My editors at Chicago magazine have never threatened to “kick my ass into the lake” if I didn’t come up with content.
When the idea of Photoshopping green hair, piercings, and mesh shirts onto the city’s 50 elected council members was floated in a pitch meeting over the summer, seeing it through was a no-brainer for Herald co-founders Mike Scipioni and Hobert Thompson.
“If we put a lot of energy into a really stupid idea, sometimes those end up being really successful,” Scipioni says.
The widget, which went viral on Twitter last week, shows you what your alderman would look like if they were goth. Some aldermen, like Matt Martin (47th) and Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), have embraced their newfound identities online, changing their profile pictures and display names. Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), who rocks red-tinted glasses and a skull-decorated bow in her portrait, even tweeted a reference to Neo, the goth club formerly in her ward.
— Ald. Michele Smith (@AldermanSmith43) October 3, 2019
The Herald’s most obvious inspiration is The Onion, headquartered in River North. There are some key differences between the two, though. “The Onion’s whole thing is national news,” Thompson says. “We wanted this to be the spoof version of the Reader.”
Compared to other satirical outlets, Scipioni says that The Herald also skews “a little more whimsical.” Some stories are inherently silly (“Gator Bob Hinting This Would Go a Lot Faster If Someone Would Just Nut up and Go Swimming with an Open Wound”), while others go for the throats of Chicago’s most powerful (“Ricketts Family Unveils Plans for ‘Poors Only’ Bleachers At Wrigley Field; Cubs Fans Rejoice”).
This principle of punching up, not down is core to The Chicago Genius Herald’s philosophy. Its contributor guidelines state, “If your joke hinges on hurtful stereotypes of protected classes (or you spend a lot of time hand-wringing about ‘SJWs’ online), it’s not going to be a good fit for us.”
The Herald, which distributes quarterly print issues, currently has six regular writers and a rotating cast of contributors. Last Friday, it exhibited its goth aldermen photos at an open house in the Cornelia Arts Building, where The Herald has an office. The gallery space is typically used to showcase paintings and sculptures from “serious” artists; Thompson says many patrons were surprised to find that the art lining an entire wall was the work of a satire magazine. But people got a kick out of it — and many even learned who their alderman was for the first time through the installation.
This may very well be the beginning of the multimedia Chicago Genius empire, which is currently a side hustle for its founders. (Scipioni is a web developer, Thompson an office assistant and stand-up comic.) Their plan is to launch video content and live comedy shows in the future, but their vision is less about usurping established comedy groups than it is about following Chicago’s comedy tradition.
“It’s more of the core concept of the democratically power-structured comedy collective that we’re trying to start — The Herald is just the first step,” Thompson says.
Thompson and Scipioni point to Helltrap Nightmare (recently relocated to L.A.) and other acts at the Hideout as inspirations, especially as the venue remains threatened by the impending Lincoln Yards mega-development.
“This is stuff we should defend in honor because part of Chicago’s fabric is its comedy scene,” Thompson says. “We should celebrate that.”