Summer Reading: Death in the US? Funny, that

Andrew Gumbel on a spoof that took the States by storm and is heading our way
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The Independent Culture
Someday, maybe all newspapers will read this way: a dream combination of hard news ("Fed chief announces lowering of interest in Fed chief's wife") with trenchant social reportage ("Nation's educators alarmed by poorly written teen suicide notes") and cutting-edge developments from the worlds of science and medicine ("Marijuana linked to sitting around and getting high").

I'm sorry, I'll read that again. Someday, maybe all newspapers will realise how easily they open themselves to the deadpan satirical smarts of The Onion, the new comedic craze sweeping the US, which presents itself as an earnest small-town newspaper while fulfilling its Flaubertian mission to blast stupidity, particularly journalistic stupidity, in every conceivable form.

Every week for the past three years, a new issue of The Onion has blasted off into cyberspace from a tatty little office in Madison, Wisconsin, turning what was once a quirky college rag into a national cult - the newspaper spoof to end all newspaper spoofs. No subject has escaped the attention of the editors, from the tireless efforts of think-tanks and academic researchers: "Midwest dicovered between east, west coasts" to up-to-the-minute analyses of diminishing standards in both politics and entertainment: "Gore vs Bush ... the same choice I have to face in selecting my pay-per-view movies every night!"

Now The Onion is hitting British shores, in the form of a full-length book entitled Our Dumb Century: 100 Years of Headlines from America's Finest News Source. Across the Atlantic, the book shot straight to the top of the best-seller list. While purporting to make fun of the events of our times, it sinks just as many barbs into the culture of celebrity and media-saturation, not to mention a few directed at us gullible readers.

The sinking of the Titanic ("World's biggest metaphor hits iceberg") is reported through the breathy language of a telegram from the rescue ship, the Carpathia: "Titanic struck by icy representation of nature's supremacy STOP Insufficient lifeboats due to pompous certainty in man's infallibility STOP Microcosm of larger society STOP".

And here is The Onion on the abdication of Edward VIII: "Meaningless figurehead abdicates meaningless role - world captivated by powerless monarch's decision to give up irrelevant position to marry divorcee". The headlines, and the fleshed-out stories, have a habit of creeping up on you unawares, no more than tickling you at first with their outrageous plausibility and their pleasingly off-kilter relationship to the real world.

The writers behind The Onion, most of them graduates of the University of Wisconsin who never left their college town, acknowledge influences as disparate as Monty Python and the chat-show host David Letterman. Mostly, though, their originality stems from the fact that they have remained true to their cock-eyed vision of the world.

The long-standing team of editor Scott Dikkers and publisher Peter Haise still works out of a cramped office stuffed with beanbags and dirty coffee cups, dreaming up headlines with a group of old friends who have evolved into professional colleagues. Although known locally since The Onion's inception in the late 1980s, their brand of goofy humour has taken off since they moved on to the internet in 1996. An estimated 1.5 million fans log on each week.

For the year 2000, The Onion predicts Jews and Arabs forging "a new era of peace", asks whether a rich white male could be the next US president, and prints a dramatic picture of the Christian right ascending to heaven. Oh, and Muhammad Ali delivers a killer punch to knock out Ronald Reagan in a nursing-home scuffle.