The Onion, first published in 1988, has been a campus rag, a newspaper, a website, even a feature length film.
Left-leaning, it skewers the media, politics, consumer culture, and more. It is bleak (World Death Rate Holding Steady at 100 Percent), it is absurd (Archaeological Dig Uncovers Ancient Race Of Skeleton People), it is, in its own words, “the most accurate, most trusted, and most infallible publication humankind has ever known”. The Washington Post declared it “an epic literature of American alienation writ small, and in arid AP-style prose.”
With the U.S. presidential election looming, TIME Lightbox looks back on The Onion’s peerless political coverage through the years.
Begun as a free print newspaper on the campus of the University of Wisconsin at Madison by students Tim Keck and Chris Johnson, The Onion was soon sold and spread to several more cities. The website began in 1996 (to the concern of some who thought the success of the parody depended on hewing as closely as possible to its print inspiration). But ultimately, both print and digital editions blossomed. At its peak, print was distributed in 16 markets, and the site reached more than 100 million pageviews per month.
Paradoxically, one of most beloved features of The Onion’s work is its dry tone (Report Finds Drug Tunnels Most Intact Transport Infrastructure In U.S.). As former editor Robert Siegel told the Los Angeles Times, “A part of the humor is in the tension between what is being said and how it’s being said. If you take something you wouldn’t normally read in a newspaper, and write it in that hack, deadpan AP style without ever winking, there’s a comedic tension, a juxtaposition at work that makes it funny.”
In fact, The Onion apes every newspaper cliche imaginable: the stock ticker, the op-eds (this one written by a goat), the fancy-sounding Latin motto “Tu Stultus Es” (which actually means “you’re an idiot”). It’s gotten in on the sponsored content game: both skewering it (SPONSORED: The Taliban Is A Vibrant And Thriving Political Movement) and participating, very lucratively, in it.
In fact, fake Onion articles have gotten recirculated by real news outlets around the world. When it declared the rotund North Korean leader Kim Jong Un the “sexiest man alive”, a newspaper in China ran a 55-photo spread in celebration.
Eric Ervine, The Onion’s Art Director, and his team use both straightforward stock imagery from sources like Getty Images and their own photographs, and they create combinations of both. They will snag people from around the office to act as body doubles for the camera, and then photoshop the head of whichever celebrity is appropriate for the story. (Ervine says his own body has been in almost a thousand photo-illustrations). But in general, he says, “we always try to lean towards reality. If we can’t avoid using Photoshop we will. If there’s ever a chance to just put everything in camera, that’s what we’ll do. The human mind can identify something that looks fake from a mile away. We don’t just make funny pictures,” Ervine says, “we make delicate portraits of absurdity.”
But no matter how sharp or incisive the final product is, the editors and writers are known for downplaying their influence beyond the world of humor. Cole Bolton, editor in chief of The Onion has described himself as merely a comedian first, a satirist second, and a social commentator third.
Onion writer Todd Hanson told the Washington Post, “we hear it a lot these days, this idea that ‘Colbert’ and ‘The Daily Show’ and The Onion have risen to the challenge of speaking truth to power. I think maybe we made some people feel better, that there was this plucky little voice dissenting in the media wilderness, but I don’t think it’s really affecting elections. We were going after Bush right after 9/11. He still won in 2004.”
As Hanson admits, “I wouldn’t say we have the broadest spectrum of political inclinations on our staff, but we’re not here to be a pal to liberals or to be a mouthpiece for the Democratic Party. We’re here to make fun of things that are dumb.”
While Saturday Night Live and countless other comedians struck gold spoofing George W. Bush, The Onion found him impossible. “It’s been a nightmare trying to figure out what to do with him,” contributor Joe Garden told the Washington Post in 2008.
And Trump, Ervine tells TIME, “it’s really actually hard, because we don’t go for low-hanging fruit. He’s just so absurd that making any comment on it just seems—it doesn’t strike. It would cheapen the overall quality of what we do if we lowered ourselves to that. When things are really this nuts, we have to turn the microscope on even higher to find the sharper wit.”
One politician The Onion can’t seem to get enough of is Joe Biden. But the writers have a curious take on him, one that is completely unrecognizable to anyone who has read about the man. “Diamond Joe” writes bad checks, washes his muscle car shirtless in front of the White House, and has been forcibly ejected from Dave & Buster’s multiple times. It was a risky move for the writers to reshape the real Biden’s family-man persona into a straight-up dirtbag, but one that paid off. (The Onion claims the real Biden loves the caricature…but The Onion claims a lot of things.)
In a time when it’s increasingly difficult to tell reality from parody—when, in fact, there is a whole website devoted to real news headlines that sound like The Onion’s—where does America’s Finest News Source™ go from here?
Myles Little is a senior photo editor at TIME.