It’s sort of like The Onion of Provo.
Except at The Alternate Universe — the satirical website run by students at Brigham Young University — no casserole joke is off-limits, lists of classes “guaranteed to get you married” are encouraged, and everything gets better with more essential oils.
“Provo — and Utah, too, for that matter — they’re just so weird,” teased Stephen Fortuna, the site’s founder. “Actually, I don’t know if weird really captures it. It has its own culture, which gives us a lot of material to play with.”
Fortuna, a senior at BYU, and his staff writers are all members of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They mostly poke fun at the stereotypes of the faith and their school, which is owned by the church and has an official student newspaper, The Daily Universe.
The alternate publication started about two years ago, when it was just Fortuna in a dorm room with a computer. In December, though, it expanded to a team of nine students, including an art director who photo-edited a Death Star-laser onto the Missionary Training Center in Provo and put Tan France from “Queer Eye” behind a BYU podium.
“I shared that picture along with my story on Instagram,” said Mickey Randle, a junior in journalism who writes for the publication. “I had a lot of people message me and say, ‘Oh my gosh. I can’t believe this is happening.’”
At a time when “fake news” has become a political battle cry, she added, the BYU students are just having fun and not taking anything — even their religion — too seriously. They want to look at how things are set up in the church (and why green Jell-O is so darn good). After all, this is the place for it.
“I grew up LDS and lived in Utah my whole life. I went on a mission,” added Randle. “But all it takes is leaving the state for a bit to realize what a peculiar — in a good way — lifestyle it is here.”
Fortuna decided to play off the student newspaper’s name for his satire publication, he said, because Provo sometimes feels like it should be on another planet — and “The Twilight Zone” was already taken. (They even wrote “an investigation” into The Daily Universe, asserting that it “has been humiliating aspiring student journalists by forcing them to write a newspaper that no one reads.”)
Fortuna believes that satire is a good vehicle to reexamine things that are generally accepted without question, including church rules and practices and how dang young students are when they get married.
Most of their work is lighthearted, like when the staff joked that Kayne West partnered with the faith to produce an LDS-themed album called “Yephi.” The piece came out shortly after West performed in Salt Lake City at the same time as the LDS Church’s General Conference. West previously released an album called “Yeezus,” a play on Jesus. “Yephi” is supposed to refer to Nephi, a central figure in the faith’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon.
The story said the lyrics would include, “He ain’t nothin’ but a gold plates digger.”
Another piece made fun of BYU’s new milk and cookies bar, saying that the school was getting a bouncer and would be charging students a cover to help them “understand the real bar experience.” Both BYU and the faith prohibit alcohol. Another article noted that BYU had made the nation’s “Stone-Cold Sober” list for universities. The satire joked: “‘Wow. I’m really surprised,’ says entire world.”
Randle once mockingly wrote, too, that the university’s theater department would be performing a version of “The Book of Mormon” Broadway musical, edited down to a censored and clean 5-minute production. And recently, Fortuna reported that BYU had shaved the metal statue of Karl G. Maeser — the school’s founder — to remove the facial hair, in accordance with the campus ban on beards.
“We just want to make people laugh,” Fortuna said. “Everyone is dating in Provo, trying to get married quickly. Everyone is trying to keep up certain standards. It’s just fun to take a step back.”
After working at his high school newspaper and now majoring in public relations, he started the publication to continue that work — but also to have a little more fun with his free time. Some of their pieces take a more critical look at issues within the school.
That includes the Honor Code, for instance, which prohibits premarital sex, contains a dress code and bans the consumption of alcohol, drugs, coffee and tea. BYU students protested how that code was enforced last year, saying it’s too stringent, penalizes victims of sexual assault and pits kids against one another.
The Alternate Universe ran a story in response, saying the school was open to some changes: “We would like to announce that when writing, you will no longer have to capitalize the words ‘honor’ and ‘code’ and that we are downsizing our office. Instead of 20 honor code officers, we will now only have 18. I hope this makes you people happy.”
Adam Fletcher, a junior staff writer, believes that leaders and members of the faith sometimes don’t see the problems with policies or practices that have been accepted for years. He wrote a satire looking at the prayers that church members give before they eat.
“It’s just kind of a routine that when people pray over their food they say that it will nourish and strengthen them,” Fletcher said.
So he joked that BYU’s famous on-campus creamery recalled ice cream that hadn’t been blessed, noting, even still, that it wouldn’t “actually change the caloric intake” for nourishment.
It was the first piece he had published, after joining the team in February. He knew Fortuna from when the two met during training for their missions to proselytize for the faith. None of the jokes is meant to be hurtful, Fletcher added; “When you love something, it gives you an opportunity to make fun of it.”
Still, BYU’s spokesperson declined to comment.
The Alternate Universe usually posts a new piece online about once a day. The publication is also starting to print pamphlets with its material and distributing them throughout Provo (even — gasp! — at coffee shops). Most days, they have 250 readers.
They also do posts that are set up as BuzzFeed-style quizzes: “Would Brigham Young Have Admitted You Into BYU?” or “What Religious Costume Should You Wear Tonight to Counteract the Evil of Halloween?”
“It’s worked really well," added Josh Newman, a sophomore on the team, who wrote recently about a Provo couple saying goodnight for six hours. “It’s fun when there’s been a few times when people thought whatever we posted was real.”
He said several of his friends fell into that trap when The Alternate Universe posted a story about selling reservations to the faith’s temples. Newman just laughed.
“I enjoy being able to help lighten the mood a little bit,” added student writer Michaela Rappleyea.
All of the students have pen names, too, including Liz Lemon (Tina Fey’s character in “30 Rock”) and Warren Dusenberry (one of the founders of the early Brigham Young Academy). They even wrote a fake column from Pierre Delecto — Utah Sen. Mitt Romney’s Twitter alias — complete with a doctored photo of the Latter-day Saint politician wearing a fake mustache and glasses.
Fortuna said the students enjoy creating The Alternate Universe and hold weekly meetings on campus to come up with story ideas and current events. Sometimes they pull up The Onion, a national satire website, for inspiration.
But they like their onion best in funeral potatoes.