for guests like former cast member Shane Gillis, whose stand-up comedy has reached audiences on both the Right and Left in the years since he was unceremoniously fired from the show for wrongthink. It’s the sort of outside-the-box approach that could save a start-up — which is what The Onion was back in the late Eighties. That’s also why it succeeded beyond its founders’ wildest dreams in the first place.


Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work

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Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
13 days ago

I don’t think it matters if it’s left wing or right wing or centrist, but it has to be funny.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
14 days ago

The only satire magazine worthy of the description was SPY. Now that actual life is a joke and “comedians” just do as they’re told, memes are the only respite from the dirge we slog through every day.

AC Harper
AC Harper
14 days ago

What could conceivably work — but might now be impossible considering the ideological leanings of the staff — is a return to the smart, big-tent humour that characterised the publication’s roots.

But lots of small marquees behind barbed wire, each extolling their own brand of po-faced identity politics, is the new political landscape. Good luck with erecting a tent big enough to cover the whole encampment.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
14 days ago
Reply to  AC Harper

 Good luck with erecting a tent big enough to cover the whole

I’m sure there’s a joke in there somewhere…

Philip Tisdall
Philip Tisdall
14 days ago

This is one of my favorite Onion articles. Note that it if from 1999. I haven’t read them in years.
Loved Ones Recall Local Man’s Cowardly Battle With Cancer (theonion.com)

Fafa Fafa
Fafa Fafa
13 days ago
Reply to  Philip Tisdall
Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
13 days ago
Reply to  Fafa Fafa

My favorite was the headline when Obama won the presidency. “Black man gets nation’s worst job!”

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
14 days ago

Isn’t it dehumanizing to call someone a ‘White person’?

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
13 days ago

Not in the States. It’s often used in a semi-humorous, semi-derogatory way (more derogatory in recent years). I’m British, but even having lived in the US for close to a decade I continue to find the casual linking of skin tone to personalty not only be extremely disconcerting, but also very very boring. On the plus side, I have developed a finely-honed built-in radar to race-baiters and other kinds of woke puritans and avoid them like the plague. As well as all those who have a “Hate has no home here”, “Never Trump”, “Coexist” signs and rainbow flags planted in their yard or stuck on to their car bumper.

One of the things that has struck me since living in the States is how strongly Americans feel about politics. It forms an integral part of their identity and entire grievance industries are built around this. It’s even incorporated into lifestyle and purchasing decisions (like what kind of food you eat and what kind of car you drive). I would even go so far as to say it frames a lot of the way people think, although there are many Americans who do see that politics is merely Hollywood for ugly people and refuse to be drawn into the mental traps of the political dichotomy (unfortunately, these are often the last to be consulted by the media on matters of policy or state, the media preferring to focus on the rantings of the most rabid and vociferous as these generate the most ad-clicks).

This focus on race is just a new political gimmick meant to sweep people into neat little voting demographics. This is why most universities use race to brainwash young people into becoming Democrat voters. Colleges teach a way of thinking that seems wise and worthy to the young and inexperienced, but really is ugly and hollow. It also explains why college students are now protesting in the name of terrorism. Anything to do with ‘Whiteness’ is now stigma and taboo. Israelis (who are ‘white’ or ‘white-adjacent’) are more successful and powerful than Palestinians therefore Palestine can do no wrong and Israel can do no good. This is a form of thinking rooted in ‘intersectionalism’ which creates a hierarchy of oppression called ‘progressive stacking’ whereby the most ‘victimized’ group deserves the most support, regardless of whether the victim is a r*pist, murderer, or terrorist. The problem with this line of thinking is that it is so absolute in its dividing of groups into ‘good’ and ‘evil’, whereby the good are permitted to commit atrocities against the evil ones who are expected to kneel down in passive submission. This also explains why liberals who speak out against woke excesses end up being the ones who get the short end of the stick, much more so than fervent Trump supporters. Conservatives are too stupid to know better (they didn’t go to college), but liberals who go over to the other side are far worse – they have renounced the very foundations of their faith and must be made to pay. They may be allowed to return but only after making a very public and profuse apology.

Sorry for the long post. I obviously have too much time on my hands.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
13 days ago

“The trouble is that the satire market is far more saturated on the Left. The Onion is now competing with a host of television shows, podcasts, and comedians — everything and everyone from Jon Stewart’s second tenure on The Daily Show to Chapo Trap House, Dave Chappelle to Hannah Gadsby”
You forgot ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC, NPR, NYT, WAPO, BBC, CNN, ESPN, Time, Newsweek, Al Jazeera, and on and on. Most all outlets today are nauseatingly and comically leftward.

Fafa Fafa
Fafa Fafa
13 days ago

Life has long caught up to The Onion in bizarreness. “Breaking Barriers: Man Wins Women’s Competition” would have been an Onion article in 1999. Now – what else is new?

Dennis Roberts
Dennis Roberts
13 days ago
Reply to  Fafa Fafa

Would likely be interesting to go back and look at satire from 20 years ago and see what has actually come true.

Studio Largo
Studio Largo
11 days ago
Reply to  Dennis Roberts

Just read the Babylon Bee now and wait a year or two.

Studio Largo
Studio Largo
13 days ago

I used to love the Onion when anybody ridiculous was considered a worthy target. It will be a pleasure to watch the present incarnation die a sorely deserved slow and painful death. Wokies have no place in comedy, given that they HAVE NO f*****g SENSE OF HUMOUR WHATSOEVER.

Catherine Conroy
Catherine Conroy
13 days ago
Reply to  Studio Largo

The conservative Babylon Bee has become the site to go to. They fearlessly and often hilariously attack the woke bullshit. They’ve plenty of material to work with in fact. The Onion are the losers in this, which is a shame as, like you, I used to love them.

Michael McElwee
Michael McElwee
12 days ago
Reply to  Studio Largo

For the Left, humor is in the rearview mirror.

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
13 days ago

I am old enough to remember when The Onion was funny.
Now basically every attempt at humour basically comes out as “Ha ha ha, aren’t those conservative people stupid and regressive”. Given the incredible institutional domination by the progressive left, this feels like “punching down”.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
13 days ago

Why is a R now necessary for Right-wing and an L for Left-wing?
Presumably this follows the identitarian trend of putting a B for Black because they can’t be left out as an identitarian group like the Hispanics/Latinos or Asian-Americans who themselves are simple demographies.. Talk about reverse racism…
The capitalised Right and Left still holds, especially the Left. The Right is always more diffuse – hence the media’s obsession with isolating an alt-Right – but the Left is everything in western culture today.

Steven Carr
Steven Carr
13 days ago

A good Onion headline is ‘Democrats jail somebody for 136 years for paying cheques to a lawyer and calling it legal expenses.’

J Boyd
J Boyd
13 days ago

“Private Eye” also ceased to be funny about 10 years ago when it began to see the world from a consistently Left Liberal viewpoint.
Dave Spart has now started drinking pumpkinseed lattes. has disavowed Marxism and has taken over Lord Gnome’s office.
Nobody warned me that as a consequence of Brexit, PE would become as boring as “Punch” was in its last years.
I would still have voted “Leave” but I could have saved a few quid buying a mag that irritated when it used to amuse.

Chuck de Batz
Chuck de Batz
9 days ago
Reply to  J Boyd

How’s Viz? iirc in the 90s their slogan on the front cover was “not as funny as it used to be (TM)”

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
14 days ago

The Babylon Bee wins the day. Just heard Seth Dillon, the founder, speak at the (CT) Yankee Institute dinner. He was understated, brilliant and very funny.

T Bone
T Bone
13 days ago
Reply to  Cathy Carron

Agree. Seth credits the Onion though.

Ian_S
Ian_S
14 days ago

Anyone dull and conformist enough to believe every last skerrick of Hamas propaganda and that “trans women *are* women”, certainly lacks the wit essential for effective satire.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
13 days ago
Reply to  Ian_S

Your comment puts me mind of the people who recently criticized Jon Stewart on his ‘bothsideism’: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/tv/tv-news/jon-stewart-biden-criticizing-white-house-1235824591/
It’s worrisome when jokes about the president are seen as attacks on Democracy.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
13 days ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

In Stewart’s hey day, he satirized the stupidity of both parties and average people. The best satirists, like Mark Twain, take no prisoners. He has lost his way.

T Bone
T Bone
13 days ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Bothsideisms is my favorite word they use.