Is this The Onion's best issue ever?
20 years ago, The Onion introduced us to dolphins with opposable thumbs, a man asking for Grey Poupon, Gatorade's philanthropy, and questionable wedding DJ song choices
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. 30, 2000.
Welcome, new subscribers! You’re in for a treat, as this might be the best top-to-bottom Onion issue I’ve ever seen.
Yes, the post-9/11 issue is more iconic and heart-wrenching, but this is funny in so many ways: fantastical silliness, real-life parody, funny headlines and clever story writing.
Of course, you might disagree, which is OK! I’ll try to persuade you below.
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What issue is this?
This was Vol. 36, Issue 30, the 29th published Onion issue of the 2000s and the 28th issue of new content. Sadly, I have no record of the print edition or of the 2000 website.
Here’s what the website looked like in 2010 and today. Today’s website does not list “Wedding-Reception DJ's Choice Of 'Strokin'' Proves Controversial,” while the front-page headline “Reform Party Splits Into Ref, Orm Parties” is both stupid and not online.
Why would this be the best issue ever?
It’s fair to ask, “Why might this be the best, and how do you define “the best”? Here’s my thought process:
Is there at least one story that’s on most lists of “best Onion stories”?
Do most/all stories make people laugh even if the premise is outdated or some references don’t make sense to younger people?
Are the stories mostly insults and cheap jokes, or are there clever references and parodies? Basically, how lazy is the writing?
Is there a good mix of real-life satire and The Onion’s “Area Man” pretend universe?
The headlines must be funny, but are the articles also clever? How about the photos and graphics?
Is there little or no material that is embarrassing 20 years later?
What is the classic story?
Look, if you don’t like “Dolphins Evolve Opposable Thumbs,” I’m not sure why you’re here. Was this a satirical take on climate change, or was evolution in the news 20 years ago? I don’t know. But regardless, what a beautiful idea to have dolphins sprouting thumbs overnight and sending scientists into apocalyptic laments.
Dolphins are well-known for their intelligence, and there’s a genius here in assuming that smart and dexterous dolphins will be as bloodthirsty and greedy as humans.
The Onion doesn’t stop there, however. We also learn about evidence of the dolphins’ new abilities — apparently they are mad scientists who only needed thumbs to really get going:
"Last Friday, a crude seaweed-and-shell abacus washed up on the beach near Hilo, Hawaii. The next day, a far more sophisticated abacus, fashioned from some unknown material and capable of calculating equations involving numbers of up to 16 digits, washed up on the same beach. The day after that, the beach was littered with thousands of what turned out to be coral-silicate and kelp-based biomicrocircuitry."
It sure sounds bad, especially as nearly all humanity’s dolphin experts took their own lives in response to this discovery. And it might not just be dolphins:
“We haven't exactly been eager to check for thumbs on other marine mammals belonging to the order of cetaceans, such as the killer whale.”
Remember Grey Poupon?
Dolphins with opposable thumbs can be funny in any year or century. But this issue also does well with topics that are out of date in 2020.
For example, “Man Who Actually Needs Grey Poupon Unable To Bring Self To Ask” relies on the reader knowing the Grey Poupon commercials, which were big in the 1980s and 1990s. But even today, we might know that Grey Poupon is the snobbish condiment. And we can relate to the awkwardness of asking for fancy mustard at a sandwich shop.
Similarly, Dennis Miller and Robert Downey Jr.’s lives are much different in 2020 than in 2000. Thankfully, “Troubled Robert Downey Jr. Placed Under 24-Hour Media Surveillance” is just a funny memory now and not a foreshadowing of an early death.
Like, this sentence could have aged terribly:
Only time will tell whether Downey's recovery is permanent or merely a brief pause before his next plunge into an orgy of headline-grabbing decadence and self-destruction.
Given Miller’s unsuccessful broadcasting career (and, later, Tony Kornheiser’s rough year on MNF), these jokes seem pretty prescient. Also, while football might be bigger than ever, MNF is probably less important today — Al Michaels has switched from Mondays to Sundays, for example.
If nothing else, it’s a good reminder of how even 20 years ago, The Onion saw through reality TV as a spectacle trying to capture our loudest, worst selves. Apparently, They Might Be Giants had little to offer here:
The They Might Be Giants episode largely focused on keyboardist/accordionist John Linnell's harrowing early-'90s addiction to Tetris.
Your basic satire
Satire doesn’t have to be elaborate. And this issue of The Onion delivers standard comedy with something like “Gatorade Pledges $240 Million In Thirst Aid To Underquenched Nations,” which is basically a real-life story of the United Nations offering humanitarian aid, except it’s Gatorade delivering electrolytes.
I mean, this quote doesn’t sound that farfetched, does it?
"The world's malnourished, undereducated, underdeveloped nations face a crisis similar to the one faced by Georgia Tech during its legendary 1967 Orange Bowl game against the Florida Gators. … Tech wasn't drinking Gatorade, and the Gators, of course, took control of the game in the second half. Why? Because they were replenishing their fluids and minerals with a special formula that has gone on to help the underquenched to this very day."
An even simpler form of satire is taking a trope from another genre — in this case, detective stories — and making it into a news story. “Private Eye's Office Ransacked For Fourth Time This Month” doesn’t do anything special, but it nails the depiction of a hardboiled detective solving so many controversial cases that he can’t keep track of the intimidation and threats.
The 3rd simple way The Onion effectively does satire is by ripping off a real-life concept — USA Today’s then-famous infographics — and making it dark, depressing and a little weird. “Who’s Picking Out Our Clothes For Us” nails the USA Today look while undercutting the premise.
I think the saddest entry is “Nobody, now that Amy’s gone.” And oddly, this is at least the 3rd time in 2000 that The Onion mentioned Jenny Jones.
Finally, satire can sometimes be as simple as a headline that gets your head nodding, “Yeah, I know that feeling.” These two will do that, at least for some people:
Good old local news
Most of the above stories are examples of The Onion covering real-life events with its trademark satirical twist (or, with Downey and MNF, maybe just telling the truth).
But The Onion’s greatness, as I argued several years ago, is really in how it’s ultimately a satire of small-town newspapers — the “Area Man” stories we’re all familiar with. And like any newspaper, there are many types of stories: local news, columnists, barely disguised gossip, horoscopes and more.
The issue from 20 years ago has all of these, all fairly well executed.
Sometimes, The Onion uses a real-life name or brand to create a small-town story. The Grey Poupon article is like this. Another example is “Area Man's Hairstyle History Eerily Mirrors Kevin Bacon's.” I love this type of story because it’s not hearsay. No, The Onion sent a fictional reporter to do a fictional investigation and get the fictional man’s fictional friends to talk about his Kevin Bacon haircuts.
“Radio Shack Salesman 'A Little Out Of It Today’” is not the strongest short article, but again, it’s that classic Onion idea of “how did a reporter even hear this private conversation?” that somehow becomes a news story.
One thing you’ll note in these examples is that The Onion is mining humor from everyday situations. They might not be your life or mine, but we can recognize them. And that’s where “Wedding-Reception DJ's Choice Of 'Strokin'' Proves Controversial” does so well. It not only relates a common situation — the wedding DJ’s reception setlist — but also depicts many of the family busybodies who inhabit most wedding receptions.
A lot of the older adults are upset about the song choice. By contrast, one bridesmaid and the best man put on a show for everyone. We don’t hear from the bride or groom, which kind of makes sense. After all, the reception’s not really about them — it’s about the guests being judgmental and/or causing drama.
And lest we forget about the DJ, he explains his thought process, and delightfully blames the wedding guests for not being able to “handle” a song like “Strokin’”:
"I honestly never expected it to cause any trouble," Doblewicz said of the moderately salacious 1986 song, in which Carter boasts of stroking it to the east, stroking it to the west, and, ultimately, stroking it to the woman that he loves the best.
(Fun cultural aside: A 1986 song being cited in 2000 is like us talking about, say, Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” Nelly Furtado’s "Promiscuous" or Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” in 2020.)
Local columnists get weird
We’ve also got eccentric local columnists, with burnout Jim Anchower’s “My Tattoo Will Rock Your World.” His column’s not just about a tattoo; we get a vivid description of the flooding that damaged his possessions, and longtime fans of Anchower will note that he has again changed jobs. His garbage-truck co-worker has a cool tattoo, which inspires Anchower to consider his own. And like any good columnist, he seeks reader ideas, especially if they have a picture of a cool-looking scorpion.
Now, you might not care for this particular column, but there’s a richness of description and character development that’s hard to find in most satirical humor.
And sometimes you just need to get fucking weird. The Onion from Aug. 30, 2000, has two forms of weird. First, we have the Stockholm Syndrome parody of “I Have A Huge Crush On My Captor.” I mean, this is very dark and maybe upsetting, but The Onion commits to the bit:
“Last week, or maybe five weeks ago, General Capricorn promised he'd get me some clean newspaper for the bottom of my cage. If he does, I'll be almost 100 percent positive that he likes me.”
Second, we have “vermin verse,” which new readers will understandably be confused by. See, The Onion’s retired publisher, T. Herman Zweibel, is 132 years old and also was recently transformed into a cockroach. He’s enjoyed this metamorphosis, but it’s not without troubles, as we discussed last week.
This week, he shares the latest disappointment that he is not even the first cockroach with a newspaper column. As I’ve said before, these Zweibel columns are bizarre, but I appreciate that they exist.
So what’s the argument against this issue?
When I’ve talked about Onion issues from 2000 that I haven’t liked, it’s usually been because of lazy jokes, or stories that were cruel or questionable then and have only aged poorly. Occasionally, it’s because the story topics are too difficult to understand in 2020 and not funny enough to overcome the disconnect.
This week, the jokes that probably hold up worst are in the "What Do You Think” feature “India Closing In On China.” The premise is dead on — India does rival China in terms of population and increasingly as an economic and regional power. But the jokes are mostly playing on Americans’ surface-level understanding of Indian stereotypes. Of them, the best is this:
"Excuse me, but the proper term is 'Native Americans.'"
Tina Tisch • Graduate Student
Why else might you not love this issue? Well, if the dolphins story doesn’t make you crack up, that would be a good reason. Maybe you have a favorite Onion feature that’s not included here (a columnist, or some kind of topic).
Regardless, I think this issue stands out because The Onion in 2000 was both extremely funny and also struggling with how to incorporate real-world news (and the Internet) into its coverage. Sometimes, too, The Onion would craft a great headline but fail to be funny in the article.
In today’s hyperpartisan world, too, it’s shocking to see how little The Onion covered the 2000 presidential campaign. While this issue doesn’t do politics, it dedicates itself 100% to the small-town newspaper concept, and executes it well.
What do you think? What’s your favorite Onion story or headline? Reply to the email, or leave a comment.
We’ll be back to regular programming, bringing back features like identifying the real-life people mentioned, my favorite horoscope (here’s this week’s horoscopes) and more.
Thanks, as always, for reading. We can learn a lot from 20 years ago, and we can also laugh a lot, thanks to The Onion.