"Fake news" has some real history by now. It's the label that's been applied not only to The Daily Show and The Onion, but also to decades-old magazines and TV shows like David Frost's That Was the Week That Was, The Harvard Lampoon's send-ups of leading news weeklies, Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update," and England's topical puppet show Spitting Image.
But Tony Hendra, a pioneer of the form, bristles at the term "fake news." The British born Hendra, a former stand-up comedian (I saw Hendra and Nick Ullett on the Ed Sullivan Show when I was a kid), was a writer on the National Lampoon Radio Hour (which gave birth to Saturday Night Live), editor-in-chief of Spy magazine, and the co-founder, publisher, and editor of the guerilla parodies Not The New York Times, Off The Wall Street Journal, and Not The Bible. His latest ventures are the satirical-news site The Final Edition (started in 2011) and its accompanying The Final Edition Radio Hour—organizations that fabricate news events but are not, Hendra says, "fake news."
The term "lumps together a whole category of skills, none of which involve faking news," Hendra says. Better labels are caricature news or parody news, which is what Hendra and his cohorts had in mind when they launched Not The New York Times, which involved creating "improbable stories to heighten the absurdity of the Times fustian reportage: Pope Dies Yet Again, Reign is Briefest Ever, Cardinals Return from Airport. Or just covering a cultural phenom utterly foreign to the Times in the same style: 'A New Drug, "Cocaine" Appears Popular.'"
Hendra acknowledges he is part of a grand tradition. "Commenting comedically on the news goes all the way back to Will Rogers," he told me recently. "It was revived in a more savage form by Mort Sahl, Robert Klein, and others, and is continued brilliantly now by Bill Maher and Jon Stewart, the latter with an incredible level of day-to-day consistency." Regarding The Daily Show, Hendra points out that though it's billed as the "most trusted name in fake news," it's not actually fake news: "They exaggerate or bowdlerize—i.e. parody—the way others (e.g. Fox) report the news."
The comic-headlines style Hendra prefers was born at The National Lampoon, which he calls "satirical news." It operates on a simple premise: "You assert as fact a drastic exaggeration of a newsworthy person's position on a serious issue to expose their hypocrisy, venality or whatever is YOUR least favorite vice." He points to examples currently on The Final Edition, like Justice Thomas embracing the 3/5ths representation provision of the Constitution as a judicial tactic to undermine the Voting Rights Act, or Paul Ryan announcing that he plans to replace Medicare with a faith-based system of healthcare called Mediprayer. "These manipulations of fact are distinct from parody news in critiquing those who create news (the politicians, criminals, celebrities etc.) not those who report it," he says.
"Fake news," to Hendra connotes something more hoax-like. "The only really fake news I know of is on websites like the Daily Currant, which comes up with mildly absurd news stories that could be fact but aren't, with the sole aim of fooling the media they're true," he says. "They're welcome to the sub-category."
In the '90s, The Onion assumed The National Lampoon's satiric news format and made it their own, while adding a very large dollop of midwestern goofiness. The Onion is Hendra's leading competitor: "I think The Final Edition is way more political and sharply focused than The Onion and our surgery goes deeper. But their web stuff is often brilliant and it's easy to understand why users don't see the difference. Also—this may be early-onset megalomania—I think they've gotten more political and more cutting since we launched. There's a lot less of the 'Area Man' stuff than there used to be. In other news: Their radio material doesn't hold a candle to ours."
The Final Edition Radio Hour (Progressive Radio Network) created by Jeff Kreisler and Hendra, named after The NatLamp Radio Hour, features verbal sketches (or "scenes," as Hendra calls them) using stories from the week's Final Edition. It's made up of "sometimes parody news, sometimes parody commercials, song parodies, parody fables/kiddie stories, any form that works for the premise," he says. "And all used as vehicles for social and political satire which, for the most part NatLamp Radio Hour wasn't." In other words, TFE radio follows a once-standard audio format perfected by the Firesign Theater and other '60s and '70s comedy albums (like The First Family with Vaughn Meader). But today, "no one I know is doing this," he says. "One or more comedians being funny for a given slot of time is the standard format. But audio is an amazing medium: With a few sound effects you can create scenery or situations that would cost fortunes on video. In fact what we're really doing is audio versions of video—for peanuts—except audio is far more convincing than video because you're running on the power source of imagination."
In addition to practicing comedy virtually every day, Hendra is a scholar and philosopher of satire who subscribes to the "Law of Conservation of Humor, which states that there is a constant amount of humor in the material world and a constant number of humans who know how to extract it," he says. "There was a colossal (and regressive) explosion of yakkety-yak stand-up in the '80s and early '90s, but it didn't produce a greater number of truly funny writers and performers than any comparable previous period. Internet comedy has been going long enough now to be a comparable era and there's a similar plethora of would-be hilarions, fueled this time around by an explosion of amateur videographers. But I haven't so far come across any greater proportion of talent—or truly funny material—than in the previous era."
He adds with characteristic mock seriousness: "There's a related universal law affecting this cultural phenom which is: In any given population a constant majority—between 73.3% and 81.7% according to my research—of its males are convinced they're funny as shit. Of course they're not; but the digital revolution has given them so many platforms to prove they're not, there's now a colossal amount of worthless underbrush to plough through—just check out the [user-generated content] on Funny or Die and College Humor. And who has the time?"
Hendra has a vested interest in keeping comedy, and especially satire, alive. After all, it's a living. But he is also considering the greater good. "What defeated the GOP [in 2012] for anyone under 40 was the inescapable ocean of laughter that engulfed them, literally every day," he says. "A major political party cannot endure if almost every public statement it makes or position it takes, is accompanied by a laugh-track. Satire is rarely if ever a slam-dunk. It's the classic Chinese torture: it kills by a thousand cuts. And that ultimately is why satire—true satire—is so essential to a genuine democracy functioning in a genuine republic."