If someone calls me up and says their toaster is talking to them, I don’t refer them to professional help, I say, “Put the toaster on the phone.”
— Sal Ivone, former Weekly World News editor
Are there really people out there who think Elvis faked his own death? It’s a question one can’t help but ponder when browsing the pages of Bat Boy Lives, a compilation of 25 years worth of Weekly World News stories. Other questions that come to mind: what if Abraham Lincoln was actually a woman? Is a parrot’s testimony admissible in court? If the horse that played Mr. Ed was really a pothead, how did it operate the bong? And, finally: wouldn’t biting Queen Elizabeth on the arm automatically disqualify Bat Boy from knighthood? Sir Bat Boy, rather.
The Weekly World News has been a supermarket staple for over two decades. It was conceived in 1979, when infamous tabloid National Enquirer made the leap from black and white to color. Rather than let good printing presses go to waste, the folks at the Enquirer created Weekly World News as a new sister publication. Initially, the News trafficked in sordid celebrity gossip. But in 1981, scallop fisherman turned copy boy, Eddie Clontz, took the helm, and under his guidance WWN was transformed into a clearinghouse for stories too far-out or apocryphal for mainstream publication. Readers were regaled with breathless true-life tales of Bigfoot sightings, alien abductions, and White House ghost hauntings. And they responded enthusiastically, with circulation swelling from an initial 250,000 to more than one million by Clontz’s death in 2004.
In the introduction to Bat Boy Lives, editor David Perel claims that there are two types of Weekly World News readers. Type A readers are “believers,” whereas Type B readers consider themselves smarter, but “in fact may simply just be more cynical.” They read WWN “to laugh at the thought of all the [Type A readers] out there who really believe what they’re reading.”
It’s hard to say how seriously to take this dichotomy. On the one hand, these last few decades have seen the rise of television shows like Roswell and The X-Files, which hoe the same row as WWN. Conspiracy theories, rumors, and speculation abound on the Internet and the murkier sections of the AM radio dial. On the other hand, the stories contained within WWN are so patently absurd it’s hard to imagine anyone believing them. It’s possible that the putative audience of “Type A” readers may in fact be a tiny minority whose presence (real or imagined) serves to intensify the giggles provoked by headlines like “Moon Rays Turned Apollo Astronauts Into Werewolves” or “3-Breasted Gal Joins Clinton As His New Intern!” (Another question — would three-breasted gals really be that attractive to heterosexual males? Total Recall featured a similarly over-endowed girl, and the prevailing assumption seems to be that extra-breasts are hot … but your author must firmly vote in the negative.)
In any case, the inside front page of Bat Boy Lives! puts paid to any lingering doubts that might have existed — the book notes: “Weekly World News articles are drawn from a number of different sources and some are fictitious or satirical.” Given this, there’s only one real criterion for judging the stories compiled therein: are they funny?
This is where the News falls short. In fairness, the bar for satirical news has been set high in recent years, in particular by the outstanding and hilarious Onion compilation, This Dumb Century. It’s true that the targets are different — the News targets National Enquirer‘s tacky tabloid style, whereas The Onion lampoons USA Today “info-graphics” and bland Associated Press reports– but the fact remains that The Onion does both straight news and absurdity much, much better. What’s more, making fun of tabloids is like making fun of pro-wrestling; the target is so ridiculous to begin with that mocking it seems beside the point.
Sometimes the News does better. When mocking conspiracy theories, or our obsession with celebrity, it can hit inspired notes. Consider the article: “African Tribe Worships Salma Hayek’s Breasts”. The article breathlessly relates that a Gambian Tribe has taken to wearing “stone and wood amulets fashioned as miniature replicas of Hayek’s awe-inspiring milk wagons.” But more often than not, its articles seem like thinly veiled excuses for silly punning (“Babe-raham Lincoln fooled them all!”) or lackluster Photoshop japery. Odds are 10-to-1 that the main motivational force behind the article about a renegade chemist cloning Richard Simmons was the desire to paste his head onto a baby’s body. (In this, I suppose the News stringers can hardly be faulted.)
The paper fails most noticeably when its editors move away from faux-tabloid reports and attempt more traditional comedy pieces. Lists like “Signs You’re Going To Hell” are reminiscent of rejected David Letterman skits. Also, the compilation suffers from the shift from shoddy newsprint to perfect-bound book format. Like The Onion, part of the humor of reading the News comes from the fact that you’re reading a seemingly real newspaper. In book format this illusion disappears.
According to David Perel, the stories contained within Bat Boy Lives are part of our “collective consciousness.” He’s probably right. Flipping through these pages provides a concise (if rather silly) summation of the topics that have occupied the average news-consumer’s attention for the last 20 years: celebrity, religion, politics, science, and sex, all mashed together into a queasy pop quiche. Though it would be nice if the humor was more sophisticated, fans of the Weekly World News will be surely be satisfied by this compendium.
As for the titular hero — those craving a stronger dose of Bat Boy will be pleased to learn that the fanged beast-child has inspired a musical, details of which can be found by Googling “Bat Boy musical”. While you’re at it, you might also want to search on “Bigfoot Hooker D.C.” The truth is out there.