And I’m sorry.
I worked at The Onion for 19 years as a writer and features editor. By the time I left in 2012, the publication had developed its take on Vice President Biden: “creepy but harmless,” with the emphasis on “harmless.” We lampooned him as an uncle you’d shake your head at but not think twice about—the sort of guy who’d wink and say, “Don’t let your meat loaf!” as a farewell. For many people, the image of Biden that most readily springs to mind is the one of Diamond Joe, shirtless and grinning, washing his Trans Am in the White House driveway.
The handsome guy who’s got it good but doesn’t take himself too seriously is a profoundly American aesthetic, and Biden seemed to embody it. The Onion even produced a Biden book, The President of Vice, in 2013. He may not have been in on the joke, but he certainly knew about it and embraced it, calling it “hilarious” in a 2011 interview and jumping in to a Reddit AMA with the faux Biden to express his preference for Corvettes.
I can’t speak for my colleagues, but at the time, I didn’t take him seriously enough to think we were doing anything wrong. I thought of him as little more than a political necessity: the older, more conservative white guy who softened Barack Obama’s image in regions where the prospect of a black president was too radical. A deeper dive on Biden never felt necessary.
I’ve since changed my mind. Today, Biden is the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, despite women calling him out for touching them in ways that made them uncomfortable at public events, and despite objections from the left wing of the party. He has said he has “no empathy” for the problems millennials are experiencing and claimed that Republicans will embrace bipartisanship after Trump is defeated. As I watch him campaign as an old (-fashioned, -school, -old) centrist, I realize how badly we screwed up. Instead of viciously skewering a public figure who deserved scrutiny, we let him off easy. The joke was funny, but it didn’t hit hard enough.
One thing I keep coming back to—and which helps put our failure on Biden in context—is the way other comedy outlets treated Trump during his campaign.
Trump is not a secret racist. He is not a secret sexist. He is not a secret cheat and he is not a secret liar. He’s not even a secret idiot; there is no gap between the most eviscerating parody and the man himself. A reality this twisted not only resists satire, it cannibalizes it. There are no jokes to be had at Trump’s expense, because he can afford them all.
Despite all that, a scant six months after referring to Mexican immigrants as rapists during his campaign announcement, Trump was invited to host Saturday Night Live. And then, a month and a half before the election, when the timing couldn’t have been worse, Jimmy Fallon had him on The Tonight Show to ask pressing questions like, “Can I mess up your hair?”
Those appearances were a failure of comedy: It was immoral to treat him as casual entertainment while he used his platform to promote racism and cruelty. Every appearance helped him seem like a fun guy who has a sense of humor about himself (he isn’t; he doesn’t). Even though neither of those opportunities got him elected, they should never have been given to him, any more than they would have been granted former Klan leader David Duke or alt-right figures like Richard Spencer.
To be clear, Biden won’t wind up in the same layer of hell as Trump, and I don’t believe The Onion’s Biden is solely responsible for this early popularity of real-life Biden. We were just one small link in a chain of institutions that didn’t scrutinize Biden closely enough. I wish we had looked more at his actual career in politics—which includes opposition to busing as a way to integrate schools and support for predatory financial institutions—and tried to really puncture him, rather than just turning him into a clown. We helped make him more likable by inventing a version of Biden that never existed.
I still think those Onion articles are funny. The Onion’s approach to covering public figures was to establish consistent, world-building takes that rewarded the reader, and our Biden was an endlessly refillable character with good visuals, one that made us laugh. It still makes me laugh.
But I’m afraid it didn’t go deep enough. His aforementioned handsiness may not be ultimately disqualifying, but his failure to honestly understand why it would be upsetting (he’s joked about it in public) certainly should be. And his insistence that we can rectify our current political discord with some good old-fashioned bipartisan dealmaking seems hopelessly out of touch and ignores all the times Democrats reached their hands across the aisle, only to be met with open flame from the right.
Satire isn’t dead, and it shouldn’t be cast aside. It will always have a place in the social order, and that is to tell the truth by constructing a fiction, to amplify society’s negative traits to a comical extent so you can see the ugliness that’s always been there.
On that score, the Onion’s Biden stories didn’t measure up. We knew through inside sources that at the time people in the White House loved those pieces, and that should have been a red flag. As a guideline, if the people you’re satirizing aren’t mad, then you should dig deeper. I hope that my alma mater, and everyone else in comedy, follows this rule now that Diamond Joe is back.
Joe Garden traded in a life of writing toil to sell junk in the Hudson Valley.