Tech bro entrepreneur Elon Musk recently shook up the Twittersphere after Saturday Night Live announced in April 2021 that Musk would host the 8 May show. It’s safe to say that reception was mixed as cast members Aidy Bryant and Bowen Yang shared Instagram Stories suggesting they were less than pleased with the news. What few seemed to pick up on, however, is that this little number wasn’t Musk’s first crack at comedy. Remember the massive failure that was his satire project, ‘Thud’?
On 14 March, 2018, Musk tweeted: “Thud!” Hours later, he followed up with: “That’s the name of my new intergalactic media empire, exclamation point optional.” Understandably, it was unclear at first whether he was serious, but that was shortly clarified with an exclusive by The Daily Beast. In the piece, it was uncovered that former editors of The Onion, Ben Berkley and Cole Bolton, had been working on a secret Los Angeles-based project funded by one of the richest men in the world.
At the time, Musk told The Daily Beast, “It’s pretty obvious that comedy is the next frontier after electric vehicles, space exploration, and brain-computer interfaces. Don’t know how anyone’s not seeing this.” Duh.
In case you weren’t aware, Musk had been a fan of The Onion for a while already—going as far as to dub it “the greatest publication in the history of all conscious beings, living or dead.” And according to The Daily Beast, he had even once expressed interest in acquiring the satirical digital media company. Only, that never came to be, so instead, Musk decided to launch his own satirical baby: Thud.
Co-founded with Berkley and Bolton, who had reportedly left The Onion in 2017 due to creative differences with its new owners, Univision, Thud was initially launched with a $2 million budget. Berkley assembled a writing staff, nine of the 13 which were The Onion alumni. But Musk didn’t only want to create a copy of the already successful The Onion—ultimately, Thud created several satirical projects, most of which remain online today.
Among Thud’s ‘interesting’ projects, a handful of them stood out. First, there was DNA Friend, a website that traces your ancestry by taking webcam photos of your mouth. Then came Mampfen, a satirical guide to “the finest locations in Los Angeles to slurp, chomp, and guzzle.” TacStorm was a website built to promote a fake product that came in the form of a “continuously firing gun” while Ploog was… well, let’s just say it was something else.
Believe it or not, but Musk was so worried that his own project would be turned against him (meaning it would somehow be used as a way to make fun of him too, which, ironically he did himself in his latest SNL appearance) that he decided to sell the whole enterprise to Bolton and Berkley. As Bolton explained to The Verge, when Thud closed down in 2019, “Making a swift transition from being a billionaire-backed project to an independent media company is… You know.”
Putting this slight problem aside, Thud’s failure was mainly attributed to its lack of success among mainstream audiences. “The projects Thud created just weren’t funny enough to develop an audience as devoted as The Onion’s,” wrote Mic. Although websites like DNA Friend and TacStorm had potential by highlighting the disturbing world we live in, pushing its readers to consider things from a different perspective—it ultimately left a bad taste in the mouth, one that most people tend to stay away from in a society filled with constant microaggressions.
Satire aims to expose and criticise people’s stupidity or vices, and in a way, Thud managed to do just that. But is satire truly the recipe for success? Musk’s short-lived concept seems to be the honest answer to this question.