The 25 Most Powerful TV Shows of the Last 25 Years

TV doesn’t get much respect. It rots your brain and grows couch potatoes. But the so-called idiot box also swings elections, rewires brains, snares criminals, and even sways the Supreme Court. The following may not be the best shows of the last 25 years—in fact, some are among the worst—but their impact reaches far beyond the living room.

1. Tropikanka: The Show That Won a Presidential Election

As Russians were gearing up to go to the polls in July 1996, Boris Yeltsin was nervous about his job. The weather gave him additional reason to panic. With the sun shining and the temperatures pleasant, Yeltsin fretted that his city-dwelling supporters would decamp to their dachas, or country cottages, instead of staying home and voting. Russia’s president needed a way to keep his base from traveling.

His solution: a cunning use of soap opera. No show was more popular in Russia than the Brazilian morality soap Tropikanka, which regularly drew 25 million viewers to the state-owned network ORT. With the election looming, ORT made a surprise announcement: The show’s finale would air as a special triple episode on election day between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m.

More amazing was the fact that the scheme actually worked. Because most dachas didn’t have televisions, viewers stayed in the city, glued to their sets. When the episode ended, it was too late to trek out of town, but voters still had time to get to the polling station. Yeltsin’s soap opera strategy helped him prevail by more than 10 million votes. Meanwhile, The Young and the Restless can’t even sway a lousy Senate race.

2. Melrose Place: The Show That Turned Prime Time Into an Art Gallery

You probably remember Melrose Place as a vapid, if enjoyable, look at a Los Angeles apartment complex. But the show had more depth than anyone realized. Starting in 1996, the program served as a highly visible billboard for up-and-coming artists.

Melrose’s foray into the art world was masterminded by conceptual artist Mel Chin. As Chin told the Los Angeles Times in 1997, “Everyone criticizes television, but nobody tries to intervene to give it the meaning it lacks.” Chin founded the GALA Committee to do just that.

When Chin approached Melrose set decorator Deborah Siegel with the idea of dressing the show in avant-garde works, she immediately approved. Together the GALA Committee and Siegel collected pieces from artists around the country and worked them into the show. Each time viewers tuned in for a little trashy fun, they got a hidden dose of culture.

Some of the art was surprisingly subversive. Most famously, when Courtney Thorne-Smith’s character was struggling with an unplanned pregnancy, she spent two episodes hunkered down in a comfy quilt. A closer look revealed it wasn’t just a pretty pattern—it was also the molecular structure of the abortion drug RU-486.

The art world, for its part, embraced the exposure, and in 1997, the Melrose Place pieces were displayed in their own show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

3. The Simpsons: The Show That Changed How We Talk

You don’t need to turn on the TV to hear The Simpsons. Just chat with pretty much anyone. As University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman wrote in 2005, “The Simpsons has apparently taken over from Shakespeare and the Bible as our culture’s greatest source of idioms, catchphrases, and sundry other textual allusions.”

Liberman’s assertion sounds crazy—at least until you remember there’s a Milhouse quote for every occasion. Even the hulking gatekeeper of the language, the Oxford English Dictionary, has found a spot for Homer Simpson’s trademark “D’oh!” Mmmm … linguistic acceptance.

4. America’s Most Wanted: The Show That Cleaned Up America’s Streets

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America's Most Wanted has helped capture over 1,100 fugitives since its debut in 1988.

5. The Theorists: The Show That Made Us Respect Belarus’s Actors

It’s no secret that television hits get licensed and remade around the globe. So when audiences in Belarus got their own knockoff of The Big Bang Theory in 2010, nothing seemed out of place. Like its American counterpart, The Theorists depicted the adventures of four lovably geeky scientists living next door to a beautiful waitress.

There was just one problem. Although the show was basically a shot-for-shot remake of the American original, Belarus’s version was unlicensed. When Big Bang Theory co-creator Chuck Lorre discovered the theft, he learned he couldn’t sue because Belarus’s government owned the production company. With no other recourse, Lorre chided the plagiarists in a title card, joking that he hoped Belarus would at least “break down and send us some felt hats.”

As it turned out, Lorre didn’t need to barter. When news broke that the show had never been licensed, the actors were mortified—they’d been told it was a legitimate production. Rather than continue to star in a rip-off, they protected their integrity by walking off the set. Left without a cast, the producers had no choice but to cancel The Theorists. The next time we need a scrupulous Eastern European actor, we know where to look.

6. Glee: The Show That Boosted the Record Industry

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FOX scored a sleeper hit with the musical series Glee in 2009. But the show’s real impact came between airings. As the rest of the record industry flailed, the Glee recordings found staggering success on iTunes. By the end of 2011, the cast had sold more than 11 million albums and another 36 million single tracks. Meanwhile, the cast’s 2011 concert tour grossed more than $40 million. Forget garage bands—aspiring stars should be shooting garage teen dramas!

7. De Grote Donorshow: The Show That Became an Organ Donor

This 2007 reality show’s horrifying premise: Three patients in need of a kidney compete for the organs of a terminally ill woman, with the dying woman picking the winner, using input from viewer text messages.

The show drew an avalanche of criticism before it aired. What could be more twisted than making sick people duke it out for vital organs as TV entertainment? Worse still, who thought that letting the same TV audiences that can barely be trusted to pick the next American Idol make such a harrowing decision? Dutch health officials vehemently condemned the show and attempted to block its airing to no avail.

Like many reality shows, De Grote Donorshow had a twist ending. Near the end of the program, presenters revealed that the show was a hoax to draw attention to Netherlands’s shortage of organ donors. The “terminally ill” woman was a healthy actress. And while the three contestants really did need kidneys, they were in on the stunt to help publicize the problem. BNN’s chairman admitted the gimmick was tasteless but said, “[W]e think the reality is even more shocking and tasteless.”

Crass or not, the effort worked: A day after the airing, 43,000 viewers requested forms to become organ donors.

8. SpongeBob SquarePants: The Show That Rewired Kids’ Brains

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In 2011, Nickelodeon’s favorite anthropomorphic sponge came under fire when a University of Virginia study showed that SpongeBob was hurting kids’ ability to perform basic tasks. The research involved a group of 60 4-year-olds who were asked to spend nine minutes watching an educational cartoon, watching SpongeBob, or coloring. Kids who watched SpongeBob scored significantly worse in tests involving solving puzzles, delaying gratification, and following instructions. The conclusion: rapidly paced TV with quick scene changes had a clear cognitive effect on children.

When the mainstream media picked up on the research, it decried the show’s mind-melting powers. Nickelodeon fired back that SpongeBob was intended for older kids, not preschoolers. One of the study’s authors even attempted to defend SpongeBob, pointing out that it was just one of many fast-paced cartoons. Her other line of defense was less helpful: She speculated that the program was particularly taxing for kids’ brains because it contained unfamiliar situations, like a talking sponge wearing square trousers. What’s worse, if you ask us, is how it deludes children into thinking they could someday live in a pineapple under the sea.

9. Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Show That Saved a Genre

In the 1980s, hour-long action shows were designed to lose money in their early seasons. Many lost as much as $600,000 per episode before recouping the shortfall with nine-figure syndication deals. But by 1987, action reruns had stopped matching the ratings of their comedic counterparts. As rich syndication contracts dried up, so did networks’ enthusiasm for dropping big money on explosions and gunfire.

Given that climate, even surefire hits like Paramount’s Star Trek spin-off couldn’t generate interest from the major channels. Undeterred, Paramount produced the series anyway and cobbled together its own group of local affiliates who agreed to broadcast the show.

When Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in October 1987, more than 50 ABC, NBC, and CBS affiliates preempted their networks’ programming to air the two-hour premiere. Cash motivated this unprecedented defection. When local affiliates preempt their networks’ programming, they get to keep all of the ad revenue from the show rather than share it with the network. Paramount gave episodes of The Next Generation to the affiliates for free, but with a catch. Each hour-long show included 12 minutes of ads. Stations could sell five of those minutes and keep the loot; the remaining seven belonged to Paramount.

The deal was incredibly profitable for everyone involved. At a time when most 30-second commercials sold for $30,000, The Next Generation’s strong ratings let Paramount and its affiliates command $115,000. The studio responded by investing more heavily in the show to keep it at the top of the pile. By 1992, each episode had a $2 million budget—nearly double that of a normal network drama—yet it was still one of TV’s most lucrative shows, pulling in $90 million a year in ad revenue for Paramount alone.

Other studios noticed Paramount’s 40 percent return on investment from its network-bypassing model and quickly jumped into the fray with shows like Renegade and Xena: Warrior Princess. By boldly going where no show had gone before, Star Trek: The Next Generation made TV safe for action again.

10. Curb Your Enthusiasm: The Show That Improvised Justice

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In 2003, 24-year-old machinist Juan Catalan faced the death penalty for allegedly shooting a key witness in a murder case. Catalan told police that he couldn’t have committed the crime—he was at a Los Angeles Dodgers game at the time. He had the ticket stubs and everything!

When police didn’t buy his alibi, Catalan contacted the Dodgers, who pointed him to an unlikely hero: misanthropic comedian Larry David. On the day in question, David had been filming an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm in Dodger Stadium. It was a long shot, but maybe Catalan could be seen in the background. When his attorney watched the outtakes, it took just 20 minutes to find shots of Catalan and his daughter chowing down on ballpark dogs while watching from the stands.

Thanks to the footage, Catalan walked free after five months behind bars. And Larry David found one more thing to be self-deprecating about. “I tell people that I’ve done one decent thing in my life, albeit inadvertently,” joked David.

11. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Show That Spawned An Academic Discipline

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The TV sets in the ivory towers only have bunny ears for one show: Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The series has been so endlessly dissected and deconstructed by scholars that it’s formed its own loose academic discipline, Buffy Studies. It even has its own peer-reviewed academic journal, Slayage, giving new meaning to the phrase “publish or perish.”

Our favorite scholarship from Slayage:

“Buffy the Vampire Disciplinarian: Institutional Excess and the New Economy of Power”
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“I Hear It’s Best to Play Along: The Poststructuralist Turn in Buffy the Vampire Slayer”
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“It’s Bloody Brilliant: The Undermining of Metanarrative Feminism in the Season Seven Arc Narrative of Buffy”
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“Someone to Sink Your Teeth Into: Gendered Biting Patterns on Buffy the Vampire Slayer—A Quantitative Analysis”

12. Friends: The Show That Launched a One-Hit Wonder

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Before Friends hit the air in 1994, Natalie Merchant and R.E.M. both turned down the chance to record a theme song written by the show’s musical director. The Rembrandts, however, jumped at the opportunity. As Danny Wilde, front man for the California band, said, “We thought, Why not? Nobody will even know it was us, anyway.”

To the band’s surprise, when Friends aired, fans inundated radio stations with requests for “I’ll Be There for You.” But the track was never a proper song—it was just a 45-second slice of infectious pop. A Nashville radio station solved the problem by looping the jingle for three minutes. The stitched-together tune shot up the charts. When the Rembrandts’ record label pressured them to cut an extended version of the song, they grudgingly obeyed.

It was a smart move. The rerecorded single spent 11 straight weeks at the top of the charts and helped move more than two million copies of their album. The group admits that it’s frustrating being known for a song it didn’t write, but there’s an upside to being a well-televised one-hit wonder: The Rembrandts receive performance royalties every time a Friends rerun airs.

13. CSI: The Show That Gave D.A.’s Headaches

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By 2006, 70 million Americans were tuning into CSI or one of its two spin-offs each week. That became a real problem for prosecutors. As the show’s popularity grew, jurors started expecting the full CSI treatment in every trial. But in the vast majority of cases, police don’t need CSI-type technology to collar the perpetrator. The tests are expensive and can take weeks, and they tax already overworked crime labs. Circumstantial evidence and eyewitness accounts, on the other hand, can be just as damning for far less money.

Most of the evidence is anecdotal, but prosecutors insist that the CSI effect has raised jurors’ interest in high-tech forensic methods and led to undeserved acquittals. A study by Michigan judge Donald E. Shelton even discovered that investigators were doing unnecessary tests just to make it look like they were giving crime scenes a CSI-level scouring. Real or not, prosecutors fear the effect could cost them an important verdict. Some attorneys now ask potential jurors whether they’re fans of the show as they’re determining who to weed out during jury selection.

14. How I Met Your Mother: The Show That Revolutionized Product Placement

In July 2011, something strange happened on a rerun of How I Met Your Mother. Although the episode airing in syndication had been shot in 2006, a poster in one of the scenes was eerily modern: It was pushing Bad Teacher, a movie that had been in theaters only a few weeks. Did Neil Patrick Harris have a time machine?

The bizarrely prescient ad was the work of SeamBI, a company that has craftily elevated the practice of product placement by digitally inserting new ads into old scenes of syndicated shows. Currently, the company tends to insert posters and billboards as set dressing, but its vision doesn’t end there. SeamBI plans to slice and dice markets so that your television does what the Web has been doing for years—help advertisers target very specific geographic areas. Viewers in New York, for instance, might see a Manhattan-based billboard on an old sitcom, while Delaware viewers could see a completely different one while watching the exact same show.

As Entertainment Weekly pointed out, the scheme makes syndicated shows even more profitable, with How I Met Your Mother opening the floodgates to a whole new world. While the idea of seeing June Cleaver opening up a fridge full of Coke Zero or the Fonz leaning up against a poster for The Hangover 3 still seems laughable, SeamBI knows it’s just around the corner.

15. Sex and the City: The Show That Boosted the Pregnancy Rate

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In 2008, a RAND Institute study reported that girls between 12 and 17 who watched Sex and the City and other shows with “high sexual content” were more than twice as likely to become pregnant—a ringing endorsement for enforcing the Mature Audience rating. Of course, all that risqué chatter did some good too. A 2011 Ohio State University study found that undergraduates who viewed an episode of Sex and the City were more than twice as likely to talk to their partners about sexual-health issues.

16. The Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Super Girl Contest: The Show That Gave China the Vote

Shizhao/Wikimedia Commons

No show has captured China’s heart the way the Super Girl Contest has. When it debuted in 2004, few would have predicted that the all-female American Idol knockoff would draw 400 million viewers. But while the Chinese people couldn’t get enough of the show, the Chinese government viewed it as a threat. The most popular contestants wore Western-style clothes and gave emotional performances that flew in the face of China’s usual stoicism. What really scared the government, however, was how viewers chose the winner by text message. In a nation where citizens have no say in who will lead them, that sort of exposure to the democratic process seemed dangerous.

Government mandarins led by culture minister Liu Zhongde blasted the show as “poison for our youth.” And even after regulators stripped the program of its text voting, the venom continued. “We can’t have working people reveling all day in low culture,” Liu said.

This being China, you can probably guess how the story ends. Government censors gave the show the ax following the 2011 season finale. Still, Super Girl managed to give China a real taste of democracy. Not even Simon Cowell could find fault there.

17. Venice: The Show That Won the Web

As Guiding Light sputtered toward cancellation in 2009, fans were distraught. The show was disappearing just as an unlikely super couple was emerging. Single mom characters Olivia Spencer (Crystal Chappell) and Natalia Rivera (Jessica Leccia) were doomed to go off the air without sharing their first kiss.

Luckily, actress Chappell saved the couple by launching the Web series Venice to explore the relationship of two women similar to Olivia and Natalia (dubbed “Otalia”). Actors and crew were so hell-bent on seeing Otalia’s romance that they worked for free. More radically, Chappell defrayed her costs by selling online subscriptions.

After spending chaste months on the air, Olivia and Natalia’s Web counterparts locked lips in the first minute of Venice, and the Daytime Emmy–winning series is now in its third season, proving that love can conquer anything, including viewers’ reluctance to pay for TV.

18. Chuck: The Show That Sold a Lot of Sandwiches

When NBC’s nerd-spy comedy Chuck looked doomed in 2009, fans embraced commercialism to keep the show afloat. Rather than launch a letter-writing campaign at the end of the second season, die-hard viewers appealed to a higher power: one of the show’s advertisers. Under operation Finale & Footlong, Chuck’s “nerd herd” flooded Subway shops to buy sandwiches. Even the show’s star Zachary Levi got into the action, leading 600 fans to a shop in Birmingham, England.

Amazingly, the ploy worked. Subway liked the business so much that it struck a deal with NBC to sponsor Chuck’s third season, complete with increased product placement. Did fans love seeing the show saturated with sandwiches? Maybe not, but watching Chuck down a foot-long was better than not watching Chuck at all.

19. Designing Women: The Show That Transcended Politics

Dixie Carter’s character on Designing Women, Julia Sugarbaker, was known for her frequent monologues praising liberal causes. Offscreen, however, Carter was a staunch Republican and found the diatribes repulsive. When the actress finally put her foot down, refusing to extol Democratic values, the show’s producers crafted a bizarre agreement. Each time Carter gave one of her character’s trademark rants, she got to sing a song in a future episode. If only Congress would learn to make such compromises.

20. Fei Cheng Wu Rao: TV Killed the Energy Star

China’s Fei Cheng Wu Rao (“If You Are the One”) is a pretty standard dating show. It won’t find any love with Beijing’s air-quality monitors, though. On a 2010 episode, a suitor asked 22-year-old Ma Nuo whether she would ride a bike with him on a date. Ma’s withering response: “I’d rather cry in a BMW than laugh on a bicycle.” The catchphrase went viral, and it cemented the bike’s reputation as Beijing’s ultimate no-status symbol. And with air pollution and auto gridlock both up, there’s a lot to cry about in your BMW.

21. ER: The Show That Made Us Healthier

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ER did more than make George Clooney a superstar. It also changed the way America ate. In three 2004 episodes, the show explored a minor plot arc about a teenager who learns he has high blood pressure. The show’s physician characters advise the young man to exercise and eat more fruits and vegetables.

While the plot sounds humdrum, it scared viewers straight. In 2007, researchers from the University of Southern California’s medical school published a paper in the Journal of Health Communication that found that viewers who caught these episodes of ER had started walking or exercising more, eating more fruits and vegetables, or getting their blood pressure checked. How can anyone say watching TV is bad for you?

22. Days of Our Lives: The Show That Slowed Down the Supreme Court

For years before his 1991 retirement, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall slipped away from deliberations each day to watch Days of Our Lives. The show wasn’t just a guilty pleasure; it helped shape the justice’s understanding of the world. As Marshall once told Justice William Brennan, soaps teach viewers valuable lessons about life.

23. Baywatch: The Show That Proved David Hasselhoff Is a Genius

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When NBC put Baywatch on its fall prime-time schedule in 1989, the network thought it had a hit. How could a showcase for attractive women in swimsuits ever fail? But after the show scuffled in the ratings and took a critical pounding, NBC pulled the plug after just one season.

Nobody knew better than star and executive producer David Hasselhoff that mockery in the States doesn’t preclude success abroad. (Remember, this was a man who had topped Germany’s pop charts.) Hasselhoff and his co-producers bought Baywatch from the studio and re-launched it in first-run syndication.

It didn’t take long for Baywatch to conquer the world. By 1995, the show was being translated into 15 languages and entertaining citizens in 144 countries … including Iran! In fact, the globe-spanning appeal of slow-motion running and scantily clad ladies helped Baywatch surpass Dallas as the most-watched TV show of all time. Not a bad legacy for a critical dud.

24. The 1988 Eurovision Song Contest: The Show That Unleashed Céline Dion on the World

Over 200 million records sold later, her heart is still going on.

25. The Colbert Report: The Show That Won 10 Olympic Medals

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In October 2009, U.S. Speedskating was in dire straits. Its primary sponsor, the Dutch bank DSB, had gone bankrupt just months before the 2010 Winter Games. Worse still, the company hadn’t paid a cent of its pledged $300,000. Luckily for the squad, a savior was about to glide onto the rink.

On November 2, 2009, comedian Stephen Colbert made a surprise announcement that his show was becoming the team’s primary sponsor. But instead of forking over the cash himself, he asked viewers to make small donations. The money poured in: The team received more than $300,000 from a pool of 9,000 donors, and it made for a solid investment, as the squad racked up 10 medals at the games.

What prompted Colbert’s sudden compassion for a sport he’d often lampooned? He identified with the team’s ambitious dreams and dwindling bank account. As Colbert told The New York Times, “Believe me, I spent 20 years racking up huge debts pursuing comedy.”

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Bat Boy Lives! An Oral History of Weekly World News

Popular Weekly World News cover monster Bat Boy.
Popular Weekly World News cover monster Bat Boy.
Courtesy of Weekly World News

In 2000, longtime Weekly World News editor Eddie Clontz discussed the legendary tabloid newspaper’s standard of journalistic ethics with The Philadelphia Inquirer. “We don’t sit around and make [stories] up,” Clontz said, "but if we get a story about a guy who thinks he is a vampire, we will take him at his word."

From 1979 to 2007, Weekly World News captured the attention of supermarket customers with its bombastic headlines about a world that seemed to mirror, but not quite reflect, our own. In this reality, Elvis was alive, alien visitors were common, weird science ruled, and a half-human, half-bat child named Bat Boy became a folk hero.

At the height of its popularity in the late 1980s, circulation reached 1.2 million copies per week. Headlines like “Bigfoot Kept Lumberjack as Love Slave” ruled its covers. A team of dedicated journalists filled its pages with satirical fiction. If fact happened to stumble its way inside, it would be adjusted to fit the paper’s mission statement. An undertaker arrested for selling body parts became “My Brain Is Missing!” A mild story from The Wall Street Journal about a small Australian town boasting of large earthworms became a histrionic, breathless tale of giant worms burrowing underground and creating ruptures in the ground that swallowed cattle whole.

As news outlets have increasingly become subject to controversy over what some label “fake news,” Weekly World News can lay a legitimate claim to having invented the genre. More than 40 years after it debuted, Mental Floss spoke with more than a dozen former editors, writers, and contributors about the paper’s origins, its process, and how it went on to influence the news satire of today, from The Onion to The Daily Show. Or, to borrow a cue from the paper: “Grifters Reveal How They Fooled World for Decades!”

I: The Paper Chase

Weekly World News was initially focused on celebrity gossip.Courtesy of Weekly World News

Generoso Pope Jr. could be considered the father of the modern supermarket tabloid newspaper. With the aid of a $25,000 down payment reportedly borrowed from the mob, Pope purchased The New York Evening Enquirer (which later became The National Enquirer) in 1952. The lurid paper specialized in tawdry headlines like “Starving Mom Eats Own Child” before softening its content to gain retail space at grocery stores in the 1970s.

When rival tabloid The Star went to a color format, Pope was forced to follow suit. That left him with an unused black-and-white printing press, which he saw as an opportunity to return to the bizarre news of the early Enquirer. In the summer of 1979, a small staff supervised by editor Phil Bunton, stationed inside the Enquirer offices in Lantana, Florida, began work on what would become Weekly World News.

Paul Kupperberg (Editor, 2004-2007): I remember the Enquirer from its grisly early days when I was a child. It was kind of a rag in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Stuff like “Boy Trapped in Old Fridge Eats Own Foot to Stay Alive.” It was kind of spooky to a little kid.

Sal Ivone (Managing Editor, 1981-1988): Pope was stuck with this black and white printing facility near Montana. He basically said, “OK, let me just publish another magazine.”

Barbara Grover (Editorial Assistant, 1981-1985): They had moved the color printing up to New York and told people at the publishing house he’d create a new newspaper in black and white so they could keep their jobs. I worked there as a clipper at first.

Iain Calder (Editor-in-Chief, The National Enquirer, 1973-1997): He could’ve gotten rid of it, but Gene was friendly with the family that ran it. He felt he couldn’t have them, plus a lot of other people printing it, not have jobs. So he and I sat down and kicked around all kinds of different things to do on black and white paper. Finally, he said, “Why don’t we do what Reader’s Digest did?” Reader’s Digest, when it started out, took the best stories from around the world and reprinted them. He said, “Why not just do the best stories, the really wacky stories?” So that’s what we did.

Joe Berger (Editor, 1981-2001): I went to work there in 1981, so almost from the beginning. I was a reporter for Newhouse News Service in Washington and covered the White House. Washington wasn’t like it is now, not quite as exciting. So every day, like most reporters, I scanned through job openings, and Weekly World News, which I had never heard of, had an ad in there. Gene Pope paid good money, at least twice as much as what I was making at the time in Washington.

Bob Lind (Writer, 1990-1998): We had brilliant journalists like Joe Berger and Jack Alexander. One came from The Washington Post, one was from The New York Times. Berger was a White House correspondent.

Calder: What we had as an advantage was that we pretty much owned the front end of supermarkets. The National Enquirer was one of the first to get into supermarkets, after TV Guide and a couple of [food] magazines. It cost a fortune, but that was one reason the Enquirer surged in circulation in the early 1970s to mid-1980s. Hundreds of millions of people would see it.

Berger: Pope was like the Godfather to the staff. He ruled with an iron fist. One day we wrote a story about Albuquerque and Pope insisted we spelled it wrong. We looked it up a number of times and were all sure we were right, but he insisted you spelled it another way, so we changed Albuquerque to the way he wanted it. No one argued with him. People were afraid to challenge him, so we ran the story with the name of the city spelled wrong.

Grover: Pope was a tough, no-nonsense guy, but he would do anything he could for people he liked. He got my neighbor a job at the Enquirer, and the neighbor later died from an infection. Pope gave his family $85,000 in cash to help out.

Calder: We got newspapers and magazines from all over the English-speaking world and brought in people to read the papers, piles of them, 8 feet high. They were the clippers. We would rewrite the stories.

Berger: About 80 percent of the stories were clipped from newspapers. We had three or four clippers who were surrounded by mountains of newspapers. We spent the day looking at newspapers throughout the world, clipping weird stories. About 50 percent were about people narrowly escaping death; someone falling off a cliff, or hanging off a tree branch for four days until they were rescued. We would write the story [and] put in a splashy headline. Most stories were very true and accurate.

Ivone: In 1981 and 1982, before Google, you’d go into the newsroom and piles of mailer containers full of newspapers would be there. You’d take a break every other day and clip stories from all over the world. We thought if we were fascinated, readers would be fascinated, and it proved to be correct.

The first issue of Weekly World News was released in October 1979 and sold a respectable 120,000 copies. Over the course of the next several years, however, it became clear that recycled weird news items held only limited appeal for readers. To hold the attention of buyers in the competitive supermarket sales space, Weekly World News would have to find another beat besides the celebrity gossip genre owned by its sister publication, The National Enquirer.

Berger: In the beginning, we were very careful about facts. And then several years later, we were writing about space aliens, Bigfoot, and Bat Boy.

Calder: It slowly morphed into that. It didn’t change overnight. The paper wasn’t able to get fantastic stories from clippings, and so it slowly used less and less stuff from other newspapers and became more about things from the minds of the editors.

Ivone: We kept a careful running tally on sales and noticed when we drifted away from celebrity stories and differentiated ourselves—went to bigger headlines and bolder stories—it worked.

Berger: It was all factual but kind of boring, and people weren’t buying it. So Pope kept hitting the editors hard to make it more and more exciting. No matter how they jazzed it up, he wasn’t happy. They didn’t want to lose their jobs, and he was the kind of guy where if you didn’t please him, you were gone. They were running for their lives and gradually had to come up with wilder and wilder stuff to please him. The only way to do it was to gradually add stories that weren’t true. That’s when stories about aliens and the weirder stuff, “Bigfoot Tried to Eat My Little Boy,” came up. It was a demand from the boss for more exciting stuff. There just wasn’t any way to adhere to the truth and give him what he wanted.

Ivone: We tiptoed into fiction. We’d exaggerate now and then, and then exaggerate more, as we went through newspapers and magazines. “This is a good story, it’s already covered, but what would make it more compelling? What would yield the most compelling headline?” That’s how we got into thinking about this imaginary world with recurring characters, like Bat Boy, Bigfoot, aliens, and all the rest.

Lind: We wrote these things straight, for people who wanted to believe these things. We wrote it like a news story. We wrote a lede with a dash in it, filled it in, and then had a money quote.

Ivone: It was an incremental process. We didn’t fight it. We were being rewarded by readers.

Lind: We didn’t make all of it up. A lot of them were true stories.

Ivone: We used “borrowed credibility.” On the left-hand side, there were stories people recognized, and then there were the more outlandish, mythical, urban legends on the right side. It was all juxtaposed with recognizable, legitimate stories to get readers to think about it. “This is true, this farmer in Idaho saying his wife ran away with Bigfoot.” It’s given a little bit of credibility, a platform to give people permission to believe it.

C. Michael Forsyth (Writer, 1996-2005): I used to read it in college and get a kick out of it. I sometimes got buffaloed into believing the stories.

II. Faking It

Headlines were crucial to enticing impulse buyers at the grocery store checkouts. Courtesy of Weekly World News

By most accounts, Weekly World News developed its voice when Eddie Clontz was named managing editor in 1981. Clontz pushed staff to increasingly delirious heights.

Ivone: Eddie was a certifiable genius. What Eddie did was create an atmosphere where we could explore those stories.

Lind: Eddie had an uncanny feel for what worked, what readers were looking for.

Dick Kulpa (Artist, 1987-2003): I came in with an ultrasound of my daughter. He said, “That’s a galaxy shaped like a human fetus.” That became our page one. He had a knack for this. He was a twisted genius, but a genius. Joe West was editor, Eddie managing editor, but Eddie had a big mouth and was very influential.

Calder: Eddie was the real key to the whole thing.

Berger: Eddie made Weekly World News what it is, with a lot of help. But it was his vision, his idea.

Lind: Eddie was loved and hated. I happened to love him.

Ivone: We were friends but we had disagreements. I liked the idea of the way he ran the newsroom. There were no meetings, just pitching. The proof is in the pudding. The product was very successful.

Lind: Eddie had native intelligence, an excellent feel for what people wanted to read. He knew balanced reporting was dull reporting.

Ivone: There was tension. I was the city mouse and he was the country mouse. I grew up in New York City.

Lind: It was interesting between him and Sal. Sal was very educated, cared about arts, knew literature, knew art, knew classical music. Eddie’s most memorable night in the theater was seeing Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School. Eddie had a fifth or sixth grade education. Sal would talk about great art, Eddie would say it’s a bunch of sh*t. Sal would say, “You wouldn’t know great art.” Eddie would say, “I see a security guard with a red rope, that’s great art.”

Ivone: Eddie had a great voice. He’d stand up on his desk. He had a big squirt gun. It was unlike any office in the country. It was regimented and run like a business, but it was relaxed. There were no meetings or suits or ties.

Charlie Neuschafer (Executive Editor, 1986 to 2002): I had at times a good relationship with Eddie, at times a little bumpy. He was a smart guy. We were a pretty animated bunch of people having a lot of fun and some occasional disagreements. Nothing that led to any harm.

Ivone: I felt he came off as a tough guy but so appreciative of staff. There was a duality to his personality. He was a tough guy to work for in many ways; not for me, but for other staff.

Berger: I won’t speak badly of Eddie. He was very mercurial. Eddie could be nice and could have temper tantrums. He could be smiling and laughing one minute and flying off the handle about something the next minute, like Pope. If he liked you, fine. If he didn’t, you were in trouble and never got a minute’s peace.

Grover: Eddie was an unusual, difficult human being. But Weekly World News required someone unusual. A real journalist couldn’t do that.

Berger: Joe West was appointed editor and was there for a while until he got fed up with Pope. He couldn’t stand it. He was kind of a fiery guy. He left, quit, stormed out. Eddie Clontz, who was then assistant editor, became editor-in-chief. Eddie was the editor-in-chief during most of the time Weekly World News enjoyed its greatest success in the late 1980s and into the 1990s.

Calder: Eddie worked for West but it was clear [Eddie] was the driving force. When West left, Eddie took over as editor and Sal became managing editor. He was a smart journalist and a good organizer. Eddie was a terrible organizer, but he came up with front page ideas.

Before long, Weekly World News submerged itself completely in the fantastic. While some readers were annoyed—one police department in Mobile, Alabama complained they had not captured a werewolf, as reported—almost everyone else was amused.

Derrik Lang (Writer, 2004): I think they were really looking for things to grab people’s attention that had a humorous element to them. And maybe have them be a little bit shocking.

Neuschafer: I did one about a renegade rooster on a rampage. The banner on that was “Cock-A-Doodle-Doom.”

Lind: My favorite story that I wrote was about Siamese twins where one was a good cop and one was a bad cop. And there was a bungling crook, a guy who writes a “give me money” note on his own check receipts. Whatever would be outlandish enough to get the attention of people. They want to believe in ghosts, space aliens.

Neuschafer: There was a baby born with a wooden leg. We did a lot of variations on that theme. Babies born with a tattoo, a mustache.

Kulpa: As soon as we read about Photoshop, we acquired it. Prior to that, photos were airbrushed. How could you do a half-dog, half-cat that looks real? We had visuals, but it was the stories that carried weight.

Neuschafer: We'd do something about the world’s heaviest cat, then another heavier cat would come along, which we’d spin off. We’d airbrush it to make for a really fat cat. Anything could be a spin-off.

Forsyth: We would have ongoing narratives. The serialization of some stories were great. There was one we did about a more obscure sea monster, the Lake Champlain monster up in one of the Great Lakes. We did a story that the creature set sail across the Atlantic on a mission to go toe-to-toe with Nessie. We built it up: He’s on the way, he gets there, and it turns out he went there to mate with Nessie. Then we followed up that they had a baby. Then we had a contest to name the baby.

Lind: Leskie Pinson did a column, "Around the World with Leskie Pinson," that was really a short story. One was about Leskie getting badly injured in Samoa when he was attacked by a boa constrictor. His ribs were broken. Now he's recovering. He’s getting thousands of get-well cards. Not a word of it was true.

Forsyth: Sometimes reporters took on a role in the story. We had a character named George Sanford who went and broke into Area 51. It was a serialized story. He vanished, and another reporter escaped, went missing, was somehow rescued.

Lind: We said we had a Weekly World News jet flying all over the world to get stories. There was no such jet.

Neuschafer: I did a rafting trip in Colorado, took pictures of ancient hieroglyphs on the canyon, brought it back, and wrote a story about how they were made by space aliens. It was anything you could come up with.

Forsyth: As a reader in college, I remember a story about a baby being born who spoke as soon as it came out of the womb. It said “Not again” and never spoke again. It was written with credibility and so it puts chills up your spine, but it’s also darkly funny.

Ideas weren’t solely a result of imagination. The staff of Weekly World News would hear from readers and even called up legitimate sources to help validate their fables.

Berger: I remember doing a story about a guy who had been on a diet and got so hungry that he spotted a little person on the street, thought he was a chicken, and took off with a hatchet down the street after him. I had to have a psychiatrist come in and explain how it was possible someone could starve themselves so much they became delusional. We had to have someone explain how that was possible.

Facts were often optional. Courtesy of Weekly World News

Neuschafer: There were times when we had sources and reporters who did phone work or were sometimes on assignment somewhere. For crime stories, someone calling a police department about a case. Some things were bizarre enough in life to report straight.

Forsyth: We would report those stories like any other reporter would. For crime stories, you'd get a quote from the district attorney, the sheriff. There was real reporting that went on.

Berger: If something was too difficult to believe, we’d come up with a quote from a baffled scientist who would provide a reason it might be true. We used to joke about the Academy of Baffled Scientists.

Lind: A lot of times, people would call or write with ideas. Someone claimed to have found a dinosaur somewhere and wrote a paper about it. I treated them with respect. I called them and said, “Tell me about this.” We took people’s word for it, even though we knew it was bullsh*t.

Forsyth: We would say we were from Weekly World News, but most people, though they may have seen it, it doesn’t register. It just sounds generic. If you approached it in a serious manner, people would speak to you. I spoke to scientists, university professors. People are all too eager, especially scientists, to tell you something they want the world to understand.

Berger: Our mantra was, "Never talk yourself out of a good story." If a lady called and said aliens ate her laundry, The New York Times might say, “Do you have evidence?” We’d say, “Oh, do you know if he liked jeans or frilly stuff best?”

Neuschafer: The National Enquirer would get sued and had some pretty well-publicized lawsuits, but we didn’t deal with celebrities. Space aliens really didn’t take anyone’s laundry. But there were still lawyers who read it. Everything had to be approved by a big law firm in Washington, D.C. We had to conform if they said to do something.

Forsyth: There were only a couple of times the paper got into legal trouble but it was mostly avoided. If we made up a story, we checked to make sure no one was in the city or in the world with that name. We’d make up names. The first part of the name would be Anglo-Saxon, and the second part would be Italian. The name wouldn’t even exist.

In experimenting with different stories, from alien abductions to prophecies, Weekly World News quickly learned which types of tales on the cover would move copies.

Berger: Sometimes there was one big splashy headline, then some ticker heads. If one didn’t grab them, something else would. It was important to keep circulation up. You’d hold your breath when the circulation figures came in. On a big day, you'd go to the boss and say, “Look how many copies we sold.” If you sold half that many, you might not be there next week. There was no real method to it, just keeping track of what sold and getting a feel for what would sell the next time around. If a story sold, we tried to find a way to revive it in a few weeks. We knew Bigfoot stories would sell if done right.

Kulpa: Sometimes we would do three versions. Three covers went into a focus group area. We would get numbers back on those, and the winner would become next week’s cover.

Ivone: We picked Roanoke, Virginia. It was a good bellwether. It was very much marketing, very much driven by data.

Kulpa: One thing that did well for the Enquirer and for us were predictions. In the 1980s, it was World War III. People were concerned and would grab predictions to see what the future holds. They were upbeat. Predictions imply there will be world a year from now.

Forsyth: For a while, prophecies were selling. Who could provide a prophecy? We did Unabomber’s prophecy, the Donner party prophecy.

Ivone: We always had covers with miracle cures of garlic, apple cider vinegar, but we also wanted alien abduction stories. There was always a blend. We never abandoned self-help stories. We were baffled by it, but they always did ok. They were good performers.

Kupperberg: Heaven and hell stuff was strong. Things discovered in the Titanic were also pretty good. And coming disasters, an apocalypse of some sort. Giant monsters.

Forsyth: I once did gay skeletons found in a Titanic life ring, which is—what the hell is that? That makes no sense. But I wrote it and people said it was actually quite touching. The sailors died in each other’s arms.

Calder: There were things you couldn’t do. Nothing like sex. If supermarkets say no, you’re out of business.

Ivone: We often found that people who bought tabloids bought two or three, like The Star or The Sun. We wanted to be the second buy.

III. The Madhouse

The staff of Weekly World News had to come up with compelling covers every week.Courtesy of Weekly World News

Departing from fact to create fiction, the staff of Weekly World News developed a kind of bullpen in their offices.

Neuschafer: It was an old-school kind of newsroom, cigarettes in ashtrays, manual typewriters banging away on desks, like a newsroom you’d see in movies in the 1940s, but it worked.

Forsyth: You walked into the Enquirer building and it would look somewhat like a real old-fashioned movie newsroom. It was just desk after desk, one gigantic open space. We’d hang out at the Hawaiian after work, a local motel/bar on the beach. It was a dream job, waking up in the morning, writing two long made-up stories and three to five filler stories, and then going to the beach after work.

Neuschafer: There was always a chance after work to get together, have a beer, and have more story ideas.

Berger: I remember [co-worker] Jack Alexander used to complain to me that he would go home at night and had been laughing so hard during the day that his face hurt. That’s the kind of atmosphere we had. People laughed all day, threw ideas around. People would throw out headlines for a story.

Forsyth: There was definitely a family feeling with a small staff. We had affection for the paper and for what we were doing.

Berger: It was like the atmosphere of a fifth grade class when the teacher leaves the room. Everyone was yelling, screaming, throwing things at each other, calling each other names in a humorous way. People with their feet on the desk.

Calder: The office was a big, big area, and one little corner was Weekly World News with very few employees. The Enquirer attitude was they thought it was entertaining. “What will they come up with next week?” The Enquirer offices were a very high-powered editorial space and had a blank front page to sell 4.5 million copies every single week.

Berger: Pope called us all into the conference room one day after we had gotten cubicles and it had changed the atmosphere. He said, “I don’t like the way things are going in the newsroom. When I stick my head out, I want to hear you guys yelling and screaming and laughing. If you guys aren’t having fun putting out the paper, readers won’t have fun.” The cubicles went and we went back to laughing and that fifth grade atmosphere. He was right about that.

Neuschafer: We sold a lot of papers and were always scratching our heads. The news was fake, or mostly so, but the ads were very real. Advertisers were paying good money to advertise in the paper.

Kulpa: Occasionally I would go to schools and give speeches. I would ask how many people read Weekly World News, and half the kids raised their hands. They were 12-year-olds. I was shocked. We had a college following, too.

Berger: It became satirical. We were playing to two different readers. There were people who read Weekly World News and enjoyed it as a humor and satire publication, and there were people who read Weekly World News and wanted to believe every word in there. In every story we gave the reader a chance to believe what they wanted to believe. We were walking a fine line. People believed in ghosts, aliens, Bigfoot. If they wanted to believe a space alien ate someone’s lawn mower, let them believe it.

Kulpa: Who the readership was is something we never got a handle on. I couldn’t tell you. A guy once asked me, “Where do you get those stories?” I pointed to my head and his jaw dropped. A lot of people wanted to believe those stories.

Neil McGinness (Editor-in-Chief, 2008-2018): I grew up with it, in college. I loved it, used to read it all the time. I would pore over every detail in the publication, the presentation, the headlines, the cleverness of it. It functioned like a portal into another reality, like ours, but portraying a world that was more fun, with aliens, zombies, Bigfoot, and sea creatures.

Kulpa: The Weekly World News philosophy was like what Stan Lee was to the original Marvel Comics. Both were grounded, both were believable. You read a comic and believed the Hulk could have actually existed through radioactivity. It gave it plausibility. Weekly World News did the same thing: You run a story, have an expert to debunk the story, print it with the story, and it gave it credibility.

Berger: With the weird stuff, we went from selling 100,000 copies to 1 million a week. There was no looking back. No one thought about sticking to the facts after that.

IV: Bat Boy Begins

Bat Boy stories proved immensely popular for the paper.Courtesy of Weekly World News

Under the gleefully demented leadership of Eddie Clontz, Weekly World News came into its own in the late 1980s. In order to keep readers coming back for more, it developed a number of stories that were serialized in nature. One of their biggest recurring hits began with a May 1988 headline that declared Elvis Presley, who had died of a heart attack on August 16, 1977, was still alive. In 2004, The Los Angeles Times declared that Clontz “gave birth to the Elvis-is-alive phenomenon.”

Ivone: The biggest seller was anything with Elvis. “Elvis is Alive” was an all-time bestseller.

Calder: The National Enquirer used to get the credit for that.

Ivone: All the credit for Elvis goes to Eddie. We would get books all the time. One book was about this idea Elvis faked his own death. We called the author, did a book review, put it on the front page, and trumpeted it as a news story.

Berger: Some lady in England had written a book claiming Elvis faked his own death and was still alive and hiding out somewhere. So the original “Elvis Is Alive” headline was about that lady’s book, which claimed he was in hiding, couldn’t stand publicity, and was out there roaming around in secret.

Ivone: People who loved Elvis, it was giving them some hope it might be true. Some genuinely said, “I saw Elvis.”

Berger: People started writing in. There were sightings around the country. Real sightings.

Lind: Elvis would appear in all kinds of places.

Berger: Anytime we could get an “Elvis Is Alive” story on the cover, we had to do that. A woman wrote in and claimed she spotted Elvis in a McDonald’s in Kalamazoo. That was good enough for us.

Calder: We’d say Elvis was still alive and run a picture of what Elvis would have looked like at that time. We’d get dozens of phone calls. If someone calls and says, “I saw Elvis,” you didn’t try to disprove the headline. If you’re an Elvis fan and see something about Elvis still being alive, how could it not grab your attention?

Forsyth: It started to get old. You’d have a waitress seeing him. I can’t remember one story, but it played on the fact that Elvis had a twin brother. After a while, things become self-parody. Elvis became “Ha-ha, this is a joke.” We wanted to give people a chance to believe in the story.

Berger: There was a lady somewhere in the south who claimed with a straight face she lived with Elvis for three or four years. He was her boyfriend. She told us the whole story of living with Elvis. She was very sincere.

Neuschafer: We used stand-ins for Elvis with a little bit of airbrushing. I was never Elvis, but I was used for a couple of other stories.

McGinness: In many instances, the stories contained journalistic sleights of hands or twists that really drove home the thematic element to the story. It wasn’t just that Elvis was spotted in a Burger King, but that the person at the counter was surprised he ordered a Double Whopper, or two Double Whoppers.

Weekly World News ran at least 57 “Elvis Is Alive” stories between 1988 and 1992. At one point, nationally syndicated humor columnist Dave Barry suggested to Clontz that the paper should report that Elvis had just died. “Elvis Dead at 58” was printed not long after.

As Elvis headlines began to wane, editors found a new protagonist. And unlike the King, he was birthed inside of the company’s offices. “Bat Child Found in West Virginia Cave,” which ran on June 23, 1992, introduced the world to Bat Boy, a 2-foot tall, 19-pound hybrid beast-child highly sought after by government officials.

Kulpa: Bat Boy was created by accident. I was asked to do a space alien baby and I did. The editor saw it and put it away, saving it. I did a number of versions, and six weeks later, the bat child was born. It went on page one and sold 975,000 copies—a great seller for us.

Lind: Dick Kulpa was a brilliant artist. He did a space alien with big ears and a mean look. Sal Ivone said, “Maybe he’s not a space alien. Maybe he’s half-human, half-bat.”

Kulpa: I see Bat Boy as more like the It’s Alive baby. He’s strangely vicious yet lovable.

Ivone: Dick Kulpa did a drawing with big ears, big eyes, and wanted to do it as an alien baby. I said, “I’m sick of alien stories. Can we do something different?” I sketched out an idea for a subterranean civilization, and someone who becomes a stranger in a strange land. The idea being, this would be a story that had legs. We could make it episodic. Those stories seemed to sell well.

Berger: Bat Boy was obviously a figment of someone’s imagination. Dick was doing some artwork, trying to come up with a picture of a space alien. He came up with a drawing of a guy with giant, pointy ears and big teeth. He looked and said, “Oh, we gotta do something with that,” and handed it over to a reporter. It might have been Eddie’s brother, Derek Clontz. Derek came up with the story of Bat Boy being found in a cave in West Virginia.

Calder: “Bat Boy Found in West Virginia Cave.” Who would think of that?

Ivone: After seeing the visual, I sketched out four or five talking points, but Derek Clontz gave it life. Like the idea he consumes 300 pounds of bugs a day. That made it compelling.

Kulpa: Look at the painting The Scream and you’ll see a connection.

Lind: We had to be careful. Anything that smacked of bestiality was kept out of the paper, but we didn’t go into how he was conceived. We just said he was found in a cave and built on the image.

Ivone: It had nothing to do with interspecies comingling. He was representative of a different civilization.

Kulpa: The comic book side of me said, “We need to develop the character,” but newspaper people didn’t understand what that meant.

Ivone: The first Bat Boy story did very well, and so we kept repeating it.

Kulpa: Kids love monsters, especially friendly monsters, hero monsters who will save the day for them. I see him as a staunch defender for the innocent, but he could also be one hell of an a**hole. You don’t offer candy to Bat Boy. There might be more than candy getting chewed up.

McGinness: Bat Boy is unique in that he’s not a heroic figure. He’s more of an antihero. You can draw parallels to Don Quixote in that you have a protagonist who isn’t a hero but fallible and subject to lapses in judgment. Like the time he stole a Mini-Cooper and led police on a chase.

Authorities often found it difficult to keep Bat Boy in custody.Courtesy of Weekly World News

Lind: He was found in a cave, he escaped, the FBI would catch him and hold him in some undisclosed location.

Berger: An FBI agent called the paper and asked us to retract it. They were getting so many calls demanding Bat Boy be released that their switchboard was being flooded. I think Eddie took the call.

Lind: One day Eddie gets a call from the FBI. Like, “Hey, we’re getting all these calls, knock it off." Eddie said, “We’ll never do it again.” As soon as the receiver hit the hook he turned around and said, “OK, Bat Boy escapes from the FBI ..."

Ivone: The FBI called me once, hysterical. It was because of a story about a Civil War orphan or a child suddenly appearing on a battlefield, and I guess the FBI felt we had given them a villainous role by having them take the child into custody. They said we were giving them a bad name and saying they don’t do those kinds of things. They didn’t seem to realize they were calling a funhouse. It had nothing to do with reality.

Forsyth: Characters take on a certain reality. Bat Boy became our mascot.

Kulpa: People fell in love with the image. It became the iconic image of Weekly World News.

Lang: They said, “Don’t pitch us Bat Boy stories. We take care of Bat Boy.” It was the crown jewel of Weekly World News.

Lind: We always featured him on the cover. We tried to put some time between stories. Every once in a while, we’d decide it was time for Bat Boy or time for Elvis.

Kupperberg: Most of us at this point who were coming from comic books understood how to use characters, how to spread them out over the run of a series. You don’t throw characters into every issue or it becomes boring. We knew how to juggle things. Someone would go, "Time for Bat Boy," or "Time for another devil visitation." You get a feel for things, parsing them out and not ruining them for readers.

Berger: We knew Bat Boy attracted readers, and we kept using him over and over again. If we could find a Bat Boy story that would put Bat Boy on the cover, it seemed to sell.

McGinness: The appearance was always somewhat masked. Every eyewitness account of Bat Boy was obscured. He was caught in fleeting glimpses. That let readers fill in the details.

Kulpa: The appeal of Bat Boy is the face, eyes, and mouth. There’s an emotion in that face. It connects. It’s sort of a "What am I doing here?" emotion, not an emotion of terror or horror. It’s the emotion of, "The f*ck is going on?" I think a lot of people have that emotion.

Joe Garden (Features Editor, The Onion, 1993-2012): It’s such an arresting graphic. It’s a compelling image of something like Nosferatu as a child. I still remember the cover splashing out on the newsstand. Any time they’d put him on the cover, this baby Nosferatu baring his fangs, it was really engaging.

Forsyth: In World War II, different fictional characters like Superman and Donald Duck were recruited for the war effort, so we did one where Bat Boy was recruited for the Marines. He could use his superior sense of hearing. Eventually he left the Marines to capture Saddam Hussein.

The success of Bat Boy eventually led to merchandising, a 1997 off-Broadway musical, and even talk of a feature film.

Neuschafer: There were Bat Boy T-shirts. We did Elvis Is Alive T-shirts, too.

Kulpa: We had an America Online site in the mid-1990s that I would create images for. One day I drew Bat Boy on a beer bottle. It was a Photoshop. I posted it, and lo and behold, someone paid a $10,000 license fee for Bat Boy Beer.

Ivone: There were always people who had developed movie scripts, but no one finished it off.

Kulpa: I discussed a Bat Boy movie with several people but got nowhere with anybody in terms of people running the show at the paper.

Lang: Everybody loves Bat Boy. It was basically an operatic tale. It was fitting that it was turned into an off-Broadway musical.

Kulpa: I posted a Bat Boy musical theme I composed. It was just an amateur thing. I posted it on the site and within four months we were hearing from a company who wanted to do a Bat Boy musical. I never saw it.

Lind: That was all out of my hands. Merchandising was a different department. I was glad when it became a musical, but I don’t think Kulpa got money for it. None of us did.

Kulpa: Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created Spider-Man, but you didn’t see that Dick Kulpa created Bat Boy because he was supposed to be a real character. It wasn’t until a 2007 Washington Post story that it was revealed. I warned staff for years that we were working in anonymity unless we do something about it. Of course, it never happened.

Forsyth: It was the most fun when you stuck to whatever reality we had established. He was a feral child raised in a cave. Then someone got stupid. Bat Boy running for president. No, I don’t think so.

Kulpa: I saw Bat Boy shaking hands with politicians. What a bunch of crap.

McGinness: I think the core appeal of Bat Boy is the notion that someday, somewhere, someone is going to find something. Something is going to appear that will shake everyone’s foundation and what we hold to be true.

Bob Greenberger (Writer, 2006-2007): It goes back to a fascination with sideshow attractions that P.T. Barnum celebrated. Maybe Bat Boy is real. Being found in a cave is just on the other side of plausible. Being from West Virginia, he’s one of ours, like Bigfoot.

Lind: I don’t know that the story ever ended. It probably ended with him still on the loose.

Berger: I don’t know why we didn’t do Bat Boy meets Elvis. Maybe it was too silly.

V: Alien Concepts

Politicians and aliens got along well in the pages of the paper.Courtesy of Weekly World News

Even with Elvis and Bat Boy dominating headlines, Weekly World News still kept up with the latest in an underserved area of reporting: politicians fraternizing with aliens, including P’lod, an extraterrestrial with a keen interest in human politics. Eventually, the real Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush were photographed reading the paper.

Lind: Obviously space aliens were a great favorite for us.

Lang: All of the alien stories really fascinated me as a reader. Aliens in the Senate. Hillary Clinton having an affair with an alien.

Forsyth: Some of them got a lot of attention, like Bill Clinton catching Hillary with a space alien. P’lod endorsed Clinton.

Berger: I remember we had a story about Hillary adopting a space alien baby. We ran Hillary on the cover carrying a space alien baby. That sold. We had a picture of Bill meeting an alien called P’lod, who was hanging out in Washington. Every once in a while, we’d Photoshop them shaking hands. Those covers sold.

Garden: The Clinton alien covers are the covers I remember the most after Bat Boy. There were these pale aliens reaching out to Bill Clinton and him with a welcoming face.

Berger: We got a really irate letter from a woman who insisted that was not Hillary holding the baby, that Hillary was not a nice, warm-hearted lady who would adopt a space alien baby. The reader was perfectly willing to believe it was an alien baby, just not that Hillary was holding it.

Calder: Eddie decided that we wanted to say several senators were aliens from outer space. So they went to seven senators and asked if it would be ok. Six of the seven went along with it and even gave interviews. They obviously knew it was tongue-in-cheek.

Berger: The senators as space aliens took a lot of work. The first story was that five senators were aliens, and we later found a few more, and it became 12. I had worked in Washington, and things were a lot less divisive at the time, a lot more relaxed. We called senators, talking to their press aides, making sure they knew who we were. We said, "We understand Senator Nunn and his colleagues are extraterrestrials, space aliens who have come to Earth to help us out, and we wanted to know if he was ready to confess to that." Some slammed down the phone, but we called enough of them, and pretty soon we had some aides laughing. We got several callbacks. “Yeah, Senator Nunn admits he was a space alien.” They would even give us quotes. Once we had a couple who admitted to it, then it was quite easy to call others. “Well, we got Senator [Orrin] Hatch, Senator Nunn, Senator [J. Bennett] Johnston, they already confessed, would Senator so-and-so like to fess up?” It’s not nearly as hard as we expected to get written statements admitting they were aliens.

Kulpa: The senators played along. George H.W. Bush, we’re told, hung a picture of him with space aliens in the Oval Office.

Berger: It was not hard to get George H.W. Bush to cooperate to run a picture with him with an alien. We even got Janet Reno to cooperate. If people knew what Weekly World News was and liked it, they weren’t afraid of it.

The Clintons meeting aliens was not the paper’s only contribution to politics. From 1979 to 1987, staff writer Rafael Klinger wrote a column as conservative pundit “Ed Anger,” an alter ego that was later adopted by other writers following Klinger's departure. (Klinger sued for trademark infringement and unfair trade practices in 1989, arguing the paper had no right to continue the column without him. A jury found in the paper’s favor in 1994.)

Forsyth: Ed Anger’s voice was so strong. He was so ahead of his time, before Rush Limbaugh in terms of being an out-there, over-the-top right-wing firebrand.

Berger: Ed Anger was a column written every week and created by Rafe Klinger, who worked on staff. Rafe began writing, from a liberal point-of-view, as a stark-raving mad conservative. He started out his column telling us how mad he is, pig-biting mad, madder than Batman with a run in his tights. We had other columnists, but Ed Anger was the prize, the column that got the most responses.

Kulpa: People would ask, 'Do you know Ed Anger?' I looked at it, though it was a bit rough, and I was not that impressed. Ed Anger was more like an internet rant, but he was highly popular. I heard he got boxes of mail.

Calder: Rafe was quite brilliant at what he did. Put it this way: It was so outrageous, it made other journalists in the office laugh.

Garden: I remember picking the paper up and reading it with my friend Jeff. The thing we liked most was Ed Anger, the absurd right-wing columnist. I think I have a book of his called Let’s Pave the Rainforests. He would just make absurd claims, take absurd stances, and carry them to their logical end. It would start with how mad he was, madder than Daniel Boone with a musket, madder than a computer nerd with a busted mouse. He probably had a big influence on a column I did for The Onion, Jim Anchower. He was not a political character, but I stuck to the idea. The column had sort of the same template. “Hola Amigos, long time since I rapped at ya,” blah, blah, then some reason for why he hadn’t written a column in so long.

McGinness: If you look at a character like Ed Anger, in terms of a cultural touch point, Ed is significant. He really was the prototypical blueprint for the narrow-minded, right-wing, bigoted commentator. It was almost like a playbook. He hated vegetarians, loathed the French, endorsed capital punishment. He wanted to turn high school bleachers into mass electric chairs. Some of what he trafficked in became very real.

VI. Reduced Circulation

Weekly World News took the occasional detour into gruesome tabloid journalism. Courtesy of Weekly World News

While Weekly World News earned a place in popular culture in the late 1980s with fictional headlines—there was even a 1986 movie directed by singer David Byrne, True Stories, loosely inspired by the paper—there were some very real forays into controversy. In February 1989, the paper published three photos depicting serial killer Ted Bundy’s corpse after his execution. It was a rare departure into real-life morbidity. It also sold a record 1.5 million copies, outpacing the legendary “Elvis Is Alive” headline.

Ivone: Eddie pushed the envelope at times. I’m not sure why. There were a couple of stories I thought we shouldn’t have run. A lot of fans were kids.

Kulpa: Bundy came from the top. Iain Calder wanted to run it. Someone took a photo and sold it. I remember the discussions we had. I heard Eddie and others discussing it, that the paper met with so-and-so. It was not Eddie’s decision. It was above him.

Lind: I’m not sure if the photos were real or Photoshopped.

Neuschafer: We worked late to get that in the paper. They were very real pictures. People who had taken the pictures had offered them to The National Enquirer, but the Enquirer decided it was too harsh for them, so Weekly World News bought them.

Calder: I can’t believe that. The Enquirer never would have run it. We would have been thrown out of supermarkets in the Bible Belt. I doubt it ever happened. It did not get to my level. I would’ve laughed at it.

Berger: I’m surprised Iain doesn’t remember. Somehow, I don’t know how, Weekly World News was able to get photos smuggled out, photos taken by someone in the prison system, shortly after Bundy’s autopsy. There was a full-page photo of the body. It was a little shocking to us. People were holding their breath about the controversy over it. We weren’t sure if it was a good idea or not.

Kulpa: We put it in a double-page spread and ran it on the cover, but we split the edition. On the East Coast we put the photo of Ted on a slab, and on the West Coast, we put that human footprints had been found on the moon. The sell-through for human prints was bigger than Bundy on the slab, which surprised us.

Berger: This was a time when Bundy was in the news and was a very evil, cold-hearted person who murdered a lot of women. There was a lot of hatred for Ted Bundy. It was a like a picture of a monster. At the time, not many people were opposed to the notion that Bundy was dead. There wasn’t much of a protest against executing Ted Bundy.

The Bundy story wasn’t the only major milestone of 1989 for the paper. With Generoso Pope Jr. having passed away in 1988, his largest assets—The National Enquirer and Weekly World News—were sold off for a total of $413 million to Boston Ventures and Macfadden Holdings, which was later renamed American Media. It would be the beginning of several shifts for the paper.

A short-lived 1996 USA Network television series hosted by broadcaster Edwin Newman failed to find an audience; the paper was moved a second time in 1999 when Evercore Capital Partners purchased American Media and named David Pecker as chairman. Eddie Clontz left the following year. (Clontz died in 2004.) For many staffers, his departure was the end of Weekly World News as they had known it.

Forsyth: Initially it was good. We were told Pecker was a big fan and loved the publication. Then Eddie was promoted to something else, and from that point on, there was a series of editors. All of them tried their best, but the paper went through seven editors in a few years.

Calder: Eddie was still the genius behind it, and when the new people came over, around 1999, 2000, he was retired by then. Without Clontz around, circulation went down dramatically.

Kulpa: By 1995, 1996, we were starting to get into some wilder stories, like “Woman Gives Birth to Human Eyeball.”

Calder: When Eddie died, the heart and soul went out of it.

Neuschafer: By that point, the paper had changed. It was not as much fun. After Pope died, the paper got sold, got sold again, and with each sale, the emphasis on making money became paramount.

Berger: When Peter Callahan and his crew took over, the owner after Pope and before Pecker, they told us, pound for pound, we were the most profitable publication in their history.

Forsyth: For some reason someone decided we should only do true stories, and it killed circulation. Then it swung the other way, where the higher-ups decided they wanted completely silly stories that no one would think were real. That’s not a good formula, either. We were torn between two directions that took it off the essential formula, and the circulation really went down catastrophically.

Berger: They hired comedy writers to come in, and it just got silly. There was a comic strip. The whole paper was ridiculous, and it went from a circulation of 1 million to below 100,000.

Kupperberg: We were looking at sales around 100,000 a week when we first started, and by the time they pulled the plug, it was well under 65,000 copies a week. We were just trying to hang on at this point. Part of the strategy, which I didn’t think was all that successful, was putting part of the budget into the online equivalent, making videos. But the website didn’t do well.

Forsyth: I think around maybe 1999 or so, I started telecommuting, which was a new thing for them. They had never tried it before. It seemed amazing at the time. I was in North Dakota making up these stories and sending them over the internet. It worked so well they brought in freelancers, and then the paper began to depend more on freelancers. At a certain point, they were laying people off. I was laid off in 2005, and they shut down in 2007.

Berger: It went belly up when it became too silly to believe. For some reason, it was difficult for people to grasp the tone of what we were doing.

Kulpa: Everything was grounded. But over the years, it lost ground. After 2003, it basically turned into a comic book.

Kupperberg: The Onion had a strong online presence even then and was starting to take hold.

Greenberger: Competition suddenly showed up in the form of The Onion. We didn’t have the tools or corporate support to grow. They had the better online presence.

Berger: There are only so many checkout slots available. The Enquirer devised the idea of selling it there, and it worked so well that other publications like People, Cosmopolitan, and a million others wanted to sell theirs at the checkout stand, too. Weekly World News got squeezed out in a way. Stores would use the ones that could pay them the most. Cosmopolitan could afford to give them more than Weekly World News could.

Kulpa: Humor has got to resonate with the reader. There has to be a reason behind it. Something like Mad magazine touched a nerve. It was anti-establishment. It was what kids wanted to read in school and couldn’t. Trying to replicate that is not easy. In the 1990s, in the Clinton years before 9/11, nothing was going on. There were no wars, no controversy. People were profiting. People were happy.

VII: Bat to the Future

Weekly World News lives on.Courtesy of Weekly World News

The end—or at least a version of it—came for Weekly World News in 2007, when American Media made the August 27 issue its last. In 2008, the brand was acquired by investors including Neil McGinness, a former National Lampoon executive who kept Bat Boy busy online and maintained a sense of mischief. (In 2010, a story about the Los Angeles Police Department purchasing 10,000 jetpacks was picked up as a legitimate report by Fox and Friends.) In 2018, McGinness exited the editor-in-chief role; Weekly World News writer Greg D'Alessandro stepped in. The website is active and D'Alessandro has plans for the brand in other forms of media. And while both readers and journalists struggle with the concept of “fake news,” Weekly World News alumni see its legacy as something more.

Lind: We invented fake news. But ours was harmless.

Ivone: We didn’t really set out to be a news parody. We set out to be true to ourselves, creating this alternate universe, a place to believe the unbelievable. Humor was a secondary thing. We started with wild headlines and humor came along with the package.

Kulpa: With fake news, we showed the world how, and sorry to say, people learned from that. People believe that the truth is not so important as what they want to be the truth.

Ivone: Something like “Baby Born with Angel Wings,” in one sense that’s funny, but a baby born with angel wings, that’s also maybe inspiring. It confirms something readers may believe.

Lang: In the time we’re living in, it’s almost kind of quaint to look back and the main outlet for fake news was Weekly World News, which was clearly outlandish and crazy. Now the line is much blurrier between what’s real and what’s fake.

Garden: They treated everything seriously. There were some intimations, [but] it was bullsh*t. They wouldn’t outright tip their hand. That’s what The Onion did, which was write incredulous things with a serious tone of voice with a serious news angle. It’s a lot funnier that way.

Lind: I think The Onion is the most brilliant American satire ever, and they liked us. Some of our writers were in touch with theirs.

Neuschafer: Around 1988, a couple of young guys from Madison, Wisconsin, came in and wanted to see how we ran the paper. Then they went and started The Onion.

Garden: It did what The Onion did, which was play everything straight. Ed Anger was a satire of conservative right-wing thinking. "Dear Dottie" was kind of the same, a satire of no-nonsense advice columnists like Ann Landers. They were poking fun at all the other media conventions at the time. Maybe they have political beliefs they were trying to advance, but more than anything, they were trying to amuse themselves.

Kulpa: People think Weekly World News was funny. It was in a sense, but it wasn’t meant to be funny.

Lind: When I think of Weekly World News, I don’t think of it as having any lasting impact on culture. The impact at the time was minimal. Most people treated it like fiction. It made people laugh. Unfortunately, some people it scared to death. If the story was that the world will end on April 14, people believed it, and it scared the sh*t out of them, but they kind of enjoyed the fear. Television kind of took it over. Basically, Unsolved Mysteries took over for what the paper was doing.

Forsyth: I think it invented the format of made-up news before it was popular. I think it’s something that has influenced a lot of people; people put references to it into shows like The X-Files and Supernatural. It was kind of how it was for people who grew up with The Twilight Zone, Mad magazine, or National Lampoon. I think it was an influence on creative people. I hope that’s how it’s remembered and not just as fake news as it’s brought up today.

McGinness: I wouldn’t underplay the significance of the impact Weekly World News had to a generation of Americans. It was like alternative radio, something counter-culture.

Berger: I met some of the most talented people I’ve ever known there. We tried to be as harmless and as entertaining as possible. We were very dedicated to doing our job and doing it the right way.

Kupperberg: It was just ridiculous enough if you were of that frame of mind, you could believe a lot of what we printed. I had a neighbor at the time whose parents would often come visit. His father was not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but he was a nice guy. When he learned I worked at Weekly World News, he was very excited because he and his wife went to 7-Eleven and picked up all the publications. The National Enquirer, Weekly World News, The Globe. He asked me, “Where do you get these stories from?” The unofficial thing at the paper was to maintain the fiction at all times, so I said that we had sources. Then my wife nudged me and I said, “We make it all up." He was disappointed.

McGinness: My vision in 2008 was to create The Huffington Post for otherworldly news, and continue what we could do with American Media. We did some publishing, book compilations, the creation of a whole online site, and made digital archives available to the public.

Greg D’Alessandro (CEO, Editor-in-Chief, 2018 to Present): It never really went away. We’re working on a half-hour sitcom, a podcast, and a Bat Boy film. The sitcom would be more about the reporters, like The Office.

Calder: I still remember the front covers. I’m 80 years old now, and it still brings a smile, and so does Eddie Clontz.

Kupperberg: The fact that we were able to sit around and make up a new world every week was an amazing thing. And they paid us for it.

Berger: People called us a sleazy supermarket tabloid and in a way we were, but we were not embarrassed by what we were doing. We were having the time of our lives, making good money, and enjoying ourselves.

Ivone: A lady once called us and said her toaster was talking to her. I said, “Put the toaster on the phone.” We took it seriously,

Kupperberg: That’s what Weekly World News is about. Put the toaster on the phone.