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Mar 03 2013

Keeping the Fires Burning

The Onion posted a piece on Friday titled, “New Study Finds ‘The Onion’ Has Never Been More Popular, More Beloved, Or More Respected”. It started in usual Onion fashion:

Following one of the finest and most widely praised weeks in the history of The Onion, a new study published today found that the trusted news outlet has never been more popular, more admired, or more respected among Americans, with record numbers of readers saying the last five or six days in particular constitute a veritable high watermark for the company.

See, now that’s funny, in the laugh out loud sense.

It’s also funny in the “Hmm” sense.

See, I felt a little sorry for The Onion this week. I did think they screwed up. I do think it’s important for people to stand up and say something about how unhappy they are when these things happen. I do think those people who stood about how unhappy they were with the joke also stood up to say how happy they were with the apology.

So if all that is fine, why do I feel sorry for The Onion? Because they’ve got crappy “friends”.

The Onion‘s apology came quickly and was very good, but it didn’t stop the discussion of what they’d done wrong. How could it? Their defenders spent days being outraged that anyone would be outraged that, even in jest, an international outlet would call someone a “cunt”. That meant that, well after The Onion knew and acknowledged that what they’d done had gone over as badly as they should have expected, everyone was still talking about how badly they’d fucked up.

They had to. Even if the person saying it doesn’t have the reach of The Onion, you don’t let it lie when you hear, “It was just a joke.” You still have to explain that, yes, you do get it. You still have to explain that, no, not every joke is funny. You still have to explain that parroting the ugly parts of real life doesn’t make you “edgy”. You still have to explain that you have to work harder than that to knock some sense into an audience that only hears you saying what they say every day. You still have to explain that even if the joke were effective and guaranteed to be heard correctly by the people who need it, you still just don’t use a real child to make your point without carefully considering how it will affect that child in all her particular circumstances.

The Onion, to their vast credit, mostly understands all of this. One of the marks of a comedy pro is that they accept when their material is crap and take responsibility for it. They enforce their own standards on themselves.

There’s no small amount of irony in the fact that, despite this prfoessionalism, The Onion still spent several days listening to people–whose respect they’d earned by acting like professionals–repeatedly explaining what they’d done wrong. The irony, of course, is that it was Onion “fans” that kept those explanations coming, when they could have simply listened to the organization they were supposedly helping.

Kudos to The Onion for Friday’s post and for taking those ongoing explanations in such good humor.

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