The Onion® (“America’s Finest News Source”) has been betrayed. Yes, a controlling stake in my favourite satirical publication has been sold for trinkets and moolah to Univision, parent company of the U.S.’s leading Spanish broadcast TV channel, and that is not funny. I mean, it’s funny if they thought it was a cooking show and they hastily handed it back tomorrow morning, but otherwise not.
Will it now be called La Cebolla? See, it’s not funny in Spanish. Or is it?
I love The Onion, to the point where — and those of you reading this for free can faint here — I pay for two Onion subscriptions, one for upstairs and one for downstairs, I assume in case I ever need a laugh in between floors, with The Onion on Twitter for backup at work.
But really I paid up so I had a reason to live if The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report died, and they did. The structure of my workday was destroyed. I wasn’t subscribing so much as donating, which I would also do for the Guardian if requested.
Well more fool me. As fictitious Onion publisher emeritus and bile gland T. Herman Zweibel wrote icily in 1882, The Onion “is a sham, a fraud, and a waste of your hard-earned money. I cannot believe the use-less things upon which you rabble will spend your precious few coppers! Is it wise to work the commoners into a lather by making them literate?”
Univision seems fond of The Onion, which bounced from Madison, Wisc. to New York and then to Chicago, its office rent rising and falling, with its team of beardy young writers with something to prove to their high school graduating class. But don’t companies generally smile beatifically upon their purchases until they consolidate? Will The Onion, along with Univision’s partnership with Jimmy Kimmel’s Funny or Die, be sent offshore where the jokes are cheaper?
Along with the staff intelligentsia, the Onion deal includes its magnificent offshoots: culture criticizer The A.V. Club, social media satirizer ClickHole, sleb-worshipper StarWipe, a parenting site called AfterBirth, and whatever book The Onion is publishing. I still say Our Dumb World: Atlas of the Planet Earth was the funniest book ever published. Written in the casual arrogant slangy American demotic I love, it insulted every nation equally: Sierra Leone (“A Blood Diamond Is Forever”), Peru (“Always With The Goddamn Pan Flutes”), Italy (“What Are You Looking At?”) Denmark (“We’re Happy Because You’re Not Here”) Kyrgyzstan (“They are Called ‘Kyrgyz’ And It Only Goes Downhill From There”).
The Onion was smart humour, and there isn’t a great deal of that. There’s John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, Canada’s The Beaverton (please subscribe) and various small Canadian sites that I quietly love, but basically you have to climb into the British mines for comedy. BuzzfeedUK is great, for instance, as is Rob Delaney’s filthy doom-laden Catastrophe, and anything by Stewart Lee, Armando Iannucci, Charlie Brooker and the baleful genius Chris Morris.
Did 10 years of Stephen Harper make the jokes go away? Did we become like him, dressed like trappers and frozen in human company, unable to tell a joke or even get one?
I have always puzzled over why Canadian newspapers didn’t do humour; it might have kept things happily rolling along a little longer. Univision’s thinking, reported NPR, was that millennials love humour, so they bought themselves some. Will Univision kill the thing it loved, as CBS did money-hound Stephen Colbert?
We are not a humourless country but you tell a joke in Canada at your peril. We have a new National Press Council and I have cheerfully welcomed it on Twitter in the hopes that there will continue to be a national press to admonish. But people have tried to take me to the council for my attempts at wit, never successfully.
The council has ruled that columnists are free to comment. But they have never said we are free to be funny because the question doesn’t arise.
The key to The Onion has always been its tone. Onion writers are outsiders by definition. I interviewed Seth Reiss, Will Tracy and Joe Garden in New York in 2011 when it briefly began distributing a paper edition in Toronto and they were all escapees from places like Connellsville, Penn. and Richland Centre, Wisc. They got out so you could laugh.
The greatness of The Onion lay in its grasp of places like that, the living death of them, the anomie, the bland slide toward the grave. Take their New Year’s piece, “Man Returns to Work After Vacation With Fresh, Reenergized Hatred For Job.” Now that’s funny. Don’t mess with it, Univision. But they will.