A Hot-Button Issue of The Onion 20 Years Ago, April 12, 2000
The Onion asked itself: Should we revisit the Civil War? Should we comment on abortion? Or maybe handguns? How about conspiracy theories? The answer to all of these was, "Yes."
Welcome back to The Onion: 20 Years Later. Today, we’re looking at Vol. 36, Issue 13, from exactly 20 years ago: April 12, 2000.
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What issue is this?
This is the 12th published Onion issue of the 2000s, even though it says issue 13. The print copy also says April 13-19, but all the stories are dated April 12 online. The photo above is from The Onion’s book collection of front pages and is what print readers saw. Here is the website in 2010 and in 2020.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
I have been waiting weeks to talk about “South Postpones Rising Again For Yet Another Year,” but I’ll also focus on two themes:
The Onion taking hot-button political issues and turning them sideways for parody.
The continuing trend of “stories that were jokes in 2000 but feel real in 2020.”
First, let’s debate the Civil War. Kidding!
What The Onion does well with “South Postpones Rising Again For Yet Another Year” goes beyond the headline.
It’s not just a column yelling at the South — The Onion creates its own universe where one of its reporters investigates reports that a rising was being planned. And while it’s not happening in 2000, everyone interviewed here says, “Yup, it’s in the works!”
The Onion is careful here to target just the Deep South (or at least its definition), notably excluding states such as Virginia, Texas and Florida. And we are reminded that Sen. Jesse Helms was still around 20 years ago (with his “22nd annual ‘Next Year, By God!’ speech” that doesn’t sound that fake), even though his state of North Carolina is not included in the “Deep South” list.
Again, this article doesn’t work if it’s just a guy railing against the South. We could read the internet for that, even in 2000. It’s that idea of “We reported on the South’s plans to rise again. Here’s what we learned” that I like. As the Onion’s reporter noted:
Though Southerners are overwhelmingly in favor of rising again, few were able to provide specific details of the rising-again process.
I’ll subtract a point or two for the too-Southern names (Hap Slidell could also be a 1910s baseball player).
The Onion takes on the big issues
Of the 12 issues I’ve reviewed so far, this one is the most aggressively going for the joke at every moment. Much of it works, but there are mishaps. Very quickly, here are my takes on a few of the hot-button takes:
“Nation Shocked By Pre-Natal Shooting”: Yes, this works because it’s so vividly described and the premise is so ridiculous. The story almost certainly comes out of ongoing debates over guns, including feuding between President Bill Clinton and the NRA. But readers today can enjoy the story without that knowledge.
The ultrasound of the murder is a delightful touch, as is the crime scene photo — neither of which is a phrase I ever expected to type.
Thankfully, the remaining fetus is safe and will go on trial after he is delivered: “After a tense four-hour standoff, the unborn gunman threw out his weapon when police threatened to induce labor.”
“Did Six Million Really Visit The Holocaust Museum?” This is an uncomfortable but committed parody of Holocaust deniers. It also feels like it could be a real story in 2020, unfortunately. We’ll come back to this.
“NAACP Demands Less Minority Representation On UPN”: I think this is daring mostly because the Madison, Wis., staff of The Onion must have been the least likely bunch to be diverse or watch UPN.
2000’s jokes become 2020’s reality
My other big theme with this issue is one I’ve discussed before — the idea of 2000 parody being somewhat real life in 2020. We’ve seen that with The Onion’s treatment of reality TV, as well as slice-of-life stories like “Area Man Consults Internet Whenever Possible.”
Sometimes the 2000 versus 2020 comparison is just convenient timing, as with the survey feature “Wall Street's Wild Ride,” which discusses the stock market’s up-and-down ride in recent days.
I was asked Friday night on Zoom to explain what an activist investor was, which was not a question I expected at 12:30 a.m. If you’re that sort of stock-market follower, you’ll love this quote:
"As an economist, I'll try my best to put the current Wall Street situation in layman's terms: Why, look who's here–it's silly old Mr. Bear! Grr! Roar! Run, Mr. Bull, run!"
Melvin Nickerson • Economist
Sometimes it’s not a coincidence. In 2020, we have unfathomable amounts of information today and little trust in any of it, regardless of the source. So of course something like “Did Six Million Really Visit The Holocaust Museum?” feels like a real story.
It’s got everything we see in online rumor-mongering today — taking every little detail to the Nth degree, dubious math, assuming bad intent and conspiracy at every turn, and believing technological hiccups to be dire machinations.
“Why is flash photography EXPRESSLY PROHIBITED in the Hall Of Remembrance? WHAT ARE THEY TRYING TO HIDE?”
My main concern with this article is that the Onion staffer who wrote it maybe did too good a job — it really nails the tone. See, there I go, creating a conspiracy theory!
But seriously, as I’ve said up top, this column is less fun to read than ““South Postpones Rising Again For Yet Another Year” because it’s less parody and more unhinged rambling.
So many stories I can’t get to
On a happier note, short and silly stories like “Message Under Juice Cap Totally Applies To Area Woman,” "Coworkers Unable To Put Finger On What's Weird About Gary” and “Spelling Error Leads To Elaborate Cover-Up Doodle” are timeless — we all have been these people or known them. And we can laugh at these foibles without, say, wondering if real people actually think the Holocaust Museum is faking attendance numbers.
Please also take a gander at “Insurance Executive Fakes Own Life,” which is delightful parody of essentially taking a real story, Mad Libs-ing it a bit and taking it to strange places.
Finally, I am reviewing The Onion from 20 years ago, in part, because I want to be reminded of fun and silly humor. So, I must mention three brilliant headlines that can be seen on the cover photo at the top of this email:
The photo “Soda Nearing Room Temperature”
“Bargain Hunter Becomes The Bargain-Hunted”
“Moment Of Your Time Apparently Means 33 Minutes”
Were the infographics good?
Let’s start with “Biotech Foods,” as I’m sure much of The Onion’s readership in 2000 didn’t know much about genetically modified foods. And that shows here, but not in a bad way.
What do I mean? Well, society is still arguing about GMOs today, but it’s mostly about science where you need a lab and a microscope to understand it. The Onion in 2000, well, it mostly made fun jokes about sentient plants, fruits and vegetables that might murder us:
Enjoy the nightmares from visualizing “Breakfast made more fun by eggs that scurry around chittering, ‘Oh, me! Oh, gracious!’ while you whomp at them with frying pan.”
We also have “Personal-Safety Tips,” which is very 2000 in the worries about rampant crime and the way people used to (properly) hyphenate — sorry, I’m a pro-hyphenation copy editor at heart. Anyways, this is a pretty good list of fake tips, and there are 17(!) of them, which answers my criticism of The Onion not making these infographics long enough. My favorites?
“Carry mace with you at all times. This medieval spiked ball is ideal for fending off would-be attackers.”
“If mugged, take the opportunity to do a little comedic ‘mugging’ of your own. Gesticulate wildly and say, ‘Oh, no!’”
The other infographic is “How About The Rack on That Blonde,” which I believe is a failure of The Onion’s traditional writing process. The writers come in with many headline ideas, and from the best of that group it was decided what would be turned into stories and other features. I don’t know whether the 2000 writing staff operated this way, but let’s assume they did.
Here, we have a headline that’s fine to toss out in a pitch meeting! But it wasn’t developed properly. For a better alternative, check out this 2007 Onion story: “Construction Worker Still Hasn't Given Up On True Love.”
What real-life events/people were mentioned?
Kweisi Mfume. Alan Greenspan. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Jenny Jones. Jesse Helms. Bill Clinton. Chuck Negron.
The following sections touch on the first four names, with then-NAACP president Mfume quoted in an article, Jenny Jones’ show mentioned, and Greenspan and Maharishi spending time together.
Meanwhile, Chuck Negron, a Three Dog Night vocalist, is randomly mentioned in one of this week’s horoscopes.
Most “Hey, it’s 2000!” reference
Stiff competition this week! There’s lots of dated material in “NAACP Demands Less Minority Representation On UPN” and “Maybe This Appearance On Jenny Jones Is Just What My Marriage Needs.”
But I’m going to award this week’s prize to “Mountaintop Retreat With Maharishi Leaves Greenspan Obsessed With Rupee,” a very confusing article that reminds us that Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan was a media rock star back in the day and also that this is just the real-life Beatles story, but with Greenspan instead.
What columnists ran?
We’ve talked about the Holocaust guy, already. We also had “Maybe This Appearance On Jenny Jones Is Just What My Marriage Needs,” which suffers from Jenny Jones being not that talked about anymore.
It’s tough to parody a show format that essentially encourage a near-riot. Time has also taken its toll. Below is some of the lurid details of the Onion column, but is any of it shocking to us today given what we see in advice columns, on Twitter and Instagram, reality TV or even a season’s worth of “Riverdale”?
For the past three months, Cal's been cheating on me with Rhonda, this 18-year-old stripper who used to babysit for us. And just yesterday, after beating me with a tire iron, he told me Rhonda's pregnant and wants us to raise the child.
As you can probably guess, I'm furious at Cal. But I'm not perfect, either: I did, after all, have sex with his father.
We also have my favorite, T. Herman Zweibel, in a somewhat forgettable entry, “My Son! My Son!” He is mourning the death of his beloved (which we discussed last week) and believes his son to be a baby, but he is instead some sort of Frankenstein man:
Before I could respond, a seven-foot-tall man in a black suit lumbered in. He was very broad in the shoulders and stiff in gait. His skin was bluish and looked as though it was stretched to the breaking-point over his squarish head. His gait was very stiff, and I could have sworn I heard a metallic squeaking noise every time his joints bent.
There, now you can skip it.
What was the best horoscope?
Lots of dark themes in this week’s horoscopes, so let’s go with this combination of philosophy and snacks:
Gemini | May 21 to June 20
You will discover a new, non-Nietzschean snack chip that neither kills you nor makes you stronger.
Was Bill Clinton mentioned? Was an animal quoted?
President Clinton makes public statements in response to the fetus-on-fetus shooting, saying in part:
"Last year, I called upon Congress to require trigger locks on handguns and place metal detectors at the entrance of every womb," Clinton said at a White House press conference.
What holds up best?
As usual, I favor the stories about weird or funny little things people do, like “Message Under Juice Cap Totally Applies To Area Woman” or “Spelling Error Leads To Elaborate Cover-Up Doodle.” And a number of stories feel relevant today, even if not every joke holds up.
What holds up worst?
Definitely that infographic “How About The Rack on That Blonde”!
The Alan Greenspan story suffers from the number of decades-old cultural references we need to understand to get a mildly funny joke.
What would be done differently today?
Microsoft lost an antitrust suit 20 years ago last week, and that was a huge story. Hard to imagine that not getting coverage today.
Even the topical humor here is tackled in a broad, almost slap-stick way. Today’s Onion, I think, would be blunter, which has its merits but might not be as timelessly funny. One example of a modern Onion tone can be found buried in the "Personal-Safety Tips” article:
According to the NRA, the best form of personal protection is to be in possession of a loaded firearm at all times. To ensure your personal safety, stay the hell away from NRA members.
Is it especially funny? That really depends on your political views rather than whether the joke construction or premise was funny.
The Onion today can still parody the news effectively, often by changing one small detail. From this week in 2020, just look at:
But today’s Onion also defaults to a lot of obvious stuff. Instead of “Nation Shocked By Pre-Natal Shooting” to comment on gun control, we get “Walgreens Introduces New Dumbass-Only Shopping Hours For Dipshits Who Don’t Know How To Stay 6 Feet Away” as a comment on COVID-19.
There are also so many more stories produced now — it’s hard to do as well when you need to produce more jokes and all of them have to be timely.
What was happening in the real world?
The Onion published April 12, but printing a newspaper requires an earlier deadline. Therefore, here are news items from April 3-9, 2000, as listed by InfoPlease and the front pages of The New York Times front pages (subscription required):
Microsoft loses antitrust suit. Japanese prime minister suffers stroke, is replaced. Census returns coming in slow (The Onion was a week ahead!). National Academy of Sciences cautiously backs GMOs. Elian Gonzalez’s father visits US as feds prepare to return Elian home. NYT: US now a suburban nation. NYT: Who are “rampage killers”? Michigan State wins men’s basketball title (women’s title not mentioned). Europeans sour on the US. CIA fires officer deemed responsible for accidental bombing of Chinese embassy in Belgrade. No prosecution recommended for Clinton’s Labor secretary. 19 Marines die in plane crash. WHO: Blood supplies unsafe in many countries. UK tightens rules for asylum-seekers. Web fuels rise in identity theft. Robots emerge as surgery helpers. “Lagging in Education, the South Experiments.” Congress debates Medicare expansion for drug coverage. Conflict minerals fuel wars in Africa. NYPD struggles to attract recruits. N.Y. schools consider deal to take computers in exchange for advertising.