Those masters of satire, The Onion, go video
The Onion Speaks, and Sounds Familiar
By VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN/NY Times
With the anti-hype that is now mandatory for a perfect 2007 Web debut, the Onion News Network appeared online last week discreetly, almost meekly. The site initially featured only three new videos: one about immigration, one about Condoleezza Rice and one about drafting Civil War re-enactors to fight in Iraq. (“They have character histories. They have nicknames for each other.”)
The Onion, the satirical newspaper that started in 1988, considered these Eggo-sized videos its first foray into broadcasting.
The videos, found at theonion.com/content/video , came with little preface. There were no circus colors or bouncing animation to notify viewers about the comedy. Instead, against a backdrop of blue, silver and graveyard black — the frigid palette of lean, hard news — a martial-looking anchorman introduces the first story: an executive (at “Lucent Technologies,” ONN audaciously added) had lost his job to an illegal immigrant.
Alberto Fuentes, we learned, was willing to work for $600,000 a year, where the executive, Raymond Boyle, had been making $840,000 plus 0.5 percent share of the company. Forced to sell his primary residence, Mr. Boyle and his family now live year-round in their Hamptons summer home. The report demonstrated what the stentorian anchor called “the human cost of Mexicans.” He came down heavy on the phrase “human cost.”
You could say that the Onion News Network had a deadpan premiere, then, except deadpan doesn’t do justice to The Onion’s still-radical tone. The whole comedy franchise — which now includes print and online editions of The Onion and its entertainment supplement, The A.V. Club — mixes idioms in such magisterial bartending proportions that the fictional editor, T. Herman Zweibel, should have long ago registered a trademark on the formula.
Certainly no other humor Web site (and, man, are they proliferating) should be allowed to have a box in the left-hand corner showing a schoolteacher-looking blonde under anything like the headline “America’s Deadliest Dangers: The Dangers That Could Kill You Right Now.”
Repetition, obviousness and a depressive’s freedom from fear: these are the hallmarks of The Onion’s humor, which doesn’t strive to be original as much as to exploit clichés with peculiar gusto. Hence Area Man, the hapless hero of the Onion universe, the featureless fellow from around here who still makes headlines after all these years. (Compare the ghostly Area Man to more richly detailed modern clowns, like Austin Powers or Zoolander. He’s immortal.)
Not that the Onion outfit needs protection from imitators. It’s extremely difficult to imitate with any finesse. Go ahead, try: study some old Onion headlines—“Supreme Court Rules: Supreme Court Rules,” “Area Bowl Cashed,” “Alzheimer’s Sufferers Demand a Cure for Pancakes” — and then try your hand. They don’t come easy.
Photographs of the unsleek, inland-dwelling and mostly male clique that, with various cast shifts, has developed the Onion sensibility over 20 years, beginning at the University of Wisconsin , reveal a Midwestern chain gang that seems to know exactly what they’re about. Their history of spurning corporate advances suggests an unfriendliness to newcomers. They also seem immune to the pretensions of coastal living. (Don’t know what a “cashed bowl” is? You should have spent more time in Milwaukee and Madison. It’s pothead jargon.)
The immigration segment, reported by one Jean Anne Whorton, starts and finishes with commercials for Dewar’s, which seems to be the site’s chief means of support. The blended whiskey also has a box ad in the right-hand corner: it’s yellowed, and gently cockeyed, as if on newsprint.
That printlike ad doesn’t flash or squeal “Click me,” but you can, and you get some pro forma rigmaroles about being old enough to drink, and thus to enter the Dewar’s site. (It’s not exactly inviting.) As for the commercials in the segments, they mix Dada, newsreel and the Old West. They’re not hateful, but they’re nothing special either.
Using intrusive advertising for a mainstream liquor company in this decidedly old-fashioned way — not integrating it, just periodically mugging the viewer as if this were TV in 1988 — is, in its way, a big idea. As producers of Web 2.0 sites elsewhere debate the merits of subtle banner advertising versus clearly skippable commercials, taking into account user preferences, this retro style is certainly zigging where others zag.
And it works. The exaggeratedly formal look of the new segments seems to engender more patience with the analogously formal ads. You’re less eager to circumnavigate them than you might be in a more groovy environment.
As usual, The Onion is all about working with clichés and not pretending to superiority over them. To this end, ONN, unlike most humor sites, doesn’t put you in a cheating, samizdat, time-wasting, not-safe-for-work frame of mind. It doesn’t pack its interface with curlicues and hidden passageways and pull-down menus and 101 wacky options to give the user the illusion of interactivity. There are only three videos and an intro, with a neat, spacey screen, so you don’t feel rushed, as if you had no time for ads. Humor is pretty dictatorial, anyway. The bargain here is one that should be familiar. The Onion is going to tell you a joke. In exchange, Dewar’s is going to sell you some Scotch. Got it?
We get it. The other favor ONN grants its viewers is that there’s nothing bawdy in the visuals. You really can watch in a low-wall cubicle, and people might think you’re catching up on a Dutch news broadcast or even some show with someone sitting in for Lou Dobbs. (The “O” in the ONN logo appears deliberately obscured; The Onion is definitely courting confusion, if not outright copyright issues.)
Depending on the acoustics in your open-plan office, however, the sound on ONN might raise eyebrows. It can get strange, as (so far) it’s the collision between the standard-issue visuals and the out-of-step audio that generates the humor. The piece on Ms. Rice previewed a trip to Asia. A spokesman for the State Department explains, grandly, “Rice shall calm her savage hosts with song, and tales of her travels. The emperors of the Orient shall bow low before her.”
This announcement drives home what works about ONN, which will no doubt create something hilarious and viral in the next month or two. (It plans to release two videos a week, and production values are high.)
ONN plays, loud and proud, what you sometimes think you hear in mainstream news. On a typical news day, it’s like an auditory hallucination, that note of contempt, present in phrases like “the human cost” and “area man.” The contempt rings in the booming baritones of spokesmen and anchormen, and in the sneers of correspondents: over-the-top jingoism, xenophobia, snobbism, disgust, dismissiveness.
Or maybe, on an ordinary day, watching Fox News or CNN or listening to NPR, you’re just hearing things. But the Onion News Network folks believe you’re not hearing things. They hear the unspoken dialogue, too. And, to make you feel a little saner, they’ve turned it up.