You think you’re funny, do you?

18 September 2006

How a typical John O’Farrell column is, or rather was, laid out:

  • Intentionally misleading introduction hinting about something topical yet heavy such as MRSA or international terrorism…
  • …which turns out to actually be about something trivial, like the Lib Dems, or foxhunting
  • Mock dialogue between imaginary protagonists which flogs this dead horse to tedious shreds
  • Highly unoriginal observation – George Bush a bit fond of war, David Beckham not the sharpest tool in the box, Royal Family slightly on the German side
  • Blindingly obvious “turn the concept on its head” joke – “Of course, we all remember when Hitler courted controversy by dressing as a Nazi”
  • Dig at the Tories to prove he’s still right-on, eh kids?
  • Talks about self for a bit in a smug self-congratulatory “I’m a satirist, this is what I do” tone
  • End on a vaguely serious note and a question in a desperate attempt To Be Profound

Christ. It’s a bit like those segments on programmes like That’s Life! where the host would go “And now here’s John with an irreverent look at the week’s news”, with a flick of the eyebrows and an insincere grin that is a sure sign that whatever’s going to come on, it’ll be about as funny as root canal surgery.

Having long ago deciding to blank his horrible unfunny writing out of my vision I barely noticed him leaving the Guardian last year, but now he’s back. Whoop-dee-do. John O’Farrells’s launching a website with some crushingly awful name like NewsBiscuit.com and is given a free opportunity by the Beeb to relentlessly plug it as the saviour of British ‘net comedy, because apparently, according to John, there aren’t any funny sites out there.

Well, actually that’s bollocks. There are plenty of funny UK satire sites (or sites with a large UK contingent), but they operate in a variety of comedic forms and are much more decentralised than the “look at me, I’m being funny” column of old. As the web allows for all kinds of other visual representations, written satire on current affairs have had to share with other forms of media, such as photoshopping, animations, webcomics, audio and video. For someone who runs a comedy satire website, he is shockingly ignorant of internet humour; he thinks the Popbitch mailout is a humour newsletter, rather than a collection of gossip and links when the only real attempt at deliberate comedy is an intentionally bad joke at the end. He doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of the satirical content of community sites such as B3ta or Something Awful, or the current explosion in comedy podcasts, or productions hosted on YouTube (which he seems to think is an online version of You’ve Been Framed).

Of course, within this menagerie of different media, there is still find old-fashioned, written satire, but much of it is now spread over a wide range of blogs, rather than a centralised collection of sites. Dedicated satire sites do still exist of course, such as the Rockall Times, DeadBrain, The Framley Examiner or Social Scrutiny, but the bar is now much higher than it used to be. John O’Farrell’s problem is simply that isn’t much demand in the real world for the forumulaic, schoolboy-style rehashing of stereotypes that makes up his flaccid routine.

What’s worse is that the web reduces the separation between real-world demand and the producer. Nobody buys the Guardian for the jokes, so your boring column can carry on for years without it damaging reading figures or causing your editor any worry. On the web it’s different – if you’re not funny, you’re just not going to be read or linked to. You’ll just end being one of the million Onion wannabes that sit there, eventually abandoned and gathering dust. That’s the real reason why John O’Farrell can’t find anything he thinks is funny on the web, and why in one or two year’s time his site will be a half-forgotten relic.

Update: Tom has more:

And of course, what O?Farrell doesn?t realise is that his ?plan is to get young talented humourists all over the world to send their stuff to me? is the antithesis of how the web works. They don?t need to send their stuff to John O?Farrell (sweet of him to offer, though). They can just do it themselves, and it might be superbly constructed comedy gold, or it might just be a picture of a willy drawn with MS Paint. That?s the fun. And if they do choose just to draw pictures of willies with MS Paint, well? it?ll still be funnier than NewsBiscuit.

Further update: Hahaha. That’s more like it.

Final update, I promise: The Guardian’s Organ Grinder cites me as an example of “blog bitching” about the whole thing. Oooh, get her. The comments made by users broadly agree with me, though.


19 Responses

Intentionally misleading introduction hinting about something topical yet heavy… which turns out to actually be about something trivial.

*Hangs head in shame*

Iain

The thing that really struck me about the site is that it’s doing (as part of its general failed attempt to be a British Onion) the comedy headlines thing down the side. The Onion, however, has got these down to a fine art of one-liner, without O’Farrell’s tedious need to flesh that single joke out to an entire dull article behind the link.

Yep – the article was just sort of… well, embarrassing. I read his stuff in the paper occasionally – didn’t think it was particularly bad, but no great fan either – but I tried really really hard to find a single thing in the article that wasn’t wrong, and couldn’t.

Well, thank dog someone’s said it. I was fundamentally bemused by this BBC plugblag yesterday. I did pop in a comment but I forgot that the BBC is always right and, of course, my contrary opinion was roundly ignored.
Meanwhile “hi” to JonnyB – we have a mutual friend – I adore your blog.
Talking of plugs, thanks for mine and have a look at another Myway Code

I agree entirely. It’s a shame the BBC published his press release without challenging his suggestion that there is no other British satire online. It’s annoyed a lot of people.

There are plenty of good writers out there seeking an outlet for their work who can’t be bothered with running their own site or blog. Like just about every other site, somehow I doubt he’ll be paying them, but he can’t offer them much of an audience either.

Just what the web needs, another Onion wannabe that’ll be gone in a year – or sooner if someone comes along with a paid writing gig for him.

Hullo Ian V. Thank you – appreciate that, very much so. Likewise your books.

(Sorry everybody – just talk amongst yourselves)

Realised quite how inarticulate my comment was above. If you read ‘read’ as being past tense ‘read’ rather than present tense ‘read’ then it should read a bit more readably.

As Mr Mullet said, the BBC article has annoyed a lot of people – I’m glad to see that’s its been picked up across the web. Having said that though, I think that it will be difficult for O’Farrell to apply those 8 steps to his new endeavour – most of the articles have fewer words than all of the text of those 8 steps, they are obviously being written for those who struggle to concentrate long enough to read a text message.

Oh, JonnyB – it’s good to finally meet someone else from West Norfolk that not only has Internet access, but it putting something online with it.

I’m rather intrigued by “The site currently does not make nearly enough money from advertising to pay its overheads let alone make a dent in the start up costs”

How much does it really cost to design and run a site in WordPress, or did some canny web designer see them coming, do the old plumber routine and charge them ?30k?

I also like the explicit breaking of Google Ads’ terms of service in the cycling headlines above the main column…

Still, who am I to mock? The message board is full of praise – and it’s not like Mr John “humourless propaganda emails for Labour in the run-up to last year’s general election” O’Farrell would stoop to astroturfing on his own site, is it?

Well, we’ve just started up As A Dodo and in the past month our running costs have amounted to … er … zero. Do you think John O’Funny’s ever heard of free blogging software?

ducksam

I’m not very web-savvy, but I’ve been looking for good internet satire, because I want to contribute and, I have to say, there is definitely a problem. All the sites mentioned in the above piece have their moments, but not enough to make them a destination. If the best of each of them was gathered in one place, it might be possible to create something with the consistency of The Onion. This seems to me a worthy objective.

NewsBiscuit is a terrible name, which is a great shame, and the current content is variable, but I would say, on the whole, more consistent than most other UK news satire sites. I agree that O’Farrell’s columns were formulaic and mostly not very good, but that’s the problem with asking one writer to produce a lot of material. Which is the same problem with comedy/satire blogs.

I agree with most of what you say in your piece, Chris, but I disagree with your conclusion. You seem to be saying that it’s in the nature of the internet that talent should be dispersed and that readers should have to wade through a lot of crap to find the jewels. I think that’s what turns off a lot of people.

Those of you who are writers should swallow your pride and start imagining a brave new internet where there is quality control, proper editing, and you get paid for your work. Or am I missing the whole point of the internet – enthusiastic amateurism?

ducksam

Hope it wasn’t too late to post and someone replies…

Those of you who are writers should swallow your pride and start imagining a brave new internet where there is quality control, proper editing, and you get paid for your work.

Well, that’s the point – it’s very little to do with the organisation of comedy on the web, and a lot to do with the sustainability of revenue streams on the web, which is what you need for the sort of full-time, professionally edited venture you’re talking about. I don’t think any writers need to “swallow their pride” to think that it would be great if there were a large number of websites that accepted submissions and paid well for them. “Allow your wildest fantasies to run riot” would probably be a more accurate description of the necessary mental process there.

But those websites just aren’t there, because the money just isn’t reliably there. That’s why the places where people get edited and paid are mostly offshoots from traditional media – remember, The Onion (which is able to maintain its consistency in a way few other sites are because it does have a paid staff) was, and still is, a paper paper.

Way back when, in the heady days of Bubble 1.0, there were a lot of dedicated comedy portals that got launched, then mostly died quickly. Maybe we’ll see some more crop up soon now that the money’s back, but even then, I suspect they’re more likely to be community-based, social-networky aggregators of stuff, with voting and tagging and rounded corners, than traditional central-editor models.

Which is what Chris was actually getting at, I think – the web actually has excellent mechanisms for bypassing the need to wade through crap, and they’re all socially driven by communities at large, rather than by John O’Farrell’s (or anybody else’s) personal editorial taste.

ducksam – so far, NewsBiscuit has yet to publish any true current affairs satire – all of it’s stories could pretty much have been published at any point this year. At best, they are publishing Onion B stories of the kind that appear as the one paragraph shorts. The content is great for a cheap laugh but has little substance – in it’s current state it is not challenging the existing top UK satire sites (which for the most part are run by individuals in their spare time) let alone contend with The Onion – which O’Farrell’s press release implied he was.

I agree with you, the content is consistent – however, as with most production line comedy (the Onion included) is only as good as the ingredients comprising it. Whereas the Onion has a team of writer working on an individual story, those on NewsBiscuit seem to be a short and formulaic creation of a individual playing on cliched, tried and tested satire techniques.

ducksam

Perhaps ‘swallow your pride’ was a bit strong. It’s just that some of the anti-O’Farrell vitriol seemed to be motivated by his dismissal of current web satire. Tom, I absolutely take your point about revenue streams. I’m assuming that O’Farrell’s aim is that, in the long run, NewsBiscuit should be able to finance itself, including paying writers, through advertising. It seems to me that gathering the best in one place is the essential precondition for creating enough traffic to interest advertisers.

Ben, you’re spot on about the current content on NewsBiscuit. I hope that they just thought, let’s throw some stuff up there and build from there. By ‘existing top UK satire sites’, if you mean DeadBrain, RockallTimes and the others mentioned by Chris in his piece, I agree that NewsBiscuit is not challenging them for ambition at the moment, but as for quality, there’s not much to choose.

I just think it would be great to see the best of DeadBrain et al gathered in one place and given great production. The more ‘authentic’ the presentation, the better the satire works – another problem with the amateur aesthetic of most web content.

I was a little uneasy at the strength of some of the anti-J’oF sentiments – and I don’t believe his site is crap. However, the BBC article was so ill-judged and that’s what I think frustrated people.

The ‘consolidate things for a revenue stream’ point is good. However, if I were to start a business making margarine tubs, I’d probably need to get some form of bank loan in order to pay the people I wanted to supply me with plastic.

I assume that they would not want to donate the plastic on the offchance that I could build up my margerine tub business and possibly buy plastic off them in the future.

That might be shortsighted on the part of the plastics people. But hey! They have to make that sort of decision in the plastics business. It’s a dog eat dog world.

(sorry for the long reply…)

JonnyB’s right, as site owners we shouldn’t rely on people writing for free, and I don’t. To continue the analogy, I was using my own plastic to make margarine tubs before anyone else offered me theirs.

I was on the verge of being able to pay writers a few years back, but then our ad revenue collapsed along with everyone else’s and it hasn’t recovered to the point where I could make meaningful payments. The people who have written for me over the years have never done so because they thought I’d be able to pay them one day (on the few occasions that I’ve mentioned the possibility, a couple have said they wouldn’t want paying anyway). They write because they enjoy doing it, but everyone’s got to eat.

Right now I don’t know of any UK site that pays its writers, which is a great shame because I’ve seen some brilliant writers and they deserve to be rewarded. The only realistic way that’s going to happen is if a handful of sites really take off. As ducksam said, both for the sake of quality and survival, we have to come together in some way.

Unfortunately I don’t see that happening any time soon. I don’t blame people for starting new sites ? heck I did that five years ago and there were a few other sites then, like the much-missed Brains Trust and Herd of Sheep. Everyone dreams of being as successful as The Onion, but while we’re all doing similar things in competition we’re only dividing the audience. More often than not the new guys are gone within a few months, either because they get bored or they get fed up with nobody reading their stuff. If they’d joined an existing site and helped promote that in the first place then we’d all be better off.

O’Farrell might not follow that rule because he has the contacts to build up an audience, but that will only work if the content’s good enough. Right now the majority view seems to be that it isn’t.

Satire editors are already working together through projects like HumorFeed, but it’s hard to see any closer cooperation because that would probably involve people giving up their sites to some degree. So we’ll all just carry on doing what we’re doing, and innovating where we can. I just hope the mediocrity doesn’t come through the middle and give us all a bad name in the meantime.

ducksam

Well, the submissions board for NewsBiscuit is online and… people are not getting paid for their submissions. Hardly likely to inspire satirists everywhere. I don’t know how I feel about submitting material now. As a journalist myself, I resent writing for free. But there’s no other outlet for this kind of material as far as I’m aware. Bah.

Hunter H. Cashdollar

Yes, this annoyed a lot of people- unjustifiably so.

Hunter Cashdollar

I will continue to visit enjoyed the reading thanks