A Satire Venture Co-founded by Elon Musk Arrives With a Thud
The media company, run by former Onion editors, promises that Musk—no longer part of the operation—isn’t responsible for the comedy.
I was instructed to “get my saliva ready.”
Images of a bacon cheeseburger, an ice-cream sundae, a steak, a cow, a monster truck, a male torso, and a smiling Chef Emeril Lagasse flashed before my eyes, presumably to help me salivate. The webcam on my MacBook activated and zeroed in on my mouth, which I was asked to contort along a stenciled outline. Mouth agape and in place, I snapped the photo.
“Sorry, your saliva was sloshing too quickly,” the website quickly notified me. “Please steady yourself and try again.” I repeated the oral contortion, took another photo, and was told my “saliva looks great!”
After answering four final questions—whether any of my ancestors are canines; which, of a drop-down list of choices, is my most prominent deformity; what the last four letters of my genome are; and how many of my grandparents have engaged in sexual intercourse with Genghis Khan—I was ready to submit my DNA test on DNA Friend.
Immediately, DNA Friend sent me an email promising I would receive my “comprehensive genetic profile” within 24 hours. I was advised not to swallow in case technicians needed to double-check their results.
DNA Friend is not just the “fastest and freest DNA testing service.” It didn’t just acquire “the frozen-yogurt franchise Yogurt Palace, including its valuable archive of millions of used spoons,” in 2004. It’s also a complete farce, one of many forthcoming projects from a satirical media company, called Thud, that launches today.
Two former editors of The Onion are responsible for Thud’s inception. And, oddly, Elon Musk, who co-founded the company, is responsible for its financial stability.
A billionaire with some sense of humor—whether it’s your cup of tea or not—Musk is clearly drawn to satire. He has called The Onion, the satirical newspaper and website, “the greatest publication in the history of all conscious beings, living or dead.” Musk himself has not been spared from The Onion’s gaze. The outlet has repeatedly poked fun at him throughout his rise from tech-bubble entrepreneur to “real-life Iron Man,” a consistent moniker in real news media.
Thud is the brainchild of Musk along with Ben Berkley and Cole Bolton, the former top editors of The Onion who jointly departed the company in 2017. Musk originally owned Thud, but he no longer has any relationship with or formal role in the company after selling it to Berkley and Bolton in January.
While the Daily Beast broke the news of Thud’s existence last March, the site has been in development since the fall of 2017. Musk started talking with Berkley and Bolton four or five years ago. “He got in touch with us and just wanted to share that he enjoyed The Onion, and it was the same time that The Onion was looking for a buyer,” Bolton told me. “So I just floated it as a joke to him eventually: ‘Well, if you like it so much, you could buy it.’”
Bolton said the joke spurred an actual conversation between Musk and executives about purchasing The Onion, to which neither he nor Berkley were privy. Univision Communications bought 40 percent of the business in January 2016—a business it is now trying to sell.
Eventually, Berkley and Bolton decided it was time to leave The Onion, the publication they told me they “grew up loving and loved working [at].” Mic reported, at the time, that their resignations were “partially due to disagreements about the direction the site was taking under the ownership of Univision.” Berkley and Bolton said that while they worked there, The Onion “became their identity.” When even slight “changes were being made,” Bolton said, he got so involved in “defending the editorial side of The Onion” that it eventually “eroded [his] ability to be happy.” Berkley added that “producing satire within this nonstop news cycle takes its toll.”
Contrary to initial media reports, the pair said, Elon Musk did not “poach” them or other Onion writers to join a media company. (“I know very well that he did not recruit writers, because that’s something that I did,” Berkley said.) In the days following their joint resignation, in fall 2017, Berkley and Bolton reconnected with Musk—who had previously expressed interest in working with them. Musk had already been thinking about starting a satire website of his own, a spokesperson said, and when Berkley and Bolton contacted Musk, the three “aligned” on a general shared vision before they started a company together (originally called Pravda Corp., a name lambasted in the press after he tweeted about a separate idea for a website, also called Pravda, that would rate journalists’ credibility). Eventually, after funding a budget of just under $2 million, Musk began to worry that the satire company’s output could be weaponized against SpaceX and Tesla, and so he sold the company to Berkley and Bolton with no strings attached, the spokesperson said.
“He [quickly] and generously agreed to provide initial funding and general start-up support for us,” Berkley told me, likening the financial relationship to a “very kind grant” that, even with Musk no longer in the picture, has gotten them to their launch. (So far they have gotten by on Musk’s original funding, but are looking for additional funding in the near future.)
Thud is a small operation: two founders, six writers, three designers, and two “tech whizzes.” In an email, Berkley confirmed that nine of the 13 staffers previously worked at The Onion, and the other four come from the advertising world.
Berkley and Bolton want to emphasize that Musk’s involvement leaves him with no creative control of the company. It’s an important clarification considering that last March, Musk joked that Thud was “the name of [his] new intergalactic media empire.” And Musk’s humor has repeatedly gotten him in trouble on Twitter.
“Overall, our understanding of it … is he was excited about it,” Berkley said, claiming that Musk’s involvement is good-natured and innocuous. “He’s just a really big comedy fan, and saw this opportunity to help bring more of this comedy.” Bolton said his “armchair psychoanalysis” is that Musk “liked this idea and saw it as a public good in a way.”
“Accurate and entertaining satire is vital to a functioning democracy,” Musk told me on a phone call late Sunday night. “Unless it’s about me,” he joked.
Thud’s projects draw upon the straight-faced style of The Onion and its sister site, ClickHole—a parody of internet clickbait sites like Upworthy—but apply it to more immersive projects outside of phony newswriting. Thud’s creators say they want to create satirical “worlds” that people can explore for themselves.
For its first act, today Thud launched DNA Friend, a satirical version of at-home DNA-analysis services such as 23andMe and AncestryDNA. “It’s been kind of hard to avoid 23andMe and Ancestry over the past year and a half,” Bolton said. “People haven’t really paused to consider as much—at least a lot of the people who are doing it as a novelty—that they’re in fact handing over the most intimate information that there is about themselves: their genetic code. And handing that over to a for-profit company.”
“[DNA Friend is] an alternate world where some of the pictures are a little weird, where the testimonials are very weird, the technology is unbelievable,” Bolton said. “If you delve into these different pages, like the About Us page, you’ll see the people behind it, and you’ll see that there’s very explicit commentary about the kinds of things that people could do if they use all this genetic information that they’re compiling.”
DNA Friend already has Instagram and Twitter accounts set up. Additionally, a “spit truck” will appear at “Burning Man Worcester” on May 14. While the spit truck isn’t actually real (and hopefully Burning Man Worcester never will be), some of Thud’s projects and promotional efforts will exist in the physical world. Thud will release a book sometime next month, and the team has ideas for live events people can attend and entire stores they can explore, and from which they can purchase items. (The team says it has no plans to sell advertisements or branded content, so if it monetizes any of its work, it’ll be through ticket sales, retail, or e-commerce related to its work. Think of the Comedy Central show Nathan for You’s “Dumb Starbucks” or “Summit Ice” stores.)
Even the web-based projects will pop up in odd ways in the real world. A DNA Friend mascot, Spitty, resembling a “drop of saliva,” will try to make its way into the background of the Today Show tomorrow, and will wander around New York City throughout the day. If Spitty pops up on-screen, NBC viewers will see it holding a sign that says Show us your spit, Roker, daring the longtime weatherman Al Roker to participate. (Spitty will “make a grand return at SXSW” next week, Berkley said.)
And DNA Friend is only the first of four Thud projects set to launch this week: “In the days following DNA Friend, we will be launching a project that addresses guns in America, one project that tackles people’s self-obsession, and another, absolutely absurd one that satirizes the way products are slickly marketed.” Berkley would only preview the three with vague descriptions, but noted that, as a whole, the Los Angeles–based company wants to take on a wide range of topics, from “heavy issues” such as the ethics of genetic testing, to ideas they generously refer to as “fun nonsense.”
In an era of outrage over fake news and misinformation, satire, which purposely takes the native form of what it’s mocking, has often been conflated with ill-intentioned forms of phony content, something that Berkley and Bolton have spent a lot of time mulling over.
“I think it’s a very tough balance to strike between making sure people aren’t tricked into thinking it’s real, and also to make sure that we’re able to present our work with a straight face,” Berkley said. “What this type of satire can do is it can be more effective than other types of comedy, because it can feel less preachy.”
In its initial work, Thud and the various projects it rears certainly won’t have the household-name recognition that The Onion relies upon—one of the most important mechanisms that help people know they’re reading satire in the first place. It has to make sure new audiences, unfamiliar with the content in front of them, get that it’s a joke.
“Fake news is something that benefits from tricking people, and satire does not benefit from that,” Bolton said. “It loses its punch if people think it’s real.”
I got my DNA Friend test results, and they don’t look good. My ancestry is a mess: 24 percent “grandma”; 18 percent Caucasian; 15 percent from “up around where Aunt Jess lives”; 10 percent midwesterner (partially corn-fed, partially oat-fed, partially Dairy Queen–fed); 4 percent “not Sweden, but the other one”; and 29 percent “some seriously disturbing stuff you’d thank us for not getting into in more detail.”
My genetic traits revealed a very specific “Waist-to-hip-to-USS Intrepid ratio,” a “spacious interior,” and a likelihood to “inherit a 2004 Chevy Sonoma from [my] mother’s side.”
I also received a troubling disease forecast, a terrifying “genetic timeline,” and a very interesting geographic map that showed the location of my “genetically perfect partner,” as well as the server hosting my complete biometric profile.
I have three new cousins, and one is a bonobo. And my “DNA score” is so low that I’m not allowed to reproduce “sexually or asexually” until January 21, 2024.
The one bright spot? I can share my results with the click of a button. “Now that you know all the most sensitive and intimate information there is to know about yourself,” the site declared, “go ahead and share it indiscriminately on social media.”