New wave of humor is no laughing matter

Pranksters and comedy outlets blur the line between reality and parody

It’s a brand of humor with a long tradition in Hollywood, stretching from Orson Welles to Andy Kaufman and Larry David.

But Michael Bay isn’t laughing.

Satirical news outlet the Onion Monday jettisoned from its home page a spoof opinion piece — written under the name and headshot of the director of humorless action pics like “Pearl Harbor.” It’s not clear if Bay — a frequent object of the Onion’s satire — requested the move.

The Onion is at the forefront of a new wave of pranksters, humor writers and comedy outlets determined to blur the line between reality and parody, harnessing the resources of publishing, the Web and Hollywood to broadcast their ideas to the widest possible audience.

Theirs is an unsettling form of comedy, ambiguous about its motives, unclear about where its sympathies lie, and not shy about tackling political time bombs.

Since 9/11, the Onion has swerved into more treacherous political waters, generating some of the most corrosive coverage of the media available anywhere.

On the anniversary of 9/11, the lead story featured the logos of all the networks, above the headline, “Which Network Will Bring Us Closure?”

“Those Chechen Rebels Stole My Idea,” purported to be Bay’s lament that the guerillas who seized the theater in Moscow must have broken into his house and stolen his treatment for “what would have been the biggest movie event since ‘Armageddon’.”

“It’s bad enough when studio suits take your idea and claim it as their own,” the editorial goes on to say, “but it’s even worse when it’s a band of heavily armed insurgents halfway around the world. I’d love to sue those assholes for plagiarism, but my lawyer couldn’t find their numbers anywhere in his rolodex. They’re probably not even Guild.”

Mining a somewhat similar vein is “Blackpeopleloveus.com,” a Web site created by Chelsea and Jonah Peretti, featuring photographs of jubilant Caucasian partygoers “Johnny and Sally,” played by the Perettis, surrounded by admiring African-American friends. The site comes with testimonials from Johnny and Sally’s pals, such as: “Sally’s always saying: ‘You go girl!’ while ‘raising the roof’ to mainstream hip-hop tracks at cheesy bars. That’s fun! I relate to that.”

The Perettis, who told the New York Times the site was designed “to promote dialogue,” have received hate mail from neo-Nazis, and criticism from readers who don’t get the joke.

They can also expect that Hollywood will soon come calling.

Film producers, after all, are far less concerned than most media outlets with inconvenient distinctions between fiction and reality. What Hollywood is looking for is a good story, and tricksters like the Perettis and the Onion writers seem to have a font of them.

Last year, when the Yale Free Press reported that a secret society of undergraduates was shooting a skin flick in the library called “The Staxx,” a phalanx of agents descended on New Haven and tied up their life rights. The story may or may not have been a hoax, but it kicked up such a media storm that Tribeca Productions ran with the idea, transmuted it into the successful Comedy Central original movie, “Porn ‘n Chicken.”

Writer Rodney Rothman took a lashing from the media after it emerged that he’d fabricated details in a New Yorker article about his experience impersonating “a junior projects manager” at a failing Manhattan dot-com firm.

But Rothman is one of a growing number of memoir writers who freely blend fact and fiction for comic effect. A former Letterman writer, Rothman orchestrated TV performances by members of a fake Broadway musical about the first moon landing, “One Small Step,” and a fake boy band, “Fresh Step.”

Rothman won’t likely get another assignment from the New Yorker, but he’s creating a show for HBO with Richard Linkletter and writing a book for Simon & Schuster.

Also under contract at S&S is Mark Sundeen, whose May 2003 release, “The Making of Toro,” is the comically semi-fabricated account of his attempt to write a macho, Hemingwayesque book about bullfighting, a topic he knows little about.

A number of bestselling writers, including David Sedaris and Dave Eggers, have found great success dabbling in this comic mode. But does the cynicism evinced in their work — toward nonfiction reporting, the authenticity of their own writing, and the limitations of their own readership — represent something new?

Rothman’s rep, 3 Arts Manager David Miner, thinks it does. “It’s post-cynical,” he said. “The idea is, everything has been done before. We’ve seen it all on TV. It’s all crap. It’s all fake. We know what we’re doing is funny. But it’s that much funnier if we don’t let on that it’s a joke.”

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