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Cybertainment

Online Onion's Pungent Take on the News

May 21, 1999|ERIKA MILVY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"WASHINGTON--In a measure strongly supported by Republicans and Democrats alike, Congress passed legislation Monday budgeting an additional $540 million for evil for fiscal year 1998-9," begins a news story in a deceptively authentic-looking online news source, the Onion. "The allotment marks the most significant increase in federal evil funding since the approval of a 30% hike in budgetary evil subsidies in November 1996."

The Onion (http://www.theonion.com), which recently won a Webby Award for its wicked humor, presents an alternative universe in which the media have become stricken with a rash of honesty (much like the duplicitous lawyer played by Jim Carrey who is magically compelled to tell the truth in the film "Liar, Liar").

In a society that has become complacent with political prevarication, rampant doublespeak and gibberish in the name of journalism, the Onion is often blissfully blunt. For instance, "Ugly Girl Killed: Nation Unshaken By Not-So-Tragic Death" was one sad but true observation.

Senior editor Robert Siegel believes that part of what makes the Onion's content so funny is "the shock of hearing raw truths actually voiced."

Once a humor newsletter circulated on college campuses, the Onion went on the Web three years ago, and its readership exploded. Now the gaggle of frustrated cartoonists, comics and drop-outs who make up the Onion's editorial staff is expanding its mini-media empire with a book just out, another on the way, a development deal with NBC and plans to conquer radio as well.

The Washington Post has declared: "What the National Lampoon was to the '70s--consistently, brutally hilarious--the Onion may be for the new millennium." But the Onion also adds its two cents to the past millennium as well, in the recently published "Our Dumb Century: 100 Years of Headlines From America's Finest News Source."

With an interface that resembles your daily newspaper's and a tone that mimics the Associated Press, the Onion covers news, politics and lifestyle with an eye toward rollicking absurdism and comical banality. According to Siegel, "A part of the humor is in the tension between what is being said and how it's being said. If you take something you wouldn't normally read in a newspaper, and write it in that hack, deadpan AP style without ever winking, there's a comedic tension, a juxtaposition at work that makes it funny."

An amusing example of this is one headline stating, "President Feels Nation's Pain, Breasts."

A few choice headlines include: "Geopolitical Balance of Power Somehow Unaffected by Death of Princess Diana," "Jesse Jackson Honored for Providing Inner-City Youths With Increased Photo Opportunities," "Mulatto Arrested in Own Hate Crime," "Mother Teresa Sent to Hell in Wacky Afterlife Mix-Up" and "Clinton Deploys Vowels to Bosnia" (a bit of mirth-making that delighted Clinton when told to him at a party by Chevy Chase, according to Onion sources).

Lore has it that the Onion was so named because the founders were so poor they had to eat onion sandwiches. "But," said Editor in Chief Scott Dikkers, 33, "I think it's a good name that they probably put a lot of thought into. It gives you the sense that there's something more pungent here than in regular newspapers, which are easier to swallow with their condescending account of what's supposedly going on. [The real press] packages everything in the most inoffensive way possible. When, in fact, real life is anything but inoffensive."

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