The Onion's true-crime parody podcast delivers killer laughs

"A Very Fatal Murder" is a dead-on satire of the podcast genre made famous by "Serial," "S-Town" and "My Favorite Murder."

Gael Cooper
CNET editor Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a journalist and pop-culture junkie, is co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." She's been a journalist since 1989, working at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, Twin Cities Sidewalk, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and NBC News Digital. She's Gen X in birthdate, word and deed. If Marathon candy bars ever come back, she'll be first in line.
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  • Co-author of two Gen X pop-culture encyclopedia for Penguin Books. Won "Headline Writer of the Year"​ award for 2017, 2014 and 2013 from the American Copy Editors Society. Won first place in headline writing from the 2013 Society for Features Journalism.
Gael Cooper
4 min read
"A Very Fatal Murder" pokes fun at the true-crime podcast genre. The wind turbine shown here plays a role.

"A Very Fatal Murder" pokes fun at the true-crime podcast genre. The wind turbine shown here plays a role.

Courtesy The Onion

Comedy website The Onion is known for its deft skewering of current events (see, for example, "Prince Harry, Meghan Markle set up bridal registry at London-area Target"). But the site is moving into new territory as of Monday. At midnight Eastern Time on Feb. 5, The Onion released all six episodes of its first-ever podcast, "A Very Fatal Murder," a true-crime parody.

Crime podcasts are ripe for satire. It was a true-crime podcast, National Public Radio's runaway hit "Serial," that introduced millions to podcasting in the first place. Since the 2014 debut of "Serial," true-crime podcasts have become as common as Luminol stains on an episode of "Forensic Files." 

There are single-case podcasts, including "S-Town," "Up and Vanished" and "In the Dark." There are anthology-style podcasts that discuss a different case or more every week, like "My Favorite Murder," "True Crime Garage" and "Sword and Scale." There are true-crime podcasts run by newspapers, including "Breakdown," from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and "Dirty John," from the Los Angeles Times. There are crime podcasts from Canada ("Canadian True Crime"), Australia ("Casefile") and the UK ("What Happened to Vishal?", "Who Killed Elsie Frost?"). Some podcasts, such as "And That's Why We Drink," blend true crime stories with tales of the paranormal. And the topic has become so meta that podcasts such as "Crime Writers On" focus on reviewing other true-crime podcasts and related media.

The recent explosion of true-crime media felt like a natural topic for the comedic minds at The Onion, creators of such headlines as "Kitten thinks of nothing but murder all day" and "Drugs win drug war." 

"Anytime something takes over the culture in that way, there's an instinct in us to think about, 'Oh, what would our version of that look like?'" said Onion Managing Editor Jordan David. "I think that's sort of what led us down that road."

"A Very Fatal Murder" sends Onion Public Radio correspondent David Pascall (played by comedy writer David Sidorov) from New York to the small fictional town of Bluff Springs, Nebraska, to investigate the murder of popular teenager Hayley Price. 

No spoilers, but let's just say Hayley's murder and Pascall's investigation are set off by many of the cliches of crime podcasting, from plunky piano theme music to a self-obsessed host to the purported "cultural relevance" of the case to use-our-podcast-code advertisements. Early on, Pascall has to recalibrate his murder-themed supercomputer to select only female victims -- all murders may be awful, but as true-crime aficionados know, the brutal murder of a pretty young woman attracts the most general interest.

Fans of other true-crime podcasts will note allusions to some of them in the Onion's podcast.

"It certainly aims at the whole genre, but obviously a big part of that genre is 'Serial,'" said Ryan Natoli, director of "A Very Fatal Murder." "I think it crept in more times than maybe we even intended."

Pascall, who admits he's set a Google Alert for the word "decapitated," plays a bigger role in the case than a host perhaps should, drawing from real true-crime podcasts and the fame their hosts acquire.

"(Listeners) get really attached to the host and it makes something that would maybe seem a little less personal more inviting," said Fran Hoepfner, associate director of "A Very Fatal Murder." "There's a little bit of celebrity around ('Serial' host) Sarah Koenig now."

Bluff Springs and its quirky population took some inspiration from Woodstock, Alabama, the town behind "S-Town," another podcast from the makers of "Serial." Suffice to say New Yorker Pascall has never seen anything like Bluff Springs before, and the town's residents have certainly never seen anything like him.

"I think we wanted to have a town populated with all these different kinds of characters you could come back to, say, the way 'S-Town' does," said Hoepfner. "And a host who treats it like it's an alien planet."

But though the podcast is a satire, it's not meant as a diss of the entire genre.

"We all like these shows," said Hoepfner. "It's by no means a send-up of NPR because we don't like NPR. It's more like (a send-up of) the culture around true crime, and how sometimes (it can feel) exploitative or macabre."

The podcast boasts a two-part episode with the tongue-in-cheek title, "Did my police department miss something?" Note the emphasis on the "my." This isn't police-bashing -- instead, the Onion's writers see a broader target, not in the police, but in the podcasters who make themselves part of a real cold case.

"I think it's more fun thinking that a podcaster can solve a murder better than a police department can," says Natoli. "That's the fun there."

"A Very Fatal Murder" isn't alone in true-crime parody. Last September, Netflix released "American Vandal," a mockumentary of shows like "Making a Murderer." And true-crime podcasts themselves have been mercilessly mocked in the very smart and funny "Done Disappeared," which satirizes specific true-crime podcasts even to the point of giving them Mad Magazine-style parody names. But "Very Fatal Murder" staffers say they've avoided these other parodies to ensure they weren't accidentally influenced by them. 

"A Very Fatal Murder" marks The Onion's first step into the podcast world, but it might not be the humor site's last. 

"There's nothing we're ready to talk about, but there may be some other projects in the works," hints Joe Fullman, Onion vice-president of marketing.

And the staff expects that dedicated true-crime podcast fans, the kind who discuss "Serial" minutiae on Reddit and attend "My Favorite Murder" live shows, will get the joke.

"I think generally, podcast audiences are a pretty sophisticated audience," said David. "And I think 'A Very Fatal Murder' will resonate with them."

Natoli agrees. "I think this one's for them, for sure."

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