How oddball items came to dominate the news business, and became normal in the process. In the Internet age, what does mainstream weirdness even mean?
For at least a century, the genre of weird news has been driven by a pair of rival spirits—two theories of weirdness that co-exist but never jibe. First there are the satirists, the weirdness hunters who put their quarry in a circus cage: They point us at the characters they’ve nabbed so we can laugh at them together. Then there are the weirdness conservationists, the ones who see their subjects as members of a beautiful exotic species.
For the satirists, reporting on the weird has often served to track and stifle human folly; their work blurs the line between weirdness and stupidity. H.L. Mencken was among the first to bring this sharp and snooty (today we call it “snarky”) format to American letters. He crowdsourced newsy odds and ends from local papers in what he called at first “The Purling of the Platitudinarians—a digest of recent cosmic balderdash,” and later just “Americana.” The feature soon found an avid audience among the English, who “at that time were full of dudgeon against [Uncle Sam] and eager for evidence that he and his lieges were imbeciles,” as Mencken put it in his memoirs. “I complied willingly.”
This nasty view of weirdness spread to other highbrow publications, including the New Yorker, which as of 1925 produced a regular page of “interesting newspaper headlines, super-unctuous press agent announcements, typographical errors, etc.,” that helped establish its trademark distance from the hoi polloi. And this pose wasn’t just reserved for snickering sophisticates. A more populist version can be seen in the well-established weird news trope of the “Dumb Criminal” who earns whatever fate he meets through lack of common sense—like the bank robber who posts incriminating selfies to Facebook. And it thrives today in venues like the Darwin Awards, a website started in 1993 (and also adapted into books and a feature film) that singles out people who “eliminate themselves [from the gene pool] in an extraordinarily idiotic manner, thereby improving our species’ chances of long-term survival.”
Chuck Shepherd has a bit of a mean streak too—he calls one of his recurring features “Thinning the Herd”—but overall he’s in the other camp of weird news connoisseurs, the one that stands in solidarity with the weirdos and the dopes.
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