Internet friends were being weird 20 years ago
This week, Scrabble causes relationship tensions, Ted Danson gets a sponsorship deal, and Area Man is absolutely not a murderer.
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 Sept. 20, 2000.
This week, we look at a fairly normal issue of The Onion, which means it’s still pretty funny.
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What issue is this?
The 2000 print edition re-ran the 1998 classic “'85 Chicago Bears Return To Studio
Shufflin' Crew Begins Work On Long-Awaited Follow-Up Album.”
The 2000 print headline “Man In Headlock Just Wanted To Party” is not online.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
I’ve written, many times now, how The Onion in 2000 loved writing straightforward stories about politics or lobbying, but changing one major detail to make it satirical or absurd. This week, the disease lobby is happy in “Rare Disease Nabs Big-Time Celebrity Spokesman,” who turns out to be Ted Danson.
First of all, Flehner-Lathrop Syndrome is not a real illness, as far as I can tell. So good on The Onion for inventing a “a genetic cardiac disorder which causes the heart's left ventricle to deteriorate and typically results in death within three to five years.”
The joy that FLS Foundation officials feel upon learning Ted Danson has the condition is delightful. I mean, we all know situations where people benefit from something bad happening to someone else. Here, the Flehner-Lathrop lobby is almost like a professional sports team — happy about signing the big star so they can beat the competition. As FLS Foundation director Paula Brooks says:
“With Ted in our corner, FLS can hold its own against just about anybody, from Tay-Sachs to cystic fibrosis."
Later, Brooks painstakingly describes how financially helpful Danson’s long, slow death will be, ending with:
“All told, that translates to somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 million in free advertising and promotion."
The story ends with CBS Television sending a $250,000 donation, as CBS then aired the mediocre-but-successful Danson show “Becker.”
Internet weirdo, AOL edition
Almost any story about life on the Internet 20 years ago feels incredibly dated. Humor about the old internet fares worse when it’s mocking the idea of being online.
But The Onion had some great Internet-based stories in 2000 simply by taking normal human fears and behaviors and shifting them from offline to online. We saw that with “Internet Opens Up Whole New World Of Illness For Local Hypochondriac” in May 2000, and we get that again with “Internet Friend Gradually Getting Creepier.”
This story holds up for a few reasons:
It nails the discomfort of online communications between strangers, especially when one person gets too personal or too unpredictable.
I’m 99% sure this story ages better by being about two guys, rather than a guy pursuing a woman.
The AOL-centric universe of chat rooms, instant messages and AOL e-mail accounts!
The Onion pokes fun at the media
The Onion of 2000 satirized the media, but it was less about the media and more like how The Onion would criticize any other powerful entity or person.
This doesn’t mean The Onion wasn’t critical or cynical. A 1998 example is “Murder Suspect To Be Tried By Media: Overworked Justice System Grateful For Help.”
But this week, we get three milder media-related stories. Most generic is the headline-and-photo “Wall Street Journal Lays Off 150 Stipple-Portrait Artists,” which mostly requires knowing that the WSJ has a specific process for the little headshots they use, called “hedcuts.”
Then there’s “William Safire Orders Two Whoppers Junior,” which today requires knowing two things: that the now-deceased Safire wrote a language column for the New York Times and that the proper plural of compound words like “attorney general” is “attorneys general” and not “attorney generals.”
(I was delighted to see that Safire story this week, but I also have been a copy editor and editor for 15 years.)
Finally, we have “Media Suffering Through Record Normal Temperatures,” which is not about climate change but is an indictment of local news, especially TV, which loves nothing more but to talk about “all this crazy weather we’re having!”
The Onion’s “Area Man” coverage always delights me because of how people are improbably speaking to Onion reporters about incredibly mundane topics. Here are a few such stories this week:
“Area Boyfriend Keeps Bringing Up Scrabble Victory”: Look, when you lose 382-183 and are playing “CAT” instead of “CATWALK,” you can’t complain.
“New Hyundai Owner Sort Of Brags About it To Co-Workers”: The restaurant chain Chi-Chi's is mentioned here for the first time since 1998’s “Office Pariah Not Invited To Chi-Chi's Happy-Hour Get-Together.”
“Performance Artist Shocks U.S. Out Of Apathetic Stupor”: This is really well-written but also feels dated in this era of nonstop reality-star life. I will give credit to The Onion for yet another industrial company being quoted:
"Ivan Hubiak cut to the necrotic core of our culture and cut out its malignant heart with one devastating act of defiance," said Sparks, NV, janitorial-supply wholesaler Carl H. Wendt.
Were the infographics good?
Both infographics are about anger issues. The first one we’ll discuss hasn’t aged well.
Look, Bobby Knight is the intended butt of the jokes, which is a good start. And there are a couple clever references — the Keith Smart joke is a play on Knight’s chair-throwing incident, and the “32 percent tolerance policy” references the “zero percent tolerance policy” he was fired under.
All that said, that rape joke. Yes, Knight did make a very public analogy about being raped. Yet … to turn that into a joke in which he is committing the act?
I almost typed that I don’t understand the thought process from The Onion editors, but I think I do. Either they didn’t think anything of it, or they deliberately did it to poke at people. The Onion’s “everyone is a potential target” approach is usually a good thing, but every philosophy has flaws, and this is one example.
More promising is “Why Do We Hate Andrew J. Wollensky's Fucking Guts?” for which one obvious answer is “Always uses his middle initial.” I also haven’t thought about Yoo-Hoo in at least 20 years, so that was an unexpected surprise.
What columnists ran?
First, my favorite, Onion editor emeritus T. Herman Zweibel, offers a rare glimpse of joy and brotherhood with “Baby's First Zweibelmas,” although he offers this olive branch with his usual charm:
Rare it is that I call upon my ignorant reader-ship to rejoice and be merry, but I am afraid that just such an occasion is almost upon us. Zweibelmas is here!
Zweibelmas, celebrated Sept. 21, comes after “one god-damned pig-fucker of a year” for Zweibel, filled with many deaths and a brief time living as a cockroach.
There’s also gift-giving for his Frankenstein’s monster-like son N. Aeschylus, the tale of the “Fairy Zweibel-Child,” for which Zweibel’s son is prepared:
Already he has assembled the most darling traps, Zeppelin-catchers, and net-works to welcome the holy apparition! ‘
Our next column is by an area man upset about his neighbors. I’m really interested to know what folks think of “My Moroccan Neighbors Won't Stop Their Damn Ululating.” To me, it’s obviously offensive on purpose, but there’s sort of a template that’s the joke.
By that, I mean, this article is written as a Mad Libs of complaints about people that’s based not on their actions but on their race, origin, culture, etc. — but also the author knows an unusual amount about said culture, country, etc.
You could swap out the words here and create an endless series of articles! I’m hopeful that's the underlying joke. Also, what did this Onion writer do with all this newfound Moroccan knowledge?
Finally, let me give praise, with no reservations, to “I'm Pretty Sure I'm Not The Fishing-Tackle Serial Killer,” which is the best type of Onion column: Someone (or something) discussing a topic that would never actually appear in a newspaper, and doing it in strict newspaper format and structure.
It’s a violent tale, so just be warned.
Gus Lockhart is alarmingly detailed about the recent killings near his shack while arguing that the killings were by a mysterious man who simply looks and acts like him. And as for knowing how murder happens, well, doesn’t everyone?
And, sure, I knew there'd be a couple of big trash bags of taxidermist's sawdust laying around the body when it was found. But, heck, that don't mean nothin'. Anyone up here would've known the same thing. Just known it natural.
Oh, also, Lockhart might have killed his abusive grandfather earlier in life.
What real-life events/people were mentioned?
William Safire. Bobby Knight. Keith Smart. Leslie Visser. Myles Brand. George W. Bush. Al Gore. Lem Chaheb. “The Girl Who Lived With The Gazelles.” Dallas Cowboys. John Wayne. Ted Danson. Edward Schafer. John Jacob Astor.
Smart hit the winning shot for Indiana University in the 1987 NCAA men’s basketball championship game. Visser is a longtime sports broadcaster. Brand was Indiana University president and later NCAA president. All are mentioned in the Knight infographic.
Bush and Gore are mentioned in the “Washington vs. Hollywood” feature.
Lem Chaheb was a Moroccan band, and “The Girl Who Lived With The Gazelles” is a well-known Moroccan story. They, the Cowboys and Wayne are in “My Moroccan Neighbors Won't Stop Their Damn Ululating.”
Schafer was governor of North Dakota and is mentioned in “Report: North Dakota Leads Nation In Parking Availability.”
Astor, who died on the Titanic, is mentioned in “Baby's First Zweibelmas.”
Most “Hey, it’s 2000!” reference
The premise of “New Hyundai Owner Sort Of Brags About it To Co-Workers” feels a 1990s joke. Hyundai, for sure, was considered lesser than a Honda or Toyota for a long time, but I don’t think it’s talked about that way now.
ABC's Wide World Of Sports never thought it'd be able to replace that "agony of defeat" skier, but it didn't bet on you and the dalmatians.
Was Bill Clinton mentioned? Was an animal quoted?
No, again :(
What was the best horoscope?
August and September 2000 saw a lot of Onion horoscopes that imagined the signs as living creatures, and this week’s Gemini is no different:
Gemini | May 21 to June 20
This zodiac sign is currently suing you for $4.5 million over your parody hit "Gemini, Gemi-you (There Is Nothing We Can Do)."
What holds up best?
The little things in life can have big impact, and The Onion operates that way, too. “Area Boyfriend Keeps Bringing Up Scrabble Victory” and “Slow-Motion Woman Emerges Glistening From Pool” are just two examples of simple premises this week that still can resonate today.
What holds up worst?
Parts of the Bobby Knight infographic, and the random slurs in “Washington vs. Hollywood,” which are couched as someone retelling the words, but it’s a real surprise as you’re scrolling through an otherwise innocuous article.
What would be done differently today?
More politics, more coronavirus, less Hyundai Excel. On the other hand, Bobby Knight-type scandals are exactly the sort of institutional bad behavior being highlighted these days.
What was happening in the real world?
Here are real-world news events from Sept. 11-17, 2000, keeping in mind The Onion’s production schedule was a few days ahead of its publishing date. The news is pulled from InfoPlease and the front pages of The New York Times (subscription required):
Summer Olympics begin. Chase agrees to buy J.P. Morgan. Iraq bars UN experts to examine living conditions. “On Unmean Street, Thumbs Will Work as Crime Busters.” Bush-Gore debates finally move forward. Gore meets with Indian prime minister. Scientist released after serving 9 months in nuclear secrets case. Report: Ford knew about engine problems. Peru’s president says he won’t run in new election. US tries to revive Mideast peace talks. Wealthy nations say they’ll offer debt relief for poorer ones. Gore, FTC unhappy about violent entertainment being marketed to minors. Selma, Ala., elects Black mayor. Marat Safin defeats Pete Sampras to win the U.S. Open. DOJ: Death penalty disproportionately applied to minorities, in certain states. High gas prices strike U.S., Europe.