This week, we interviewed James daSilva, who writes The Onion: 20 Years Later, a publication that travels back in time to re-examine the humor and cultural impact of the satirical print newspaper The Onion.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What’s your Substack about in one sentence?
America has changed tremendously in the past 20 years, and what better way to examine that change than to revisit what The Onion thought was funny—and see whether it still is.
How did your own fascination with The Onion start? What makes it so special to you?
I started reading The Onion online in high school during the late 1990s. I already loved Mad magazine and was watching Conan O’Brien, so I was tuned in to that combination of smart and stupid, of real-world satire alongside fake characters. But if you asked me in 1999, I would have said, “It’s clever and funny.”
What motivated you to revisit The Onion now, 20 years later?
I actually wrote something similar in 2013, right as The Onion stopped publishing an actual newspaper. I compared the most recent issue—somewhat negatively—to one from 1998.
I started the Substack in January 2020 for two reasons: I wanted to do writing that wasn’t work-related and didn’t have audience or revenue pressures (my day job is also in email), and I was thinking how 2000 felt like a million years ago, and I was also thinking about that 2013 Onion critique. I got some encouragement from friends about the concept, and I was off to the races.
How did The Onion affect the broader media landscape?
The Onion is a huge influence on American media and culture, even as real-world events like 9/11 also shape its coverage. To me, The Onion does three things exceptionally well: First, it skewers real-life news and real-life situations while being simultaneously funny and meaningful. Second, The Onion felt like a real newspaper, with its fake universe of “Area Man” stories, local columnists, horoscopes, and so forth. And finally, The Onion can take real things and twist them 15 degrees so that they’re remarkably absurd. I’m thinking of shirtless Joe Biden, or a dog complaining about being anthropomorphized, or a congressional lobbying day involving raccoons.
Your writing is full of well-researched anecdotes about the publication’s history. What sources do you turn to to unearth The Onion’s history?
I rely a lot on Internet Archive to see what The Onion looked like back then, especially because The Onion’s website today isn’t well-organized and is missing most of the images. For the post-9/11 issue, thankfully, other folks did oral histories, in particular MEL Magazine. I also look at what the New York Times was publishing back then, as sometimes what feels like a random Onion story is actually directly influenced by some real news story that we’ve all forgotten about.
Favorite Onion headline of all time?
The answer changes every week. Looking back for this Q&A, a brilliant and perfectly worded headline is “Man Who Actually Needs Grey Poupon Unable To Bring Self To Ask.” My favorite story, however, is probably “McDonald’s Drops ‘Hammurderer’ Character From Advertising.”
Are there any stories that The Onion ran that went too far, in your opinion? Which, and why do you think it went too far?
The early 2000s have a lot of stories that remind us how casually people would make jokes about gay people. The Onion isn’t immune to that, or to using the slurs themselves. A lot of The Onion from 20 years ago is still amazing, but that’s one area where it’s evident how much the culture has shifted.