By Timothy J. Mullaney
If you can't laugh at the Internet right now, you can't laugh, period.
That's why, when the nominations for this year's Webby awards (think Oscars of the Web, except that Ishtar-scale financial flops do, sometimes, get nominated), I was especially intrigued to see the nominees in the Humor category: SatireWire.com, the suddenly ubiquitous F---edCompany.com (FC), TheOnion.com, NationalLampoon.com, and ModernHumorist.com. My vote goes to the one that does the best job sending up the amazingly overheated rhetoric, spending, and sheer wasted activity of the last two years of Net frenzy. And by that standard, the winner in the voting that closes July 18 should clearly be SatireWire. Now, this means casting aside TheOnion, one of the Web's venerable favorites, and FC, possibly the second-hippest cult site of 2000. (The funniest, by far, was "Stormtroopers," the homemade site that blended photos of the Elian Gonzales raid with audio from Budweiser's "Whassup" ad campaign -- or at least it did until the Associated Press threatened to sue over the use of its pictures of the raid.)
What makes SatireWire superior? Well, it's consistently fresher and better written than the often-ragged Onion and less sourpussy than FC, which is mostly a place for people to write "I told you so" in ever-cruder language. FC probably comes closer to representing popular sentiment about dot-coms right now: a mix of rage, ruefulness, and frustration. But SatireWire is more fun.
The site is set up as if it were a mock wire service that all but specializes in Internet news. It's timely as well as witty: Recent news of a survey contending 20% of online teens have received unwanted sexual overtures was answered within a day or so by a SatireWire report asserting that the majority of Web surfers are actually FBI agents posing as children. A report that California's economy, for all its woes, has just exceeded the gross domestic product of France was followed by a report that French workers had called a general strike to demand that the government do something about that. And the June Beige Book report from the Federal Reserve was met with a SatireWire sidebar reporting that the slowing economy has given Atlanta, which city fathers hype as "The City Too Busy to Hate," time to nurture grudges anew.
SURFING THE ZEITGEIST.
Say what you want about the specific jokes and their level of taste. If you can make the Beige Book funny, you're funny. But there's something else going on, too: knowing criticism of the nanny-state ethic implicit in calls for greater regulation of the Net, and of France's anti-entrepreneurial culture. Being able to blend the two is enough to make your site worth a look. And SatireWire's command of modern newswriting's style and form -- from straight wire-story sendups to a chronicle of riots at a dot-com refugee camp that perfectly mimics the tone and cadence of every hackneyed war-zone feature ever written -- gives it a stylistic edge as well.
What about the others? Modern Humorist and National Lampoon just don't have anything distinctive enough about them to belong in this class. Truth is, they're pretty dull. The Onion is funny enough, but its lack of focus results in tons of forced humor about bowel movements, menstruation, and other charming topics. It reads less like a satire magazine than the random thoughts of a few guys with a Web site -- though this week's bit about President Bush doubling the tax cut so that his own $300 rebate will increase enough to let him buy a Sharper Image chair was a hoot.
If you ask me who will win, though, I suspect the nod will go to F---edCompany. This "dot-com deadpool," where players compete to predict the crash of young companies, certainly has its points. Among my favorites: The intermittent appearance of actual management memoranda, often blaming employees for the demise of companies I'd never heard of (and if I've never heard of it in my job, they must have been pretty small and weak). Then there's the thrill of the hunt for those who get off on betting which dot-com will be next to announce major layoffs, get sued, or shut down. Like SatireWire, FC is just so on top of the zeitgeist that you almost can't help seeing people you know in some of the stories.
As you might expect, now that lots of people people are losing their jobs, FC is becoming an ugly place. It's more than the endless rounds of "I-told-you-so" that accompany the failure of companies anyone with two brain cells knew could never work, though there's certainly plenty of that. Personally, I already know plenty of synonyms for "penis," and I have little time for endless postings applying many, many new ones to seemingly each and every boss of each and every poster. A very long string of posts about sexual-harassment claims by former female employees of Juno Online services gets exceptionally ugly. I'm no prude, and I've flown a few missions that dropped the "F bomb" myself, but enough is enough.
SatireWire covers the same ground with more silliness and less ugliness. In other words, it's funny without being a cover for some anonymous poster's urgent need for psychotherapy.
Mullaney writes the Clicks & Misses column for BusinessWeek e.biz