This Olympic week was ideal for The Onion-esque absurdity in real life. An Olympic celebration choreography malfunction left London’s mayor suspended from a zip wire holding tiny British flags. Multiple badminton teams were suspended for not trying hard enough. Each one of these stories prompts the refrain: “It sounds like an Onion headline!” We called former Onion editor Joe Garden to ask him why these real life headlines don't quite pass muster.
BOB GARFIELD: The Onion’s writers couldn’t resist one more headline about the NBC Olympics. Michael Phelps asks Bob Costas if he wins or loses tonight. This Olympic week was ideal for Onion-esque absurdity. An Olympic celebration choreography malfunction left London’s Mayor suspended from a zip wire [LAUGHS] holding tiny British flags. Multiple badminton teams were suspended for not trying hard enough. Each one of these stories prompts the refrain, “It sounds like an Onion headline!”
The Onion, of course, is the satirical paper of fake news, but an Onion headline isn’t just absurdity. As a public service, we called in former Onion Features Editor Joe Garden to help us walk through the difference between an odd headline and an Onion headline. Joe, welcome to the show.
JOE GARDEN: Hi Bob, great to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, here’s a couple more we saw this week. One, “Chick-fil-A Public Relations Boss Dies Amid Homophobia Uproar” and one from an NPR story, “Ever [LAUGHS] Ever-growing Past Confounds History Teachers.”
JOE GARDEN: [LAUGHS] That was seriously a story or is that – am I being put on?
BOB GARFIELD: Evidently, from NPR’s website.
JOE GARDEN: I’m upping my pledge money. That’s totally worth it.
BOB GARFIELD: Why is one of these a perspective Onion headline and one not?
JOE GARDEN: Inasmuch as I may disagree with Chick-fil-A, I don’t wish death on any of them. And so, the idea that their publicist died and it’s this very stressful time, it’s almost like – it’s just chicken, it’s not worth dying over.
The ever-growing past, that could totally be an Onion story. We did something sort of similar like, “US Department of Retro Warns We’re Running out of Decades.”
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] It sounds like an old Bazooka Joe joke or something like that.
JOE GARDEN: [LAUGHS] Right, you know, more it’s like, “The problem with history is it just keeps happening. We keep makin’ more!” And then Bazooka Joe’s falling backwards and his feet fly up in the air. [BOB LAUGHS] Oh no!
BOB GARFIELD: Now, when you worked at The Onion, I’m gonna take a wild guess that your inbox was just constantly filled with torn-from-the-real-headlines headlines, with the comment that you could have written this. Did they ever get it right?
JOE GARDEN: Usually not. It would always be something that was just a little bit too broad and slap-sticky: [LAUGHS] “President Obama Falls down the Stairs.” That wasn’t really what we were striving for. We were striving more for satire. Just because something silly happened, it didn’t mean it made it a greater point at all.
The hard thing was when you’re sort of cornered at a party and somebody pitches you a news event that they think would be a great Onion headline, and then you sort of have to be like, ah-ha-ha-ha, oh yeah, well I’ll get right on that, ah-ha-ha, and then you sort of like try to change the subject.
BOB GARFIELD: Frozen smile.
Is there an underlying rubric for putting these together?
JOE GARDEN: What The Onion tries to do mostly is react to more of a zeitgeist, rather than a specific news event. I mean, that’s why a lot of the Onion stories hold up still, you know, five, ten, fifteen years later, is because it wasn’t really reactive to one specific story.
I think people really don’t understand that it takes more than just a goofy series of circumstances put in a headline form. You know, you’re actually trying to form a decent cohesive joke that makes a point in as few words as possible. It’s not just somebody getting stuck on a zip line. Although that’s a comical image, it’s not a great headline.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, there’s actually an inverse of this phenomenon, or reverse, converse or possibly reciprocal. I’m not sure what the analogy is mathematically. But that is the headline that is so perfect in its fakeness that it fakes out people who think it’s actually real.
JOE GARDEN: Mm-hmm. The Onion reported that Congress was threatening to leave Washington, D.C. unless they built a new Capitol Building —
— complete with a retractable dome for daylight legislation.
BOB GARFIELD: Like, like the Nets or –
JOE GARDEN: Yeah, and we even had our own architectural drawing of the building, and the Beijing Evening News picked it up and ran it, complete with our graphic. And then when a reporter called them and said, “You know, this is made up, right,” their response was, “Well, how do you know it’s made up?”
BOB GARFIELD: Now, it doesn’t take a Chinese news agency to do that. Some percentage of the public is irony-impaired, you know. And it might be 70.
Do you just have regular civilians writing to you in outrage over some headline that they have taken to be the real deal?
JOE GARDEN: Yeah. To me, the best example of that was an op-ed. It was, “Mary-Kate is holding Ashley Olsen Down.”
And this is still when they were like young. And every week you could count on getting five or six angry emails for about two years about that article. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Joe, so lastly, we have this idea of throwing it out to our listeners, and we want to find out whether OTM fans can themselves find an Onion-esque headline in the wild. And then, if you’re willing, we’ll bring you back and you can choose the best and then someone will win one of our deeply fantastic On Caffeine mugs. What do you think?
JOE GARDEN: I’d love that.
BOB GARFIELD: Joe, thanks so much.
JOE GARDEN: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Joe Garden is the former features editor of The Onion. Here are some Onion video headlines for inspiration for listeners hoping to find one that’ll impress Joe.
[ONION VIDEO CLIPS]:
ONION CORRESPONDENT: — where Gmail servers were down for nearly two hours today, in what Google called a show of their immense power.
ONION CORRESPONDENT: The nation’s girlfriends continued to press for an economic recovery plan they say could save the nation as much as 220 billion dollars annually, if their boyfriends simply agreed to move in with them.
ONION CORRESPONDENT: Congress today passed a landmark Social Security Reform Bill they estimate could save the troubled program billions. The so-called “Grab Life by the Balls” bill includes provisions to cut the cost of cigarettes in half, outlaws helmets and adjusts the CDC’s recommended amount of sleep from eight hours a night to “when you’re dead.”
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