If irony really is dead, you might mark its toe tag May 10, 2000, launch date of Inside.com. Years before co-founding that high-profile media-news website, editor Kurt Andersen co-founded the satiric Spy, a magazine that in the '80s and '90s treated the media and entertainment businesses as sardonically as Inside treats them earnestly. Writing about the new venture in New York magazine, media columnist Michael Wolff argued that you couldn't pull off a Spy online if you wanted to, for the Web is an "irony-resistant environment."
But is it really? Spy's rarefied, Manhattan-centric humor wouldn't be likely to find a mass audience online, but the cheap, egalitarian Web has long been a haven for wisenheimers: the cutting commentary of Suck (www.suck.com), the deadpan fake-newspaper Onion (www.theonion.com) and the esoteric wit of McSweeney's (www.mcsweeneys.net). More recently, old media have tried to get Blair Witch-y with sites like Time Warner's Entertaindom (www.entertaindom.com), whose flashy but lame Hollywood spoofs prove the rule that online humor is funny in inverse proportion to its budget. And even in the Web's grownup days of corporate sites and e-commerce, a pair of scrappy newcomers is continuing the tradition of wicked pop-culture satire online.
The addictively mean Fametracker (www.fametracker.com) — "The Farmer's Almanac of Celebrity Worth" — is dedicated to exposing the overexposed and meting out punishment for hubris. Its signature feature, the "Fame Audit," dissects superstars' careers and publicity binges with surgical detail. On Ben Affleck: "[He] has had a Counting Crows kind of career — too much, too fast, too soon. This isn't his fault, but it is his problem." Each audit tots the star's assets and liabilities (Affleck's: "Easygoing, cocksure charm"/ "Consistently refers to his acting as 'the work'") and judges the celeb's "actual" and "deserved" level of fame (for Affleck, respectively: "Johnny Depp" and "Omar Epps"). The site's "2 Stars, 1 Slot" compares eerily similar niche actors (Vicki Lewis vs. Kathy Griffin in "Battle of the Redheaded Flibbertigibbets"), while the forthcoming "Media Hog" will be a celebrity fantasy league where readers "adopt" stars, who score points for hogging press coverage.
When Fametracker disses the famous, they stay dissed. Yet its nastiness is informed by a genuine love of show biz. "If we thought everything was crap," says editor Tara Ariano, "we wouldn't go see four movies a week." Fametracker simply wants justice: "Do you know," says Giancarlo Esposito's audit, "how many underappreciated, underrecognized and underutilized actors — like Giancarlo Esposito — could be made famous simply by stripping Whoopi Goldberg of her fame and dispensing it to the deserving?" Preach it!
The wildly inventive Modern Humorist (www.modernhumorist.com), founded by Harvard Lampoon alums John Aboud and Michael Colton, has a broader satiric scope, which has led some to call it the National Lampoon of the Web. But its richest targets have been pop culture and the media. When US Weekly retracted a claim that Tom Cruise had fallen out with the Church of Scientology, MH fired off "Corrections the Scientologists Made Us Run," including "Tom Cruise does not stand on a phone book whenever he and Nicole Kidman are photographed together. Instead she stands in a hole." It greeted Oprah Winfrey's O magazine with J: the Jerry [Springer] Magazine and has also posted Misfortune, a post-market-crash version of a certain Time Inc. publication ("Rightsizing your family: Does your household have more mouths than food?"). It has even parodied parodies, spoofing how Budweiser's "Wassup?" ads have been overspoofed with a version that ends, "We're sick of this joke too."
Colton and Aboud plan to broaden their readership by cutting back on media jokes, but such stunts earn MH attention from a vain press — the Misfortune parody was published in Fortune too — which is pure gold for a Web start-up. In an exception to the aforementioned Entertaindom rule, MH has scored backing from venture capitalists, who hope its brand can be slapped on books, video games and movies. ("We tell them, 'Think Modern Humorist's Scuba School with Corey Haim,'" cracks Colton.) The money has been used to hire a staff of 10 and add multimedia. MH's "Summer Movie eView" includes audio files like a fake Aerosmith ballad for The Patriot.
Of course, Mad used to do the same thing by publishing lyrics with the tag "Sung to the tune of ..." But be honest: Were you aware that Mad still exists? Satire in print may have its problems — Spy folded in 1998 — but irony online seems safe as long as obsessive jokesters have modems. "Most of America doesn't read," says Aboud. "But they do like glowing pictures."