So 5 minutes ago
Rants and media criticism from Eric Deamer (a guy in New York)

Thursday, May 01, 2003  

Jeff Koyen's bizarre, oddly confessional, weekly introduction to his New York Press has become a minor obsession among those of us with nothing better to do. He started the ball rolling by unnecessarily referring to a girl shoving a finger up his ass, prompting a flood of letters and a mention in Sridhar Pappu's "Off the Record" column for The Observer. After that, "The Introduction" column offered (to me at least) a welcomely cracked, cranky, and rambling take on life and on publishing.

The next time Koyen attracted a lot of attention was when he went on a rant about how much The Onion was starting to suck, which brought to light the fact that that The Onion has somehow become some sort of Gen-X sacred cow. When he wrote how their staff was running out of ideas and re-running old material more often it garnered a Gawker mention and a prompted a general hue and cry of "How could anyone possibly criticize The Onion?"A few weeks later Slate described their war humor as being "On the side of the angels". This week Koyen doesn't let up, making a comment about The Onion being "so painfully unfunny these days."

The disturbing thing about all of this is that Koyen is absolutely right. As a loyal reader of The Onion for years, since well before they had a web site and they were known to only a few wiseasses in a few Midwestern cities and towns, I've long known that there were only a few weeks a year when you couldn't count on The Onion to publish a new (usually hilarious) issue, like Christmas, and maybe one or two other holidays. On these weeks of well-deserved rest for the tiny, overworked staff, they would run an issue filled with a sort of "Greatest Hits" of the last few months, and you would read it and show it to everyone you could to justify your outrageous claims about how funny it was. Over the last few months I've noticed that these weeks with no new material have been more frequent, and sometimes haven't corresponded to any major holiday that I knew of. Worse yet, the "Greatest Hits" issue sometimes included pieces that were years and years old, and were already in the book collections.

The most recent time the writers took an unexplained vacation coincided with Bush's 48-hour ultimatum, and the start of the Three Week War. They had been running a lot of anti-war stuff in the last few weeks that was unfunny in its stridency and over-obviousness. I wondered if perhaps they were taking a hiatus to try to find a way to actually be funny during the war, without all the preachiness, and without building up so much Michael Mooreian mouth spittle and forehead-vein-throb as they were at the keyboard so they wouldn't feel so stressed out. It turned out, instead that they chose to spend the time-off (apparently) sharing a few bowls with Howard Zinn, Mike Farrell, and Adam Yauch.

The resulting issue, which they'd had a full extra week to prepare was , well, a painfully unfunny, simple-minded, uninformed, self-righteous, trite left-wing screed in the guise of a humor magazine. It was like some mercifully forgotten underground comic or 'zine from the '60's that your hippie Uncle has in the attic and you find it and he swears to you its the funniest thing in the world but its really just has a bunch of stuff about how white people are racist and war is bad. It was like in the 80's when Abbie Hoffman was trying to be a "stand-up comedian." It was like Kurt Vonnegut post 1990. It was like those crappy pieces David Cross writes for VICE where he thinks that he's automatically being profound just because he's bumming people out. It was that bad.

Sure there were some good bits. There was a short item which had Ari Fleischer issuing a statement about how difficult it was going to war without Sheryl Crow's support. There was a list of protestors' signs which had stuff like "I support my activist girlfriend" and "I support the war and I vote. Oh wait, no I don't." But if you really want to see how truly unfunny and shrill it was look at this. For the "Point-Counterpoint" section someone who is against the war, represented by a long-haired Gen-X'er with glasses (must be smarter and more informed) runs off a litany of tired, old arguments each of which have positive answers. For the pro-war side a middle-aged, square-jawed white guy in a suite (of course the only sort of person who would support the war) simply tells him that he's wrong without offering any counter-points. Hah!

Now, I know that political humor is incredibly difficult to do and is not often funny, whatever political point-of-view it comes from. The Onion has finessed this problem mostly by not doing much of it. It used to be that roughly 0-10% of a given issue was topical stuff. The rest was the stuff you actually wanted to read, the detailed, richly observed skewering of various Gen-X subcultures, the minutiae of banal, modern life that you thought no one else noticed, the loopy non-sequiturs. In short, you read it for the "Point-Counterpoint" with a humidifier arguing with a de-humidifier, not for the one with a righteous, informed lefty grad-student skewering an evil, moronic conservative businessman.

The one time this wasn't the case, when the topical, timely pieces are what made it good, was the case of the high water mark of everything The Onion has ever done, the "Holy Fucking Shit!! Attack on America!!" issue done only two weeks after the September 11th terrorist attacks. (I would say either this issue or the book, or Our Dumb Century was the best thing they've ever done). It was an incredibly audacious move, trying to do comedy about September 11th so soon after the fact, but the result was something that many people see as the best piece of writing done about the subject so far. It was sad, angry, dark, disturbing, despairing, warm, and human. It was deeply cathartic and somehow, still, funny, though the laughs had the tendency to stick in your throat. Maybe the writing simply reflected a time when almost everyone from almost every part of the political spectrum felt united in the face of pure evil. Maybe it was impossible to do something so good and so funny about the War in Iraq, because it was the exact opposite, something which divided people. For whatever reason, where their September 11th related pieces were funny, nuanced, and even-handed, their war in Iraq related pieces were strident, hysterical, and one-dimensional.

And its not just the humor pieces that are starting to look like something cooked up by the combined editorial staff of The Nation and Mother Jones. The usually reliable Onion AV Club has increasingly featured extremist political thinking where you least expect it. In the context of something totally unrelated there was a reference to the Beastie Boys risible "World Gone Mad" as being a strong protest song. Strong protest song! Everyone I know, and every review I read agreed that it was the most idiotic they'd ever heard, whether or not they agreed with the sentiment. Slate posted a piece by someone who was anti-war arguing precisely that it wasn't strong enough that it was too meek in its protestations. In a recent interview with Harry Shearer Nathan Rabin commented that "It does seem a little ironic that The Simpsons is probably the most overtly left-wing show on network television, but it's on the most right-wing network." You could almost hear the bong gurgling in the background and insert your own "likes" and "you knows" in the appropriate places. The spectacularly intelligent Shearer merely gently said "I think both those assumptions need to be challenged." A much more patient man than I.

The only reason for all these complaints is that The Onion is not anything trivial or lightweight. It has become an enormous pop cultural force, at least among people under 35. Everyone reads it. It has too be at least as influential as The New York Times or a nightly network newscast, if not more so. They're a comedy magazine, and they've done the best comedy done by anyone anywhere for the last 10 years, but they're also big media. Bloggers and other media tracks the NYT and others. As much as it pains me to say, we also need people to start keeping tabs on The Onion in the same way. Jeff Koyen, who I'm sure is a few parsecs to the left of me on virtually everything has dared starting to go down this road, and people aren't happy. I'll continue with my own efforts and hope someone notices. These days its not that fun digging into The Onion because of late I truly have found that the more layers you peal away the more it stinks.

posted by Eric | 11:11 PM
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