Wow! This clickbait parody is still the funniest thing on the internet

Ten years ago, on National Jerky Day 2014, a digital media juggernaut was born. Over the course of the next decade, it would keep us up to date on celebrity scandals (“Chris Pratt won’t star in a movie unless you pay him money”), personality quizzes (“Which one of my garbage sons are you?”), and viral videos (“Inspiring! People describe the first time they drank Gatorade”). Some dismissed it as a shameless bid for clicks. And those people were absolutely right.

What they might not have guessed is that, 10 years later, the comedy site ClickHole is as funny as the day it was born – long after the sites it initially parodied lost their status as hubs of internet culture.

It began as an Onion spinoff that would parody the clickbaity internet culture of the time – primarily BuzzFeed and Upworthy, with their teasing headlines, gif-packed stories and emphasis on audience interaction. ClickHole quickly developed a voice of its own, untethered to its precursors. It still features grabby headlines over sharable news stories that tell you exactly how to feel, but unlike those sites, ClickHole’s stories are totally absurd.

When the entire internet is your source material, everything becomes a worthy target. At a time when so much humor, from late-night talkshows to viral memes, hinges on a relentless churn of news, that expansiveness feels refreshing. “We want to make people laugh, we want to write the funniest jokes we possibly can, more so than wanting to comment on society or politics,” says Jewel Galbraith, the current editor-in-chief. The result is a site whose topics range from childhood memories (“Something must have happened: Nathan came to school 2 hours late in a suit”) to social struggles (“Heartbreaking: the worst person you know just made a great point”) to the straight-up bizarre (“5 times the animatronic fox on splash mountain addressed me by name and told me he was going to marry my dad”).

The ClickHole staff in the writers’ room in 2015. Photograph: Ibarionex Perello/ClickHole

Of course, clicks don’t translate directly into dollars, and like most media, ClickHole has had to navigate a succession of owners, from faceless media companies to its current owner, the comedy card game Cards Against Humanity. “We’ve had a string of several small miracles that have allowed us to keep ClickHole more or less untouched,” says Steve Etheridge, a founder and former editor-in-chief.

“I’m a big fan, and I love reading it,” says Matt Powers, another former editor-in-chief, who worked at the site from 2014 to 2018. “I hope it literally is the last thing humanity has when the sun supernovas.”

In a way, the story of ClickHole is a story of beef jerky. The site launched as an offshoot of the Onion, where editors were looking to experiment with a voice and content – such as slideshows and viral video parodies – that diverged from the satirical newspaper’s well-established tone. At the same time, advertisers were looking to put their stamp on large-scale media projects, says Ben Berkley, a ClickHole founder who was the Onion’s managing editor at the time. “It was this really rare moment in media where creative and business interests aligned neatly,” he says.

The Onion gathered a small staff for the project, including Jermaine Affonso, then an Onion writer with a penchant for the absurd, who soon became ClickHole’s first editor-in-chief. “I wanted it to have that Onion sensibility and that Onion sense of humor,” Affonso says, while clearly staking out its own territory. Many of his hires came from the Onion’s pool of contributors.

The list of names considered for the site. Photograph: ClickHole

The pitch went out to several possible companies they hoped would sponsor the project, and Jack Link’s Beef Jerky quickly got on board. “They were looking for some really big way to make noise on the scene and celebrate National Beef Jerky Day, which I will know for the rest of my life is June 12,” Berkley says.

The only problem: Jack Link’s didn’t love the name ClickHole, which Onion staff had chosen remarkably quickly from pages’ worth of options. “The only other name that got any attention, I believe, was Clickfucker,” Berkley says. So he and Affonso flew from Chicago to New York to convince Jack Link’s that ClickHole – and not “StuffFeed” – was the way to go. “We won the argument, had lunch, and then went home that same night,” Berkley says. On 12 June, the site emerged, full of would-be viral content and jerky ads.

Many early ClickHole headlines could have come directly from BuzzFeed – “Which summer sequels are you most excited to see in theaters?” (including Requiem for a Dream 2: Back in the Saddle) and “The top 8 all-time best ‘songs of the summer’” (sample: We Weren’t on the Titanic, So Let’s Have a Ball). “As we would continue developing the site and developing the voice, we would start to refer to headlines that we didn’t like as, ‘Oh, this feels like ClickHole week 1,’” Affonso said. Within months, the site was veering further into the surreal: “’90s kids rejoice! The spider eggs they used to fill Beanie Babies are finally hatching!”

And the clicks started coming – on the site and on platforms like Facebook, a social media site then considered relevant. Non-parody media outlets from the New York Times to Vulture covered ClickHole’s emergence; Slate called it “literally the best website”.

“It was fun to work with a site that was so malleable in its form yet so specific in its sensibility,” Affonso says. “It was almost everyone’s first full-time comedy job. The fact that they didn’t have prior experience working in [professional] writers’ rooms allowed them to be more unconstrained and experimental.”

Soon, the site was hosting live comedy shows in Chicago and (unintentionally) tricking St Vincent and Anderson Cooper with made-up quotes. While Onion staffers were trying to hone their newsier jokes, “you’d just hear the ClickHole meetings, like, screaming and laughter across the office,” says Chris Gilman, a senior ClickHole writer who formerly worked for the Onion. “It was just such a crazy energy coming from that room all the time.”

And readers were deeply engaged: in the comments, they “would play along in [the site’s] voice, as if the thing we were saying was actually inspirational”, Powers says. By 2016, ClickHole had cemented its warped tone and its place among the US’s leading comedy outlets, with Conan O’Brien appearing in the background of a video in which a woman tells her husband she’s pregnant while the comedian pours perfectly good milk down the kitchen sink.

The staff in Chicago in 2015, from left: Ben Berkley, Jermaine Affonso, Dan Davis, Fran Hoepfner, Cullen Crawford, Lauren Moser, Noah Prestwich, Adam Levine, Matt Powers, Steve Etheridge, Alex Blechman, Anthony Easton, Jamie Brew and Devin Schiff. Berkley, Affonso, Prestwich, Levine, Powers, Etheridge, Easton and Brew were founders. Photograph: Ibarionex Perello/ClickHole

But there’s a method to the weirdness. “Everyone kind of has their own idea of what the perfectly stupid joke is,” says Jacy Catlin, who has written for ClickHole since 2014. “There’s the right kind of stupid and there’s the wrong kind of stupid. If you’re not a seasoned absurd writer, you might go too hard on making jokes about cheese. It’s like: ‘No, no. Cheese is too joked about as a food. We need to come up with a new food.’”

Take, for example, the edible subject of a recent groundbreaking story: “5 apple varieties, ranked by how much they’d make sense as a nickname for Warren Buffett.” How does one come up with such a pairing? For Gilman, who wrote that piece, ideas come from “the stupid things I mutter to myself … I was probably walking around my apartment and being like, ‘What’s cooking, Golden Delicious?’ and just thinking: ‘Who’s an old, weird man I could say that to?”

Galbraith, the current editor-in-chief, describes a similar process: “I feel like my subconscious starts kind of like connecting ideas in weird ways that I wasn’t expecting. And that’s when I usually come up with good stuff.”

There’s also the element of time pressure: the current staff of five hold pitch meetings a few times a week over video chat. Writers each come to the meeting with lists of headlines, along with headline ideas sent in by freelance contributors. “Someone will pick one from the list and then we’ll all start riffing on it,” says Galbraith. One caveat: you can’t nominate your own headline, a rule picked up from the Onion’s pitch meetings. “There was always kind of a thing against advocating for your own jokes, because you want it to stand up on its own and not need the person who wrote it to explain it,” Galbraith says. Once the best headlines are chosen, the staff go their separate ways to write the accompanying articles.

These days, full-length articles might sound archaic – most internet humor, whether text, image, or video, comes in bite-size chunks on our social media feeds. Asked about ClickHole’s site traffic, Stephen LaConte, the site’s producer and managing editor, says he honestly has “no idea”. “At a certain point in time, we realized that the vast majority of people who consume our content consume it directly on the social platforms,” he says. Given that those platforms often make it difficult to link back to original articles, ClickHole has adapted, often posting entire articles as slides or captions on Instagram. You might call it ScrollHole – there’s not much to actually click.

That may have “made people maybe think of ClickHole almost as like a meme account, instead of a website, which is funny,” says Jessye McGarry, a senior writer. “I think we still very much feel like it’s writing for a site, actual writing. I would say ClickHole at its best is absurdist short fiction.” It has a unique voice – difficult to define, but you know it when you see it: “That’s a ClickHole headline. No other website’s gonna publish whatever that is.”

ClickHole’s last live show, in 2019, before Covid hit. Photograph: Courtesy ClickHole

A few other comedy sites have held on: Reductress, for instance, which began as a parody of women’s lifestyle content in 2013. The two sites have undoubtedly influenced each other, as ClickHole recently acknowledged: “Goals! This woman is in too much physical pain to really notice her emotional pain [REDUCTRESS: THIS HEADLINE IS AVAILABLE FOR RENT $450/MONTH].”

And even if the format has become a rarity in the current media landscape, “we’re down to just keep riding it out,” McGarry adds. “I’ve both been told: ‘What, that’s crazy, I didn’t know you guys were still around,’ and then on the flip side there are people who are like: ‘You guys are doing your best work yet.’”

That leaves ClickHole to keep fighting for its financial existence. Unlike in the Jack Link’s days, advertising on the website brings in “glorified beer money”, LaConte says; advertising dollars are hard to come by for straight news and satire sites alike, so much of ClickHole’s income comes from merchandise and comedy writing for outside brands. Meanwhile, social platforms suck up what little ad revenue there is to go around, and “suddenly there’s no point in spending time and money to create high quality comedy online”, says Affonso.

Given these challenges, “ClickHole’s continued existence is a huge testament to its writers,” Affonso, now a writer at Late Night With Seth Meyers, says. “It always felt like a small thing we were making just for ourselves, so it’s a wonder it lasted one year, much less 10.”

This week, the site is running a greatest hits of sorts, looking back at the best stories from the past 10 years. But there’s no shortage of new ideas – late May saw a takedown of a man who’s “only meek because he wants to inherit the Earth” and a puzzled story pointing out that “way too many people seem to relate to this Instagram post about the struggles that only highly gifted people experience”.

“I think the internet has become an increasingly harder target, and they still nail it,” says Berkley. “They twist all these different familiar web garbage formats so well. They took a novelty and turned it into a legacy.”


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