Peeling the Onion

USA Today, Tomorrow the World: Inside the only humor publication that matters

Rather than meditate over the koans of the Coca-Cola Co. in the aisles of SuperAmerica, though, the Onion goes one better. In a story meeting, the writers create the following headline: "Ad Veterans to be Honored with Cola War Memorial."

The idea is even better than its already-printed predecessors: "Mountain Dew Council of Elders Exiles Radical Teen," or "Chinese Government Cracks Down on Refills." The incredible is made... even more incredible. Tautology is wrung into truth... or a kind of truth.

That truth belonged to a fairly obscure Frenchman named Guy Debord--a man who, as the Trix blackboard urged, killed himself a few years back out of boredom. To quote from Debord's 1967 manifesto Society of the Spectacle (a thing best done sparingly): "The spectacle is a permanent opium war which aims to make people identify goods with commodities and satisfaction with survival." Later he continues: "The satisfaction of primary needs is replaced by an uninterrupted fabrication of pseudo-needs which are reduced to the single pseudo-need of maintaining the reign of the autonomous economy."

And that economy is our own... a society where, as the Onion reports it, Frito-Lay scientists are ever discovering the miraculous properties of "Cheesium-109"; where ABC programmers cancel Yeltsin! after sluggish ratings; where Amnesty International demands gentler soap for Indonesian political prisoners; where NATO drops condolence cards over Bosnia...

"Feed the rush!" Surge says (and only Surge can say it, because this, too, is trademarked). To which I would append the following warning... Feed it, or, like an insatiable beast, it will consume you whole, Nikes and all.

7. Just the Factoids, Ma'am

"PART OF OUR WHOLE IMAGE IS THAT we're faceless," Senior Editor Robert Siegel says. And he, more than anyone, is responsible for making the Onion that way, reining in the writers' proclivities to Weekly World News-ism--or, as a staffer says, not altogether sympathetically, rewriting every third word of each article, every week.

"The Onion could just be spit off the A.P. wire," Siegel elaborates. "In terms of our writing style, I want to minimize the individual voice. When you read a USA Today story, you really don't care who wrote it. This adds to the aura of the Onion--and news and information in our society in general--being this monolithic, faceless thing that's just dropped down from the heavens."

And google-bytes of infotainment... call it supernal media manna or electronic candy--it falls like a hard rain from satellites Murdoch A6-3i and Time-Warner Ion-II. Floods of Bill Gates interviews in the equatorial ecosystems of Brazil. Tsunamis of celebrity diets off the Eastern coast of Malaysia.

Siegel, in an act of managerial caprice, has even dared to attempt an enumeration of this environment in magic marker on a board in the writer's ghetto. A brainstorm list is what it is--which causes the Onion writers actual embarrassment, they claim. As if there was something corporate, almost, about artificially induced creativity. Is Siegel trying to squeeze a $400 paycheck's worth of funny out of us now that we're on staff?

Some of the topics on the board are: tribute albums, caller ID, hostage crisis, CIA, liposuction, Tommy Hilfiger, CD clubs, fantasy camps, salary cap, health care, parental consent, one-drink-minimum, country music, golf, call waiting, food courts, success stories, Sega, Ninten...

And the list goes on and on. The writers--whatever they've professed earlier--they're adding to it themselves. Because there are so many trends and products and services and so many of them are dumb. That word is in heavy circulation among the Onion writers. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb. The Internet is dumb. The CIA is dumb. The new flavor of Doritos is dumb. The word is right there in the Onion logo: "You are dumb."

For as pejoratives go, dumb is so much more malleable and ambiguous than say, venal, or insipid or flat-out insidious. Those words have no sense of play. Leave them to the Neil Postmans, the Bill McKibbenses, the media watchdogs and ordinary grousers... those middle-aged men who do not realize that the MTV revolution has already been consummated and that none of us can ever return to some bucolic Murrow-land of media responsibility, media ignorance. Media innocence, is what those guys are talking about, in their self-righteous marrow.

Not that the writers crouched in the orange bean bag ever name-check Neil Postman. It's so much more elementary than all that. To cite Marshall McLuhan--who began his career as a lit prof here in Madison--think about a light bulb. Are you pro or con, light-bulb? Well?

The question--Unabomber excepted--is moot. As McLuhan explains it, the light bulb has already changed the world in countless grim and emancipating ways, and debating the point now is to belabor the ubiquitous.

And so it is today with all the other wavelengths and photon-impulses pouring forth from the ionosphere, streaming through cables into our Sonys and Mitsubishis and Pentium chips. Unto themselves, these things have no inherent moral content... unless one is a liberal humanist, which the staff at the Onion are decidedly not. "It feels so pretentious to say 'it's all evil,'" Siegel says. "Or that we're coming off as the young people who are Rebelling Against the Media, and Mass Marketing. I hate to say that."

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