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Friday, April 19, 2024

ClickHole Started as a Meat Joke. Can It Avoid Being Offal?

On a warm, perfect day last October, comedy writer Steve Etheridge strolled down Chicago’s Milwaukee Avenue on his way to the office. The autumn sunshine put Etheridge, the editor in chief of the satirical website ClickHole, in a more cheerful mood than usual. Lately, he’d been consumed with worry about his website’s uncertain future, but the sun felt good. He daydreamed about taking a bike ride that afternoon instead of fretting obsessively over the precarity of the digital comedy ecosystem.

ClickHole often skewers you won’t believe what happened next–style headlines. But what happened next was genuinely shocking: Etheridge tripped over a stray piece of metal and splayed forward onto the sidewalk. Hard. He staggered over to a nearby urgent care, but it was closed. “Both of my arms were grotesquely, visibly broken in the worst way,” Etheridge says. Woozy with pain, he managed to fumble his phone open to call his wife for a ride to the hospital.


He'd shattered all six of his arm bones, but his misery didn’t end there. He developed a staph infection and then a frightening bone infection. His doctors didn’t know what they’d be able to save. “We had to have the amputee conversation,” he says. He kept all his body parts, but he needed an intravenous catheter to deliver antibiotics directly to his heart. Two huge casts kept his arms jutted out at awkward Ken Doll angles. A home aide helped him get through his days. He tapped out his emails and edits using his three functioning fingers. It was harder to be funny under the circumstances, but he willed himself into a silly-enough headspace to sharpen some jokes.

There’s never a good moment to catastrophically shatter several limbs, but it was an especially bad time for Etheridge. ClickHole itself was also in a perilous free fall. In comedy, writers talk about heightening, or taking jokes to the next level gradually, so their eventual absurdity feels earned. To Etheridge, his accident felt like the universe botching the punch line, taking it way too far too fast. Over the past several years, the humor website’s staff and budget had been slashed, then slashed again. Every day, the remaining writers braced for news that the outlet would shutter. Etheridge’s chances of saving ClickHole already looked slim. Now he was drugged up and stuck in bed.

Another comedy obsession: the twist. Good punch lines have a turn, an element that upends or subverts the audience’s expectations. Even in his foggy state, Etheridge clung to the idea that he could find the turn for ClickHole.

In 2014, ClickHole had launched into a different world, a boom time for digital media. Investors were pouring money into millennial-focused outlets such as Mic, Refinery29, and Bustle. Upworthy, a website dedicated to “positive storytelling,” had become a behemoth, accelerating a fad for sensationalized, manipulative headlines. BuzzFeed’s lists were ubiquitous. Gawker Media was still an independent content empire, flush enough to give its rowdy bloggers seafood towers at its company holiday party. The Awl still existed. The Toast still existed. Grantland still existed. Humor sites were also thriving, both new (the Reductress) and old (CollegeHumor; Funny or Die).

But by the time Etheridge fell, that robust media landscape had withered away. Facebook and YouTube had siphoned advertisers from indie outlets. Investors saw how the currents of power had shifted. Pocketbooks snapped closed.

In these dire circumstances, it was remarkable that ClickHole had survived as long as it had. Even at its height, ClickHole was a boutique operation, with a modest audience and a small staff. But its quest for a life raft has stakes for anyone who goes online. If a quirky, anti-commercial satire site could survive in a world dominated by soulless platforms, maybe we can still have nice things. At least once in a while.

Last fall, still swaddled in casts, Etheridge took Lyft rides to clandestine business meetings with outsiders. The private equity firm Great Hill owned ClickHole, but Etheridge didn’t trust the company with the fate of his comedy fiefdom. He was still in a haze of pain. To leave the house, he hooked a wound-sucking vacuum onto his belt to keep his injuries from oozing all over his shirt. Then he staggered out the door. ClickHole couldn’t wait for him to heal.

Making unauthorized, high-stakes boardroom deals had never been Etheridge’s strength. Growing up, he knew his talent was making people laugh. In high school he spent afternoons at the library, where he found books from the Onion, compilations of the satirical print newspaper’s greatest hits called Our Dumb World and Our Dumb Century. They inspired him to start his own satire insert for his school newspaper.

He began cranking out humor pieces and pitching them anywhere he could find with open submissions policies online. The grind paid off: He landed early clips at College Humor and McSweeney’s. In college in Indiana, he parlayed those bylines into a gig blogging for ESPN. He was drawn to online writing because it felt attainable. He didn’t think he had the pedigreed background necessary to make it in television. “The Simpsons writers were all Harvard grads,” he says.

By the time he finished college, the Onion had just moved its headquarters back to Chicago from New York, so the Midwesterner figured he was in the right place geographically to apply for its fellowship. He got it, and in 2014 he started commuting to the company’s River North office. With its open floor plan, industrial-chic finishes, and kitchen keg, the space looked like any number of generic startups, except for the framed Onion headlines lining its walls and the Peabody Award in the writer’s room. Etheridge loved it.

He hadn’t been there long when the company began strategizing about how to better cover the internet. With so many websites cropping up, the Onion saw an opportunity to both cash in on the content gold rush and mock the treacly clickbait that now proliferated. The company pitched an advertiser, Jack Link’s Beef Jerky, the idea of a website parodying the likes of BuzzFeed and Upworthy while conveniently featuring digital ads for dehydrated meat snacks. The pitch worked. For the advertiser, it was a way to look hip. For the Onion, which had recently ceased its print publication, it was a way to make extra cash for a couple of months.

The new site didn’t have a name yet; its working title was “StuffFeed.” When Onion managing editor Ben Berkley asked Etheridge if he wanted to work on it, Etheridge felt disappointed; he’d been gunning for a staff job at the Onion itself, not its meat-centric sponsored content project. Still, it was a start.

The project’s first editor in chief, Jermaine Affonso, called together a group to come up with a better name for the advertising gimmick. It was a competitive room—everyone wanted their stupid website name to win out. They pitched suggestions: ViralHeap, Content Trough, WebMaw, Rowdy Roy’s Content Depot, Manipulatr, SEO’d, and YouStupidFuck. The 39th idea was ClickHole. “It was a weirdly short meeting,” Etheridge says. ClickHole just felt right.


Etheridge joined four other young men to make up the initial ClickHole writing team: Matt Powers, Noah Prestwich, Cullen Crawford, and Adam Levine. They had short-term, low-paying contracts, but they were fevered about making the meat site work. They liked the creative freedom of ClickHole, in contrast to the Onion’s more rigid house style. “When you join the Onion, you’re just trying not to ruin the Onion,” Etheridge says. “With ClickHole, we didn’t have that pressure.”

The first assignment was to write jokes about a grotesque jerky sculpture Jack Link’s had commissioned called Meat Rushmore. The website premiered on National Jerky Day, with a sidebar called “Cash Hole” where they stuck sponsored content from Jack Link’s.

The ads didn’t last. “We all had the feeling that Jack Link’s didn't know what they had bought,” Prestwich says. Within its first year, a post titled “90s Kids Rejoice! The Spider Eggs They Used to Fill Beanie Babies Are Finally Hatching!” triggered a small panic when it was misunderstood as real. The site published the entirety of Moby-Dick under the headline “The Time I Spent on a Commercial Whaling Ship Totally Changed My Perspective on the World.”

But it was a rendering of Calvin and Hobbes caught in an intimate position that horrified their sponsors the most. “Jack Link’s called our editor in chief a child pornographer and threatened to pull all our funding,” Levine remembers. (Jack Link’s declined to comment for this story. Affonso stressed that nobody blames the jerky company for its reaction.)

ClickHole swiftly established a reputation for making the strangest choices. It was far funnier and exponentially odder than it had to be. Journalists in particular recognized its more cutting content for what it was—media criticism. “This is really a website about the madness caused by FEEDS,” John Hermann wrote at the Awl. ClickHole stood out as a rare editorial project with an original voice. “It had a mirror on the internet,” says Lauren Moser, ClickHole’s first female staff writer and now an editor at the Onion. “It blew my mind.”

The writers were all plugged into the internet and were frustrated by its tropes, and they were young enough and inexperienced enough to try anything. Before setting off to write, the team workshopped their ideas as a group, laughing loudly in whatever corner of the office they could commandeer. “Other people in the building would complain about us,” Moser says.

When especially outlandish ideas cropped up in the brainstorming huddles, Levine gleefully ran with them, producing some of the site’s most memorable jokes. “Adam—his voice—ended up shaping a lot of ClickHole’s tone and sensibility,” Affonso says. Some of the magic came from anonymity. Like the Onion, ClickHole didn’t have bylines, which gave writers a safety net for playing with their weirdest material.

Their output grew increasingly wild, including a long, detailed fake oral history of Mad Men and a now-iconic viral quiz about a Saab-loving father and his offspring, “Which One of My Garbage Sons Are You?” If this voice had a forebearer, it was Jack Handy, the humorist whose “Deep Thoughts” aphorisms achieve a pure silliness often sought but rarely found by writers searching for jokes.

The site had a defiantly anti-commercial streak, pouring resources into hard-to-monetize projects, such as a “Halloween mode” that changed its interface to include a huge ghost graphic. “I can’t think of any other place that allows the same kind of freedom,” Etheridge says. The writers could experiment with language and form and still collect steady paychecks. This was a charmed life.

While ClickHole was carving out its niche, big changes were brewing for its parent company. The Onion had morphed into an institution since its days as a Wisconsin-based indie project in the late 1980s. But Onion Inc. stood on perpetually shaky ground. In January 2016, Univision acquired a controlling stake in the company. Known for its Spanish-language news coverage, the Miami-based conglomerate had never demonstrated a particular interest in comedy. What did it want with a Midwestern boutique satire operation? Still, the sale wasn’t fussed over within ClickHole, especially when money poured in. The staff grew. It finally got its own writers’ room.

That year, Univision made another digital media purchase, the Gizmodo Media Group, a stable of popular blogs, and bundled the Onion’s websites into it. It was an awkward merger. “They were trying to smash together these companies that didn't quite make sense,” says Matt Powers, who took over as ClickHole’s editor in chief when Affonso left in 2016.

ClickHole had begun as a response to the rise of viral blogging, but now its fortunes were yoked even more directly to that world. Like so many other digital media outlets during this era, ClickHole was pushed to produce video content to post on Facebook. The writers fulfilled the mandate with the strangest concepts they could muster, such as a camera trained for hours on melting butter. The videos conjured “a weird, absurdist Andy Warhol land,” as Onion editor in chief Chad Nackers fondly remembered.

ClickHole’s videos tended to be very low-budget—one early hit, a re-creation of the Game of Thrones opening credits reimagined as an old man eating soup, was shot inside the apartment of associate editor Jamie Brew. Under Univision, the team’s improved finances helped along some of its more whimsical ideas. For a short video project, a spoof on a popular genre of internet video where people act amazed or aghast in the face of unfamiliar cultural products, the team dreamed up a hideous, one-eyed puppet named Guzmer. To craft its tuna salad–colored face, they brought on a professional, a woman who’d specialized in creating gruesome injury effects on Chicago PD. “She made a flesh monster,” Moser says.

The puppet had a roving eyeball, a working mouth, a movable body, and it could regurgitate food. To increase the ick factor, the crew added a clear silicon gel to its lacquered skin, creating a sticky sheen. They spent hours playing with Guzmer, making it scream and moving its body up and down to mimic breathing. “It’s weirdly hard to make a puppet look alive,” Moser says. They shot candy and milk out of its gaping mouth and wore trash bags over their clothing to protect themselves from Guzmer’s ejecta.

In the resulting video, “Americans and Guzmer Try British Candy for the First Time,” four actors tentatively nibble on an Aero chocolate bar and feign incredulity. “Ay-ro—am I saying that right?” ClickHole staffer Fran Hoepfner says to the camera in one shot, holding up the chocolate bar and looking perplexed. A few seconds later, Guzmer appears, heaving and munching on the confection, its single giant eye darting around wildly.

After the shoot, they didn’t bother to rinse the milk from Guzmer’s innards, and the puppet developed a stench. But nevermind that: They loved Guzmer so much, it became the office mascot, perched on the writers’ room conference table, a symbol of the site’s off-kilter ambitions.

The Univision honeymoon didn’t last. A rumor floated around: The company’s sales team was resisting selling ClickHole ads, because they couldn’t explain its appeal to advertisers. It wasn’t only ClickHole staffers who noticed Univision’s curdled interest. “I got the impression that the Onion side of the business was low priority,” says Aleks Chan, former editor in chief of another Univision-owned outlet, Splinter. Resources were slashed. ClickHole’s staff shrank under buyouts and a layoff. There were whispers of the Onion reabsorbing ClickHole. Or worse.

As it turned out, Univision had decided to deprioritize ClickHole—and all the Gizmodo Media Group properties. Across the media landscape, investors were realizing the digital projects they’d hyped as the next juggernauts weren’t going to be ad-dollar gold mines. In April 2019, Univision sold the Gizmodo Media Group to Great Hill, which rebranded it as G/O Media. It installed a CEO from the world of content farms, the same world that ClickHole had expertly needled. Auto-playing video advertisements cluttered the G/O sites, angering loyal readers. (Full disclosure: WIRED.com’s editor, Megan Greenwell, previously ran Deadspin, a G/O Media site, until she resigned to protest Great Hill’s management.)

ClickHole’s staff felt misunderstood by the new regime and bristled at its changes, too. “A lot of managers and upper corporate people refuse to understand what makes the websites they own unique, and to play to the strengths of those websites,” Levine says.

In 2019, Great Hill laid off two more ClickHole staffers. The team was now smaller than it had been at the beginning, with just four full-time employees left. The mood darkened. “There was this hammer above us at all times,” one of the four remaining writers, Jessye McGarry, says.

If that hammer fell, the writers had few options. Other digital outlets that occasionally ran humor pieces had recently shuttered. “It used to be a much bigger ecosystem,” Moser says. CollegeHumor and FunnyorDie were struggling; NBC’s attempt at a comedy streaming service, Seeso, shut down, as did Turner’s comedy site Super Deluxe.

One promising exception was a comedy startup called Thud, which some Onion staffers peeled off to start in 2017. It was funded by longtime Onion reader and very rich person Elon Musk. The Tesla CEO seemed like the perfect backer, eager to pump money into the site and insistent that his new crew put artistic concerns before commercial ones. But once again, the money was fleeting. After a year, Musk backed out and Thud tanked.

The internet had entered a dark time for many media sites. People were spending more time on their phones, scrolling through social feeds instead of visiting websites through a browser. “It was the end of the desktop era,” the Onion’s Nackers says.

With Facebook and YouTube funneling off advertising dollars, comedy projects—never exactly financial powerhouses—were increasingly squeezed. “The demise of online comedy seems to map onto the way that media has imploded in general,” Moser says. “No one goes to websites anymore.”

Apart from the Onion, very few dedicated humor outlets offer staff positions. Other prominent sites, such as McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, are essentially one-person operations relying on freelancers. The highest-profile humorist in the US right now is probably Andy Borowitz, who brought his winking newsletter of fake political stories, The Borowitz Report, to The New Yorker in 2012.

Comedy is not dead, of course. Some standup comedians have figured out how to make the platforms work for them. Podcasting is lucrative for the wisecracking men and woman of Chapo Trap House, who rake in eye-popping revenue through Patreon. Competing streaming services have created a surge in television shows. Sarah Cooper, whose lip-syncing to President Trump’s speeches captivated boomers across the world, nabbed a Netflix show. Writer and actor Conner O’Malley’s demented short videos helped him land television gigs, including a stint writing for Late Night With Seth Meyers. Writer Samantha Irby cultivated a devoted fan base with her frank, funny blog Bitches Gotta Eat before shifting into books and television. Most of ClickHole’s former staffers have also moved over to writing for television, where the field is wider and the pay is better.

The endgame for a funny writer, in short, is much more likely in television than in prose humor. In recent years, some established humor writers have pinned their hopes on the booming newsletter industry; Irby has one, as does Daniel Lavery, the founder of the Toast, who was one of the first big-name writers on Substack. The model has yet to prove itself.

ClickHole doesn’t immediately map to any of these strategies. It might be too narrowcast to flourish in the unforgiving digital media space and too ambitious to settle into the newsletter pocket. Finding a way forward would mean bushwhacking a third path. In the fall of 2019, that was what Etheridge set out to do.

At the suggestion of Kevin Pang, the founder of Onion Inc.’s food outlet, Etheridge started talking to the Chicago-based entertainment company Cards Against Humanity. Pang was chummy with its employees, and he knew they loved ClickHole. “The Cards partners could recite lines from ClickHole stories verbatim,” Pang says. Might the Cards team rescue its favorite website?

It wasn’t such a wild swing. Cards Against Humanity already had a habit of generous stunts. Etheridge and Levine, potential business plans in hand, began attending secret meetings with Cards. The Cards leadership liked what it saw. After negotiating with Great Hill, Cards Against Humanity agreed last February to buy ClickHole. In an unusual, altruistic twist, the company then transferred majority ownership back to the ClickHole staff, along with an initial loan.

Cards became a hands-off benefactor, providing office space and financial advice but granting the staff total editorial control. Etheridge, Levine, and full-time writers Jessye McGarry and Jewel Galbraith received majority ownership in the company; writer-at-large Jacy Catlin also received equity, as did the sole non-editorial employee, Chelsea Onik. The arrangement is still in flux, and they need to somehow pay back their loan—but the writers are now in charge.

It was a digital media fairy tale. With one deal, the ClickHole staff went from underappreciated employees to worker-owners of their own media kingdom. The model has become a trend among small outlets, many of which are searching for an escape from corporate-media doom. “ClickHole would have shut down if we didn’t get saved in this weird, anomalous situation,” Levine says. The team felt elated. Spring of 2020 would be ClickHole’s big rebirth!

But, well. You know. They had barely settled into the new office when the pandemic began. A planned live tour got canceled. Some advertisers who had seemed open to doing business didn’t bite. Satirical outlet The Hard Times rebuilt ClickHole’s site as a favor. Big-ticket projects have been shelved for now. Plus the team has to quickly learn some business skills. Etheridge is trying out a line of greeting cards at Target as one money-making venture. “I have no idea whether we’re doing a good job or a bad job,” Etheridge says. “I guess a bad job, because we’re still in a lot of debt.” He doesn’t have any good jokes about the situation.

There’s another issue, though, perhaps as serious as its financial troubles: ClickHole just isn’t as relevant as it used to be. It still leans on its original joke formats, which play on the outdated viral headline formulations of a decade ago. The staff acknowledges its slipping grasp of the zeitgeist. “When ClickHole first started, it really did feel like a simulation of what it was like to be online in 2014,” Levine says. “Now it doesn’t really feel like a simulation of what it’s like to be online in 2020.”

Relevance in 2020 means something different than it did even just six years ago. The comedy world is slowly waking up to the benefits of writers’ rooms, mastheads, and lineups filled with people from different backgrounds and communities. Audiences want to hear from underrepresented voices. For decades, comedy institutions were led by straight white men, from Saturday Night Live to nearly every network late-night show to the Onion.

This summer, several comedy institutions have had to reckon with their overwhelming whiteness. Second City alum and Brooklyn Nine-Nine writer Dewayne Perkins, for example, sparked a conversation about the theater when he tweeted about mistreatment of Black people at Second City, including his own experiences with white directors who called him racial slurs. Shortly thereafter, Second City CEO Andrew Alexander resigned, posting a letter explaining that he had “failed to create an antiracist environment.” Second City is now for sale, its future uncertain. Also this summer, Cards Against Humanity became embroiled in controversy over its reportedly toxic office culture, and its founder Max Temkin stepped down. This news came as a surprise to the ClickHole staff, who stressed that they did not interact much with the Cards staff in the brief time they shared an office.

The reckoning is coming for ClickHole too. Several alumni say they struggled with the site’s homogeneity. At its launch, ClickHole had an all-male staff, and everyone was white except Affonso. The staff is more gender-balanced now, but it still trends white. “Any publication you write for is going to have its own voice,” says Grace Thomas, a former ClickHole fellow and contributing writer. “The problem is when every single person deciding who gets published is a straight white guy, then you’re going to have straight white guy jokes. And that’s the only thing that’s going to get published.”

The website’s only openly trans writer to date, Thomas says she pushed her editors to prioritize diversity when she worked there, and she believes they did not do enough to make the website inclusive. Other former staffers have echoed Thomas’ critiques. Former ClickHole editorial coordinator Fran Hoepfner describes its culture as “extremely male, extremely heterosexual, extremely cis-gendered” and says she ran up against stubbornness and apathy when trying to get different types of voices in the room. “I think it’s a really funny website, the workplace of which should not again be replicated in media,” Hoepfner says.

Etheridge agrees that ClickHole has work to do. “As a white guy coming from a position of privilege, I know I’m always going to have certain blind spots,” he says. “So I’ll just keep listening to people who are different than me and soliciting advice on how to make writers from marginalized groups feel more comfortable and creatively fulfilled at ClickHole.” Until ClickHole can make additional hires, though, it won’t change its demographic makeup. It’s in a bind, needing to evolve to avoid becoming a relic of a receding era but unable to do so in this austerity phase.

The writers realize they need to find new ways for ClickHole to be funny. From their respective homes, they’re spending their days on Zoom, trying to brainstorm ideas, some of which are plenty capable of refracting truths about digital life. (One haunting headline: “Aw, So Sweet! This 32-Year-Old Thought of the Cleverest Little Joke to Post on Social Media!”) They feel lucky to still have jobs. “Having things in Steve’s hands is comforting to me,” Catlin says. “He really believes in our website and has turned it into his life’s work.”

It’s been a year since Etheridge’s tumble and a year since ClickHole’s sale discussions began. While working from home one day, Etheridge took Guzmer out of storage to air out the monster in his backyard. He set it up on a folding chair in the grass near his bocce set, a hopeful gesture toward a time when they can all return to an office. Maybe there’s a boon to being stuck at home and forced deep into the digital world. If there was ever a comeback moment for an outlet about the folly of how people communicate online, it’s now. Perhaps we won’t believe what happens next.

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