The Onion is famous for its insanely painstaking joke-making process, where hundreds of proposed headlines are whittled down to just the handful of gems you see on the website or in the paper each week. But what happens when real breaking news collides with the imagined world of the Onion? Like any legit news organization these days, they update.
Yesterday, the Onion published the story "Nation Celebrates Full Week Without Deadly Mass Shooting." It imagined the streets filling with Americans celebrating a week "since the last time a madman opened fire on innocent civilians in some kind of fatal mas shooting." It ended with the line: "At press time, federal authorities had issued a reminder to all Americans that a lot can happen in 24 hours, 'so let's not get too excited yet.'"
In light of this morning's Empire State Building shooting, the joke turned out to be tragically on the nose. And just a couple hours after the shooting, the story was appended with: "Update: Never mind."
"Federal officials have reportedly just informed celebrating Americans that a mass shooting did in fact just happen in front of the Empire State Building, and that citizens should stop chanting and cheering now," the update began.
The update took the already-hilarious joke to a new, dark level, but it was an unusual move for the Onion to react so quickly to a breaking news event. In 2008 This American Life reported it took the Onion's writing staff "two long mornings" to pick just 16 jokes for the week's paper.
"As the nation's premier news organization, it is our duty to report on the news as it is happening, and to provide updates in realtime," wrote Onion editor in chief Will Tracy in an email today. "To do any less would jeopardize our ability to control what Americans are thinking and feeling at all times."
Readers should be expecting more jokes in real time, according to longtime Onion writer Todd Hanson. "The Onion has changed its writing & production schedule to accommodate more timely, up-to-the-minute responses to the news," he said. "That was something we used to do only on very rare occasions, and it has become a new emphasis for the way the Onion is written and edited."
For years the Onion's website has provided a reliable source for some of the best comedy writing in the world. But the pace of its publishing—a few new articles a day, at most—has become increasingly out-of-sync with the real-time culture it's spoofing. Here's hoping The Onion's move towards becoming a breaking satirical news organization produces the level of brilliance it did today.