The Simpsons Decade

How Weekly World News Helped Set the Stage for Contemporary Satire

The 1990s supermarket staple looked an awful lot like its peers, but pushed its far-fetched narratives into the realm of delirious parody.

by | May 3, 2017 | Comments

The supermarket racks of the 1990s were filled with gaudy tabloids alerting readers to the sensationalist doings of space aliens, Bigfoot, and Hitler’s brain. These lurid rags trafficked (and continue to traffic) in base sensationalism, conspiracy mongering, salacious gossip, and T&A. They were lewd, crude, and unabashedly populist, with an intense anti-intellectual streak. If The New York Times and Washington Post were the newspapers of record for the smart, sophisticated set, then these compendiums of sex and sleaze were for the unwashed masses, the ignorant rabble, the common people.

Though it looked an awful lot like its peers, one 1990s tabloid was different. Oh sure, it dealt with the perennials of outer space, Elvis Presley, and sex, sex, sex, but this black-and-white, crudely assembled supermarket staple went a whole lot further by pushing already ridiculous, far-fetched narratives into the realm of delirious parody.

Weekly World News was supposed to be funny, but it’s safe to assume that some of its readership missed the joke entirely and saw the cult tabloid as no different from the straight-faced scandal rags it competed with for telephone psychic ad revenue. It was sly and satirical, but like Beavis & Butthead, it looked deceptively stupid from the outside. This was by design. During its Clinton-era heyday, it pulled off the impressive feat of being at once a bona fide newspaper tabloid and a brilliant, sustained parody of the same.

The vast majority of the publication was devoted to sordid sensationalism from across the spectrum, from posthumous domestic comedies about husbands whose wives managed to nag their luckless partners from beyond the grave to a criminal world full of both clear-cut sickos and seemingly respectable people hiding their perversions behind the professional mask of doctor, teacher, or police officer.

But Weekly World News also introduced its own roster of recurring characters, including Dotty, an advice columnist who was less a conventional wisdom-dispenser than a cruel insult comic, with a particular love for homophobic and fat-shaming readers. Dotty’s column also included a number of “Confidential” entries like the following:

Dear Pepper In Orlando: You’re a weenie-head. It’s as simple as that

Dear Ecstasy in Winston-Salem: With a salami? Gross!

Dear Billy In Dallas: A grown man who showers with his mother is sick.

The tabloid delighted in the most far-fetched, implausible, insane nonsense it could come up with.

The beauty of these poetically succinct responses was that they painted a vivid picture in just a few words. I’m not sure what Pepper in Orlando did to deserve the answer they received, but it can’t be good. Then again, Dotty responded to a reader’s pride in her zaftig physique with a sneering, “Dear Fat: Tell me when your heart explodes, Lardbelly,” so it might just be that Dotty herself is brusque to a sadistic, psychotic degree.

Dotty was billed as “America’s Most Outspoken Advice Columnist,” and outspokenness was a trait shared by one of the tabloid’s other star columnists, Ed Anger. As his name implies, Anger was a perpetually apoplectic Korean War veteran forever indignant at what he saw as the sissification of American life. Anger was always, well, angry, and he had a colorful and memorable way of conveying that rage, like when he began an op-ed with, “I’m madder than Raisa Gorbachev with a cancelled American Express card over the latest trick up those sneaky Russkies’ sleeves.”

Weekly World News’ visual aesthetic could charitably be deemed “homemade” and less charitably deemed the work of amateurs. The primary goal for the layout designers seemed to be to fill every inch of space on the page with words or images or advertising, regardless of how cramped and cluttered everything looked. “Cheap” and “phony” and “unconvincing” weren’t flaws in this publication: they were core components of its aesthetic.

The tacky stock photographs they used frequently felt disconnected from the lurid content they represented. For example, the headline “Hubby’s Bad Breath Kills Wife” was, for some reason, accompanied by a generic image of a smiling Asian woman. If this was indeed the woman murdered by her husband’s halitosis, then the photograph showed her in happier times. On top of that, in any given article from 1990s, the photos felt like they could have been taken any time between 1957 and 1985. In other words, they seemed to have occurred any time other than when they were supposed to have been snapped.

The tabloid was similarly impossible to pin down geographically. It was a screamingly American tabloid published in Florida, the most tragically American state in existence, but many of its stories took place in England (the spiritual home of the tabloid) or in international places so exotic it’d be damn near impossible for the average Weekly World News to fact-check them, if so inclined.

That said, the imagery in Weekly World News wasn’t supposed to be convincing. They weren’t trying to trick people into thinking that stories like “Fed Up Hubby Swaps Nagging Wife For A Hunting Dog” were true. No, the tabloid delighted in artificiality, in vulgarity, in trashiness, in shamelessly manipulating audiences with the most far-fetched, implausible, insane nonsense it could come up with.

Weekly World News was so breezily, deliberately offensive that it was difficult to be angry about it.

Weekly World News was so breezily, deliberately offensive that it was difficult to be angry about it and its wonderfully purple prose. It had a weakness for James Ellroy-style alliteration and a similarly odd fondness for stories about foot fetishism and silly wordplay, all of which came together in the quintessentially Weekly World News story “Feet Fondling Fiend Stopped In Tracks.”

But it wasn’t all foot-fondling fiends and verbally abusive columnists. In a pre-viral era, Weekly World News understood that cute/bizarre/insane animal tales — preferably involving dogs — and human interest stories involving children were irresistible to mass audiences, and they could never be exploited shamelessly enough.

A typically tasteless story from 1990 read, “How Do We Tell Our Little Girl… That We’re Dying Of AIDS?” AIDS was a big staple of the tabloid, and it was invariably handled with the tact you’d expect from a publication that, even during the 1990s, still referred to homosexuals as “swishes” and “pansies.”

Still, that particularly shameless tale illustrated Weekly World News’ weird but pervasive moralism. The article’s author pointed out that “Neither (AIDS-stricken parents) Tim nor Lynn contracted AIDS from drugs or from cheating sexual encounters. Lynne was infected with the deadly virus through a blood transfusion during the C-section birth of (daughter) Elizabeth in 1985. Tim got it through marital sex.”

The unspoken implication seemed to be that if these respectable heterosexuals had contracted AIDS through drug use or non-marital sex, they’d be subject to the same stern judgment that all sinners receive in Weekly World News, but since they contracted it through childbirth and marital sex, they’re worthy of sympathy.

The tabloid also represented an alternate universe of current events. At the height of the Elvis stamp craze, for example, it had the brilliant idea to ask readers to vote on which version of Elvis they preferred: the young and older Elvis found on official American stamps, or the Weekly World News’ version, a still-living Elvis who, judging by the image of him in the paper (which WWW waggishly claimed was taken from a “recent photograph”) had devolved into a weird, wooly cross between Neil Diamond and a werewolf.

The historic June 23rd, 1992 issue that revealed the results of the Elvis stamp poll also introduced a figure who would become synonymous with the newspaper, a character that played mascot to Weekly World News much like Mickey Mouse did for Disney. I’m talking, of course, of the immortal Bat Boy, who made his debut in an article titled “Bat Child Found In Cave.”

Bat Boy was a monster with a soul, a monster who suffered.

Cover story or not, it was a bit of an inauspicious beginning for the tabloid’s defining character, a creature caught between worlds who, according to the official narrative, was discovered miles below the earth’s surface. But Bat Boy certainly changed Weekly World News’ evolution. He became its ghoulish face, and he gave the tabloid’s writers an ongoing character to experiment with. In October of 1992, Bat Boy returned to Weekly World News with news of his escape, and he was given star treatment upon his return: an Ed Anger penned an editorial calling the mutation a menace and asking for Bat Boy tips. Bat Boy was no mere freak, though; he was a monster with a soul, a monster who suffered, a monster whose story and character were deep enough to sustain a slew of stories, a comic strip drawn by Gen-X icon Peter Bagge, and even a well-received musical that played off Broadway and on the West End.

It went deeper than that, of course. Weekly World News made sure not to ignore JFK and Elvis, both of whom were alive and well and up to all manner of shenanigans in its tacky alternate universe. Jesus and the Devil were regular presences. Aliens regularly interfered in the American electoral process (Bill Clinton got to ride in a real UFO!) and met with our leaders. A lengthy visit to the Weekly World News via Google Images also reveals that the publication was predictably obsessed with the end of the world — the apocalypse has always been a junk-culture obsession, but it was particularly urgent in the years leading up to the new millennium.

My affection for Weekly World News and its 1990s prime is deeply intertwined with my nostalgia for my longtime employer The Onion. The first time I saw a print copy of the latter in the early 1990s, I was fifteen years old, and the future satirical institution was a low-budget, largely homemade fake newspaper that looked a lot like a collegiate version of Weekly World News.

Before it switched to color itself, The Onion had more in common with Weekly World News than it did with, say, The National Lampoon. It similarly started as a cheap tabloid parody, but it evolved into a parody not just of tabloid trash but of the sum of American life.

The Onion made a crucial shift from being a Midwestern version of Weekly World News to being a satirical version of USA Today. Weekly World News never made a similar evolution. It ceased publication in 2007, and while it maintains an online presence, its time has clearly passed.

These days, Weekly World News is the kind of thing people talk about in the past tense, as something that happened rather than something that is still happening. It’s not surprising that Weekly World News’ time faded, but it is impressive that something so outrageous and seemingly limited — a parody of a parody, a burlesque of a journalistic travesty — was as good, as funny, and as weirdly relevant for as long as it was.

Nathan Rabin if a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.

Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin

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