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Calm, Well-Adjusted Nation’s Reading Comprehension Hits 100 Percent

Andy Borowitz, the polarizing ‘New Yorker’ columnist, is not trying to trick you. He’s just a victim of his own success — and Donald Trump’s.

He lopes onstage in jeans and a Cleveland Indians T-shirt, lanky and gray-haired, radiating the weapons-grade affability that has made him both phenomenally popular and, at some parties, viscerally reviled. Andy Borowitz is in the building. He writes fake-headline political humor for The New Yorker’s website. It does huge traffic, or yuge, as he might himself quip, affably. Donald Trump reference. Get it? Of course you do. This drives some people nuts.

We have gathered here, on a rainy October Saturday evening, in a Manhattan performance space a few blocks from the Lincoln Tunnel, to watch Borowitz and Sarah Silverman talk politics as part of the 2016 New Yorker Festival. It is the brief and nauseous interval between "grab ’em by the pussy" and the second presidential debate; the event is subtitled "Election ’16: Crying on the Inside." The pair did a talk like this in 2012, jovially dragging Mitt Romney, though now, as Borowitz notes with a smile, Trump makes Romney sound like Nelson Mandela.

Big laugh. Applause break.

The sold-out crowd is genial but antsy, eager to be soothed. There is some sort of "put yourself in a New Yorker cartoon" booth in the back, like you’d see at a county fair, though it mostly remains, to everyone’s eternal credit, empty. As we wait for the event to start, some patrons read The New Yorker (too literal), or do printed-out crossword puzzles, or chat about how they’d spent their Saturday (yoga followed by Hillary call-center volunteering is a real arc), or joke about the college football they’re missing, or compare their styles of eyeglasses. A lot of thirtysomethings have brought their parents, or vice versa.

The two young women sitting next to me are, like most ticket holders, here for Silverman. There is no confusion on this point. A passionate Bernie Sanders supporter and memorable Democratic National Convention speaker, Silverman is ideal for this gig, triangulating volatile celebrity allure and blunt political savvy. But tonight she is a bit … low-energy. Trump reference. Nice. She is entirely flummoxed by the question "What are you working on now?"; later, she gets tangled up in her chair such that Borowitz has to stand up and physically dislodge her. She has her moments, though fewer than you might’ve expected.

But her partner this evening is, from the onset, nonchalantly aflame. Borowitz notes that truly shocking leaked Trump audio would include the guy raving about, say, the new Jonathan Safran Foer novel. Big laugh. He derides the then-popular Republican push to replace Trump on the ticket with Mike Pence: "Sure, let’s get the guy who hates women and gays." "Exactly!" someone in the crowd shouts. He does a couple of riffs on the scandal of the hour, starting with a confused Gary Johnson asking, "Where’s the pussy?" And later, assuming what he sets up as a pompous Oscar Wilde affect, "I say there, my dear sir: Shall we grab some pussies?" Raucous howls. He mocks the Republicans’ distaste for experts and Washington insiders, and declares himself to be pro-elitism: "I want my president to be much smarter than me." More cheers, laughs, prolonged applause. The line of the night.

Pence comes up again during the crowd Q&A: Someone asks if Republicans would really accept him as the presidential nominee instead. "I think they’ll jizz all over Pence," Silverman jokes, and Borowitz pounces: "They’ll jizz all over their Pence." More huge laughs. He is clearly winning this debate in which there is no debate; he’s an occasional standup comedian himself, and tonight a far better one, warm and, yes, oddly soothing. People love him. There is no confusion on this point. The house lights go up, and one of those two young women sitting next to me turns and says, unprompted, "For the record, I thought Andy was the real star tonight."

Online Political Satirist Universally Beloved

Andy Borowitz is a 58-year-old Harvard graduate born in the Cleveland suburbs; Shaker Heights High School, for reasons unknown, has minted several New Yorker superstars, including Kathryn Schulz and Susan Orlean. He edited The Harvard Lampoon, he wrote for The Facts of Life, he cocreated and coproduced The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, he coproduced Pleasantville, he acted in Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda. And somewhere in there — jape dead ahead — he finally knuckled down and did something with his life.

Like many viral web sensations, The Borowitz Report began as a silly private email sent to a few friends. He launched it as a standalone entity in 2001, when it quickly bounced from newspaper syndication to a Newsweek staple to a Huffington Post staple. It won awards; it enraptured millions. In 2012, The New Yorker, for whom Borowitz had first started writing Talk of the Town pieces nearly 15 years ago, bought the site in full. The New Yorker is not in the habit of doing this sort of thing. It was, traffic-wise, an extremely good idea; he’s a mainstay on the site’s coveted sidebar displaying the five most currently popular posts.

The premise is simple, pure: fake political news stories, with a winking headline perched atop just a few hundred words of stiff, credulous newspaper-wire copy. This is not an office job; Borowitz and his family live in New York City with a summer place upstate, and he spends most of his day roaming around doing "dad stuff" and testing out jokes in his head. And then, ideally: "Something happens, and I have sort of an impulse reaction to a story, and I have a headline right away, and then I just kind of go with it," he tells me on the phone, about a week after the New Yorker event. "So the actual writing of the piece is not laborious. And if it is laborious, it usually is a sign that it’s not right."

The result is The Onion with no mean streak. Or, if you personally have a significant mean streak, The Onion with no edge. "BP Says Oil in Gulf Must Be Changed Every Six Months." "Afghan War Not Going Very Well, Reports Duh Magazine." "Michele Bachmann Proposes ‘Don’t Add, Don’t Spell.’" "Obama Signs Executive Order Relocating Congress to Guantánamo." "Fact Checker at Republican Debate Hospitalized for Exhaustion." You can imagine the admiring folks at the Sarah Silverman talk chuckling at some of those, and it is a little churlish, in these morbid end times, to begrudge them for it. He’s prolific, and consistent, and unfailingly topical. We’ll get to the Trump stuff in a minute, but you get the point. And that’s the point: that you immediately get the point. It’s easy, it’s broad, it’s worldview-flattering to your prototypical New Yorker subscriber. You get the references. You know how to feel. You chortle knowingly from the Right Side of History.

Or maybe you don’t chortle. Many media professionals and unprofessionals and all-around deplorables (Hillary reference) find his stuff spectacularly unfunny, it’s true. Gawker: "fucking awful." Salon: "dad jokes for self-satisfied liberals." Slate, with regards to the recent Borowitz Report piece "Gary Johnson Says His Favorite Foreign Leader Is Obi-Wan Kenobi": "Looking at that headline ruined everyone’s life." Twitter … let’s leave Twitter out of it, actually. OK, fine, just one.

Read (and follow) enough of the right people and you can convince yourself there’s a pitchfork-wielding clutch of bad hombres permanently seething just outside the poor guy’s front door. (Heh. Bad hombres. Trump reference. Nailed it.) But the issue of whether you find him hilarious or atrocious is quickly settled and largely static, and likely tied up in both his prominence (via the hallowed New Yorker, still often presumed to be above such viral shenanigans) and his proximity (giddy RTs and hate RTs count the same, exposure-wise, and there are plenty of both).

Even his most profane and enraged detractors often qualify their rage with something on the order of He seems like a nice guy, though. Borowitz’s capacity for evil is, to the extent that you insist on it, entirely aesthetic. As a human, to the moderate degree that he enters the public sphere, he is by all accounts warm and accommodating, and not prone to diva moments or outsize self-aggrandizing or fiery Twitter canoes. We chat on the phone for nearly 90 minutes, and he is cheerful throughout, complaining neither about the unexpected time commitment nor the percentage of that time spent discussing the people who claim to despise him. He is also, for the record, not reading your criticism, be it an errant tweet or a full-blown takedown. He had a few prolific years on Twitter but has largely abandoned it; during the Silverman talk, he describes his approach to the internet now as "post and ghost," and means it.

"I’ve always been this way, but more so I think as I’ve gotten older, and I’m quite old: I really keep my head down," he tells me. "When you put something out, whether it’s in standup or some writing or a book or whatever, you can’t really control how people are going to respond to it. If it makes people happy or unhappy … I try to isolate myself as much as possible from that, because it doesn’t — there’s no upside for me in, like, trying to figure out, ‘Is this going to make people mad? Or sad?’ I just keep my head down."

It’s the smart play. He knows the deal. "It’s just easy to make fun of jokes you think are bad," says John Herrman, a longtime media reporter and current David Carr fellow at The New York Times. "One of the most satisfying forms of humor is, if you think you’re funny, and you see someone who you think you can demonstrate isn’t funny — or if it makes you feel like you’re funny — you would definitely focus on that."

But two years ago, writing for The Awl, Herrman identified a deeper, darker issue here, in a post simply titled "The Borowitz Problem." The New Yorker had just rolled out a gala website redesign centered around Borowitz, who’d reportedly brought in 6 percent of the site’s overall traffic in the last year. But some dismaying percentage of that readership shares his articles under the impression that his hysterical fake news is actually sobering real news. A kinder, gentler Onion is, consequently, far easier to wildly misinterpret. And it’s hard to believe that’s a total accident. As Herrman put it:

This specific issue, in the past two years, has intensified and worsened to a startling degree, which makes the silly, old Borowitz Report more vexing an issue than ever. Because the medium through which it is shared is still, primarily, Facebook, which is rife with misleading bullshit and outright lies and paralyzing vitriol. And the message, politically, in the "real" world, is now usually coming from Donald Trump.

Enraged Andy Borowitz Rips Off Shirt, Fires Back at Haters, DDTs Trump

"Let me make one thing very clear," Borowitz says, politely. "I am never trying to do a hoax. That is never my intention."

He gets that some people don’t get it. He is aware, for example, that The Borowitz Report has its own tag on, which has felt compelled to debunk such headlines as "Putin Cancels Campaign Event With Trump," "Furious Christie Refuses to Pick Up Trump’s Dry Cleaning," and "Pence Recaptured After Fleeing Trump Campaign Bus." One of Borowitz’s biggest and, not uncoincidentally, most cognitively dissonant hits this year is "Ben Carson Says He Has No Memory of Running for President." That one was pretty good. "It was the most outlandish story," Borowitz says now, proudly. "It was, like, so ridiculous."

It’s OK that he delights in this, to some extent, right? "It’s undeniably entertaining to me when people think it’s true," he says. "So in terms of some payback for me of actually getting some entertainment value for what I do, I’m very grateful that this happens, because I enjoy that. But I’m certainly never trying to do hoaxes. I’m not trying to punk people."

New Yorker website editor Nicholas Thompson is quick to back his star attraction on this and any other point. "It’s important that people not take it seriously and not be misled," he says. "We certainly don’t ever want to do that, but you know, I don’t know, ‘Trump Expands Attacks to Include George Clinton’ — like, what’s funny about that is you have to look at it for a second, and then you realize, ‘Of course that’s false.’ Right? But for a moment you don’t, and that’s what makes it funny. There’s that balance. And if I started to see that the internet was like, "Oh my god, Trump is really attacking George Clinton,’ we would put extra labels on the post and make it particularly clear that it’s not real."

Thompson is a fast, enthusiastic talker, and this topic would seem to be one of his greatest enthusiasms. "I am incredibly proud to publish Andy Borowitz," he tells me. "I really like working with Andy Borowitz. I think Andy Borowitz is funny. So that’s why I am happy to talk to you, because I will stand completely by Andy Borowitz."

On the phone, Borowitz confesses to a tinge of guilt when Borowitz Report pieces dominate the website’s top-five "most popular" stories sidebar, as they often do. "I understand there’s an enormous gulf in achievement between what they’re doing and what I am doing," he says, praising reporting-heavy longform peers like Lawrence Wright, Jane Mayer, and Kathryn Schulz. "So there’s a little bit of that Midwestern, like, ‘Holy crap, that’s not fair.’"

This is, unfortunately, a terrible time to be a nice guy, or a political satirist, or a sentient human. You can argue that Donald Trump has broken the "real" news media, and The Borowitz Report, and American political humor, and America. There are too many lies, and there is far too much antipathy and skepticism toward the hard journalists and fact-checkers who aim to debunk them. As for the humorists, the satirists, the late-night hosts, they’re scrambling to whip up fictional comedy that’s weirder and uglier and funnier than the country’s real-time, real-life tragedy. Our collective comedic imagination has failed us as surely as our politicians have. The morning after the third presidential debate, The Borowitz Report meekly offered up "TV Academy Offers Trump Emmy If He Will Quit Race." But the real Trump, at a real campaign rally in Ohio, beat that easily, promising to "totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election, if I win."

"I think he is hard to write about," Borowitz says of the man who is — this will never not be incredible — the Republican presidential nominee. "I think that I vastly preferred Mitt Romney, for example … Mitt Romney was sort of clueless and out to lunch and also just, like, completely unaware of the fact that there were people suffering in this country. His whole style and his awkwardness was really good for comedy, because awkwardness is usually a pretty reliable source of comedy."

Trump’s awkwardness is different, more aggressive, less whimsical. "The problem with Trump is he’s so fucking needy," Borowitz says. "You know? He needs everybody’s attention. He’s always trying to get a reaction."

You get to feeling bad — feeling like an enabler — for even giving Trump that reaction, let alone trying to beat him at his own game. "From the beginning, I have tried to acknowledge the darkness in him," says Owen Ellickson, a Los Angeles–based TV writer (currently with NBC’s Superstore) whose fake-dialogue-heavy Trump parody Twitter account blew up this year, though his fictional universe has recently expanded to Hillary and beyond, for reasons of spiritual self-preservation. "I mean, I try at least once a week to point out that he has been accused of rape … I would say, this last week or two, clearly just the effect of that tape … I have so many female friends that have been bothered on a deep level by it that I steered away from giving him much voice for awhile."

There is a rock bottom here. It is likely we’ve sunk far past it. "Once it becomes clear that this guy is a danger to the republic, then it’s not really funny anymore," Borowitz says. "And so I think, like most people writing about him, it’s been kind of an arc of first delight and then horror, and now it’s kind of bending back a little bit, not into delight, but maybe a sense of relief, that maybe we’re going to dodge a bullet … but we shouldn’t be, like, throwing up the confetti too high, because we’re going to be dealing with the aftermath of this, and all the anger, for a long time."

It’s the difference between tweeting as you whistle past the graveyard, and tweeting from the grave. "I feel like at a time when he’s actively depressing people in really personal ways, some asshole like me just bleating on Twitter in his voice is not necessarily the best thing to do," Ellickson says. "And I mean, I think there’s definitely a valid critique, that if somebody wants to say he’s not funny, it’s not good to joke about this — that’s not, like, wrong. That’s a fair viewpoint. I’m enjoying doing what I’m doing, but I am open to the possibility that I am doing a bad thing."

Everything Will Be Fine

The Borowitz Problem, as such, may have already mutated past the point of Andy Borowitz’s purview or control. The Times’ John Herrman, for one, is lately fretting about a far less official and far more apocalyptic strain of fake news.

"One thing that really bothered me … someone who was regularly really funny on Twitter made a joke about tearing up ballots as a postal worker in Ohio," Herrman says. "And the account, of course, is just a stream of absurd statements and conspiracy-wish-fulfillment-type stuff. And The Intercept wrote this up as a ‘good troll’-type thing. Which is — that’s an article I’ve written before, recounting the way that some Twitter user got the best of some humorless nightmare — that’s kind of just a nice, simple story."

Not anymore. "Now it feels kind of grim," Herrman continues. "A small group of people gets the joke, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, good own,’ or whatever. And then 100,000 people one or two degrees removed from the initial misunderstanding or misreading or intentional misreading" — in this case, Matt Drudge, Scott Baio, and Rush Limbaugh, among others — "they’re just like, ‘Oh yeah, well, voter fraud is happening now.’ That’s the most extreme version of this. The Borowitz stuff occasionally, when the headline is just like, ‘President Obama Punched Vladimir Putin in the Face,’ like, it’s on the spectrum. The same thing is happening."

Not quite the headline, but point taken. "What I think sometimes happens is, if you’re choosing a person that people already have a very negative opinion of, the stories tend to just sort of reconfirm that confirmation bias," Borowitz says. "So if you say something that seems very true to their character, even if the story is ridiculous, here’s a part of the brain of the reader who’s like saying, ‘Oh my god, did he really do that?’ And it’s just credible enough in their brain, because they already have so much bias against that person."

People will genuinely believe anything these days, if it matches up with what they already believe. Testing that is a fun, and incredibly dangerous, way to make a living.

"A lot of people say, like, ‘Aren’t you just having the time of your life writing about this?’" Borowitz says. "And actually, no. This is like saying, ‘Wasn’t it fun in the ’30s during the Weimar Republic, all those crazy goings-on? Wasn’t that great for comedy?’ I think it’s a really … it’s a very bad time. It’s good for comedy in the sense that people really want to laugh, because there’s so much despair that’s going on. But I remember when Jon Stewart retired from The Daily Show … he said, when you do daily, political, current-events humor, so much of your time is spent kind of mining for turds. You’re spending all day looking for horrible things that people have said and done. And so, that’s the untold human cost of being a comedian. It’s just — it is depressing. All I can say is, as they say in The Godfather, this is the business we chose."

It was simpler back in his TV-writing days. He still relishes the memory of, say, Quincy Jones, in his capacity as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s executive producer, serving up inspirational bon mots like, "Let’s not get bogged down in the paralysis of analysis." Borowitz remembers that everyone loved writing for Carlton, Will’s cousin, the Tom Jones–loving fan favorite — a fine Mitt Romney analog, come to think of it, with his mix of affluence and obliviousness — as opposed to Will himself, who was too cool, who was always in on the joke, who was always trying to be funny.

Which does not make Trump the Fresh Prince, but he seems to think he’s the Fresh Prince, which is far worse. Trump is our greatest, most voluminous fount of both comedy and tragedy. If political satire doesn’t survive this election, blame the real-news guy trying to take down democracy, not the fake-news guy crying on the inside as he fires off corny jokes in a valiant, though likely futile, attempt to save it. What’s most remarkable about this era, in the end, is how easily and effectively you can broadcast to the world exactly how you feel about both of these people.

"By a lot of measures, the world is in better shape now than it’s been in other periods of my life," Borowitz says. "This isn’t really the worst. But I think that because of the internet, our distribution system for vitriol has improved incredibly. In the old days, there might have been angry people sitting around in a bar, you know, saying this or that, and we didn’t have to hear it all. But now, we’re all, for better or worse, wired together. And so we have to hear, if we chose to … we have the opportunity to hear just how much we all hate each other."

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