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Apr 11 / King Kaufman

Humor: Robert Lipsyte shows the Onion isn’t the only way

Robert Lipsyte

Robert Lipsyte

The Onion is not the only way to do humor on the Web. Today at Bleacher Report we got a lesson in that from a master, author and former New York Times columnist Robert Lipsyte.

I love the Onion, the satirical newspaper out of Madison, Wis., that became an online phenomenon in the early days of the Web and remains a master of the form of satirical, AP-style fake news reports.

What I don’t love is the way it’s spawned several generations of imitators. Particularly in sports, if there’s a humor site, chances are very good — way too good — that it’s an Onion style fake-news site. Some of them are quite funny. The problem, for me, is the way this one form of humor has overwhelmed all others.

Bleacher Report recently banned this style not because it’s overdone but because we’ve had issues in the past with satirical content being presented as news in places such as Google search results and the Google News feed.

But that doesn’t mean Bleacher Report writers can’t use humor, as Lipsyte demonstrates with today’s wry, tongue-in-cheek piece, headlined “Derek Jeter and Steroids: He Just Says No? He’s Not Trying Hard Enough.”

Saint Derek, the hustling Captain

Saint Derek, the hustling Captain

“I tell you I would have drafted Derek Jeter in a fantasy minute if I was sure he would follow a responsible steroids regime,” Lipsyte begins. On the surface, he’s saying that Jeter should be doing everything he can, legal or not as long as he doesn’t get caught, to be the best player he can be.

Lipsyte points out that Jeter has famously faked being hit by a pitch, which is a cheat, and one that would have benefited Lipsyte’s fantasy team had he drafted Jeter.

He eventually admits that he did draft Jeter, because “I happen to think Jeter is pretty cool and a great player.”

But what Lipsyte’s really up to is lampooning both the deification of “Saint Derek” and the hysteria around steroids, which he calls “a witch hunt that someday will be compared to Salem.”

He manages to comment on the politics of baseball and the attitudes of fans and the media with his tongue-in-cheek take that if Derek Jeter is going to cheat by faking an HBP then by golly he ought to go all the way and get busy with the HGH.

Compare that to the recent “sports brief” in the Onion headlined “Juror Brings Baseball Glove To Barry Bonds Perjury Trial.”

That’s a funny little piece, but it doesn’t really say anything beyond the joke of a juror bringing a glove to the trial, because the person on trial is a baseball player.

Humor can be more than just satire and more than mere silliness. My advice to anyone in the typing racket: See if you can use humor in your writing without falling back on these two “easy” forms.

“Easy” is a relative term, of course. Remember what actor Edmund Gwenn supposedly said on his deathbed: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

Further reading

The “Humor” entry in “The Encyclopedia of American Journalism” by Stephen L. Vaughn is pretty interesting. It traces humor in American journalism back to Ben Franklin, then quickly runs through some of the giants who succeeded him: Mark Twain, James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, Will Rogers, sportswriters Damon Runyon and Ring Lardner, Mike Royko, Jimmy Breslin, Robert Benchley, Art Buchwald, Erma Bombeck, Mad magazine, the National Lampoon, “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show.”

Pretty heady company, in case you were thinking that funny stuff isn’t serious writing.

  • Matt

    Interesting to read the comments on Robert’s article. Seems like a good number of people didn’t really “get” it. Goes to show that quality humor is often wasted on the masses. It’s the reason Arrested Development gets three seasons and According To Jim runs for eight.

    It’s too bad. I thought Robert’s article was terrific, and you’re absolutely right about it being a great example of how to use humor. I just hope it’s properly appreciated.

  • Schottey

    In today’s culture, dry satire is so often misunderstood because the initial (narcissistic) reaction of the masses is not “hey, this might be tongue-in-cheek” but rather, “hey, this guy must be an idiot.”

    Today, people would read “A Modest Proposal,” and the majority would assume Jonathan Swift was a monster.