Area man was losing all hope 20 years ago in The Onion
A poorly attended virus museum. Kathie Lee leaves Regis. The Concorde crashes. Grandma's car radio needs fixing. So much going on in August 2000.
Welcome back to The Onion: 20 Years Later, where we review the print issue from exactly 20 years ago, find out what’s still funny and examine the cultural impact. Today, we revisit Aug. 2, 2000.
This week, we recap a lot of famous people and things — and also a relatively anonymous Federal Reserve board member who’s actually more powerful today.
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What issue is this?
This was Vol. 36, Issue 26, the 25th published Onion issue of the 2000s and the 24th issue of new content.
“Everyone Glad Someone Else Making Small Talk With Disabled Woman” did publish on Aug. 2, 2000, but is not listed on today’s Vol. 36, Issue 26, page.
“'Keep-Cool' Tips” can be found at the Internet Archive but hasn’t been on the web otherwise since before 2010. Also on the 2000 website but lost to history is the amazing front-page headline “Questions Linger About Long-Fingernailed Man.”
What was the top story, and other impressions?
I’ve talked about how The Onion of 20 years ago, like most pop culture, relied on fat jokes more than we see today. “Hershey's Ordered To Pay Obese Americans $135 Billion” feels like a different direction. But is it?
This article is funny, cutting and precise as straight-ahead parody of, say, the 1998 tobacco settlement or the July 2000 tobacco trial where a Florida jury awarded $144.8 billion in damages. We hit all the beats of a tobacco lawsuit — it talks about all the other court cases, describes the alleged campaign of deception by “Big Chocolate,” and highlights victims such as the man speaking to the media while holding a picture of his dead wife.
I’d argue our society is much more aware today, 20 years later, of the foods, drinks and other substances we consume, even if we probably disagree more about what is healthy and what is not. But we can agree that scrutiny is way up. So we might read this article today as The Onion progressively choosing the next target after tobacco.
I’m not so sure. To me, it’s probably 80% simple parody, like “Federal Judge Rules Parker Brothers Holds Monopoly Monopoly” was just a humorous take on the Microsoft antitrust trial. But 20% of it feels like The Onion saying, “Tobacco is obviously a corporate crime. Let’s pick something that’s not, that’s just people with no self-control. How about chocolate?”
(Evidence that The Onion loves fat jokes is widespread: This issue has one in the first horoscope! In the “‘Keep-Cool' Tips” article I’ll discuss later, the last tip is “Lose some weight, you goddamn walrus.”)
This is all speculation, however. Maybe the real lesson is not to read too much into these stories without rock-solid evidence!
Jokes about lost hope
I think it’s safe to say people in summer 2000 were more optimistic than people right now. So The Onion could run stories like “Man Who Thought He'd Lost All Hope Loses Last Additional Bit Of Hope He Didn't Even Know He Still Had” and it didn’t read like a Twitter thread with someone worried about the political party they aren’t part of.
But good God, this is a depressing story, as the photo above hints at. Bob Dempsey is already socially isolated and in a dead-end job, but then he gets a letter from a German address. He remembers that he has an old friend who moved to Germany. He’s excited, and feels hope. However:
“Upon returning to his squalid one-room flat that evening, however, Dempsey discovered that the letter was actually a notice from German authorities informing him that the friend had died in a fire and asking assistance in locating his relatives. The only reason Dempsey was sent the letter, sources said, was that his name was the only legible words from a charred college yearbook unearthed in the ash and rubble of the tragic blaze.”
There are people suffering more than poor Dempsey, sure. But it’s still a harrowing read.
Famous people and things of 2000
Britney Spears is still famous and nearly as relevant in 2020, but thankfully her public image today no longer yields too-close-to-the-truth stories like “Area Father Takes One More Look At Liner Notes Of Daughter's Britney Spears Album.”
Dads, what’s the equivalent today? Who you follow on Instagram and TikTok? I’ll take answers off the air.
RIP, Regis Philbin, the man who literally did more TV than anyone. His death came just before the 20th anniversary of co-host Kathie Lee Gifford leaving. Her tenure is highlighted in this infographic. This … is not great. A lot of jokes about Gifford being (literally) unhinged and portrayed as if she were a Casey Anthony-type mom rather than an overenthusiastic TV presenter.
I do appreciate that they called out her fashion line’s sweatshop production, but for the most part this is a very 2000-era list of cheap insults.
Supersonic flight was a cool way in which science fiction became reality. Unfortunately, just as we forgot how to go to the Moon, we lost supersonic passenger flight 20 years ago because of “The Concorde Crash” that killed mostly Germans. The Onion asks people what they thought.
I’m a sucker for anything making fun of the French World War II effort, so I like this from systems analyst Bill Ready:
"Man, that's more Germans than the French killed in WWII."
Meanwhile, we have another in the Bill Clinton lame-duck president series with “Clinton To Get Teeth Cleaning, Glasses Before Coverage Runs Out,” with even the president having to wait till Dec. 17 to see the optometrist listed on his Physicians Plus presidential health plan.
Finally, we have this inexplicable photo and headline “Federal Reserve Vice-Chairman Roger Ferguson: Hot Or Not?” Ferguson today is one of only four Black CEOs in the Fortune 500, as he leads the insurer TIAA. Does prestige and wealth make him hotter?
“Copycat Killing 'Misses Subtleties Of Original,' Say Police” would play even better in 2020 with true-crime fandom. Also, a rare Onion story from this era that takes place in New York City.
“Texas Sheriff Cracks Down On Chicken-On-Chicken Violence” is dangerously close to being a stupid Texas parody and an inconsiderate way to talk about human crime. Maybe it does fail on both counts. This is a good example of a funny headline pitch that wasn’t thought through.
Were the infographics good?
We’ve already showed the Gifford and Hershey’s infographics. That Hershey’s infographic really does feel like something USA Today would have created, so good work, Onion designers!
The other infographic is about top-selling romance novels. About 20 years ago, my Eagle Scout project was collecting books to establish a children’s library at a community center, and for some reason I also received hundreds of romance novels. Half of those had covers with shirtless men riding horses, I believe.
I consulted a source who follows the romance-novel industry, who gave mixed reviews. Apparently, the book-title trends for this genre have changed so much that these jokes don’t resonate today, although maybe they were funnier in 2000.
Two notes from me:
ShopKo is a classic Wisconsin reference! That chain closed last year — I actually followed ShopKo’s bankruptcy process for a work assignment (it’s not that exciting).
There’s also “'Keep-Cool' Tips,” which jams a million one-liners into a guide for handling summer heat. I do appreciate the plug for a Stephen King book and the silliness of jokes like “Remember: Heat rises. Fall into a deep well.”
This is my favorite:
“Heat is a manifestation of infrared radiation, the low-frequency part of the electromagnetic spectrum that is emitted by aliens. To prevent exposure to these Venusian mind-control waves, wrap head in tinfoil.”
What columnists ran?
“In My Day, Ballplayers Were For Shit” is a classic Onion column that works on multiple levels: It is borne out of baseball’s steroid era but remains relevant today (see every NBA debate about modern-versus-older players), and there’s a shred of truth amid all the hyperbole. After all, athletes of the past were smaller, weaker and less fit — “Buncha slow, fat, selfish, mean whiteys,” as Herman Jacobs writes.
Baseball is also a perfect sport for this type of parody because the old-timers had ridiculous names. Here are some (fake) players named by Jacobs:
Ducky "Lead Legs" Cronin
Harry "Three-Toed" Vaughan
Walter "Shitty Batter" Dugan
Fred "Big Pussy" Delahanty
Speaking of “selfish, mean whiteys,” T. Herman Zweibel’s latest column is “Old Folks At Home,” in which he laments the death of his pet Galapagos tortoise. To compensate, he orders the kidnapping of four centenarians from a nursing home. Two die before delivery, and a third shortly thereafter.
Here is his conversation with the lone survivor:
“He told me that he was the son of Alabama slaves and had spent much of his life as an impoverished share-cropper who none-the-less managed to put his three sons through college, and that he thanked God every day for his great fortune. I told him that I was a 132-year-old news-paper publisher who had inherited the business from my father, and that I had known obscene luxury all my life. There was an awkward silence.”
What real-life events/people were mentioned?
Bill Clinton. Stephen King. Roger Ferguson. Britney Spears. Mandy Moore. Christina Aguilera. Joan Rivers. Joy Philbin. Frank Gifford. Regis Philbin. Adolf Hitler. Ernest Hemingway. Wallace Stevens. Rip Torn.
Moore and Aguilera are mentioned in the Spears article, while Rivers, the Philbins and Frank Gifford are referenced in the Kathie Lee infographic.
Torn, Stevens, Hemingway and Hitler are all mentioned in the horoscopes. Here’s the Hitler one:
Taurus | April 20 to May 20
An assassin from the future will attempt to prevent the birth of the next Hitler by materializing in your bedroom at a particularly awkward moment.
Most “Hey, it’s 2000!” reference
But I’m going to award this to the story “Grandma At Mechanic To Get Radio Stations Set.” It’s more of a “Hey, it’s the 20th century!” story, but still.
The car in this story is a 1985 Buick LeSabre. My 91-year-old grandmother still drives a 1988 Honda Civic. I believe she knows how to use the radio.
Was Bill Clinton mentioned? Was an animal quoted?
Yes to Clinton, in a very generic story. No to animals.
What was the best horoscope?
The Onion as Nostradamus here:
Aries | March 21 to April 19
You know, the stars are beginning to suspect that it is no longer possible for a competent person to be elected president of this nation.
What holds up best?
I’m going to talk about a story I haven’t mentioned yet: “Small Town's 'Cryptosporidium Daze' Fails To Attract Visitors.” This story is coincidentally relevant in that it talks about a disease outbreak — “the Great Cryptosporidium Outbreak of 1988” in Blakely, Ga. — and the attempt to build tourism around an event commemorating it.
It’s a fun, light-hearted read despite the subject matter. It also taps into the language of county fairs and local small-town tourism strategies, as well as society’s ability to be easily confused by marketing. For example:
"I thought cryptosporidium was some type of flower," said Rhonda Weber, who drove to Blakely from Albany for the event. "Turns out, I was thinking of chrysanthemum."
What holds up worst?
I’d probably say “Texas Sheriff Cracks Down On Chicken-On-Chicken Violence.” The lazy depiction of Texas as some chicken-rustling backwater has aged poorly. Also, I think The Onion is trying to higlight the illogic of prejudice by substituting chickens for, say, “Black-on-Black crime,” but … I don’t know whether the joke succeeds.
What would be done differently today?
The fat jokes and the styling of the Kathie Lee jokes, in particular. I want to re-emphasize that my objections are not about being a killjoy or a censor.
First off, The Onion inevitably changes over time. Sometimes that’s The Onion’s brilliance moving society. On the other hand, this week’s “Everyone Glad Someone Else Making Small Talk With Disabled Woman” might get retitled in 2020 because of a movement toward “[noun] with disabilities” phrasing. That’s the culture moving The Onion around.
But mostly, I argue that most of the outdated jokes simply aren’t as funny or lasting! For example, randomly using “bitch” in “‘Keep Cool' Tips” isn’t as funny as sneaking an elaborate tinfoil hat joke into a checklist about beating the summer heat. With fat jokes, think of it this way: Anyone who worked with Chris Farley talks about how funny he was, not that he was a fat guy who was funny because of his appearance.
And when parody does work, it can survive a lull in popularity. “Man Who Thought He'd Lost All Hope Loses Last Additional Bit Of Hope He Didn't Even Know He Still Had” might not be as appealing now if you’re feeling low on hope in real life, but the article still retains its force for a future audience.
What was happening in the real world?
Bush names Dick Cheney as running mate. Napster appeals ruling that would shut it down. Lengthy Israeli-Palestinian peace talks ended without success, Clinton suggests embassy could move to Jerusalem. “Armed Intruder Exposes Limits Of Air Security.” US economy grew by 5.2% in second quarter. US judge sets payments by Swiss banks to Holocaust victims. 113 dead in Concorde crash. More US companies are relocating. Deutsche Telekom to pay $50.7 billion for VoiceStream Wireless (Editor’s note: This is now T-Mobile). Tiger Woods completes career Grand Slam at 24. Central Park closes for a day to spray for West Nile virus. Report: Initial stories of tragedies often inaccurate. Ford announces fuel-efficiency plans for SUVs. NYC wants to privatize management of poor-performing schools. UN gets large companies to sign “global compact.” Post Office blames computer system for delivery problems.