One of the stranger calls that has come through to the ClickHole office in the last year—and there have been a lot—came from a very distraught woman who had just read a recently posted story: “’90s Kids Rejoice! The Spider Eggs They Used to Fill Beanie Babies Are Finally Hatching!”
“She had wrapped all of her Beanie Babies in Saran wrap,” Anthony Easton remembers.
“Yes!” Jermaine Affonso says. “This old lady. She just asked, ‘Will this keep the spider eggs in?’”
There were, of course, no spider eggs. The article is the epitome of what ClickHole, an extension of The Onion launched in June 2014, is trying to do: critique today’s virality-driven media with very fake, very shareable posts in the style of other “clickbait” articles—the kind of dopey, substance-free pablum that you see old high school acquaintances and odd cousins sharing to Facebook every day.
One year into the viral experiment, Chicago-based Onion Inc., the media empire that also owns The Onion and the A.V. Club, touts ClickHole as a huge success. The site gets 5 million unique visitors monthly, and it’s become such a cultural phenomenon that celebrities from George Takei to Barack Obama have gotten in on its game.
And the writing has garnered accolades from just about every corner of the Internet, including from reporters at sites the company intends to spoof.
"ClickHole speaks to the cultural zeitgeist right now in so many ways," says Alex Honnet, the creative director of Chicago's iO comedy theater. "I spend so much of my time online, and these clickbait articles have found a way to game the Facebook algorithm and get to the top of my feed. It consumes my headspace. ClickHole skewers that so well and remains genuinely funny."
He points to a quiz from last November—“Which One of My Garbage Sons Are You?”—as his favorite. "It's one of the best pieces of written comedy I've read in the last five years."
Cards Against Humanity co-creator Max Temkin calls the site "an inspiration." When asked for what problems he sees with the site, all he says is, "As a comedy writer, I worry that ClickHole is going to use up all the jokes."
On the eve of ClickHole’s first anniversary, Chicago sat down with Affonso, the site’s editor, and Easton, its editorial coordinator, to talk about the successes, the failures, and what’s next.
The story of ClickHole begins with a slideshow. As Affonso remembers it, the Onion began producing satirical slideshows on its site in mid-2012, just as the practice was heating up around the Internet. (One he clearly remembers producing: “8 Insanely Cute Child Soldiers.”)
But the slideshows didn’t quite fit with Onion-style parodying of everyday news, and by late 2013 the staff was meeting to discuss a different approach to clickbait content: an entirely new site to critique Buzzfeed, Upworthy, and other trendy media ventures. ClickHole, with a staff of three writers, launched June 12, 2014.
It’s not the first time Onion Inc. has dipped into different storytelling avenues to critique the news. A few years back, the company launched Onion News Network, a spoof on morning shows and cable news broadcasts. Two that resurface constantly, years after their making, are a Today Show-style interview with the 5-year-old writer of The Fast and The Furious and a breaking news segment titled “Hurricane Ashley Expected to Strike Several Bars This Cinco de Mayo.”
ClickHole was a bit different—mostly because the writers didn't know how long they could keep it going. "When we started the site, we wondered whether it would just be ephemeral, because clickbait is happening right now, and maybe in a year it won’t be the same thing," Affonso says. They started with what they knew people were already responding to online: listicles, suggestive headlines, and quizzes. On the first day, the site was heavy with well-worn clickbait-style headlines, such as “Five Iconic Movie Scenes That Were Actually Fake”, “This Video Seems Silly But It Makes a Good Point” (in which a dinosaur dances to the words “racism is bad”), and “Which Hungry Hungry Hippo Are You?”
One of the first breakthroughs came in late July, with a post spoofing Yelp culture—“I Had a Terrible Experience at This Restaurant Because I Am a Terrible Person.” The team also found huge success with nostalgia posts.
Take the Beanie Babies story. “The way I see it, you take something that creates nostalgia, like Beanie Babies. Then you make it absolutely horrifying, and then you celebrate it like that’s what everyone wanted,” Affonso says. “There’s one paragraph in that article that’s only the word awesome with an exclamation point.”
Another big hit: “The House From the Windows 95 Maze Screensaver Is Up For Sale.” Credit (or blame) the makeup of the staff for being so versed in both clickbait jargon and ’90s memoribilia. The oldest staff writer is just 30 years old.
“I can’t really pinpoint when it was we found [the voice],” Affonso says. But the writers eventually realized they were playing it too safe. “The Internet, as a whole, is just so crazy that in order to parody it we have to be more absurd and weird.”
At this point, there's not really a limit with how weird ClickHole can get (as of this writing, “7 Sloths Who Are Almost Too Adorable To Throw Off The Top Of The Chrysler Building” is on the home page).
When I met with Affonso, the site had just posted “9 Things James Taylor Will Never Understand,” an oddly cruel take down of the singer. A sample of the things he will never understand: pushing yourself outside the creative zone, not constantly wearing dumb hats that are made for little boys, having a number-one hit that isn't a cover of a song that a legitimately talented artist wrote.
"I pitched that," Affonso says, "but it wasn't even originally with James Taylor. We just wanted to do an article that was weirdly mean to a celebrity for essentially no reason. It didn't matter who it was."
"We try to find the right one," Easton says. "Somebody will pitch a name and we'll work through until we get what feels right."
The "room" in question is the conference room on the 7th floor of an old building next to the Chicago Brown line stop on the Near North Side. Surrounded by framed photos of old Onion articles and Photoshopped images of Joe Biden in a Corvette, the eight-member writing team meets three times a week and in that time will review 800 to 1,000 ideas, Easton says. Everyone is expected to pitch, and the group also reviews the hundreds of ideas that are submitted by the site's roughly 40 freelance contributors. (For more on what the writer's room is like, read Slate’s recent story.)
Most of the staff and freelancers are millennials (including Affonso, 26, and Easton, 25), and seven of the eight staff writers are male (though some of the freelancers are female). That's why you may notice more than a few posts skewed to younger guys. "Our staff really likes baseball, Michael Jordan, cowboys. You know, little boy things," Affonso says.
"Firefighters," Easton says. "Horses."
"Horses are the funniest animals," Affonso says. "There was a time that we had too many horse jokes we're stuck on."
Both Easton and Affonso are aware of how other writer's rooms have come under fire for being overwhelmingly white and male (Affonso is the only non-white writer on staff), and though they admit to enjoying "little boy things," the team tries not to write solely for that audience.
"We're all cognizant of [what we're posting]," he says. "Those are the things that make us laugh. They make a lot of male comedy writers laugh. Baseball, firetrucks, James Bond—they seem to me to be the kind of things comedy writers love. We obviously don't want to lean on that because it does narrow your audience. Some of that stuff is just inherently funny, but we try to make sure we're writing stuff for everyone. I also don't think that's a male-female thing—just a certain breed of comedy writer likes things like fire trucks and baseball and James Bond."
Most of the writers come from comedy backgrounds, and all except one was a contributor or writer to The Onion previously. The all-staff meetings (every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, lasting up to three hours) are hugely collaborative, with most pitches only consisting of a headline, which the staff then remolds with the right photo and text to make it fit into the site correctly.
Occasionally, they've found themselves inventing whole narratives for certain people. When Mad Men returned for its final season, writers constantly pitched stories about Jon Hamm: “Jon Hamm Guarded This Nest of Orphaned Snake Eggs for Three Months”! “Jon Hamm Did Push-Ups in Front of Shelter Dogs for Three Hours Yesterday”!
"We call him the kindest man alive," Affonso says. "I don't know why we play on Jon Hamm so much. I feel really tired of it."
Part of the appeal of ClickHole is not just the bizarre writing but also the biting commentary on what, exactly, people share. Early on, the staff was looking to pan an uber-prolific clickbait sharer. They just needed someone with a big enough reach.
Star Trek actor George Takei has 8.6 million fans on Facebook. He has another 1.7 million followers on Twitter. And unlike some celebrities, he actually uses both platforms religiously. "We had been talking about doing something with his celebrity and just how massively popular he was on the Internet," Affonso says. "Ultimately, the best way to do it was just to go really hard after him and try to get him to share something. We created a whole campaign, even changing our logo to include his head."
They set about studying Takei's Facebook wall, trying to learn everything that he found interesting so they could craft the perfect post. Some things they immediately noticed: Star Trek (of course), science, Star Wars, and cute pictures of animals. "He's great person to go after," Affonso says. "He shares very particular things, and you can really narrow down what he likes to share on his Facebook page. It's a satirical comment too—picking apart what exactly is it that this guy likes and just honing it down to its most basic form. [We had] these pictures of Neil deGrasse Tyson's head that just say ‘biology’ underneath them, saying, 'You'd like this, right, George?'"
On September 16, 2014, ClickHole posted “10 Things We Hope George Takei Likes Enough to Share This List.” The list was full of Takei's interests: a photo of a cat dressed as Snow White, a Star Wars pun, a photo of Edvard Munch's "The Scream" with shouting Takei's catchphrase, "Oh myyy." And, yes, that photo of Tyson with just the word "Biology" is on there.
Two days later, Takei shared it on his Facebook wall. He added a simple message: "To the gang over at clickhole.com: Okay, you got my attention, and it was really quite funny. Like an online 'roasts' of sorts. Keep it coming."
"The first thing we did after he shared it,” Affonso says, “was comment on his Facebook page with: 'That was great, George. Would you mind sharing this article, too? Just another article?' [He] got really annoyed with that."
Takei was just the beginning for ClickHole's celebrity status—and the site's odd content. For the story “This Song Was Originally Going To Be The ‘Jaws’ Theme Until John Williams Changed His Mind At The Last Minute,” Affonso hired local reggae musicians to come in and write an alternate theme song to Jaws, with such delightfully inane lyrics as "The fishy gonna get ya" and "Comin' round the cove with his mean ol' chompers."
A few hours after posting, the actor Richard Dreyfuss, who played oceanographer Matt Hooper in the film, tweeted the link with his own snark.
At the premier of Jaws I turned to Steven & whispered "what the hell is this music? What happened to the good music?" http://t.co/OcEGReHf9n
— Richard Dreyfuss (@RichardDreyfuss) May 12, 2015
Then there was the time Eric Stonestreet shared the article “Whoa: ABC Just Canceled ‘Modern Family’ In Order To Teach People That Something You Love Can Be Taken From You With No Warning Whatsoever.” Modern Family fans did not take the joke well.
Back in November, the Democrats had just lost the midterm elections and the Affordable Care Act was still not polling well for the president. ClickHole had its own fun at the president's expense, posting: “Things Looking Up For Democrats? Obama Just Got Retweeted By @midnight.” (@midnight is a popular Twitter feed based off the Comedy Central late night show by the same name).
The tweet in question—"Monsters stink #RuinaPixarMovie."—and its hashtag had been made up by the staff. And that was it. Back to the grind.
Two hours later, Obama (or, at least, the White House staffer in charge of the account), sent out an actual tweet: "You’re not an Incredible. #GetCovered #RuinAPixarMovie"
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) November 14, 2014
"It's so weird that actually happened," Easton says. "Everybody [on Twitter] was like, what are you talking about? Nobody understood."
No one knows where clickbait culture is heading next, a fact that Affonso finds invigorating when looking ahead to year two. "One thing I've learned is that [clickbait] is constantly evolving, and it never seems to get any better," he says. "It’s so shameless that there’s no low it won’t stoop to, which makes it all the better for us to parody, in a way. It still makes it fresh and interesting."
In March, the site started producing Clickventures, or "Choose Your Own Adventure"-style posts with sick twists.(One example, and to date the most popular story in the history of the site: “It's Your First Day At A New High School. Can You Become Popular?”) A month later, the writers got into oral histories (see “An Oral History of Mad Men”). And in June, they posted their first immersive journalism piece, “The Pharaohs of Silicon Valley: My Journey Through Google Headquarters.” (The last two, of course, are all completely made up). Expect more of all those in the future, as well as things the staff hasn't even thought up yet.
The writers also won't shy away from the upcoming presidential race, generally the purview of the more news-driven Onion. "Major Endorsement: FDR's Bones Have Appeared on Hillary Clinton's Lawn" blares a May 20 headline. "It will be interesting how we differentiate ourselves from The Onion," Affonso says. "We'll stick to commenting on how the Internet is responding to the presidential race."
Up next…well, they're not sure. "That's part of the fun of it, you know?" Affonso says. He ticks off a few ideas off the top of his head, including getting more into apps such as Snapchat.
"Our goal [for the next year] is to just explore," Affonso says. "Continue to build the universe that we set up. More things like Clickventure, oral histories… just continuing to evolve."
Or, as Easton says, "Really seeing how crazy we can get."