Trendy, franchised joke newspaper The Onion hit the big time with the book Our Dumb Century, a best-selling compilation of fake headlines and made-up news articles published in 1999. That was followed by the 2008 direct-to-video comedy feature The Onion Movie, which did nobody any good. Things are on the upswing again, though, with the debut of “Onion SportsDome” on Comedy Central and the soon-to-debut “Onion News Network” on IFC.
“Onion SportsDome” makes for a fine addition to Comedy Central’s lineup alongside faux news shows “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” Whereas “Daily Show” is a satire of nightly news shows and “Colbert Report” is a satire of personality-driven punditry, “Onion SportsDome” is an all-out parody of sports highlight shows. Unlike its two Comedy Central companions, “Onion SportsDome” doesn’t rely on actual headlines. Rather than wryly comment on the news of the day, the show creates elaborate fantasies that feel unnervingly, hilariously real thanks to their dead-on duplication of news industry tropes. The shouting commentators, the ridiculously overblown graphics, the breathless pace, the meaningless hyperbole: “Onion SportsDome” nails shows like ESPN’s “SportsCenter” to the wall. Amusingly enough, the Jan. 11 debut of “SportsDome” earned a higher nightly rating than “SportsCenter,” the show it mocks. Boo-ya! (Note use of bombastic editorial commentary.)
The strength of The Onion has always been its spot-on headlines. Articles can be amusing, but long-form comedy isn’t the paper’s strong suit. Which is why “SportsDome” works so well. The short attention span of sports clip shows lends “SportsDome” a blistering pace. Jokes fly faster that you can absorb them. Some of the humor is built around actual clips. A sketch about Shaquille O’Neal braving multiple heart attacks during a game is given its comedic heft thanks to multiple shots of the hulking O’Neal sweating and grimacing horribly. Other sequences go straight for the absurd. A play-by-play commentary describing a fight between a meth addict and some invisible snakes is one of the highlights of the premiere ep. Others still get their subtle humor from common sporting attitudes. “Soccer: That’s still happening,” notes one commentator introducing a sport he’s none too eager to explore.
Admittedly, the show is best absorbed in bite-size chunks. A full 22-minute dose is apt to leave viewers worn out. Still, the hit-to-miss joke ratio is high enough here to warrant repeated viewings. Obviously, sports fans will get the most laughs out of “Onion SportsDome.” But even non-fanatics are apt to get the joke when the anchors straightfacedly announce that Major League Baseball plans to “charge a fee for childhood memories.”