This week saw a launch of epic proportions, where a product created by geniuses was finally released after many years of tinkering to a grateful public.
The iPad Mini? No, we speak of the Onion Book of Known Knowledge, a 1,500-entry encyclopedia of sheer brilliance from the Internet’s most awesome fake news source. As the book’s own blurb announces, it has arrived “just in time for the death of the print industry.”
Although the humor shelves of your local bookstore are (or were, if your local bookstore is no more) stuffed with Onion publications, this is only the third of them that contains entirely original content. Our Dumb Century (a fake 20th century history, published in 1999) and Our Dumb World (an atlas, published in 2007) came first, proving that mock seriousness is what this publication does best.
So it seems only natural that an encyclopedia should follow, and that’s just what the Onion team decided to do in 2010. The process, according to head writer Seth Reiss, took two years; roughly 10,000 joke-filled entries were pitched, which were eventually whittled down to the funniest tenth.
“The audience sees only a fraction of what we wrote,” Reiss told Mashable. “There are certain things we knew we had to hit — Abraham Lincoln, World War II, September 11. But then we’d get assignments for 10 to 15 random entries.” (Many of those that didn’t make it into the book were repurposed as regular Onion stories.)
“The stuff we had to hit is stuff comedians have been covering for years,” adds Reiss, “so we really wanted to do something different.”
That they achieved, with plenty of humor that should tickle the funny bone of a social media and tech-saturated generation. Take for example this entry on Alexander the Great, which compares him to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg:
There are plenty of in-jokes (such as the random full-page entry on little-known Nebraska band Faded Black) surreal digressions (the tale of how the Supreme Court became hermaphrodites) and long stream-of-consciousness riffs (“Congress, national legislative body that seemed like it was going to be something really special, you know? Really, really special.”)
And of course, this being the Onion, there is something on every page that is guaranteed to go too far and offend someone — such as the frame from the Zapruder film that supposedly reveals Kennedy shooting himself. “Every possible way to tell a joke is in there,” Reiss says.
One way of telling a joke that the Onion writers were glad to take a break from: putting it in the headline. As fantastically funny as Onion headlines are, they often tend to have the side effect that readers feel they don’t need to delve into the story.
But in an encyclopedia format, that isn’t a problem. “It is annoying when they just read the headline,” Reiss complains. “The gems are in the articles. They always are.”
As much as the book likes to make light of the death of print — “the last book ever written,” blares the wraparound on the otherwise dull and deliberately textbook-like front cover — it actually makes a good case for buying the dead-tree edition over the e-book.
As beautiful as the iBooks version looks (there’s no Kindle edition yet), it has to squeeze a lot of the pictures down, combining some into slideshows rather than lavishly displaying them across the page.
Reiss claims the tagline meant something else, however. “After this book, there’s no need for anybody to be in the book business,” he deadpans. “It sets the bar so high, there’s no need for anyone to write anything.”