Only The Onion Can Save Us Now
Within hours of the latest mass shooting in America, the same 2014 news article inevitably begins popping up in my social-media troughs. The story is a scant 200 words long, and accompanied by a familiar-looking photo of college-aged mourners standing at a candlelight vigil. I’ve seen the headline so many times, I’ve pretty much committed it to memory, and maybe you have, too: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.”
That’s from The Onion, of course—just one of the many sneakily corrosive, sadly spot-on pieces the satirical outlet has published in its 20-year online history, which also includes the likes of “Nation Celebrates Full Week Without Deadly Mass Shooting” and “God Angrily Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule.” These are the kind of dark-hearted stories that tend to recirculate after a five-alarm nightmare such as the one that occurred last weekend, when 49 people were shot and killed in a nightclub in Orlando, Florida. And their appeal, not to mention their near-reflexive shareability, is pretty clear: When the world feels like a wet piñata full of shit and spite, it’s comforting to know that there are people who not only share your frustrations, but who can articulate them in a way you can’t.
And often, the best vehicle for that rage is the kind of distilled, to-the-point satire that only the Onion can provide. Earlier this week, it published a compendium of stories reacting to the Orlando murders, all of which convert our sadness and feelings of fuck-this futility to pure smart-comedy energy. If these stories aren’t already populating your social feeds, they’ll be doing so shortly: There’s a first-person column by Senate Majority Leader (and gummy-mouthed invertebrate-for-hire) Mitch McConnell, underneath a headline that reads, “At Times Like This, We Need to Pull Ourselves Up, Hold Our Loved Ones Close, Block Any Legislation That Would Prevent Suspected Terrorists From Buying Guns, And Say a Prayer For the Victims.” There’s a grateful thank-you letter, written by an AR-15, humbly praising the human race for prioritizing that gun model’s survival over our own safety. And there are more classically constructed, realism-absurdism Onion hybrids, like “Concerned NRA Official Rushes Out To Purchase Congressman Following Mass Shooting.”
The collective, cathartic force of these articles, and the speed with which they appeared, recalled the Onion’s reaction to the attacks of the Sept. 11, 2001, for which it published an entire issue full of headlines like “Hijackers Surprised to Find Selves in Hell” and “Massive Attack on Pentagon Page 14 News.” The issue hit stands on Sept. 26, after a long period during which many New Yorkers walked around sad-eyed and slack-jawed, our brains tingling uselessly, like a limb that had fallen asleep. Reading that issue—which somehow decanted all of our grief, anger, and confusion—was like getting slapped back to a reality that was still terrifying, but perhaps not as lonely as we’d feared. This is the best, most powerful breed of satire: The kind that reduces the unthinkable or unknowable to a few core, recognizable truths—no matter how discomforting they might be.
Nearly 15 years since that 9/11 edition, there are more outlets and avenues for comedy than ever before—yet when it comes to finding humor after tragedy, The Onion remains our most effective first-responder—and sometimes, the only responder. During catastrophic world events, the comedy pockets of Twitter and Facebook mostly either go silent, or revert to sincere mode, which is almost certainly for the best. And late-night hosts, who are somewhat unfairly expected to act as a fast-acting salve during times like these, tend to straddle the line between comedy and profundity. On Monday night, Stephen Colbert opened his show with a somber speech stressing the necessity for love; Jimmy Fallon wondered how, as a parent, he could possibly explain the incident to his children; and Conan O’Brien, never big on politics, was surprisingly unequivocal in his stance on gun control. (The most at-ease host was Samantha Bee, who provided a lively, live-action op-ed that kept in line with the sort of happily brazen work she’s been doing all year.)
They were all honest responses—sometimes fiery, sometimes anguished. But even at their best, they were human responses, meaning they were all touched—even if just slightly—by very human concerns about timing and good taste, and by worries about misjudging the thin, imperceptible border between what’s “too important” and what’s “too soon.” Humans aren’t big on doling out, or taking in, stark realities; even at our rawest and most frustrated, we still prefer our tough-talk to come with at least a smidgen of squishiness.
But The Onion isn’t human. It’s a monolith, one that’s not uncaring, exactly, but that’s certainly unsparing, delivering its bitter truths with zero hems nor haws. The Onion’s satire is so forthright and righteous, so unconcerned with whether or not it offends anybody—really, who would the offended even complain to?—that it carries a stamp of final-word authority. That may be why its best, bleakest stories pop back into our consciousness at times like these: As much as it pains us to admit it, they’re just as bluntly accurate now as they were on the day they originally ran. When you’re faced with that kind of horrific truth—when you realize that you’re not only living in the Nation Where this Regularly Happens, but also in the Nation Where It Will Happen Again—the only way you can deal with it is to laugh.