20 years ago, The Onion declared "American People To Live Happily Ever After"
And nothing bad ever happened again. Also, hypochondriacs discover the Internet, and a Lifetime character keeps losing her baby,
Welcome back to The Onion: 20 Years Later. Today, we’re looking at Vol. 36, Issue 16, from exactly 20 years ago: May 3, 2000.
Thanks for coming along this journey into The Onion’s history and American culture. I hope it’s a distraction from our endless #coronavirus saga.
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What issue is this?
This is the 15th published Onion issue of the 2000s, even though it says issue 16 (The Onion skipped March 29, 2000). The photo above is from The Onion’s book of front pages. Here is the website as it looked in 2000 and in 2010, as well as today’s website.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
This week’s Onion recap will mostly deal with stories that have aged poorly because the passing of 20 years has changed the context.
Some of it is unavoidable. No one was thinking, “Let’s make sure this kills in 2020.” If “Sports Section Tragically Missing” is a little lacking today, it’s not The Onion’s fault newspapers are dead. “Vietnam At 25” and the Elian Gonzalez-related headline “47 Punk Bands Change Name To 'The Miami Relatives’” were intentionally created for May 2000, not any other time.
Sometimes, jokes age for cultural reasons. About 25% of this week’s stories deal with sex, sexuality and/or gender. This is probably because the news was full of stories: a gay-rights march in Washington, D.C., a Supreme Court case about the Boy Scouts’ policy on gays, and Vermont allowing same-sex unions.
Obviously, those conversations have changed immeasurably since 2008, much less 2000. I’m sure even Dan Savage’s “Savage Love” column, already a weekly feature in the non-satire section of The Onion’s print edition in 2000, would struggle at times to hold up.
Who is supposed to laugh?
All of that is understandable. Time goes on, and things change. That said, I’ve found The Onion of 2000 occasionally struggled with defining its audience — failing to ask the “Who is this for?” question.
It’s not always enough to say, “Does this make us in the room laugh?” It’s not always enough to say, “OK, we took a trope, or a journalistic structure, or a real-life story, and we’ve changed some of the details. We’ve done satire! Good job!”
I say all this because our top story this week clearly fails to ask, “Who are we trying to make laugh, and why?”
“Coalition Of Developmentally Disabled Adults Demands Trip To McDonald's” hits all the notes of satirizing stories about a lobbying group gathering activists together, traveling to D.C. and holding a press conference to make its demands. The article has that classic 2000s Onion trope of a fake association (AADDA, the American Association of Developmentally Disabled Adults). It feels like a real news article, albeit a weird one.
But I’m still left thinking, what are we laughing at here? Surely not the developmentally disabled kids! But then, what?
I’m not offended, as I have no stake here. And, if this article works for caretakers or parents, that’s fantastic. I’m simply saying that the main appeal seems to be, “Look how good we are at satirizing this style of news article!” And that’s insufficient. We can look back only one week to find better versions of that trope — “Area Woman Offended For Fourth Time In One Day,” for example.
The other major trope of this week’s issue is some sort of Friday news dump of gender and sexuality articles. Whether these pieces are bad is a separate question from “do we need to re-read them today?” Here they are:
“Does This Shirt Make Me Look Gay?” (infographic)
“Vermont OKs Gay Marriage” (The Onion’s “What Do You Think” question”)
I admit that, for over a decade, one of my favorite lines in The Onion has been this response within “Vermont OKs Gay Marriage”:
“First, the military, now marriage. Why do these gays want in on our worst institutions?"
OK, grumpy, what did you like?
For those of us who grew up in antebellum America (pre-9/11, not pre-Civil War), we remember a time when people really thought everything was good and there weren’t any real problems left, much less debate over forms of government.
We have been living in that paradise ever since.
What The Onion does so well with “American People To Live Happily Ever After” is in the fairy tale story structure, including the metaphorical way in which President Bill Clinton addresses “my loyal subjects” and refers to the stock market, Communism, and more:
"[O]nce upon a time, the Kingdom was beset with great dangers, and the Bear ran amok on Wall Street, and the men from the Red Land menaced us with their great rockets, and everyone was much afraid. But, henceforth, I decree that all Americans will be happy and live in comfy houses filled with plenty of good things to eat, and all mommies and daddies will be kind and all children good, and the Wizard Greenspan shall set loose the great Bull, and we shall all live happily forever and ever."
It, um, lays out some specific political and cultural positions later on. Off-brand clothes are an abomination, after all:
“No one will ever get sick and die again, and Grandma will come back from Heaven and live with us, and all the daddies will hug the mommies again, and men will only want to marry women, and women will only want to marry men, and everyone will be the exact same perfect color, and no one will have off-brand clothes or speak in strange tongues.”
I also loved “Internet Opens Up Whole New World Of Illness For Local Hypochondriac,” which is a trend The Onion predicted perfectly. Even WebMD is still a leading website! The only thing that looks dated in this article is that iMac computer in the first photo.
You might also find some enjoyment out of the “this is real life, not parody” stories “Pizza Hut Employee Still Hanging Around After Shift” and “Area Man Has Own Version Of Neighborhood-Watch Program.”
Were the infographics good?
“Vietnam At 25” obviously is a very 2000 infographic. The jokes are fine, although your political views might affect what you laugh at (or don’t). My only beef is about the “Vietnam-shaped ice-cream cakes on sale at Dairy Queen all week.” As someone who once lived a block away from a Dairy Queen and Carvel (and whose family still does), you would obviously go to Carvel for that year-round fix of ice-cream cake.
So, this is a very 2000s thing. It reminds me of old “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” sketches, there are way more casual “someone’s gay” references than I remembered. Generally not malicious swipes, but still not something Conan’s been doing for a while now. This infographic is a similar time capsule of sorts — the jokes are structurally sound (the Rock Hudson-Freddie Mercury distinction is a very good outreach to heterosexuals to help them get the joke), but society has shifted and the context is gone.
Also, that shirt just makes me think of Curious George’s handler/kidnapper.
What real-life events/people were mentioned?
Bill Clinton. Andrew Cuomo. Alan Greenspan. Surgeon General David Satcher. Rock Hudson. Freddie Mercury. Henry Kissinger. Charlie Daniels Band.
Remember when Andrew Cuomo was secretary of housing and urban development? Me neither. He and Greenspan are each mentioned in “American People To Live Happily Ever After.” Satcher returns from last week’s Mountain Dew warning, telling Clinton “the feelings his friend is having are ‘completely natural.’”
Kissinger and the Charlie Daniels Band are in the Vietnam War infographic.
Most “Hey, it’s 2000!” reference
The headline “47 Punk Bands Change Name To 'The Miami Relatives’” is a strong candidate, but I’m giving the honor to this passage from “American People To Live Happily Ever After”:
… the Happy Valley of all tomorrows, where the Sun always shines, and there are always plenty of Nokia cell phones, and gas is never more than $1.09 a gallon; and they sang as they skipped, and they were not troubled by anything.
The Nokia reference reminds me of one of Jay-Z’s least prescient brags: his “Motorola two-way pager.”
Was Bill Clinton mentioned? Was an animal quoted?
Lame-duck Clinton is busy, busy, busy, appearing in two stories yet again.
What columnists ran?
Here’s the Easter egg this week: The very best thing that ran in The Onion on May 3, 2000, and something I’d never read before last month, is “Oh, My God—The Baby!” by Lifetime Movie- Of-The-Week character Sandra Althorpe.
We get the backstory of Althorpe’s childhood of abuse and neglect, to years of trying to conceive, and finally having a baby who’s turning 1 today. Sounds like a redemption tale, right? Well, her headshot will tell you what happens next:
In short order, her baby becomes gravely ill, recovers, is kidnapped, is rescued, is put in foster care after Althorpe is arrested by the FBI, is returned to Althorpe after she is cleared but has become “hopelessly addicted” to heroin. It’s a thrill ride throughout!
I must limit myself to just one quote, and I highly recommend you find someone to read this aloud, as I did over Zoom this week:
What? Dr. Shapiro thinks the baby has an extremely rare respiratory ailment that can only be cured with a risky experimental procedure that's killed or crippled nearly two-thirds of its subjects? What are we going to do? There's only one thing we can do — administer the treatment. It's our only hope. No, honey, I've quite made up my mind about this one. If Alexis doesn't get the treatment, she's doomed for sure. This way, she at least has a fighting chance — EVEN IF IT VERY WELL MAY TAKE HER YOUNG LIFE!
I was also excited about “This New Toilet Paper Is So Soft And Absorbent!” because toilet paper has become America’s most valuable currency in recent months. And it starts off with a believable but silly name (Cushy™) and that peculiar Onion tradition of overusing trademarks next to brand names.
But then it quickly becomes one of the more disgusting essays I’ve ever seen. Do not recommend, or at least giving a firm warning.
Finally, we have Onion publisher emeritus T. Herman Zweibel, my favorite columnist, with “My Funerary Revisions.” It’s been 66 years since he’s revised his will, and he finds the edits are “not as simple as crossing out ‘horse’ and writing in ‘auto-mobile carriage.’”
The 21-gun salute over my grave had to be left out of my revised interrment-plan, as my standing army was dissolved by an act of Congress in 1911. This, naturally, rules out having all 21 Onion editors strapped across the bores of the cannons when they are fired.
We also find out that he used to own all of New Hampshire, but a pesky of back taxes led to its seizure. And that “great underground reservoirs of blasting-powder have been secreted beneath each of the 44 states” to explode when he is buried.
What was the best horoscope?
Oh, Janet Reno. This is somehow one of the lighter entries in this week’s horoscopes.
Gemini | May 21 to June 20
Everyone enjoys seeing their name in print, but that is not a good reason to change your name to Janet Reno.
What holds up best?
“Area Man Has Own Version Of Neighborhood-Watch Program” is basically everyone today that uses Nextdoor, Ring doorbells or similar apps.
And this coronavirus pandemic has felt at times like everyone is just Googling stuff, so congrats to “Internet Opens Up Whole New World Of Illness For Local Hypochondriac” for that.
What holds up worst?
I think we know.
What would be done differently today?
A lot, but not even just around the sex and sexuality stuff. For instance, even if “Sports Section Tragically Missing” still ran, it mentions a newspaper that shut down in 2007 (RIP, Cincinnati Post).
Also, this is now a few consecutive weeks without any mention of the 2000 presidential race, which is hard to imagine nowadays.
Finally, The Onion would (probably?) not repeat the Cancer horoscope:
Low-cholesterol diets are of little help to people like yourself who are destined to die in airplane crashes.
What was happening in the real world?
The Onion published May 3, but printing a newspaper requires an earlier deadline. Therefore, here are news items from April 24-30, 2000, as listed by InfoPlease and the front pages of The New York Times (subscription required):
Vermont approves same-sex unions. Feds seek breakup of Microsoft. Rudy Giuliani diagnosed with prostate cancer. State Dept: Pakistan, Afghanistan are harboring terrorist groups. National Park Service bans most snowmobile use. Gene therapy said to succeed for the first time. Gay rights parade in D.C. Hawaii legislature passes medical marijuana bill. Gun makers sue over state-level rules. Report: National missile defense system could cost $60 billion. Report: Juveniles’ treatment differs by race. “The New, Flexible Math Meets Parental Rebellion.” Supreme Court hears partial-birth-abortion, Boy Scout cases. Judge: MP3.com in copyright violation. “Icon Recast: Support for a Gay Athlete.” George Soros looks to rethink his investments. Albright looks to fix security lapses at State. US, Russia at odds over nuclear agreements. China cracks down on religious group — this time, the Falun Gong. Iran hard-liners crack down on reformers. Crater could explain 250-million-year-old mass extinction, scientists say. “Heroin Carries AIDS to a Region in Siberia.”