Elon Musk and two former Onion writers began developing Thud, a satire company in 2017. The eccentric billionaire tech CEO gave the project $2 million and asked for virtually nothing in financial returns. It could have been an ambitious and hilarious endeavor, but then Musk reportedly backed out due to his fears of how it could harm his other businesses, and the company died.
An article from the Verge published Tuesday, describes how Musk decided to form a “new intergalactic media empire” of satire, and why he quickly dropped Thud.
The conversation that led to Thud reportedly began in 2014 when Musk emailed Onion’s then-editor in chief Cole Bolton and managing editor Ben Berkley to tell him he loved the site’s article “We’re Going To Enjoy This Cocaine-Fueled Mason Jar Rocket Ride For As Long As It Lasts.”
Later that year, the Onion’s owner put the site up for sale, and Bolton contacted Musk to ask if he was interested in acquiring the site and its parent company, according to the Verge. Musk decided not to buy the company. [Univision ended up buying The Onion, and later acquired Gizmodo through a purchase of Gizmodo’s parent company, Gawker. Univision later sold The Onion, Gizmodo, and all their partner sites to Great Hill Partners earlier this year]. But Musk remained a stalwart fan of the site.
Then Bolton and Berkley left the Onion in 2017 to start their own venture, which they the envisioned as producing satire that goes beyond a website and exists out in the real world. According to the Verge, one of their early ideas was to build a museum for artifacts from Britain’s conquest of Heaven, complete with a painting of an ascending ship and heavenly artifacts such as a flaming sword.
They figured if anyone was going to fund such a bonkers, ambitious project it would be Musk.
“He thinks about issues very, very globally,” Berkley told the Verge. “SpaceX is about colonizing another planet as opposed to launching satellites. Tesla is about changing the way people move, as opposed to making a nice car. I think he thinks about satire in a similar way.”
Berkley added that Musk almost views satire as a “public good.”
He and Bolton reached out to Musk to help spread their vision of public good, and Musk decided to help them develop their venture by funding it and letting Bolton and Berkley take care of the rest.
During it’s short existence, Thud executed some masterful public acts of satire—like Tacstorm a fake company that claimed to sell guns that constantly fire (“In a firefight, if you’re not shooting first, you’re getting shot”); a fake DNA testing company called DNA Friend (“DNA Friend didn’t become the industry leader in free genetic testing by taking customer data and indiscriminately selling it to anyone who was buying—it took much more than that.”); and Ploog, a fake seller of grotesquely shaped object that fits any orifice.
These companies don’t just have their own sites filled with hilarious gems of copy, they also have their own Instagram accounts and promotional materials, that confused at least some people.
“This photoshopped pic just sealed the deal... y’all ain’t gettin my money or my DNA,” someone commented on an Instagram post by DNA Friend that shows two women with single protruding teeth and a forehead birthmark.
DNA Friend’s mascot—a happy drop of spit—appeared at SXSW at Times Square. And billboards advertising Ploogs (“The future of sticking things into holes is here.”) appeared briefly in Columbus, Georgia.
According to The Verge, Thud’s creators wanted to go further with these concepts—for instance, advertising DNA Friend everywhere that 23andMe ran ads—and had about a dozen other ideas in development. But then Musk backed out of the project about six months ago, and Thud, along with its staff of about a dozen people, didn’t have money to execute everything they wanted to do.
Bolton reportedly found out Musk was cutting ties to the endeavor in a meeting that Bolton had with Musk’s chief of staff Sam Teller. The Verge reports that Teller conveyed to Bolton that Musk was worried that Thud’s work might harm his reputation. This was around the time that Musk was facing heat for his ill-advised tweeting and bizarre behavior, namely his tweet about taking Tesla private for $420 that led to a battle with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and a tweet attacking a cave diver who helped rescue twelve children from a Thailand cave, calling the man a “pedo,” which led to a lawsuit.
“He was starting to get worried about how [Thud’s projects] could reflect on him during critical times for Tesla and SpaceX,” Bolton told the Verge. “You know, his companies that are obviously quite a bit more large and, I would say, important than Thud.”
Sure, space travel and an electric car company may be more impactful than a satire site. But it’s still a shame. Thud was as biting and funny as the Onion, but had the gonzo nature of social-experiment performance art like Nathan For You. And with a backer like Musk, Thud wouldn’t have needed to compromise in order to forge a sustainable business model. Bolton told the Verge that Thud was like a “satirical art playground” that they were building entirely with Musk’s money. “It was a crazy thing to get into and actually have be a reality for a while,” Bolton said.
Gizmodo reached out to Musk through Tesla and Space X, but neither company responded to a request for comment on Thud or Musk’s reason for leaving the project.
According to the Verge, Bolton and Berkley tried to find new investors, but they struggled to find anyone who “got it.” The company shut down in May. But Musk continues to commit crimes against humor with his dad jokes on Twitter.