Matt Daniel can’t stop laughing. Seriously.
“Area Man Has Gone on Tinder Date With Everyone Currently at Lamplighter,” he reads, snorting at the satirical headline on Richmond’s hipster culture.
Daniel is the founding editor of the Peedmont online news site, which he launched shortly before Election Day.
People can better manage a stressful news cycle when pop culture trends, buzzwords and catchphrases turn into punch lines, he says.
“Satire provides a way to approach sensitive subjects,” says Daniel, who works with a team of 12 writers. “I wanted to jump in and give that to people.”
After a rainy Inauguration Day and a soggy month in Virginia, his site scored another popular hit with “Statewide Rainfall Refills Drained Swamp.”
The real trick isn’t to become a copy of other news-as-humor enterprises.
Daniel says he’s inspired by the Onion and “The Daily Show,” but he wants the Peedmont to focus on all things Richmond and Virginia — niche satire, as he says.
It helps that he’s Richmond born and raised, a 2011 marketing graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University. What he isn’t: an experienced writer, entrepreneur or practiced stand-up artist. He’s more of a comedy connoisseur with a commendable urge to serve, like a court jester.
“I have no journalistic background,” he says, chuckling, “but I’m giving it my best half-assed shot.”
His staff has 50 headlines waiting in the wings, with another 50 that need “some brand tweaking,” Daniel says. The site averages an article per day, while the current news cycle spits out fodder at an astonishing rate.
But keeping up isn’t a concern, he says. Staying unique is.
“I study the comments section like it’s an obsession,” he says. “It’s probably unhealthy. I especially focus on the comments that are like, ‘Nah, that joke didn’t land, that’s not funny.’”
When the site makes a direct hit, it can make you want to text “LOL” faster than a kung-fu thumb wrestler. After the vice-presidential face-off in Farmville last year, one headline read, “Mike Pence and Tim Kaine Distracted by Cooling Pumpkin Pie during Vice Presidential Debate.” In captured screen shots, Pence and Kaine both stare hungrily toward stage right.
But there are also duds that elicit a giggle not because something is gracefully revealed, but because the reader is awkwardly shoved into bizarro world. For example: “President Obama to Host Last Minute State Dinner at GWARbar.” Rimshot, please?
Being funny is hard. In August, Vanity Fair wrote how Comedy Central was in a ratings free-fall, with “The Daily Show” hitting lows. In 2016, the Onion was parceled out to, of all places, a company that dominates Spanish language television. The site had been publicly looking for bids since 2014, a year after it stopped running a print edition.
“I remember there was this intersection in D.C., where a news box for the Onion was wedged next to all the major papers,” Daniel recalls. “That was my first encounter with the Onion, actually, not online. [The paper] got me thinking about growing up in Richmond’s West End, and all these clichés that make the city quirky like Portland or Austin.”
These days it’s more common to find parodies on local news sites. Richard Hayes, who produces a weekly humor spot on RVA News Hub, says as much. His News in Brick takes a popular Richmond headline from the week and assembles it in Lego form, sometimes with a dash of satire.
“Humor works as an icebreaker as long as folks don’t take themselves or others too seriously,” Hayes says.
Still, it’s a tough gamble. News sites are fighting to maintain credibility in an era when fake news is a damning label.
Daniel says his strategy doesn’t involve debunking news so much as helping news consumers chill out. He spends time studying the straight-faced comedies of Leslie Nielsen. He asks for advice from the founders of the Hard Times, which was formed two years ago to poke fun at the aging punk scene. (A sample headline: “Punk Parents Blame Child’s Terrible Taste in Music on Vaccinations.”)
“They’re awesome geniuses over there, they had me in tears,” Daniel says. “But more importantly, they’re ready to help us figure out how to make this a multiyear project.”
Until that day comes, Daniel will be busy auctioning off cars, which he calls his day gig. Hmm, perhaps there’s a joke in there about a car salesman dreaming of becoming a fake newscaster, maybe?
“People say, ‘Oh, you’re going to have a lot of content over the next few years,’” Daniel says. “I don’t like to look at it that way, though. I just want to make something people can relate to.” S