It's 20 years since "Fun Toy Banned Because Of Three Stupid Dead Kids"
Sales meetings, breakups, haikus, and a lot of what The Onion calls "raunch"
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. 16, 2000.
I’ve glanced at this issue the past couple of weeks to prepare, but I somehow missed seeing “Fun Toy Banned Because Of Three Stupid Dead Kids” until a few days ago. This story has been called by some the No. 1 Onion story ever, and so I’m thrilled to revisit it today.
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What issue is this?
This was Vol. 36, Issue 28, the 27th published Onion issue of the 2000s and the 26th issue of new content.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
First of all, “Fun Toy Banned Because Of Three Stupid Dead Kids” does not feature real dead children. Always important to note!
What this story does is maintain some conventions and play with other conventions. For instance, it’s reported like a news story — detailing the deaths, the recall and quoting regulators, the CEO, affected children and doctors.
(What inspired this story? Probably the August 2000 tires recall by Bridgestone/Firestone after nearly 50 people died)
The twist is that the dead children are blamed for causing their demise and for ruining the fun. There are no quotes from grieving family members, but we do hear from 10-year-old Jeremy Daigle, who is upset that “three stupid idiots had to go and wreck everything."
We hear from first responders who treated the deceased children, but these caretakers have no sympathy. Instead, they are angry at the children for being so dumb. Even the Consumer Product Safety Commission only expresses regret at having to ban the toy, not that the deaths occurred:
“But our agency's job is to protect the public from hazardous products, even if those who die are morons who deserved what they got."
This article reminds me of a similar Onion structure from the year before, in the book “Our Dumb Century” book, where a newspaper page from 1989 headlines the Exxon Valdez oil spill with “Bush Decries Exxon Valdez Spillage of ‘Precious, Precious Oil.’”
That sort of twist is simple but effective, because you get to enjoy a seemingly standard news article, just with this perverse change. And the article subtly reminds us that people often choose blame over empathy.
Let’s have fun at work!
I shared “Morning Meeting Refocuses, Re-Energizes Sales Team” with a sales co-worker and included this quote:
"Boy, that sure was a great meeting," customer associate Roger Gerber said. "It was really worth putting off my morning calls to be reminded what the job I've done for the last six years entails."
The response I got back was, jokingly, “I can’t tell if I’m Roger Gerber, or if I’m the one who is leading the meeting. And frankly, I’m afraid to find out.”
As someone who edits a newsletter on leadership, I appreciate the clueless leader who think they’re being awesome but is actually torturing employees. This article has that in spades, with a vice president who thinks motivation is needed but a sales staff that just wants to make some calls.
“Morning Meeting Refocuses, Re-Energizes Sales Team” also continues The Onion’s excellent coverage of niche industries — it might not get every detail right of how an appliance distributor operates, but the effort makes the article (and the people) feel more real.
The Onion 20 years ago today had several stories focusing on small troubles facing local people.
“Area Woman Didn't Say That; You Said That”: I think everyone can read this article in a way that flatters them. I think Megan McNally comes off fine here — after all, she never says she doesn’t like the friend, just that “she hardly sees him, since the two of you spend the entire time at the bars.”
“$500 Stereo Installed In $400 Car”: Just consider that even in 2000, this car was considered old.
“Half-Fabricated Résumé Still Unimpressive”: Imagine lying about your qualifications, but being bad at that, too.
“No One Seems To Care That Area Man's Bike Was Stolen”: I wonder whether this story would play differently today, as bicycle commuting has become more popular. That said, no one cares about your stolen bike as much as you do.
“Man Burning In Hell Wishes He Hadn't Snickered At Religious Leaflet": The most notable thing is the dateline of “Lake of Fire, Hell,” which makes you wonder how the Onion reporter got there.
“Life-Raft Companion Looks Just Like Juicy Steak”: Like the man burning in Hell, not a common “area man” problem, but cannibalism is certainly a concern on a life raft. There’s also some Looney Tunes imagery in this short article.
The Onion’s raunch issue
Sometimes, The Onion does satire that is 100% about mocking something. This week, it was apparently the fear in 2000 America that the culture was too coarse and raunchy.
How does The Onion do this? By being incredibly raunchy. Like, even I was surprised.
A masterpiece of the genre (and the “Confused husband" genre) is “My Hot, Horny Housewife Has Been Spending An Awful Lot Of Time On The Phone Lately,” but I’m afraid to quote any of it. Proceed with caution (or glee)!
There’s also this infographic, which continues The Onion’s “can you top this?” game of raunch with an Anne Frank joke. Somehow, that is the least explicit joke.
Also, remember when Tom Green was considered as relevant as Howard Stern and Eminem?
Were the infographics good?
That “raunch” infographic is … something.
There was also “How Are We Saying, "I Don't Love You Anymore"?” which has some raunch but also made me laugh with jokes like “Yankee Stadium jumbotron” and “Dropping dinner plate from two inches above table while serving.” The German phrase, by the way, is simply “I do not love you anymore.”
What columnists ran?
Last week, we learned that 132-year-old Onion publisher emeritus T. Herman Zweibel believed himself to be a giant insect.
In “Goin' Buggy!” we learn that Zweibel is a cockroach, and quite happy with it, given the alternatives of a “meal-worm” or “luna moth.”
There are some adjustments, though:
“I still spend most of my time under-neath the sofa, but for the last couple nights I've been going down to the kitchen and lingering around the sink-pipes.”
This week’s “Ask A Restaurant Critic” is only the 3rd “Ask A …” column of 2000, and starts with a letter-writer saying how her brother didn’t attend her husband’s funeral. The columnist replies by talking about a visit to Café Allegro, where “spartan furnishings are coupled with a motley collection of seaside paintings for an altogether underwhelming atmosphere.” And it goes from there.
I love these columns, but I understand if your reaction is, “What’s the point?”
What real-life events/people were mentioned?
Al Gore. Joe Lieberman. Bill Clinton. Phil Gramm. Nigel Beard. Christopher Dodd. Lewis Moonie. David Heathcoat-Amory. Colin Breed. Rick Santorum. Jim Bunning. Johnny Cash. Tom Green. Eminem. Howard Stern. Clarence Page. Eleanor Clift. Anne Frank. Mary Sheila Gail. Walter Matthau.
U.S. senators Gramm, Dodd, Santorum and Bunning, along with British politicians Beard, Moonie, Heathcoat-Amory and Breed, are all part of “British Parliament Accused Of Plagiarizing U.S. Senate Bill S.576.” Credit to The Onion for researching actual British politicians, although there was a missed opportunity in not mentioning then-Sen. Joe Biden’s actual plagiarism.
Cash is mentioned in the headline/photo “Heat Wave Forces Johnny Cash To Don Black Shorts,” which fails because the photo isn’t of him in shorts.
Gore and Lieberman are in “Albert's Choice.”
Green, Eminem, Stern, Page, Clift and Frank are all in the infographic “Pop Culture Raunch.”
Gail was a real-life commissioner at the Consumer Safety Product Commission, noted for her general opposition to recalls.
Matthau, who died 6 weeks earlier, is mentioned in the Sagittarius horoscope:
Sagittarius | Nov. 22 to Dec. 21
mr. matthau and
ragtag gang of lost children
could never beat us
Finally, special credit to The Onion for naming Dallas’ real NBC affiliate KXAS in “Half-Fabricated Résumé Still Unimpressive.”
Most “Hey, it’s 2000!” reference
Tom Green is the only possible choice this week.
Was Bill Clinton mentioned? Was an animal quoted?
The president is featured in “U.S. To Host Foster Country,” which is an anachronistic story about the U.S. using Montana to rehome Ecuador, which was evicted by Denmark.
What was the best horoscope?
This week was a special one, as The Onion wrote every horoscope in haiku format (or at least the well-known 5-7-5 format). My favorite of the “Haikuscopes” is Capricorn:
Capricorn | Dec. 22 to Jan. 19
five syllables, then
seven, then five syllables
blah blah fucking blah
What holds up best?
It’s not necessarily “best,” but the entirety of “Albert's Choice” is people shocked and concerned about a Jewish person being nominated for vice president. And obviously, we’re still very concerned about our politicians’ race, gender, religion, etc.
I grew up in Connecticut, so Lieberman and Chris Dodd (also mentioned in this issue) were just my local senators. But apparently being Jewish was a big deal, as even the New York Times noted on Aug. 7, 2000:
So what holds up best in terms of humor? “Morning Meeting Refocuses, Re-Energizes Sales Team” is a perpetual winner, as we all have too many meetings that are too long or unnecessary.
What holds up worst?
Unfortunately, “Heat Wave Forces Johnny Cash To Don Black Shorts,” because how difficult would it have been to (badly) Photoshop him in shorts?
What would be done differently today?
I suspect that the anti-regulatory tone of “Fun Toy Banned Because Of Three Stupid Dead Kids” wouldn’t run today in this political climate.
Probably would be more election coverage, and coronavirus would be part of that.
The Onion of 2020 has done a nice job making “Coronavirus” into a fake character a la Onion Joe Biden. This week’s example is “‘Damn You’ Shouts Contact Tracer Losing Track Of Coronavirus After It Catches Hold Of Helicopter’s Ladder.”
What was happening in the real world?
West Nile virus takes hold. Bridgestone/Firestone agrees to recall tires. Verizon workers strike. Court splits up Anderson Consulting (now Accenture) and Arthur Anderson (the Enron/WorldCom accounting firm). Al Gore selects Joe Lieberman as his VP nominee. Reform Party splits. NYT: Reform split, Nader candidacy help Bush. Court opens path for generic Prozac. General Motors proposes online car selling. Western U.S. beset by forest fires. Olympic swimmers adopt bodysuits. Horse-racing hall of fame inducts first woman. NYT investigates the psychology of sports fandom. Japan defiant on whaling. 118 dead as Russian sub Kursk sinks. Chilean court removes immunity for ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet. Iran leaders crack down on free-press efforts. Actor Alec Guinness dies.