Whenever these issues come up, one of the first things that always happens is that those defending the (allegedly) offending humor in question raise the specter of George Carlin, the late lamented comedy icon who is effectively god to those who would dabble in the realms of humor where aggressive language and pitch-dark themes are used to deliver hyperintelligent, deeply literate points about society and the world at large.
On the surface, invoking Carlin's Ghost is a good argument. George Carlin told jokes about violence. George Carlin told jokes about race. George Carlin told jokes about rape, and most importantly, George Carlin did so as part of stand-up monologues that were not only praised for their hilarity and linguistic genius but also often took the form of impassioned declarations of their own legitimacy and necessity. If George Carlin jokes could be said to have punchlines, those punchlines would always take the form of: "Yes, I just said that. Here's why I said that, and here's why it's good that I said that."
But here's why Carlin's Ghost rarely works as a defense for anyone else's work but that of Carlin himself: Only George Carlin was George Carlin.
That probably sounds like a cop-out, and I don't mean to suggest that Carlin held some special immunity from criticism. His immunity wasn't special, it was the result of long, hard, difficult work. Like all the great stand-up talents, Carlin made his routines look effortless, but in truth he spent years upon years of hard work crafting his material, refining jokes, getting references right, mastering the nuances of both the English language and its myriad slang and colloquial variations. He did this not to show off, or to disguise relatively simplistic content with million-dollar words (that would be Dennis Miller - rimshot!) but to make sure that he delivered exactly the joke he wanted to with the exact intent made as clear as humanly possible. He swung his arm with strength sufficient for a sledgehammer, but he was always holding a scalpel.
That used to be how all non-improvisational comedy, not just stand-up, was made. But today's world of light-speed information demands light-speed response, and while many have adapted to the form, the fact is it's hard to be at once biting, topical and well prepared when you are expected to sum up the humor in a given event or situation moments after it happens or, in the realm of "live-tweeting," as it's happening. Quick, go turn on the news, watch whatever is happening, immediately discern something insightfully funny about it, phrase it in a short, amusing way and disperse it to the web - you have 15 seconds. It's hard to do this well.
And so people cheat.
The "cheat" in question is generally called "live-snarking" in the parlance of the web. In lieu of joke construction or punchlines, one simply watches what's happening and says the meanest thing they can think of alongside some funny words and passes it off as a joke. Naturally, it's found a comfortable home in the odious world of Celebrity Reporting, which has always been about taking catty shots at public figures presumed to be wealthier, prettier and more comfortable than a readership presumed to be equal parts fascinated by and envious of them (Oh, and before anyone brings it up, yes, I'm guilty of shades of this myself. I'm no George Carlin, either).
Female celebrities, as ever, get it worst of all. Her dress is ugly. Her makeup is bad. She's gained weight. She's too skinny. She's too tall. She's too short. Her boyfriend is too old for her. Her boyfriend is too young for her. Her boyfriend is too hot for her. Her boyfriend isn't hot enough for her. Her "boyfriend" isn't really her boyfriend, wink wink! Ooh! Kristen Stewart showed up on crutches (and limped visibly when walking without them, apparently she'd injured her foot a day earlier)! Quick! Break out your "Bella Swan masochism" jokes - bonus points if you can be the first one to tie-in Chris Brown or Fifty Shades of Gray!
This is the toxic slurry of journalism that The Onion was trying to parody. And maybe that's why they failed. I can imagine versions of the joke that would make sense - perhaps as part of a mock-up of an imaginary "mean" version of sycophantic Entertainment Weekly, or as delivered by a comedian doing a parody of an unctuous Red Carpet reporter. But as a tweet, it looked all but indistinguishable from the other "funny" media tweets it was trying to take down a peg. Above all else, satire requires a subject that is either taken seriously or wishes to be taken seriously. The indignation of a pie in the face is only funny if the face belongs to someone with dignity, and dignity left the world of Celebrity Reporting a long, long time ago.
Am I saying The Onion shouldn't have told the joke? Yes ... and no. I'm saying they should've put some thought into their tweeting - and if so, I suspect they'd have realized that joke wasn't worth telling in the first place.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you've heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.