Andy Borowitz: Blame Reality
Andy Borowitz swears to me that he’s not out to “hoax anybody," but people are hoaxed, nonetheless.
As soon as someone on Facebook posts one of his dispatches from “The Borowitz Report,” I’ve seen seemingly rational people turn into foaming-at-the-mouth, false-conclusion jumpers.
Andy Borowitz is likely responsible for more misplaced Facebook outrage than nearly anyone you’ll meet.
(The key word there is “misplaced.”)
People are convinced that Borowitz’s fake news stories — which are clearly labeled “satire from The Borowitz Report” and “not the news” — are legitimate.
The writer chalks that up to a few things: a political climate in which reality is on its head, poor reading comprehension, and the style of writing that employs news clichés to an alarming but effective degree.
Borowitz and I will talk about this and more at Tarrytown Music Hall on March 10, at an 8 p.m., event that is dangerously close to selling out, the latest stop on his “Make America Not Embarrassing Again Tour” which started last month in Washington, D.C., is now touring the East Coast, and will go national in the fall. Tickets at www.tarrytownmusichall.org
It looks like a duck
Andy Borowitz has been writing The Borowitz Report since 2001, but the column really has its roots in his high-school days in Ohio. In 2012, The New Yorker started running it.
Recent Borowitz headlines include:
"Trump Wonders Who Will Read Classified Documents Aloud to Him Now That Jared’s Gone"
"Kim Jong Un Taunts Trump with Photo of Hair Withstanding Gale-Force Wind"
"Former Hippies Put in Horrible Position of Rooting for F.B.I."
“The language is so much fun because you’re imitating this sort of hack AP writing,” Borowitz says. A journalist friend of his told him he enjoyed the “relentlessness of the clichés.”
Lest he run out of hackneyed phrases, Borowitz can tap into the formative career of his journalist wife Olivia Gentile, who is now doing long-form nonfiction but cut her teeth at the daily Rutland Herald in Vermont.
“She was being sent to town meetings and things like that,” Borowitz says. “She would say things like ‘In an 11th-hour move…’ It’s those kinds of clichés that I just find really delicious.”
The age of Trump
Borowitz says the new normal in the administration of President Donald Trump, while ripe for satire, has blurred the lines.
“When you’re living in an era when the reality is so absurd, it gets harder and harder for people to distinguish between reality and satire,” he says.
He knows exactly where to point the finger.
“I really think it’s reality’s fault, actually,” he deadpans. “I think there’s only so much I can control. Reality is a disgrace. Reality should recognize its responsibility to be less absurd and shape up. Once reality starts conforming to what we think of traditionally as reality then people will be less confused.”
Even the august New York Times seems to have trouble navigating the rocky journalistic shores in the age of Trump.
“It’s so surreal that The New York Times will try to wrench what’s going on with Trump into some mold of reality. They will have headlines that I find real howlers. Like: ‘Trump’s decision to endorse child molester raises eyebrows.’ And you’re like ‘Oh, come on, New York Times!’
A not-so-subtle label
He and his editors at The New Yorker have tried their best to help people see “The Borowitz Report” for what it is: satire that earned its author the first-ever National Press Club award for humor.
“We now label the column so many ways as satire,” he says. “There’s even a banner on social media that says ‘The Borowitz Report: Not the news’ with a goofy avatar of me with a big silly grin on. That wouldn’t be my first choice of what to do because to me that’s pointing at it too much.”
And yet some people still read it as real news, a result that Borowitz chalks up to a “real reading comprehension issue.”
“At that point, you can’t, as a writer, worry about it,” he says.
The Borowitz Line
The president is the comic gift that keeps on giving for late-night comedians and Andy Borowitz.
“We’re all dealing with the same material,” he says. “There’s a limited number of coordinates or elements that we’re all working with. It really comes down to the personality of the individual comedian trying to do it his own way.”
When Trump said he’d like a massive military parade like the one he had seen in France, the jokes varied.
Stephen Colbert went with “Dictator Bingo.”
Jimmy Fallon said that at the end of the parade of tanks, airplanes and soldiers marching, Trump would ask “Wait! Where’s Santa?”
Jimmy Kimmel said: “Children love parades, why wouldn’t he want one?”
Borowitz’s take was quicker, online within hours of the announcement, but it took two issues and linked them.
The headline read: “Military refuses to participate in Trump’s parade, citing bone spurs.”
You can hear people getting worked up just reading that, can’t you?
And they’d get even more worked up when they read the subhead, which quotes a Pentagon spokesman, saying “Regrettably, we have no choice but to issue thousands of deferments.”
That, of course, is a reference to President Trump’s repeated Vietnam-era deferments, which cited bone spurs.
If readers channeled their rage into the simple act of clicking on the headline, they would see that this fake news points to a very fake problem, a bone-spur epidemic the likes of which has never been seen “in the history of the U.S. military.”
But too few people click through, Borowitz says. Hence, that misplaced rage.
Had they only clicked, they would have seen that the post then provided a real solution to the fake problem: “President Trump is welcome to march in the parade all by himself if he would finally like to enlist.”
Borowitz says he looks to one of his heroes, Mark Twain, for a principle that guides his satire.
"He said sometimes the funniest thing is just to state the truth very baldly, just state it as nakedly as possible," he says. "A lot of my stories are just that."
His stories are also fast, landing news cycles ahead of his late-night competitors.
“If something happens, I can usually respond within an hour, and they have to wait till that evening to do their thing, so it’s a logistical advantage I have," Borowitz says. "But the advantage they have is they’re getting paid millions of dollars. In the end, I don’t know who’s the winner and who’s the loser here.”