humor on the web

Thursday, April 4, 2002
5:00 - 7:00 pm

Bartos Theater
MIT Media Lab
20 Ames Street


Humorists 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?


John Aboud and Michael Colton are co-editors of Modern Humorist.
Tim Harrod is a senior writer for The Onion.


MICHAEL COLTON and JOHN ABOUD traced the history of their online magazine Modern Humorist.

"When 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.

They followed that with a parody of the Annual Fall Preview issue of TV Guide which 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.

The legal 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.

"We 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.

The Net 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 customers.

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.

Another site, a parody of the popular search engine "Ask Jeeves" called "Ask 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 again."

TIM HARROD described some stories that have appeared in The Onion and reactions to them.

Pointing 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."

Harrod showed slides of Onion covers and discussed specific stories including:

· Hershey's 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.

· Stephen 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.

· Revolutionary 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.

Harrod explained 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.

"If 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."

"Sometimes 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 taken seriously."

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.

"But 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.'"


QUESTION: How did each of your publications respond to what could be called the narrowing of the American funny bone with the events of September 11?

HARROD: 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.

We gathered 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.

COLTON: 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.

Eventually, 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 than humor.

HARROD: That's a great way to put it, but we did get some jokes in.

QUESTION: 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?

HARROD: 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.

COLTON: 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.

QUESTION: The Onion sometimes predicts real news. What are your experiences on this?

HARROD: 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."

After he died, someone put our story on the wall along with an obit from USA Today that read, "Farley Dead, Called Next Belushi."

Also, because 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."

Well, maybe 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.

QUESTION: What humor sites do you read on a regular basis?

COLTON: 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.

ABOUD: I know Tim and I are both fans of

HARROD: 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.

--Brad Seawell