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What Can ‘The Onion’ Do for a World That Satirizes Itself?

If you’re a fan of funny fake news, you read The Onion, a venerated and sharply satirical newspaper-turned-digital-media-empire. If you’re a fan of funny news that happens to be real, you visit r/nottheonion, a subreddit for links to articles whose headlines read as if ripped from The Onion. Sounds pretty simple.

But in 2017, with “fake news” becoming a way to denigrate real journalism, actual fake news branded as “satire,” and comedians of all kinds struggling to make their art fit a truly insane American epoch, simplicity is hard to find. How do you skewer a country that feels like a parody of itself, or even get a grip on what Twitter calls the “dumbest possible timeline”?

“I’d argue that the world right now is farcical, not satirical,” Onion managing editor Marnie Shure told The Guardian in August, giving rare insight into the publication’s process and outlook. (The company has a tight-lipped policy when it comes to interacting with the press, as I was reminded when I reached out to several current writers for comment on their creative environment.) “The satire comes in when you can speak truth to that reigning circus sideshow,” Shure clarified, also noting that Onion jokes are meant to be distinguishable as such — a precept at odds with r/nottheonion and its related hashtag, which are built on a confusion between fact and fiction, categories increasingly blurred as people hew to their own subjective political realities.

In fact, r/nottheonion’s lack of sinterest in The Onion’s self-definition is made explicit by a recent and unusual meta-post written to discourage off-brand submissions to the forum, “Let’s talk about what it means to be Not the Onion.” The announcement, which set off a thousand-comment thread, urged members not to share news about Trump or similar figures saying “dumb shit,” local stories of stupid criminals, punny headlines, or obvious reversals (a firetruck catching fire, a congressman busted for doing whatever he campaigned against), correctly pointing out that The Onion features no material along these lines. Yet the admins also contradicted Shure’s philosophy, claiming that a good r/nottheonion post “really needs to be outrageous enough that at first glance you can’t tell if it’s fake news or not.” Moreover, though this went unsaid, “Not the Onion” articles necessarily differ from Onion fare in that the latter exists only to lampoon its target. Again, this creates problems with someone like Trump, because deadpan, objective reporting about a person as stupid as he is tends to sound like dry ridicule.

While this debate kicked off thanks to the deletion of a thread about musician Ed Sheeran (“Ed Sheeran cancels shows after breaking both arms, Australian tour still on” was the amusing headline, but mods were annoyed that this seemed to be fodder for a fabled Reddit in-joke about incest), it quickly became an analysis of how credence tracks in the age of Trump. “When something becomes the norm, it’s not oniony,” a mod insisted, suggesting that Trump has so radically recalibrated our expectations that satire has to set new parameters, as would a group combing headlines for satire-like content. It may be “unbelievable” for a U.S. president to challenge someone in his cabinet to a head-to-head IQ test, but it’s perfectly believable when President Trump does it.

The Onion itself, however, looks to be resisting the low bar set by Trump, with the result that its headlines, contrary to Shure’s desire for clear-cut jokes, have rarely sounded more plausible. Stories like “Nabisco Baffled After Trump Administration Gives It $200 Million Contract to Rebuild Puerto Rico’s Roads” do succeed in capturing the president’s incoherent style of corruption while heightening its absurdity; elsewhere, you may as well be reading CNN: “Trump Comforts Grieving War Widow by Assuring Her He Will Never Die,” “‘What Were We Talking About Again?’ Says Trump 15 Seconds Into Phone Call to Family of Fallen Soldier” and “John Kelly Explains to Furious Trump That Gold Star Widow Cannot Be Demoted to Silver Star Widow” all have the sickening ring of possibility to them. They have more in common with a mold-breaking piece like “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens,” in which genuine rage over avoidable mass shootings pierces the veil of mordant sarcasm.

Perhaps there was never any such thing as a sincerity-proof Onion article, as evidenced by the popular blog “Literally Unbelievable,” which showcases the flabbergasted social media reactions of people who mistook Onion headlines for factual reporting. (Think of it, then, as the inverse of r/nottheonion.) Tellingly, the site hasn’t been updated since January, as if the humor of idiots taking things at face value has waned somewhat under the Trump administration — and The Onion can no longer comfort us with surrealism that outstrips this strange new normal. The writers are no less witty or trenchant, but like their journalist counterparts, they have struggled with a president who defies caricature by inhabiting it full-time, unsure how to subvert a man who undermines himself.

No wonder fans are at a loss when trying to view this cultural landscape through The Onion’s tricky lens. When you paste a link to r/nottheonion, it bears the copy “Sadly, this is not The Onion,” casting the pall of tragedy on events we’d prefer to keep imaginary. But now that people are attempting to post genuinely sad, often alarming, and sometimes downright terrifying news on the page, nobody can agree on where to draw the line between a rueful chuckle and absolute nihilism. We never wanted to live out an existence more Oniony than The Onion, mostly because the newspaper’s satire has always sprung from a foundational awareness that our species is totally fucked. Now, confronting the blackness at the end of the tunnel, that joke isn’t funny anymore.