Oral History: When Tickle Me Elmo Ruled the World

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Location: Walmart Supercenter, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. Date: December 14, 1996. Victim: Stock room employee Robert Waller. Injuries: A broken rib, pulled hamstring, and concussion.

Cause of emergency room admission: Tickle Me Elmo.

The 27-year-old stock clerk had been working the overnight shift during the holiday rush when he was spotted holding the giggling, vibrating toy by a crowd of frantic shoppers. The ensuing melee left him looking like he had just been in a minor car accident. Someone had even torn the crotch from his jeans. The last thing he saw was a white Adidas sneaker kicking him in the face before he lost consciousness. 

All across North America, shoppers and retail workers alike were reduced to their primal instincts in an effort to obtain Tyco’s must-have toy of the holiday season. Tickle Me Elmo combined the appeal of Sesame Street’s breakout character—a three-and-a-half year old monster with charmingly clipped speech—with a novel design that allowed him to be “tickled” until he was practically out of breath.

It was impossibly adorable, and impossible to get: Tyco, which was anticipating a modest success, found themselves chartering private jets in order to get inventory from China more quickly; John Gotti Jr. made headlines for a top-secret Elmo pick-up at a Queens Toys "R" Us; bomb threats were called in to Tyco; one Elmo disappeared from a New York City police station; a toy designer carrying parts through airports was suspected of being the Unabomber.

With Hasbro re-releasing the toy for a new generation of kids this winter, we assembled the inventors, designers, marketers, and industry insiders who helped make Tickle Me Elmo one of the biggest success stories in the history of playthings to talk about how the furry red monster became a pop culture phenomenon—one that parents would literally step all over someone to get.

I: TICKLISH

Tickles the Chimp. Courtesy of the Strong, Rochester, NY

With an interest in art and a degree in clinical psychology, Ron Dubren had been making board games and toys for 15 years. A mutual friend had introduced him to the late Stan Clutton, who held inventor liaison positions with a number of companies. Clutton was always willing to listen to Dubren’s ideas, but had rarely said anything other than "no." That’s not unusual in the toy business, but it was still gratifying when Dubren—who had only had modest success with games like Babble On—finally heard Clutton say “yes” to a prototype he made: a chuckling primate named Tickles the Chimp.

Ron Dubren (Co-inventor): I had been in the park one day watching a bunch of kids tickling each other. It brought back childhood memories—how much I loved tickling or being tickled. There was usually a kind of build-up of this laughing jag until you just finally lose it. I thought that would make a great toy.

Patricia Hogan (Curator, The Strong National Museum of Play): There was some precedent for putting electronics into a plush-type toy. There was Teddy Ruxpin, who had a cassette recorder in his torso. He read the story to kids like a sort of surrogate librarian.

Dubren: I can’t tell you why I used a chimp. I somehow associated chimps with laughter, or maybe I saw J. Fred Muggs on the Today show when I was a kid. I don’t know.

Mark Johnson-Williams (Electronics Designer): I had been doing design for Tyco for years. There had been talking dolls since you could pull a string. What made this different was the right sound and right personality.

Dubren: Sound was becoming inexpensive for toys at that point. We were getting into sound chips. It was too expensive to make one, so the prototype had a cable connected to a computer.

Johnson-Williams: Later on, I basically wrote the program for the circuit board that tells the motor what to do. I had done a talking Cabbage Patch Kid.

Dubren: I called up [co-inventor] Greg Hyman, who was a sound engineer and had recently lost his business partner. The original idea was a chimp that tickled you, but it wasn’t feasible. Greg and I worked on developing a prototype to show around. We were turned down by 12 different companies.

Dubren, who refers to the toy business as “the failure business,” wasn’t dissuaded. He finally came around to Clutton, who was working as vice president of marketing at Tyco’s Preschool division, in 1994.

Dubren: We showed it to Stan, and his immediate reaction was, “This would be great as an Elmo, but we don’t have the rights.”

Janice Yates (former Associate Vice President of Marketing and Development, Tyco Preschool): We had the plastic rights. Hasbro had the plush rights.

Dubren: The meeting lasted about 15 minutes before Stan referred me to another guy at Tyco, Gene Murtha. He knew that side of the company had the rights to Looney Tunes. I met Gene that day.

Gene Murtha (former Vice President of Marketing, Tyco): I instantly liked what he had. It was kind of reminiscent of Curious George.

Dubren: He looks at it and says, “This would be a great Tickle Me Taz.”

What remains of Tickle Me Taz. Courtesy of the Strong, Rochester, NY

Murtha: I don’t think I said it to Ron, but I thought it would be a great feature product for our Looney Tunes license, which we had at the time.

Yates: The concept was when it came in that you’d tickle it once and it would laugh. Tickle it a second time and it laughed harder. Tickle it a third time and it went hysterical.

Dubren: That escalation was important. It just keeps laughing harder and harder. There was a beginning, middle, and end.

Murtha: We might have looked at doing Tickle Me Tweety. But at the time, Warner Bros. was pushing the Tasmanian Devil and had all kinds of research indicating how popular he was. Boys loved the gruffness of him. The market was reaching a saturation point with Tweety. There had been a lot of Tweety.

Johnson-Williams: No one wants to take care of a Tasmanian Devil. You don’t want to be his friend.

Murtha: We did do a Taz prototype. It was functioning, with the electronics and everything. We had someone do a voice to simulate his grunting sort of laugh. I remember taking it to Warner Bros. and they were like, “Yeah, fine.” It wasn’t memorable on their part. They could have had the Tickle Me license under their property.

Despite Murtha's enthusiasm, Taz would not get the opportunity to become the must-have toy of the year.

Hogan: When you think of that character, tickling doesn’t seem the least bit compatible.

Yates: It was good for Taz, he had a crazy personality, but during the evaluation, Tyco decided not to renew the Warner Bros. license.

Murtha: In those days, Tyco had no email system. We all communicated via fax. I remember being at the offices in New York after hours—it was me, Stan, and a few others. I walked past the fax machine and it was spitting out a notice that Tyco had dissolved their agreement with Warner Bros. I walked to Stan and said, “Why don’t you take this and make Tickle Me Big Bird?” And he said, “No, it would be Tickle Me Elmo.” And by this point, they had gotten the Sesame Street license.

Dubren: The guy Stan worked for, [former Tyco president] Martin Scheman, had the idea to pursue the license to Sesame Street and create feature items they’d promote on TV. Marty went to Stan and said, “I need a feature item.” And Stan said, “I’ve got an idea.”

Yates: We had a long-term relationship for plastic toys for the Sesame license. The relationship had grown and they gave us the opportunity to bid on the plush portion and to become the master toy licensee.

Ann Kearns (former Vice President, Licensing, Sesame Workshop): StoryMagic Big Bird was really our first big item. It was pretty low-tech, but it was a huge success. Before Elmo came along, Big Bird was the star of the show. He was the quintessential 6-year-old and Elmo was the quintessential 3-year-old.

Sesame Workshop

Dubren: I got a call from Stan saying, “Guess what?” That’s when I came up with Elmo’s Law: Anything that can go right will go right.

Yates: From the time it got kicked back to us, we all felt the best use for the concept would be with Elmo.

Murtha: I was delighted for Stan to take it over. It was 70 percent done. I was able to take the internal development costs, which were between $50,000 and $100,000, and move them over to Stan’s profit and loss margin.   

Bruce Maguire (CEO, Freeman PR): Elmo hadn’t really been translated into toys yet.

Yates: Elmo was starting to come to the forefront on Sesame Street. This was around 1995. He was becoming more and more popular with parents and children.

Kearns: We didn’t do a lot of Elmo products at first, but in the early 1990s, we started getting calls from parents. “My kid loves Elmo, my kid wants to go to sleep with Elmo.”

Dubren: At the time, Sesame Street was sort of a sleepy license for toys. They were perceived as educational, and that’s a death knell for toys.

Johnson-Williams: The character had to be on long enough for people to go looking for him.

Murtha: The whole character changed with Elmo’s skin. It gave it a gentle, loving ambiance.

Yates: His character lent itself to the laughing and giggling element. It was perfect.

II: GOOD VIBRATIONS

Courtesy of the Strong, Rochester, NY

Work began on turning Tickle Me Taz into Tickle Me Elmo in early 1995, with the expectation that it would be ready for a February 1996 debut at New York’s Toy Fair. Dubren and Hyman had licensed their concept and would be paid a royalty, although the end result would be markedly different from Tickles the Chimp.  

Dubren: I don’t have a proprietary feeling about it. A lot got changed, developed, and improved.

Johnson-Williams: I have a lab near a main street and there are windows. At one point, there were Elmo skins all over without any of the electronics. It looked like a toy factory exploded. People would walk by and go, “What happened?”

Murtha: The next pieces they put in were friggin’ awesome.

Yates: We brought in our ad agency to take a look at the concept. Bob Moehl came to the meeting. He looked at the toy and there was just dead silence.

Maguire: It was a line review. I remember being there. They said, “This is going to be our lead item.”

Bob Moehl (Advertising): I, as the ad man, said it was a waste of money to advertise a sound toy. Television is about motion. The thing ought to move

Yates: He said, “It’s adorable, it’s great, but television is a visual medium.” And off he went.

Maguire: Bob said, “It’s great, but can you make it shake, like a Santa Claus belly?” That one little change had such a payoff.

Dubren: I think what happened was, someone had remembered seeing a shaking monkey that had been on the market.

Neil Friedman (former President, Tyco Preschool): The line review was just about the time I had come on board the company. That mechanism became the third component.

Jerry Cleary (former Vice President, Sales, Tyco Preschool): With the laughing and shaking together, I thought we had something compelling.

The secret to Elmo's success: a vibrating sound box.

Johnson-Williams: They showed me this shaking, shrieking monkey, showed me Elmo, and asked me to build one with all of those elements.

Yates: I remember at the time people had those old-style flip phones on the table. They were vibrating and shaking as they were ringing. And a light bulb went off.

Dubren: My wife actually saw Tickles the Chimp and said, “Wouldn’t it be great if it shook?” I said, “Yeah, but no one is going to put that kind of money into it.”

As with most licensors, Children’s Television Workshop—which later changed its name to Sesame Workshop—was fiercely protective of its intellectual property.   

Yates: There were serious concerns from Sesame. They weren’t sure if they wanted Elmo to shake in case parents thought he was having a seizure. It was a conversation over the course of several meetings, winning them over.

Kearns: I don’t recall that. She may have spoken to someone else about it. What I recall is that we wanted to make sure the shaking was confined to the giggle, so he was only shaking when he was giggling, and then it stopped. There’s no reason for the body to move without that.

Johnson-Williams: It was a conversation with Janice on how to get the motor to run a little, then a little more, then run full blast.

Dubren: They tested it with moms, and no one seemed to care it was going to be $30 instead of $20 because of the motor.

Yates: We did some informal research, and no parent thought Elmo was having a seizure. 

Johnson-Williams: Every licensor does this. Every one. I remember one company had to stop production on a Minnie Mouse because her bow had nine polka dots. Disney said, “No, she has 11. Start over.”

Dubren: It was a big payoff, or surprise ending. The vibration is what makes people start laughing along with it.

Johnson-Williams: At one point, we had him saying, “Stop, stop tickling me.” And there was something sinister about that. Elmo is a child and you can’t have a child saying, “Stop, stop.”

Hogan: Almost all of us have memories of being tickled or tickling. It’s fun, but it’s also a little uncomfortable. There’s a tension there that’s part of the appeal. Elmo recalled that.

Johnson-Williams: I flew the prototype back to show them. They’re professional toy people. It’s not like they clapped.

grac_rahi via eBay

While a lot had to go right in order for Tickle Me Elmo to succeed, one key component would be the notion that parents and their children would be able to see Elmo in action before spending $29.95.

Yates: Martin Scheman originated the concept of “Try Me” at retail, which means presenting a product to a consumer in packaging with batteries included so you can press it and get a demonstration. That was a critical piece of Tickle Me Elmo.

Murtha: I wouldn’t say originated, but there was a mastery of it. We had to do a lot of Try Me because Tyco Preschool wasn’t advertising on television.

Friedman: I forced the factory to put batteries in because I wanted it to be a Try Me.

Maguire: You’d be walking down the aisle, squeeze his hand, and he’d laugh right on the shelf.

Johnson-Williams: That was a relatively new idea. One of my theories when I wrote the program was, most people have an attention span of less than eight seconds. The Tickle Me Elmo would have to get to the punch line in less time than that. Any longer and people walk away.

Dubren: Try Me showed off everything about the toy. It laughs, it escalates, it starts to shake, and you get it right away.

Yates: You could experience it at the retail level but it would not wear out the batteries. Engineering had flagged us about using battery life for a toy with sound and a motor. They were concerned about dead batteries at retail if the toy played in its full mode.

Johnson-Williams: Once you took it home and pulled the cord out, it would play in the full mode.

While Johnson-Williams worked on getting Elmo to laugh and shake in the right ratio, he would sometimes be interrupted by calls or visits to his office in Half Moon Bay, California from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He was suspected of being the Unabomber.

Yates: I was on a plane to San Francisco with a bucket of parts on my way to meet with Mark. I was interrogated at the airport because I had all these wires, batteries, and tapes. They asked me who I was going to see. That’s how they got Mark’s name.

Johnson-Williams: The FBI basically had 10,000 people on a list, and one of the ways to get on was to order a bunch of electronic parts. They were trying to find this guy and casting as wide a net as possible.

Dubren: The media picked up on that and turned it into him being the creator of Tickle Me Elmo. It got to be a little uncomfortable.

Johnson-Williams: There were some funny coincidences. He was seen in Utah, supposedly, at the same time I was shooting a toy commercial in Utah. One day he said he was going to blow up San Francisco and then I flew into San Francisco. Every few weeks, they’d make a call and ask a question.

After an 18-year search, the FBI caught Unabomber Ted Kaczynski on April 3, 1996. While that was a relief for Johnson-Williams, the pressure was building for Tyco Preschool’s core team, which had never before been charged with delivering such a high-profile item.  

Murtha: That division of Tyco was considered to be kind of a stepchild. There was a critical meeting where four or five of us sat with Dick Grey, the CEO, at Gramercy Park. And he basically scolded and berated us.

Cleary: I think he was challenging us, which was his job. The discussion was about who was going to be promoting it.

Murtha: We showed him Elmo and thought we had something special and wanted to handle the advertising. He wouldn’t allow it. I thought we’d be fired.

Cleary: In so many words, he told us we didn’t know what we were doing. And then they finally reconsidered.

Murtha: This is around the time Neil Friedman came in [as president of Tyco Preschool]. He had a very keen marketing eye for what the consumer will respond to.

Cleary: Elmo was done by the time Neil came to the company, but he did a remarkable job selling it.

Friedman: It was not done. The packaging still needed to be designed and there was more work to do.

Maguire: She wasn’t his wife at the time, but Amanda Friedman designed the original Tickle Me. A lot of people became lifetime friends from working on it.

Tickle Me Elmo’s push began during the February 1996 Toy Fair in New York, the annual event for companies and buyers to get an idea of what the coming year will bring. 

Yates: I remember waddling into Toy Fair very pregnant at the time. I was presenting it to buyers and having meetings. The reaction was positive, but it wasn’t, “Oh, my God, we have a phenomenon.” It was, "Okay, it’s cute, great."

Johnson-Williams: They stuck a bunch of them on a wall.

Maguire: The primary line at Toy Fair was Tyco’s line of RC Cars. So the media would go through this tour and wind up at Tyco Preschool, where Elmo was. It was probably one of the first animated plush licenses next to Big Bird. They may have thought, “Oh, okay, they’re just doing what they did before.”

Johnson-Williams: My wife at the time had a friend who didn’t like anything I did. She was kind of a curmudgeon. When she touched Tickle Me Elmo, she smiled, and I knew it was going to be a big deal.

Maguire: Al Roker from the Today show was there, and he loved it. This was pre-[gastric] surgery, so he was a little chunky then. He laughed and his belly laughed and Elmo laughed.

Ellie Bagli (Senior Vice President, Freeman PR): Al was being Al and Elmo was being Elmo. It was a great visual.

Maguire: It brought Elmo to life in a way that had never been done before.

Yates: Neil was at a baseball game when he ran into a buyer from Toys "R" Us. And the guy said, “Oh, my God, Neil. We just got an initial point of sale report and this thing is flying off the shelves. You guys better ramp up.” It had been out three or four weeks.

Friedman: We were monitoring it from the moment it hit shelves. It wasn't because of running into anyone. We were getting calls from buyers right away. It was selling far better than any $30 plush would have sold in those days.

III: THE TICKLE MONSTER

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Thanks to Elmo’s popularity and the novel Try Me packaging, Tickle Me Elmo was off to a solid start when it hit store shelves in July 1996. But without the viral marketing of today, a toy’s best shot at hitting the stratosphere was exposure to children—and their parents—on television.

Yates: The Today show had aired a segment about the new hot toys. Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric were sitting there playing with the doll and getting a kick out of it. It was great exposure.

Maguire: Bryant was not considered a warm guy, so for us, it was great. He was not the type you’d expect to have Elmo on his lap. It seemed to humanize him.

Bagli: He held it the entire time. I don’t think it’s ever been done before or since.

Yates: Freeman PR was responsible for getting Rosie [O'Donnell].

Maguire: Ellie was taping her show almost from the start. Rosie would create a kind of game show atmosphere and give her audience products.

Murtha: It was perfect. This was September, and the kids were going back to school.

Dubren: It helped her show as well. She was just starting out.

Yates: You couldn’t just send Rosie items. It was all about whether she liked it or not. If she didn’t, it wasn’t going on her show.

Bagli: It was early October. We had sent her son one and then she talked on-air about how he had flushed it down the toilet. So I jumped on the phone with Tyco and said, “Get every Elmo we have. Get some red tissue paper.” I got a call from her show an hour later saying, “This is great. Can we have enough for the whole audience?”

Murtha: She eventually brought Neil Friedman out and he did a great job pitching. Elmo did a great job pitching.  

The packaging, the character, and O’Donnell’s endorsement put Tickle Me Elmo on the map in a very prominent way. As the holiday season began, the media took note of shoppers waiting anxiously outside toy stores in groups resembling "Depression-era bread lines.” Unlike most dolls and many plush items, Elmo was a “gender-free” gift that boys and girls were demanding in equal quantity.

Hogan: If it were a plastic doll, chances are most boys wouldn’t have wanted anything to do with it.

Murtha: Going into September, we were forecasting 100,000 pieces. Within a week of Rosie, we were forecasting a million.

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Bagli: It was virtually sold out from the day after Thanksgiving through Christmas.

Maguire: All of a sudden, demand got really strong, and Tyco was in a position of, “How many more can we make before the end of the year?”

Murtha: You line up factories for 100,000. A week later, it’s a million. There’s just no way to get them into the marketplace.

Cleary: I was on the phone with Hong Kong three nights a week. The tools could burn out on high manufacturing runs, so we were figuring out how to build new tools.

Friedman: The plush was not the limiting factor. The problem is producing the mechanism. We were building new tools every week.

Yates: We ended up not running the full TV campaign, pulling some of the back-half media because we didn’t feel it was right to continue to advertise the item to gain awareness and sales when we could barely support all of the pent-up demand.

Maguire: That’s the irony of the motor. It was made for television and they never needed television.

Following Black Friday, Tickle Me Elmo turned into the most coveted holiday item on wish lists. The scarcity led to a tsunami of media about toy aisle mayhem. John Gotti Jr., son of late mafia boss John Gotti, was seen entering a Toys "R" Us after hours and walking away with several Elmos; Cartier Jewelers offered Elmo free with the purchase of a $1 million necklace. One Toys "R" Us district manager pushed a pallet of Elmos out and watched in horror as parents tore into them without regard for anyone’s safety. He started to cry.  

Yates: People would call the Tyco offices threatening to do something if we didn’t release more Elmos. Bomb scares. “I’m going to blow the place up.” It was overwhelming.

Dubren: There were people acting primitive, but that happens every Christmas. A kid laughing with his parents doesn’t get to be a news story.

Kearns: Did it make us cringe? A little. It was nothing we promoted, but there was nothing we could do about it. It was just demand.

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Yates: The media kept saying that we planned it, and it was just great marketing. It wasn’t.

Dubren: Nothing of the kind ever happens. They’re in business to sell stuff. The problem is, they don’t want to be stuck with inventory.

Maguire: The media was doing negative stories, saying it was artificial. Sometimes they want to build up a thing to knock it down. Everyone thought there was a bunch in storage somewhere. Tyco was a public company. You couldn’t mess around like that.

Friedman: Plan a shortage? No one plans a shortage. You can't just say, okay, we want a million. You need to buy chips and other materials, and that can take 60 days.

Cleary: You have a responsibility to the shareholder. That’s the last thing we’d do.

Moehl: [We just] underestimated how the thing would take off. Nothing succeeds in the toy business like shortages.

Yates: Neil was so influential in getting us more goods, as much as we could possibly produce. We went from 400,000 to shipping a million units.

Dubren: Stan thought Neil was crazy to do that, that it was way over the line.

Maguire: He wanted to put the pedal to the metal, where Tyco as a whole wanted to be more cautious. Big toys have put companies under. Teddy Ruxpin killed Coleco. You can’t flood the market. Neil convinced them.

Friedman: It was completely my decision. 

Dubren: They were shipping them by boat, but then they started to fly them in.

Friedman: We air-freighted them in on a regular basis, over and above the goods arriving on water.

As Christmas neared, it was clear not everyone who wanted a Tickle Me Elmo was going to get one. A toy phenomenon had become a cultural symbol of how determined shoppers were to land the coveted monster. To prevent thefts or fights, Toys "R" Us would call raincheck holders and leave vague messages that their “item” was in. In the store, they would be handed a pre-wrapped package so they could slip out of the store without being obstructed.

Dubren: For me, it hit home when I was on a plane to Chicago in early December and The New York Times had the front page of their business section talking about Tickle Me Elmo. It was a pinch-me moment.

Maguire: Harvey Weinstein at Miramax contacted us and sent us a bunch of Oscar-nominated movies on VHS. The Letterman people called and traded us sweatshirts. Brett Favre called Neil.

Cleary: Al Gore called. I told my secretary to tell him I’m Republican.

Murtha: Jill Barad, the [former] CEO of Mattel, walked past my office one day and saw him. “Oh, my God, you have an Elmo!” I gave her mine.

Maguire: Some people at Nintendo traded us N64s, which were the other hot toy, for Elmos.

Dubren: The internet was pretty fresh back then. Most people had dial-up. But there were a few on eBay already.

Yates: I was riding the train home from New York one night and Stan asked me to go do a radio interview. I get on the phone and did the interview. I look up, and everyone on the train is looking at me. “You work for that place? Can you get me an Elmo?” I really felt like my life was in danger.

Maguire: You had to say no sometimes to needy people who would benefit, like charities. You became the gatekeeper for this toy.

Cleary: We tried to distribute it evenly. But we were able to use it and say to retailers who were slow to pay invoices, “Look, we gotta clean this up or we can’t allocate any product to you.” And everyone paid their bills.

Murtha: We took Tyco Preschool from being the losers in New York to, “Oh, those are our guys.”

Maguire: When Tickle Me Elmo sold out, you couldn’t come home empty-handed, so you bought some kind of Elmo toy.

Kearns: It was a halo effect across the entire Sesame line. There was always another Elmo on the shelf to buy. We had T-shirts, books.

Maguire: They could have sold 10 times as many if they had them.

Murtha: Mattel was in the process of buying Tyco and merging Tyco Preschool and Fisher-Price together when Elmo was coming out. I would say the entire purchase price of Tyco [$737 million] was recovered over the next two to three years by Elmo.

IV: ELMO GETS EXTREME

Courtesy of the Strong, Rochester, NY

By the end of 1996, Tickle Me Elmo had taken his place among the most popular toys of the 20th century. Over 1.2 million of the dolls had reportedly been sold, making Tyco a name that could stand among the Hasbro and Mattel brands as a leading supplier of hot holiday items. But unlike past fads, Elmo wasn’t going to be forgotten quickly.  

Dubren: I think it took until the following June for Toys "R" Us to honor all of their rainchecks for 1996.

Friedman: I'm not going to tell you the number. We sold well over a million in 1996. And we sold many, many more Elmos in 1997. In fact, we sold more Elmos in the first quarter than we did for the entire year before.

Cleary: We sold one million Elmos in 1996 and four million Elmos in 1997.

Kearns: It may have been the first time a toy did better in year two than year one.

Yates: It was an exciting time, but Stan gave me a reality check. He wanted to know what we were going to do the next year.

Maguire: It became a franchise out of nowhere.

Yates: We did Sing and Snore Ernie, which did almost as well as Tickle Me Elmo.

Friedman: The biggest thing I found following the craze was walking into a toy department and seeing people pick up a plush toy and squeezing it to see if it would do anything. We needed to keep bringing soft toys to life, and that's what we spent a lot of time doing.

Kearns: Ernie was very popular in Europe. Elmo actually wasn’t on Sesame Street in Europe at the time.

Yates: We also did a line extension with Baby Tickle Mes—Cookie Monster, Ernie, Zoe.

Kearns: There was no Tickle Me Oscar. The toys always had to be true to the character.

Cleary: We sold 4 million Baby Tickle Mes. There was just so much demand we couldn’t fill.

Gina Sirard (former Vice President of Marketing, Fisher-Price): One of my main strategies when I got to Fisher-Price was to have people asking, “What is Elmo going to do next?”

Bagli: You’ve got to give them credit. Every year, they did a new Elmo. Chicken Dance Elmo won a Toy of the Year award.

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Yates: There was a Toss and Tickle Me Elmo.

Dubren: You threw him up in the air, he’d laugh, you’d catch him, and a motion sensor switch would get him to stop laughing.

Cleary: Elmo as Elvis.

Yates: Rock and Roll Elmo was also Greg Hyman. I was there until 2008 and there weren’t any real dogs.

Girard: Pogo Elmo got a lukewarm reception. It was the only one that wasn’t really a huge success.

Dubren: To some degree, I’ve been told it saved Children’s Television Workshop at the time. The success spread to the entire license.

Maguire: As funding for public television deteriorated from the government, the private sector was coming into place through royalties. Now you were seeing the characters on applesauce and snacks.

Kearns: What I would say is that any non-profit is constantly challenged with ways to drive income. Any success story is a big plus. [Workshop founder] Joan Ganz Cooney gave a speech where she said Tickle Me was such a big success it allowed them to expand internationally.

Under Mattel’s Fisher-Price banner, Elmo made annual appearances right on through 2006. For his 10th anniversary, the company launched TMX Elmo, or Tickle Me Elmo Extreme, a doll that had to be seen to be believed. 

Dubren: TMX was fabulous. I wish I could say I developed the mechanism, but I didn’t.

Bruce Lund: (Owner, Lund and Company): We had actually shown them the mechanism for Elmo’s fifth anniversary. Later, one of us came to the other and wanted to take the concept further into extreme laughter.

Sirard:  It didn’t work out for the fifth anniversary. When he bought it back, we added the slapping on the ground and the rolling over.

Lund: It was something we used in a toy called Baby Go Boom—not the same, but an earlier version. Baby Go Boom could basically fall from a standing to seated position, then lay down, then sit back up. And then we realized we could get her to stand back up, and that became Somersault Sara.

Gabriela Arenas (Vice President of Licensing, North America, Sesame Workshop): TMX was really an attempt to recreate how a 3-year-old would laugh when being tickled—rolling on the floor, giggling, having fun. The mechanism was able to translate that.

Kearns: I remember Fisher-Price did a mock-up to show us and we just fell over laughing. It was a no-brainer.

Lund: Getting the Elmo skin on was an issue. The mechanism can work fine on its own, but the fur adds friction.

Maguire: We were able to recreate the hysteria, which was pretty huge.

Kearns: Gina Sirard was the genius behind the marketing of keeping the whole thing under wraps. Retailers would buy it without having seen it.

Sirard: We did ads with Elmo in silhouette.

Maguire: I had been working with Tyco for 25 years and it was the first time they made me sign a non-disclosure agreement.

Lund: There is satisfaction in seeing people mystified. It was a simple mechanism, but people thought it was a mechanical marvel.

Sirard: The whole goal was to make Elmo seem as real and alive as possible.

Lund: One time we had temporarily lost a sample and Fisher-Price was a little upset. We did find it. They wanted everything kept top secret.

Maguire: We stole a little from Steve Jobs and didn’t let anyone see the product until it was at retail.

Bagli: There were maybe 20 people in the world who saw it before then. We kept the product a secret until the day we revealed it on Good Morning America.

Lund: It was really marketing genius.

Bagli: The package looked like a metal briefcase with a warning, “May Contain Uncontrollable Laughter.”

Lund: We had shipped samples in a diamond-plate pattern metal with foam inside, sort of an attaché case that fit the model properly, because they were so valuable. That was ultimately the inspiration for the packaging.

Kearns: They made a package where you just saw the eyes through a tiny little flap.

Lund: It was also good because there was no on-shelf demo, and so the batteries wouldn’t wear out.

Maguire: Diane Sawyer had it in a little vault.

Bagli: Most holiday sales started on Black Friday, but this pushed it ahead two months. We called it the Elmo Effect.

Fisher-Price

Maguire: People were lined up outside of Toys "R" Us and put 10 in a cart to sell on eBay.

Bagli: It was like getting election results. You get the East Coast, and then West coast numbers pop up.

Arenas: It created that must-have expectation with consumers.

Maguire: The toy industry was in the doldrums that year. All of a sudden people got excited to go to big box stores in September and it turned out to be a good year. Everyone benefited from TMX Elmo.

Hogan: I suspect the appeal was more for adults who had grown up with Tickle Me Elmo and now had kids of their own. It was very exaggerated and very funny.

Lund: According to Mattel, it sold more toys on its first day than any other toy in history to that point. That doesn’t include video games.

Sirard: I remember getting calls every hour from Walmart. It was incredible. I think the number was 250,000 sold that day. I don’t know if there’s been a product since that’s done that.

After countless variations—including backpacks, foreign releases, and more—Elmo and the rest of the Sesame Street license returned to Hasbro in 2011. Their Love2Learn Elmo offers children guidance on potty-training; a slightly smaller version of the original is also in stores. Sesame Street, which is now premiering new episodes on HBO, still considers Elmo its biggest licensing success among preschoolers.

Dubren: Ironically, there had been a tickle-me baby on the market the same year Tickle Me Elmo came out. But there was no TV promotion and no character.

Getty

Bagli: People still use Tickle Me Elmo as the standard. “What’s the next Tickle Me Elmo?”

Lund: When I did TMX, I had people come to me and go, “Oh, man, why didn’t you bring it to us?” What would you do with it? Make a teddy bear? Who cares? When it’s Elmo, that’s when it matters to people.

Dubren: There had been big toys, but this transcended the typical toy phenomenon. It was more human than something like Furby or Tamagochi. It became something adults were aware of.

Kearns: It became what the industry came to call “feature plush.” There had been talking toys, but this was wiggling, giggling, and vibrating.

Murtha: I’ve worked on a lot of these. Strawberry Shortcake, Trivial Pursuit, Cabbage Patch—it’s what you work for. When it comes together, all you can say is wow.

Dubren: Tickle Me Taz probably would have vanished overnight.

Kearns: It was a perfect storm, the right character with the right mechanism. No one wants to hug Taz.

Dubren: It’s simple. It gave people joy. It may have only lasted a couple of moments, but that’s one of the precious things about life.

Kearns: At the time, my sister-in-law was going through some very serious radiation and chemotherapy for cancer. I would visit her and talk about what we were working on. I once brought a Tickle Me to show her and she got the biggest smile on her face. Even with all these tubes and chemicals, she smiled. All the doctors and nurses played with it. It showed me Elmo’s appeal went beyond preschoolers.

She passed away. I still have her doll. Everyone loves Elmo.

Mental Floss's Three-Day Sale Includes Deals on Apple AirPods, Sony Wireless Headphones, and More

Apple
Apple

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Apple

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Sony

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Martha Stewart

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Jashen

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Prices subject to change.

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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.