Readers delighted in it. Mainstream hard-news media outlets gave adoring coverage to theOnion’s “Biden.” The site’s writers penned a satirical 2013 “Biden” autobiography, “The President of Vice.” The caricature of the vice president was so ubiquitous that “Joe Biden (The Onion)” has its own Wikipedia entry.
But for someOnionwriters, the whole episode left a sour aftertaste. Joe Garden, a former writer and feature editor for theOnion, wrote an apologetic essay forVicein May, worrying that they made his retrograde attitudes seem too cute and harmless. The arrival of Trump, and the habit of other humor writers and comedy shows in treating him like a joke, crystallized why this is dangerous; Garden wrote that he wished the site at the time “had looked more at [Biden’s] actual career in politics … and tried to really puncture him, rather than just turning him into a clown. We helped make him more likable by inventing a version of Biden that never existed.”
He concluded that “As a guideline, if the people you’re satirizing aren’t mad, then you should dig deeper.”
When I asked Garden if he thinks the site now runs the risk of blunting its impact by going easy on Sanders in a similar fashion, he invoked the well-worn concept of “punching up,” or taking care to make sure the butt of one’s joke is deserving of such a status. “It’s one thing to take down a person sitting in a position of power,” Garden said. “There are plenty of things to make fun of [regarding] Sanders, but unless he’s actually displaying evil intent or becomes president, what’s the point?”
It’s easy to imagine a more ambivalent humorist taking issue with such an argument that essentially gives Sanders a pass until January 2021 or beyond. Two of them I found willing to do so are among the founders of theOnionitself.
“The punching up and punching down dichotomy works really well when you’re talking about the lowest people in society—homeless or disenfranchised people—but punching up is always with regard to political figures and authority figures, and [writing about] Bernie Sanders is absolutely punching up,” said Scott Dikkers, one of theOnion’s founders and now a Chicago-based writer and comedy teacher.
Tim Keck, a fellowOnionco-founder as well as founder of the Seattle alt-weeklyThe Stranger, agreed: “These are people who are running for president of the United States. I don’t think that’s a valid way of talking about presidential candidates at all, especially someone who’s arguably the frontrunner in Bernie Sanders.”
But Keck posed a follow-up question: “The thing is, does theOnionneed to be fair in how mean they are? … You might be asking too much ofThe Onionto be fair and balanced in its meanness.”
And it surely has not been, as it’s been far more pointed in its critique of candidates like Buttigieg and Klobuchar—both of whom are far less likely than Sanders to reach the Oval Office as events currently stand. And as predictable as some of those jabs can be, they occasionally hit the mark. (I dare you, upon reading “‘I Could Spare Some Change,’ Says Man About To Become Buttigieg Campaign’s Top Black Donor,” not to simultaneously laugh and wince, the sure sign of a satirical direct hit.)
On the other hand, it’s difficult to see where even the notoriously irascible Sanders would find a reason to take issue with the site’s coverage of him. “Sanders Attributes [Heart Attack] Recovery To Thousands Of Small Blood Donations,” “Bernie Sanders Unveils Plan To Tackle Income Inequality With Art Heist From Billionaire’s Home,” “Majority Of Americans Voice Support For Bernie Sanders After Learning He’s A Millionaire.”
One particularly nonbiting October headline read “Bernie Sanders Holds Secret Campaign Meeting With 15,000 Working-Class Democratic Donors,” leading none other than patron saint of heart-on-sleeve liberal earnestness Michael Moore to praise it as “a beautiful satirical example of how an actual news story about the working class, unions or Bernie Sanders would be covered by the centrist corporate-owned media.”
If you weren’t already primed to see the world through Sanders-tinted lenses, none of that would seem exactly funny. Even so, theOnionveterans seem kind of OK with it.
“When it comes down to it, this is a time that calls for radical change in ideas … I think the idea that some variant on the status quo will gently guide the nation back on track is naive. ” Garden said. It’s hard to imagine many on theOnion’s staff breaking with that argument; Nackers acknowledged that many of them are more Bernie-sympathetic than even himself.
Dikkers, when I asked him if the site can still maintain its credibility—or comedic hit rate—while aligning itself so firmly with one campaign, seemed to dismiss the notion altogether, pivoting to the nobility of the Sanders political project.
This leads to what might be the true existential questionfor theOnion: What would its coverage of an actual Sanders presidency look like? What happens when the populist becomes the establishment?
“We’re pretty cynical by nature, so it really doesn’t take very long for us to say, ‘Alright, we have to find a new way to make fun of this,’” Nackers said. “Where I think things get too hacky is when he becomes president, and then you just treat him like a socialist dictator or something. … When the spotlight is purely on a given person, I think that’s when we find a good take for them.”
Dikkers acknowledged it wasn’t going to be easy—and said this was a problem the site had also faced with Obama. It wasn’t exactly because of his ideology: it was because of his populism. All of the editors and founders I spoke to for this story held the view that theOnion’s politics are best defined not on a left-to-right spectrum, but one where the poles are, as Dikkers put it, “populist” and “establishment.”
“The real fight for Bernie is in the Democratic nomination, because he’s running against the establishment. … They [the currentOnionstaff] really get that dynamic,” Dikkers said. “It’s all about establishment vs. the populists.”
Obama, said Dikkers, “ran like a populist, although he governed like an establishment Democrat. So theOnionwas mostly kind, because he was a populist, and you can’t really get your teeth in a populist, because comedy only works when people think it’s funny, when most people like it. And so if you’re going after a populist, nobody’s going to like that. You have to find things about their personalities that are funny, for example.”
Garden is more sanguine that the site will find something into which it can sink its teeth. “I have faith in [theOnion],” he said. “And if Sanders somehow does become the president, I have no doubt they’ll sharpen their claws and go to town.”
Keck, theOnionco-founder who is no longer involved with the site, points out that the site’s error may not be in pandering to the sympathies of its readers, or even in giving Sanders a hall pass, but simply in missing out on the opportunity for a good joke.
“There’s a cult-of-personality aspect to the Bernie fan base. And whenever you have that, there’s comedy, because people are blindly following somebody, and the moment anybody says anything negative about him, they’re up in arms,” Keck said. “That kind of rabid fan base, theOnionshreds that with Trump all the time. I think they’re doing a disservice to comedy and the political discourse by not going both ways.”
And credit has to be given where it’s due: Earlier this month, the site published an article skewering that very dynamic, “reporting”: “‘He’s A Cop,’ Say Bernie Backers, Withdrawing Support After Realizing Candidate Vying To Be Commander In Chief.” A wry sendup of Sanders’ more foamingly anti-establishment boosters, to be sure, but hardly one that cuts to the bone like the site’s best work.
“They traditionally go for the real soft tissue,” Keck said. “One of the hallmarks of theOnionhas been to be as mean as possible, so when they’re not being as mean as possible, it can seem a little flat.”