The Onion CEO Talks About Creating Satire in the Trump Era

Tim Bower/The Hollywood Reporter

Mike McAvoy told the Banff festival it's a challenge "to treat someone who is naturally hyperbolic in a hyperbolic way."

Donald Trump has been a comedic gold mine for Saturday Night Live, late-night talk shows and makers of viral videos.

But satirical new site The Onion hasn't seen the Trump administration as entirely a laughing matter. The media brand's president and CEO, Mike McAvoy, on Monday told the Banff World Media Festival satire is great way to teach people about current issues and concerns.

"But there's so much Trump coverage these days, people's brains kind of shut off," he said. McAvoy also said of the U.S. president that "it's hard to treat someone who is naturally hyperbolic in a hyperbolic way."

Another challenge after getting investment from Univision last January: The Onion isn't in the fake news business, McAvoy contended. Unfortunately, not all media consumers make the distinction between phony, and hopefully funny content, and fake news, including Trump.

"He [Trump] has definitely threatened to sue us," McAvoy said, pointing to a 2013 satirical "opinion" piece in The Onion that was penned by "Donald Trump," with the title “When You’re Feeling Low, Just Remember I’ll Be Dead in About 15 or 20 Years.”

"We got a cease and desist letter from his attorney. We were pretty excited around the office," McAvoy recalled. The run-in with Trump, then only a businessman and host of The Apprentice, was significant because, beyond being funny, The Onion has a responsibility to do more than generate laughter.

McAvoy argued satire helps create "constructive" conversations around important issues. But the downside is not everyone understands satire isn't fake news, especially when media consumers today face an avalanche of comedic content.

"People get hammered with content, with this whole fake news epidemic, and people aren't very thoughtful or cynical about what they read," he said. "It makes you realize there aren't a lot of people who want to be informed or are informed," McAvoy added.

Despite those challenges, The Onion is still a thriving business as it moves online and into branded advertising. "There's money in being funny. There's also a lot of funny money in the world of media that we live in today. There's so many distractions, so many rabbits to chase around," McAvoy cautioned.

The Onion, which had been a satirical newspaper for decades before folding its print edition at the end of 2013, is increasingly focused on digital growth via articles sponsored by brands, and building out a video studio with multiple reoccurring series.

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