When Michael Bay Made The Onion Take Down A Joke
It’s not like Michael Bay had never been pummeled in print before. Movie critics like nothing better than using Bay as a cinematic punching bag, delivering blows like “blockheaded,” “hollow hearted,” “no sense of authentic humanity,” “three hours of guff and goo,” “bloated and boring,” “the emotional depth of an 11-year-old boy” and “like having a large, pointy lump of rock drop on your head.” And that’s just for Pearl Harbor.
So it must have been a surprise when Bay’s lawyers came calling on The Onion in 2002, threatening action over a satirical Bay editorial, complete with profile picture, titled “Those Chechen Rebels Stole My Idea.”
Onion writer Joe Garden turned real-life tragedy into an imagined personal slight for Bay, whose fake-editorial griped:
Those Chechen rebels who seized that theater in Moscow stole my idea. They must've somehow broken into my house, gotten on my computer, and stolen my treatment for what would have been the biggest movie event since Armageddon. It's bad enough when studio suits take your idea and claim it as their own, but it's even worse when it's a band of heavily armed insurgents halfway around the world. I'd love to sue those assholes for plagiarism, but my lawyer couldn't find their numbers anywhere in his Rolodex. They're probably not even Guild.
When Bay’s attorneys threatened legal action (no doubt backed by state-of-the-art pyrotechnics), The Onion’s then-lawyer recommended removing the story from its website. “I think The Onion was struggling financially,” recalls Garden, “a phrase you could drop at just about any time in The Onion’s history.” Since Bay the Human Being had deeper pockets than the Fledgling Corporate Entity Known As The Onion, the editorial team reluctantly agreed.
Garden didn’t have a lot of ego invested in that particular story, but the principle of it all still irks him. “Nobody should be able to shut down what was clearly a satire piece based on their artistic output just because they have a lot of lawyers and a lot of money,” he says.
But Garden ultimately considers the debacle a win-win: “I got to make fun of Michael Bay in a way that affected him and he got to continue to make a lot of movies that make millions and millions of dollars.”
Surprisingly, the threat of potential lawsuits didn’t stop The Onion from going after other celebs on a regular basis. Garden can remember only one other incident of Onion self-censorship based on potential celebrity legal action. Actress Leah Remini had recently become pregnant, a real-life event that was written into King of Queens. One Onion writer pitched a story idea about Remini’s (fictional) abortion being written into the sitcom as well. Given the actress’s strong ties to notoriously litigious Scientology at the time, the joke wasn’t worth the hassle. “Oh yeah, she was going to definitely sue,” remembers Garden, “so we pulled that.”
As for Bay? His legal threats succeeded in having his faux-editorial removed, but didn’t stop The Onion from making the director a reliable punchline over the next twenty years. His attorneys apparently had no problem with these satirical kicks to the nads:
New Michael Bay Romantic Comedy To Focus On Love Story Between 2 Explosions
Michael Bay Signs $50M Deal To Fuck Up 'ThunderCats'
Nation Somehow Failed To Predict Attack By Michael Bay
CGI Team Creates Realistic Oscar For Michael Bay
So it's hard to call Bay’s heavy-handed efforts a victory. The takedown brought attention to a story that otherwise might have only been seen by hardcore Onion fans in the relatively early days of the Web. Variety shined the spotlight on Bay’s bruised feelings, telling the world about the director’s perilously thin skin while quoting big chunks of the article. Great schadenfreude stuff for Hollywood insiders who otherwise would have never read it.
And remember -- despite hamfisted attorneys’ best efforts, there’s really no such thing as “taking down an article” on the Internet. Sure, you can no longer find it on The Onion’s website, but thanks to archive.org, “Those Chechen Rebels Stole My Idea” lives on forever. Enjoy.
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