April 4, 2002
5:00 - 7:00 pm
20 Ames Street
and humor magazines historically have played an important role
in American political and social life, focusing attention on
hypocrisies and inequalities, helping us to take ourselves a
little less seriously, and introducing alternative perspectives
into national debates. The Onion and Modern Humorist
have emerged as two of the most significant humor magazines
on the Web, and they have received heightened attention in the
wake of the contested 2000 election and September 11. In this
forum, we'll explore what aspects of digital media have facilitated
the rapid growth in the visibility and reach of these online
publications. Do these formerly underground publications face
pressure to remain in "good taste" as they reach more
mainstream audiences, and how is this reconciled with their
identity as alternatives to consensus media? How do these publications
define their relationship to the grassroots strands of humor
that circulate across the Internet? Are new forms of humor emerging
as a consequence of the interactive and collaborative potential
of digital media, or do these publications simply build on the
traditions of print humor? How has of the accelerated communications
of the new digital environment affected the consumption of humor?
What might these publications tell us about the shifting relationship
between news and entertainment?
and Michael Colton are co-editors of Modern
Tim Harrod is a senior writer for The
MICHAEL COLTON and JOHN ABOUD traced the history
of their online magazine Modern Humorist.
we started in 1999," Colton said, "Web humor was fake
news." Instead of doing fake news, Colton and Aboud created
a series of Web sites that parodied existing sites. Their first
site was a parody of Talk
magazine , which was on the verge of launching at the time.
Within hours, they said, Talk publisher Miramax was trying
to shut them down.
that with a parody of the Annual Fall Preview issue of TV
reported on the television-industry initiative Working Hard
to Integrate the Television Experience (the acronym is WHITE);
and a parody of New York City's Millennium
Celebration in Times Square that said all partygoers would
be required to get a permit in order to celebrate.
wrangling with Miramax over the Talk parody generated a lot
of media attention, as did the popularity of the other two sites.
The success of these projects taught them, Colton and Aboud
said, that humor and satire were largely absent from the Web
and that there was an audience eager for such material.
started Modern Humorist as a Web site," Colton explained,
"in order to do things that you couldn't do [in other media],"
including the use of hyperlinks, and click-on integration of
sound, text and images.
itself was a rich source of parody, they discovered. Colton
and Aboud showed several examples of what they called "silly
uses of technology" including fake pornographic banner
ads, false search-engine results, an e-commerce site hawking
"cheap babies," and a page purporting to recognize
users by their names and interests, a feature that many real
sites use in an attempt to personalize their interaction with
One of their
most controversial parodies, they said, has been a Name
That Baby page that enables users to browse popular names
and that generates progressively obscene name choices. The site
received angry letters when it was inadvertently linked to a
serious page devoted to child rearing on the Yahoo! Web site.
site, a parody of the popular search engine "Ask Jeeves"
Jeez" incited a cease-and-desist letter from the owners
of "Ask Jeeves," who defended their copyright of the
"Ask" logo. Colton and Aboud said they changed theirs
to read "Asketh," and "never heard from them
TIM HARROD described some stories that have appeared
in The Onion and reactions to them.
out that The Onion began in Madison, Wisconsin in 1988
as a conventional publication, he said, "The Onion
Web page has become so much more prevalent in people's minds,
and such a vast part of our readership comes to us on the Web,
that people have forgotten that we began in print only."
slides of Onion covers and discussed specific stories
Ordered to Pay Obese Americans $135 Billion was inspired
by the big tobacco settlement and included a "smoking-gun"
memo in which it was revealed that Hershey Food Corporation
knowingly targeted children in its advertising, intentionally
spiked its candy with nuts and nougats, and displayed its products
on billboard within sight of school yards.
Hawking Builds Robotic Exoskeleton poked fun at the Nobel-Prize
winning physicist, who learned of the parody and sent an amiable
email message to The Onion. Harrod said he assumed Hawking was
not a regular reader of The Onion; but the Web site had been
seen by someone who notified Hawking about this story.
New Insoles Combine Five Forms of Pseudoscience parodied
a real sneaker ad, and described an insole developed through
the use of magnets, reflexology, biorhythms, crystals and Terranometry.
that in its pre-Internet life, when The Onion was distributed
as a publication in a number of cities, readership numbered
perhaps 100,000; today millions read The Onion online.
you have something to say," Harrod remarked, "the
Internet can help you get it to every corner of the world. But
one of the things about having a high profile on the Internet
is that there are these idiots who take your work seriously,
who mistake The Onion for real news."
it's okay," Harrod said, recalling a story about an entrepreneur
with thousands of unsold urinal cakes containing a picture of
Osama Bin Laden. The Onion received mail from people
who wanted to buy this item. "It was plausible enough,"
Harrod said of the story. "You can see how some jokes are
As a writer,
Harrod said he tries to avoid that kind of confusion by going
"over the top" with the joke, exaggerating excessively
so that it is clear the story is not meant seriously.
no matter how you try," he said, "walking around somewhere
in the world are people who read a headline that says, "Christ
Converts to Islam," and ask themselves, 'I wonder if
that is really true.'"
How did each of your publications respond to what could be called
the narrowing of the American funny bone with the events of
A lot of readers credited us for taking a week off as though
it was compassionate, but our offices were located in a war
zone, in a war-torn part of Manhattan. It was impossible to
get to work for several days. That's the main reason we didn't
publish the week after September 11.
again on Monday and talked very carefully and with great feeling
about what we should do. We put a special amount of work into
that next issue. Our special report was headlined "Holy
Fucking Shit, Attack on America ," which some readers
might dismiss as too flip, but that was what we came up with
to express the core American feeling in the first days after
the attacks. There were very few actual jokes in that issue,
as we retreated into a form of commentary.
John and I were in L.A. pitching comedy that week. Our offices
are in Brooklyn with a view of lower Manhattan. We didn't post
anything for ten days. We couldn't get back to New York, and
there were accessibility problems with our server.
we gingerly approached doing humor on the subject. We collected
a lot of what we have done on our Comedy
Under Siege pages. There is very little making fun directly
of Osama. That's like making fun of Hitler in 1941.You can make
fun of Hitler now, but not then. Our first issue was more catharsis
That's a great way to put it, but we did get some jokes in.
How have you as online publications been influenced by earlier
print publications such as MAD or National Lampoon,
and how does your online material differ?
First of all, The Onion is much less an electronic creation.
We are a print creation with a presence on the Web, unlike Modern
Humorist that really gets into using the emerging media of the
Internet and exploits it elegantly.
To the question
of influence, I was reading National Lampoon when I was
10-years-old. I think if you asked the writers at The Onion,
they'd say National Lampoon was the major influence,
but we all read MAD too.
We know people reading us online aren't going to spend hours
going over content. We envision readers who spend about five
minutes per day in our site, probably from work. So we want
short items. We draw on a lot of our online content to produce
books and our stage show. So we often use the Web to launch
into other media.
The Onion sometimes predicts real news. What are your
experiences on this?
Back in Madison, we had a wall where we would post our headlines
with their real-life counterparts from the serious news. We
did a story with the headline, "Chris Farley Has Hilarious
Cardiac Arrest" about six to eight weeks before his death.
This was touchy, because he was a native of Madison. There's
a street there named after his grandfather. The final quote
was, "This guy's the next Belushi."
died, someone put our story on the wall along with an obit from
USA Today that read, "Farley Dead, Called Next Belushi."
we come out on Wednesdays, we knew we wouldn't be able to cover
the Tuesday presidential election in 2000. So Rob Siegel came
up with a clever solution. Noticing that both candidates had
drifted to the middle, Rob wrote the headline, "Bush or
Gore Win Election."
some of you remember the election. We went to bed not knowing
whom our president was, and woke up not knowing, and it took
five weeks to find out. We got a lot of email asking, "How'd
you know?" That's a classic example of Onion prophecy.
What humor sites do you read on a regular basis?
Those humor sites that existed as businesses have decreased.
Every Wednesday morning, we obviously read The Onion.
Occasionally, I read McSweeney's
. It's a literary magazine, and the online component is often
more humorous than the print version, but it's almost all text
and sometimes too much to read online. Also, there is a lot
of crossover between our writers and McSweeney's writers,
so I try to keep up.
I know Tim and I are both fans of seanbaby.com.
That's right, I was just about to mention that. This is one
of the funniest personal Web pages I think I have ever read.
He's a Gen-Xer with time on his hands, a good designer and a
talented writer. He does very ironic, detached deconstructions
of Gen-X things like the Superfriends cartoon show. He shows
no mercy. . . . He gets a lot done on his Web site. I can spend
hours on that site.