The Onion comes to the U

Parody media has matured into a sideways look at ourselves.

Finally, 15 years after its birth in Madison, Wis., The Onion dropped its first issue on a Twin Cities newsstand Sept. 2. The self-proclaimed “America’s Finest News Source” is by design a wickedly funny, satirical rag, but it is quickly building an expansive media empire that very nearly mirrors the ones it lampoons so effectively.

The Onion, along with Comedy Central TV’s “The Daily Show,” a parody newscast, is at the vanguard of a new youth-oriented effort to mix conventional Associated Press-styled journalism and commentary with self-knowing wit and distinct, riotous humor.

Today’s college students grew up on a steady diet of Generation-X TV programming, which counted MTV, and Fox’s, “The Simpsons,” among its darlings. Comedy-focused variety shows, such as “The Ben Stiller Show” and “The State” on MTV, were inspired by “Saturday Night Live” to harness politics and current events and hew them into edgy, offbeat sketches. Conan O’Brien’s arrival on late-night network TV completed a veritable trinity.

College students are not only devout media consumers: they are also cynics and pranksters. This is just the type of subversive, topical fun they yearn for and don’t receive through conventional media. It’s for those looking to shirk frat-boy humor without completely drying up in the thick nuance of Woody Allen or thick accents of Monty Python. In short, it’s for the literate who want to laugh out loud.

Print editions of The Onion were very successful in Milwaukee, and moved on to climb the old liberal standbys: Chicago, Denver and then that venerable bastion of progressive media, New York.

After the dot-com collapse, the business plan changed for young entrepreneurs. The founders of The Onion, fearing a similar flame-out, realized a few personal ads could pay the bills. As it happened, servers crashed from all the traffic, prompting wholly unexpected upgrades. The Onion’s Web site had more than 7 million page views in February, 5 million of which included a visit to its personals.

The Onion’s audience, like that of “The Daily Show,” is young, smart, hip and tech-savvy. Industry has a long tradition of being slow to respond to popular culture. Not so here. All the aforementioned achievements have made The Onion very desirous to marketers of all stripes.

Although The Onion is the world’s most popular humor periodical, I don’t think the language of ad sizes and pass-along rates will soon replace the likes of “Clinton Meets With Important Guy Wearing Tie.” These days it’s all about clever concept, then brand value. The idea is to skewer the figureheads of current events. The sell? It’s not hard to sell. Funny sells itself.

The Onion and “The Daily Show” are also branching out. “The Daily Show” will release “America -ñ The Book” on Sept. 20. Preorder sales on Amazon.com are brisk. The Onion has a major motion picture in the works. As a fine example of the cannibalism of this new movement in comedy and media, David Zucker, the man behind “Airplane!,” “Naked Gun” and “Kentucky Fried Movie,” will produce it.

Perhaps the success of The Onion and “The Daily Show” has made them even more eminently qualified to take on today’s policy wonks and tastemakers. They began as ridiculous and have since matured into a sideways editorial look at ourselves and how we take our information vitamins.

My only concern, as an avid reader of The Onion, is that it will sell to a behemoth such as Time Warner or Vivendi Universal. Time will tell if the beast of Big Media has become a business model for the beauty that beholds it, ever-so scathingly.

Adri Mehra welcomes comments at [email protected]