Harry Potter's Satan alliance, math jokes and more from The Onion of July 26, 2000
Also: A too-honest T.G.I. Friday's server, URLs you can register, and a complaint about newspaper advertising
Welcome back to The Onion: 20 Years Later, where we review the print issue from exactly 20 years ago, trying to find out what’s still funny and examining the cultural impact. Today, we revisit July 26, 2000.
Happy to see some new faces this week. We’re here to have fun, and if you’ve got opinions or questions, please reply to this email, comment on the web version or @ me.
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What issue is this?
This was Vol. 36, Issue 25, the 24th published Onion issue of the 2000s and the 23rd issue of new content.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
I’ve never read “Harry Potter” or seen the movies. About 17 or 18 years ago, I did hear 4-5 hours of a Potter book as my aunt was driving me back to college.
I often confuse Elijah Wood and Daniel Radcliffe, as I’ve never been able to get through Tolkien and or the first “Lord of the Rings” movie.
But I am a news junkie! And, decades before J.K. Rowling was in the news for some statements you can Google, The Onion’s investigative reporting team was revealing her Potter-related crimes. “Harry Potter Books Spark Rise In Satanism Among Children” uncovers the shocking truth of how 14 million children had dedicated themselves to Satan.
The Satanist community is grateful for the help, says High Priest Egan from — you guessed it — Salem, Mass.
"An organization like ours thrives on new blood—no pun intended—and we've had more applicants than we can handle lately. And, of course, practically all of them are virgins, which is gravy."
And Rowling, did she distance herself? Why, the very opposite! She claims credit, invoking rather specific sexual imagery of the Satanic triumph that is imminent.
The Onion from 20 years ago, like the ancient Greeks, sought to simultaneously explore spiritual life and logic. This week, The Onion featured 2 math-focused items, or roughly two more than it previously ran in 2000.
First is one of my all-time favorite headlines, “Standard Deviation Not Enough For Perverted Statistician,” which is accompanied by an otherwise-innocuous (and low-resolution) photo:
The other is “Mathematician Has Popular Equation Stuck In Head All Day.” As Charles J. Chang of MIT laments:
"The weird thing is, I'm not even all that into Pythagoras–I mainly read Boolean and Quadratic–but it's just so catchy."
Both of these are kind of obvious jokes, but The Onion said them first!
The bland ubiquity of T.G.I. Friday’s
Image by J. Stephen Conn/Flickr
Something The Onion did this week and last week is distill ordinary moments through large national chains — a sort of “we all recognize this situation” outreach.
While Target was much smaller 20 years ago, it was a nationally known “not Walmart” retailer trying to be the store for all of America. T.G.I. Friday’s was (is?) the restaurant equivalent — the American place for everyone to dine.
That idea of “Americanness” doesn’t mean Target or T.G.I. Friday’s represent every American or are beloved institutions, but there’s a shared cultural familiarity among readers that helps The Onion get to the jokes faster.
(In 2020, the equivalents are fewer — a few might include McDonald’s, Amazon, the iPhone, Taylor Swift and Beyoncé?)
This week’s “Welcome To T.G.I. Fridays! May I Annoy The Living Shit Out Of You?” taps into that commonality with a column by server Jenni Aberg. There’s a brilliance in how Aberg shits all over the restaurant in the most cheerful language possible:
“Are you aware of our specials that nobody ever, ever orders? I'll mention them even though you've decided what you want.”
Being a server is a difficult job, and too many of us demand a combination of subservience and mind-reading. As “Office Space” demonstrated a year before this article, chain restaurants mistakenly decided the remedy was “be dementedly enthusiastic,” which The Onion captures here:
“Doesn't my uniform make you happy? Aren't you happy? Aren't you so happy you could take a bullet through the head?”
This is brilliant parody, even if we can’t respond by seeking out over-energetic service at a mediocre sit-down restaurant.
An Onion advertising rep must have inspired this article
One of the most detailed workplace stories from The Onion of 2000 is “Ad-Agency Print Buyer Can't Believe They Want To Add A Perf This Late In The Game,” which feels like it came from an Onion advertising staffer complaining about a problem client to an Onion writer.
I’ve lived on the editorial side for 15 years, but I know a yeoman’s amount about print advertising. Many times at my small newspaper I would fix a corrupt PDF advertising file so we could create the plate that goes on the printing press. All those memories, as well as using Quark Xpress software, came roaring back when I read this article.
But this is bigger than a print advertising article. If you’ve ever been on a project where some know-it-all has demanded a last-second change that ruined everyone’s day, this article is for you.
Peace talks, SUVs, Sears and exploitative parents
This week’s issue has other cultural touchstones in it. There are easy jokes (that still amused me) like “Auto Industry Agrees To Install Brakes In SUVs” and “Dad Finally Found In Front Of TVs At Sears.”
Up a level is “Parents Of 80-Pound Toddler Lapping Up Publicity,” which might have been meant as a warning for our societal obsession with attention. Or it might have just been an easier way to get fat jokes into publication. I’m not sure.
The article leans heavily on naming daytime TV shows that have interviewed 3-year-old Christina and her parents. They’ve also been contacted by the equally distinguished Weekly World News and Newsweek. The main opponents of this exploitation are the two older — and jealous — siblings.
The quote that ends the article is tremendously American:
"My baby got me on the TV," Angela added. "What your baby do?"
Finally, we have a take on the Israel-Palestinian conflict with “War Talks Begin At Camp Goliath,” which does sound real. Like, Camp David for peace talks, Camp Goliath for bombing patterns? Or maybe just rename the Situation Room? Imagine what Aaron Sorkin could have done on “The West Wing” (preparing for Season 2 in July 2000) with President Bartlett discussing chapter and verse while the generals try to explain Iraq or Qumar to him?
Were the infographics good?
They are very 2000, that’s for sure.
These are very silly. You can also tell how much of a small-time business The Onion was in 2000 because I doubt they registered these names for legal reasons (unlike NBC when Conan O’Brien mentioned HornyManatee.com on the air).
You can still register fullyclothed.net, by the way.
The Queen Mother was once a duchess whose husband was outside the line of succession. She unexpectedly became queen consort (and empress of India) after Edward VII’s abdication and served as queen mother from 1952 onward. In 2000, three years after Princess Diana’s death, she might have been the only living royal that British people actually liked.
These jokes are OK, not great, although I wish “a liter of Bombay Sapphire and a carton of Kools” were true.
What columnists ran?
I’ve talked about my soft spot for the extremely problematic Herbert Kornfeld, who The Onion killed off in 2007 because he was so dated.
His 2nd essay of the 2000s is in the style of the “let me tell you the real story” personal essay genre — part Thought Catalog, part Players Tribune, part tweetstorm, if those references make any sense.
“What Y'all Heard About Tha CPA Convention Be LIES” immediately supposes that you’re familiar with the events of the Monroe County CPA Convention and have formed an erroneous opinion about it, which Kornfeld wishes to disabuse you of.
He lists four key myths about the CPA convention narrative. For example, he notes that metal detectors were installed because of a history of “letta openers an' staple guns an' all that hardcore shit we bangas pack” but insists that he and his crew weren’t carrying.
I did learn an important note about weaponry:
“(See, ballpoints ain't hardly got no metal in them, an' you can sharpen one 'til it be as deadly as any letta opener.)”
The H-Dog, as Kornfeld self-stylizes like Kobe did with Black Mamba, also has a problem with the police, claiming they were secretly allies with his rivals. Kornfeld also denies committing assault and is defiant to the very end:
“So come get me, cops. None of tha bullshit you try to pin on me will stick. Never has, never will. An' to tha rest of y'all out there, don't believe tha hype. H-Dog OUT. Peace.”
I can’t believe I typed any of this. RIP, H-Dog.
Speaking of relics, we have T. Herman Zweibel with his 22nd column of 2000, “You Are Now For Sale.”
Who is for sale? “The Onion's Middle-Western distribution district, along with all of its facilities, residents, and chattels,” which also includes the residents of the Midwest states.
This is, well, unusual territory for The Onion, even if we previously established that Zweibel once owned New Hampshire.
It’s neat revisionist history to imagine that Zweibel’s grandfather, 10 years before the real-life Louisiana Purchase, procured much of the same land. But it’s ridiculous to imagine that Zweibel has no idea that Chicago and Minnesota are major cities. And the commentary on owning millions of people while barely knowing it isn’t really all that interesting.
This is a weak effort that doesn’t age well, even if you know this column by design is meant to be anachronistic.
What real-life events/people were mentioned?
George W. Bush. George and Barbara Bush. Hanna Rosin. J.K. Rowling. E.H. Spanier. Pythagoras. Freddie Mercury. The Goodies. Johnny Rotten. Peter O’Toole. David Frost. Jerry Springer. Jenny Jones. Ricki Lake. Maury Povich. Montel Williams. Dean Koontz. Ehud Barak. Yasir Arafat. Gerald Ford. Lou Gehrig.
The Onion covered the Bush-Gore presidential race for the first time in many weeks with “Bush Reluctantly Accepts Donation From Parents,” which is a scathing look at “Bootstrap” Bush and includes such comments as Bush “working a second job at a local convenience store for an entire summer to save up the $137 million he needed to buy the Texas Rangers.” His parents are mentioned, but not by name.
Rosin, known for her later work at Slate and The Atlantic, is the latest real-life political reporter to be skewered by The Onion staff, which in 2000 really seemed to hate horse-race journalism.
Spanier, a famous mathematician, and the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras are both mentioned in “Mathematician Has Popular Equation Stuck In Head All Day.”
Mercury, the British comedy trio The Goodies, Rotten, O’Toole and Frost are all in the infographic “The Queen Mum's 100th.”
All the talk-show hosts have their shows mentioned in “Parents Of 80-Pound Toddler Lapping Up Publicity.”
The author Dean Koontz is mentioned in passing in “America's Air-Traffic Jam,” where The Onion asks people on the street about the FAA’s antiquated air traffic control systems. That problem seems like foreshadowing of 9/11 in hindsight.
Barak, Arafat and Ford are all in “War Talks Begin At Camp Goliath.”
Gehrig is mentioned in the Cancer horoscope.
Most “Hey, it’s 2000!” reference
“Parents Of 80-Pound Toddler Lapping Up Publicity” is a concise look at what the underbelly of media was back then — the exploitative TV shows, tabloids, and the more legitimate publications like Newsweek using the same sources but doing so in a scholarly tone. The only thing missing is a Barbara Walters appearance.
Why is this “Hey, it’s 2000!”? Well, so much of this discourse lives on the internet now. And of all the shows and publications, only Newsweek exists today, and even that magazine has changed so much (and changed ownership so often).
Was Bill Clinton mentioned? Was an animal quoted?
Bill Clinton is mentioned obliquely in the Gemini horoscope:
Gemini | May 21 to June 20
Your satisfaction over a job well done will be marred somewhat when you leave the White House owing your defense lawyers more than $3 million.
What was the best horoscope?
I’ve already mentioned a couple of them, but I also liked this one.
Virgo | Aug. 23 to Sept. 22
You're becoming impatient waiting for the television industry to get off its butt and fix this country.
What holds up best?
That T.G.I. Friday’s column is why I do this newsletter: I’d never heard of it before a few weeks ago, and it’s such a classic that I can’t imagine not remembering it going forward.
An honorable mention to “Terminally Ill Friend Not Much Fun Anymore,” which is tragic, but unfortunately describes how some people are around illness and death.
What holds up worst?
The Herbert Kornfeld and T. Herman Zweibel columns have many problems. But this week, a shared complaint is that the casual reader will be extremely confused. I’m also not sure the columns are that funny even if you put in the effort.
What would be done differently today?
The Bush story feels closer to latter-day Onion political coverage than what we’ve been reading. The Harry Potter coverage is only relevant to 2020 by coincidence but offers a roadmap if The Onion wanted to talk about Rowling now.
I know The Onion has a much different look and feel today, with less room for “local” stories, but I do hope that a lot of this issue’s news items — and the T.G.I Friday’s column — could be written today.
What was happening in the real world?
Last week, I mentioned “Harry Potter” mania but neglected real-life news about Israeli-Palestinian talks. Here’s a list of real-world events from July 17-23, 2000, as pulled from InfoPlease and the front pages of The New York Times (subscription required):
House, Senate look at tax cuts. Bush’s post-Yale life profiled by NYT. Gene testing raises privacy questions. NYT profiles “child-free” activists. Reno, other officials cleared in Waco incident. Israel-Palestinian peace talks continue into 2nd week. Why do people buy minivans or SUVs? Fewer legal complaints against NYPD for the 1st time in 5 years. White House looks at rules on Internet surveillance, nursing-home staffing. Books to be sold in sections, using the Internet. Cheney rumored as Bush running mate. Pat Buchanan emerges as head of Reform Party. “Unknown Musicians Find Payoff Online.” Bribery alleged in Salt Lake City’s Olympic bid. North Korea offers to end missile program, wants concessions. Germany to compensate WWII-era victims of forced labor. US commits AIDS aid to Africa.