Tuesday, October 06, 2009

How to Write News Satire: or "Don't Clutter Up Your Editor's Inbox with Garbage."

--This is a speech I gave to a college class--

Since the dawn of man, we have searched for the answer to one of life's great questions. "How can I dupe that beautiful woman into having sex with me?" While apparently that will always remain a mystery, mankind has fared better with another great question: "What is funny?"

While humor is certainly subjective, there are many instances of universal humor. No matter how educated or refined you may think yourself, there is something inherently funny in watching a young child hit his father in the groin.
There are many other examples, such as certain words that invariably elicit a humorous reaction. Poop. Poop. Poop.

I must confess that I've lead you astray from the actual topic of my speech, which is not humor. The reason is that humor plays a vital role in news satire. For those of you that don't know, I am somewhat of an expert on the subject. For over three years, I wrote and edited a web site called The Fake News under the pen name Jimmy Wellington. At its highest point of popularity, I was averaging about 20 to 30 thousand page views a week. In my role as editor, I became the recipient of numerous unsolicited submissions from people who thought they had what it took to write news satire. They did not. If any of you have any dreams of writing news satire for fun and or profit, here are some things you need to know about the genre in order to succeed.

First of all, it needs to be funny. Not all satire is humorous, however news satire almost always is. It need not be laugh out loud funny, but there must be some element of humor involved. The headline is the most important piece of the article as far as humor is concerned. You must convince the reader that there is a reason to keep reading. Some examples from my web site include: "Bush Promises no Negative Advertising Against John Edwards and His Fat-Ass Wife," "Gore Plans to Run Again, Will Start at Two Miles A Day," "Die Hard Janet Reno Fans: 'Still The Right Man For the Job."

It must be topical. The vast majority of news satire must closely follow the event that you are parodying. While it was very well received at the time, a story such as "One Hot White Chick Injured in Tsunami (200,000 Asians Killed Too)" would not be remembered by enough people in our "what is happening right this minute" society. If the event occurred in the past, it must be something that people will immediately remember and associate with, such as "Oswald's Girlfriend Says Assassin Was Also Fast on the Trigger in the Bedroom." There are some exceptions to this, but this is just the general rule.

It needs to be well-written and include more than just a funny headline. The headline is a very important part of the story, as mentioned before, but there must be more to it than just a funny idea. This part is the hardest part for most people, even experienced writers. Bill Doty, editor of the popular internet site "Broken Newz," says that "a lot of the time coming up with an idea is the easy part. The hard part is grinding out a full article."

I now want to spend some time discussing certain types of news satire stories that recur most often. The first of these is what I call the Onion's "Area Man" format, in which an everyday event is described in the same manner as is usually reserved for major news stories. An example of this from my site is "Man Dupes Girlfriend Into Seeing Porn Movie."

The second main type of story is extreme overstatement. This one is fairly self explanatory. "NYC Wins Olympic Bid, San Francisco Settles for Gay Pride Parade - Again," or "Boy Scouts Set To Execute Retarded Scout." For those of you that don't remember, in regards to the second story, it was written in response to a real news story about the Boy Scouts excluding a gay student. My cousin who wrote this article, said that this was the next logical step, at least in his wonderfully twisted mind.

The third main category is kind of hard to sum up in a single sentence. It is when you take a real news story and retell it in a false way. I said that this is hard to explain so it's probably best to use some examples yet again. "Abu Ghraib Prison Abuse Photos Prove Arabs Have Blurry Genitals," "ACLU Praises Maryland Sniper for Equal Opportunity Killings," or "Second Wave of Horror Hits Southeast Asia as Hollywood Stars Arrive."

In my opinion, the last type of stories is usually the best.

So I've shown you a little bit about the world of news satire. I am going to leave you with two suggestions as I close in case you have a desire to either start your own website or contribute to another website. And just in case you have any crazy ideas, The Onion doesn't accept unsolicited submissions, at least from the over 40 other satire editors that I've talked to over the years.

The first piece of advice I have to you is very simple, but based on the quality of the submissions I've received over the years, many people don't get it. Be Funny. If you're not a naturally funny person, either get funny or choose another hobby. I personally believe that while people can improve their ability to write humor, but some people, no matter how hard they try, just aren't funny. If you're one of those people that just isn't funny, best of luck. I hear Saturday Night Live is looking for writers.

The second piece of advice is to proofread your work. As an editor, if I started reading a submission and it had a spelling or grammar error, I became irritated. On the third error, I hit delete. Perhaps in an office next to the castle in the Land of Make-Believe there exists an editor who will take the time to correct your spelling and grammar mistakes. However, I don't know of any.

Best of luck.
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