On Monday, Onion, Inc.—which publishes newspaper parody The Onion, BuzzFeed parody ClickHole, and non-parody culture site The A.V. Club—launched a new spinoff site called StarWipe. Think of StarWipe’s mission as being somewhere in between The A.V. Club’s and Clickhole’s. “StarWipe will aim to cover the scurrilous world of celebrity gossip, but from slightly above the fray—making fun of it while also feeding from its trough,” explained The A.V. Club’s Josh Modell in a post announcing the launch. If that sounds like a tough tightrope to walk—well, you’re right. So far, StarWipe is proof of how hard it is to make fun of an industry that’s already practically a parody of itself.
StarWipe, which is edited by A.V. Club veteran Sean O’Neal, aims both to be a source of celebrity news and to send up the conventions of celebrity news sites, which may be mutually exclusive goals. At the very least, the dual mandate results in a somewhat confused, even contradictory editorial voice. There are stories like “Robert Pattinson Heartlessly Encourages Actors To Monitor Mental Health, Thus Stealing Income From Paparazzi,” which uses a quote from a Pattinson interview to make a righteous but not-hugely-funny joke about the paparazzi’s exploitation of vulnerable individuals’ personal lives. A few spaces away on the homepage is a link to “Jon Hamm Thanks Ex In Emmys Speech, Makes Up For 18-Year Relationship Ending,” which assumes that Hamm is responsible for his recent breakup with Jennifer Westfeldt—the kind of assumption that celeb rags like Us and Star make recklessly all the time.
One minute StarWipe satirizes the tabloids’ strange obsession with Jennifer Aniston’s fertility; the next it’s mocking how Tori Spelling has lost “dignity and her acting career.” So which is it—is StarWipe making fun of celebrity news culture, or is it making fun of celebrities? It’s not that a site couldn’t send up the symbiotic relationship between celebrities’ self-promotion and journalists’ pursuit of clicks—there’s certainly plenty of blame to go around for our shallow, fickle celebrity culture—it’s just that StarWipe swipes, even when they are funny, don't yet seem to be grounded in any larger message.
I have high hopes for StarWipe, which is clearly still figuring out what kind of parody site it wants to be. But thus far, it's actually a useful point of contrast for understanding what makes ClickHole so good. The best StarWipe posts tend to be the ones that seem like they could be right at home on ClickHole: posts like “Emmys Photos We Can’t Stop Staring At Even Though We’re Supposed To Be Controlling Air Traffic,” “Celebrities Who Don’t Blink!”, and “Style Evolution: Jessica Alba” (which explains how the evolution of life on earth over billions of years made Alba’s ensembles possible). These are the posts with zero news value—there’s hardly a fact to be found in any of them—but with a delightful sense of absurdity underlying jokes that are thoroughly divorced from celebrities’ real-life personas. And so StarWipe is also a reminder of just how hard it is to do what ClickHole does. ClickHole posts are funny not only because they’re surprising, but because their jokes come at readers’ expense by sending up the mindless way we consume meaningless, contrived content online. As StarWipe finds its footing, it might even benefit from embracing the absurdity—and meaninglessness—of it all a little bit more.