Making the news up is hard. So the weekly editorial meeting is intense at the Onion, a spoof newspaper based in New York (www.the onion.com).
Someone hands round a list of 124 bogus headlines, all written in the sombre style of the New York Times. After two hours of raucous banter, the list is winnowed to a dozen. At a second meeting, the chosen headlines are fleshed out and writers are assigned to turn them into stories. Recent gems include "Detroit Mayor Throws First Brick in Glass-Breaking Ceremony for New Slum" and "Hero Woman Changes in Front of Open Window."
Even the headlines that were scrapped are not bad. An opinion piece by Barack Obama, for example, is entitled "Should You Ever Feel Despair, Simply Remember How Eloquent I Am."
The real Obama baffles other comedians. David Letterman, a talk-show host, describes him as "cogent, eloquent, and in complete command of the issues" and sighs: "What the hell am I supposed to do with that?"
Anti-Obama jokes on the Internet are pathetic. Most sound bitter rather than witty. For example: "Why did Barack Obama cross the road? Answer: To help the other side."
The writers of the Onion are unencumbered by any obvious party loyalty. To fit in, you have to hate everything around you, muses Joe Randazzo, the editor. Hence the headline that greeted Obama's election victory: "Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job."
The Onion News Network, an online video venture, did a segment entitled "Obama Win Causes Obsessive Supporters to Realize How Empty Their Lives Are." The camera showed pitiful young campaign volunteers lying comatose on a couch or wandering aimlessly through a park.
"Who will take care of these people?" asked the anchor. "We really don't know. Many have already driven away their friends and family with months of endless praise for Obama's latest speech and constant reminders to vote," said the breathless correspondent on the scene. "That does sound annoying," said the anchor.
The Onion lampooned previous presidents, of course. No prizes for guessing who inspired the headline "New President Feels Nation's Pain, Breasts." What sets the Onion apart, however, is that Obama has not blunted its barbs at all. On the contrary, the way more serious journalists fawn over the new president offers an irresistible target.
"Media Having Trouble Finding Right Angle on Obama's Double Homicide," the Onion reported last month. "I know there's a story in there somewhere," said the editor of Newsweek after Obama's "cold-blooded killing of a local couple." The Onion is better at spotting good yarns, which is why, despite the recession, it is prospering. The main threats it faces are that its staff might grow up — or that the earnest papers it parodies may go out of business.