A Brief History of Fake News


Tonight, IFC premieres The Onion News Network, a weekly half-hour series in which the satirical newspaper and website tries its hand at “bringing truth to cable news.” Though the execution is timely (the series is full of Fox News-style whooshing graphics, barking pundits, and aggressive slogans like “news without mercy”), the notion of parody news goes back decades. Join us for a brief history of fake news in popular culture.

That Was the Week That Was (1962-1965)

David Frost was the straight-laced host of this irreverent current events program, which aired on the BBC for two years before jumping to NBC for its final season. The series sent up television conventions, contemporary mores, and authority in general; the original BBC show’s all-star writing staff included Dennis Potter, Roald Dahl, Peter Cook, and future Monty Python members John Cleese and Graham Chapman.

Saturday Night Live: “Weekend Update” (1975-present)

Saturday Night Live‘s most durable segment — seen from its very first episode on — is “Weekend Update,” the weekly newscast, a catch-all for political satire, show-biz spoofs, and general silliness. In the first season, it made the show’s first breakout star out of Chevy Chase (“Good evening, I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not”); over the ensuing 35 years, Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtain, Bill Murray, Dennis Miller, Kevin Nealon, Norm MacDonald, Colin Quinn, Tina Fey, Jimmy Fallon, Amy Poehler, and Seth Myers (among others) have held down the desk, with the help of a rotating cast of correspondents and commentators.

Network (1976)

Patty Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet’s Oscar-winning satire of network television is best remembered not for its prescient predictions of the reality TV craze or corporate monopolization of media; what everyone remembers is crazed network news anchor Howard Beale going off-script, encouraging his viewers to lean out their windows and yell “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Faye Dunaway’s ruthless network executive doesn’t get semi-suicidal Beale the help he needs; she exploits his populist rant and turns his nightly news hour into a slick entertainment package, and lets him say whatever the hell he wants. In 1976, the notion of turning over an hour of network television to a deranged demagogue and his batshit theories was satire; these days, well, turn on Fox News at 5pm Eastern.

Not Necessarily The News (1983-1990)

This HBO original program (one of their first) was a broad sketch comedy showcase, utilizing not only fake news breaks and packages but commercial spoofs, sight gags that manipulated and supplemented news footage, and long-running segments of their own (like Rich Hall’s popular “Sniglets” feature). In its final season, the show’s format shifted to primarily focus on two anchors (Tom Parks and Annabelle Gurwitch) at a desk, doing joke news stories straight to camera, with additional comedy bits during their commercial breaks. (Among the show’s creative team was a young writer named Conan O’Brien.)

The Wilton North Report (1987-1988)

Fox’s second big fumble in late night was this short-lived (21 whole episodes!) mock news and commentary hour. Here’s how it happened: When the network fired Joan Rivers from The Late Show (their attempt to topple her old boss Johnny Carson from late-night supremacy), a series of guest hosts were brought in while a new show was developed. That new show was Wilton North, and the network was so certain of its success that even when Late Show fill-in host Arsenio Hall began to drawn an audience, the network only signed him to do the 13 weeks until Wilton North was ready for air. After Hall signed off, the new show signed on — and tanked immediately. Less than a month later, Fox yanked the show; a year later, most of the Fox affiliates who had carried it found a new syndicated program to fill its late-night slot: The Arsenio Hall Show.

The Onion (1988-present)

University of Wisconsin-Madison juniors Tim Keck and Christopher Johnson started the satirical newspaper The Onion in 1988; it was distributed in print edition in a limited number of cities before gaining worldwide attention when it went online in 1996. The paper became best known for their quotable headlines (“Drugs Win Drug War,” “Everyone Involved in Pizza’s Preparation Extremely High,” “Area 15-Year-Old Only Homosexual In The Whole World,” “Christ Returns to NBA”), though their regular horoscopes, “STATshots,” point-counterpoints, and “American Voices” features are equally uproarious.

TV Nation (1994-1995)/ The Awful Truth (1999-2000)

Between his breakout success with Roger & Me and his Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore had some lean years. He spent a few of them taking his confrontational (and, in those days, more frequently satirical) style to television, producing and hosting two TV series, both of them parodying the newsmagazine format. TV Nation (which ran one season on NBC and one on Fox) featured several memorable segments, including the show’s hiring of a lobbyist to get Congress to declare a “TV Nation Day”; “Payback Night,” in which a line of cars, with alarms blaring, were lined up in front of the home of a car alarm company CEO early in the morning; “The Serial Killer Next Door” (above), which challenged the narrative of the “quiet guy who kept to himself” by renting a home, moving in an actor, and having him act as suspiciously as possible; and the repeated adventures of “Crackers, the Corporate-Crime Fighting Chicken.”

Crackers returned for Moore’s follow-up series The Awful Truth, which ran two seasons on Channel 4 in Britain and Bravo in America; that show’s highlights included Alan Keyes in a mosh pit, a chorus of throat and lung cancer victims singing Christmas carols through their voice boxes at Philip Morris headquarters, and the travels of the Sodomobile, a pink van that drove through the states with sodomy laws still on the books, with gay men and women inside committing those very acts.

The Daily Show (1996-present)

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Comedy Central’s nightly news parody show debuted in 1996 with SportsCenter host Craig Kilborn at the helm, but didn’t really find its voice until Kilborn departed to take over The Late Late Show. (Coincidentally, that show became infinitely more enjoyable when Kilborn left and was replaced by Craig Ferguson. We eagerly await the next show Kilborn leaves.) That’s when Jon Stewart took over the anchor desk and the show took off, with Stewart’s live news wraps (and the correspondents’ “on scene” stand-ups and taped packages) shedding a harsh but uproarious spotlight on the hypocrisy, exasperation, and general insanity of modern political culture.

The Colbert Report (2005-present)

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Colbert joined the cast of The Daily Show in 1997, and slowly developed the character of “Stephen Colbert,” a blowhard, blow-dried type, described by the actor as a “well-intentioned, poorly-informed, high-status idiot.” His spin-off, The Colbert Report, began as a joke commercial that aired during The Daily Show, envisioning a blustery, confrontational program in the O’Reilly Factor mold. But response to the spot was so enthusiastic that Colbert, Stewart, and producer Ben Karlin created the off-shot show, which quickly developed from a one-joke spoof to an expert satire on punditry, ego, and uninformed political commentary.

The Half Hour News Hour (2007)

Joel Surnow, producer of the torture-lovin’ Fox action show 24, took his first stab at comedy with this weekly Fox News Channel effort, pitched accurately as a “Daily Show for conservatives.” It ran for 17 weeks in 2007, to initially decent but rapidly declining ratings and scorching reviews — not just from the New York Times (“Sometimes the humor is so heavy-handed that it seems almost like self-parody”), but from The Orlando Sentinel (“‘Weekend Update’ on its worst night isn’t this bad”), The Onion AV Club (“It’s even worse than anyone imagined”), and Variety (“As for Surnow, in a sense, he’s added a program to his resume that neatly dovetails with 24 — demonstrating that stiff, uninspired comedy isn’t exactly torture; it’s just not much fun”). In spite of the participation of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, The Half Hour News Hour just wasn’t meant to be.

Onion SportsDome/ The Onion News Network (2011)

Proclaiming itself a “24-hour non-stop news assault,” The Onion News Network began as a series of daily web videos in 2007; two years later, a sports-centered spin-off called The Onion Sports Network joined it online. Now, both shows are hitting television airwaves. The Onion SportsDome, a weekly half-hour parody of sports programming (particularly ESPN’s SportsCenter) debuted January 11th on Comedy Central, while The Onion News Network hits IFC tonight. Many wondered how the show would distinguish itself from The Daily Show and Colbert, but the show wisely avoids those comparisons by mostly steering clear of political satire and playing in the newspaper’s sandbox of general silliness. Most of The Onion News Network is centered on the network’s signature show, FactZone with Brook Alvarez, though clips and ads are seen for the network’s other programs, like The Cressbeckler Stance (a kind of cross between Nancy Grace and Bill O’Reilly), Today Now! (an insipid morning chat show), and Concurrence Round Table, an overly agreeable discussion show (“How can someone so handsome also make such cogent remarks?”). In one notable way, though, the show blurs the line between real and fake news: network star “Brooke Alvarez,” a ruthless, beautiful blond, is played by Suzanne Sena… a former Fox News anchor.

So what is your favorite fake news program? And will you check out The Onion’s new show?