Vice President Joe Biden has never smashed a Whac-A-Mole game in a drunken fit. He has never invoked Freedom of Information laws to find out a female federal employee’s work schedule. And to the best of anyone’s knowledge, he has never washed his car in the White House driveway.
But to readers of The Onion, the satirical newspaper and website, the vice president has done all of those things, plus bounce a check for $39.50 to a liquor store and star in advertisements for Hennessy cognac that emphasize his international playboy swagger.
Political satire typically seizes on a public official’s foibles or flaws and exaggerates them — Gerald Ford’s clumsiness, Bill Clinton’s fast-food cravings, George W. Bush’s malapropisms, for example. Turning the craft on its head, writers at The Onion have created a caricature of the vice president that is entirely incongruous with his public image. Of all Biden’s imperfections, being a womanizer and a drunk are not on the list. In fact, he does not drink and has been, by all accounts, a devoted husband and family man for more than 30 years.
The Onion’s portrayals of Biden began as traditional vice president jokes (“Biden Pardons Single Yam in Vice-Presidential Thanksgiving Ritual”) but writers there had an epiphany last year when they discovered that tweaking their caricature of the vice president into someone virtually unrecognizable from his public persona — “Biden To Cool His Heels in Mexico For a While,” read one headline — was comic gold.
The result has been endless fodder for Biden jokes — too many, in fact, for The Onion to publish. So at a time when no major media outlet has a reporter dedicated solely to covering the vice president, writers at The Onion are generating so many story ideas about Biden that editors have to turn them down.
“We have a backlog of Biden jokes,” said Will Tracy, The Onion’s associate editor.
One idea Tracy said he had to nix: a spread by the vice president in Playgirl inspired by Burt Reynolds, whose nude pose for Cosmopolitan in 1972 on a bearskin rug became an emblem of 1970s hedonism.
“We decided it was almost too big time for him,” Tracy said. “We like it better when Joe Biden is doing very small-time stuff, like getting kicked out of Dave & Buster’s, not appearing on the cover of a major national magazine.”
The articles perform extremely well on The Onion’s website. Since the story “Shirtless Biden Washes Trans Am in White House Driveway” went online last spring, it has generated more than half a million page views. The video “Biden Criticized for Appearing in Hennessy Ads” has been viewed 450,000 times since it appeared in January. For a site that receives 7.5 million unique visitors each month, those are considerable numbers.
The Onion’s “reports” on the vice president generally portray him in one of two molds: Boozy and brash, or slick and over-sexed. There was a report describing how he flouted a ban from all Dave & Buster’s restaurants nationwide. “After he was barred from the Tempe, Ariz., location in 2007, the former senator would reportedly do burnouts in the parking lot with his Trans Am while waiting to pick up a waitress employed there at the time, a woman identified only as ‘Candi,”’ it said.
He has also been known to Dumpster dive. One article blamed him for bringing a bedbug infestation to the White House after hauling in an old, discarded recliner from the curb.
Then there is the womanizer who cockily refers to himself in the third person, seduces ladies named Lexus and stars in a $28 million Hennessy advertising campaign (“Sensual, Powerful, Biden,” the tagline goes).
The randomness of it is precisely the point, writers said.
“People kept trying to peg him as a buffoon,” said Carol Kolb, head writer for The Onion News Network, the comedy newspaper’s online video producer. “We just abandoned that and put him in silly uniforms and had him opening a crab shack.”
This kind of humor does pose a risk for the comedians writing it, because it could easily fall flat with readers who are accustomed to more traditional forms of satire. Even some of the boldest comedy writers said they would be wary of trying it with their audiences.
“The risk of it sometimes for us is that to know, to appreciate what’s funny about doing that with Biden, you have to know that it’s completely wrong and arbitrary,” said Jim Downey, a writer for “Saturday Night Live” who has written many of the show’s political sketches. “People in the audience, even if they have no idea who Biden is, they might say, ‘Oh, I did not know that he was a bit of a dirty dog.’ So it throws things off.”
But The Onion has doubled down on its caricatures, even hiring a body double to pose in pictures so editors can Photoshop in Biden’s head to create images of him, for example, washing his Trans Am — in cutoff jeans and no shirt — on the South Lawn of the White House. The caption: “Vice President Biden ditched a day of presiding over the Senate to ‘give the twin cannons some sun.”’
According to Onion writers, Biden is good humored about the parodies. They said they received word from one of the vice president’s associates saying that Biden thought the articles were a riot.
“We got an e-mail saying: ‘Keep it up. He really likes it,”’ Tracy said. “Apparently he’s a fan.”
But Biden’s office said it was not aware of anyone on the vice president’s staff who might have contacted The Onion to pass along his approval. A spokesman for Biden, Jay Carney, said the vice president was unavailable to be interviewed about his portrayal in The Onion.
“Let me get this straight: You want to interview the vice president about stories about him in The Onion?” Carney asked, sounding at once amused and dumbfounded by the request. “Well, I’ll give you credit for trying.”
Tracy said he and other Onion writers found something very malleable about the vice president’s everyman persona.
“You could see him in a different context if he wasn’t famous,” Tracy said, “if you just moved him in a little different direction.”
Kolb chimed in, “He could be living in a houseboat.”
“That’s actually a good idea,” Tracy added.
And another idea for a new Biden parody was born.