Mario and Lara Croft were worried 20 years ago in The Onion
Plus, Gore and Bush, Napster, Alec Baldwin and a look at the unheralded world of stoner architecture.
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. 9, 2000.
A big thanks to everyone who reads this. I love stepping back from the real world to write this every week. Today, we have a couple of classic stories, plus The Onion taking a big step into the political commentary that would define the brand. We’ll also discuss one of the most off-the-mark stories I’ve ever read by The Onion. So, let’s dig in!
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What issue is this?
This was Vol. 36, Issue 27, the 26th published Onion issue of the 2000s and the 25th issue of new content.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
The Onion of 20 years ago loved — absolutely loved — taking news stories about special-interest groups and making them absurd. Marches, lobbying days, press conferences all were reported almost as if the New York Times or the Associated Press, except for the protagonist being ridiculous.
“Video-Game Characters Denounce Randomly Placed Swinging Blades” is one of the best entries. It names many video-game legends without pretending that all of them are equally famous. So, we get name-checks for Mario, Lara Croft and Sonic, but we also get “both soldiers from Contra” and “the blue-jacketed guy from Double Dragon.”
It also nails the storytelling narratives present in this style of journalism: the humaizing victim testimonies, why their problem is overlooked yet urgent, and the specific policy actions that need to be taken. You’ll want to read the whole story, but I’ll share this anecdote:
“We’re not so different from you,” the blue-jacketed guy from Double Dragon said. “We just want to be left alone to do our jobs — saving princesses, finding lost treasures, destroying out-of-control nuclear-equipped robots. But it’s nearly impossible to go about your daily life when you’re living in constant fear of some giant, evil mushroom suddenly lunging at you from out of nowhere.”
The characters plan a boycott of video-game makers, and they also want OSHA to step in. Their safety demands include “mandatory warning lights and buzzers at least eight seconds before the appearance of a blade, spike, or other health hazard.”
The bonus is a poignant quote from Mario about the unfair dangers he faces, followed by a new paragraph solely consisting of this:
Added Mario: “It’s-a me, Mario!”
Oh yeah, there’s an election!
The Onion awoke in August 2000 and realized that a presidential election was 3 months away, and to compensate ran 3 stories about the election.
“Visiting Gore Calls Pennsylvania 'A Hellhole’” is not exactly The Onion predicting Barack Obama’s 2008 faux pax about “bitter” voters, but it’s fascinating nonetheless. The actual parody, I think, is robot Al Gore actually showing an emotion and malfunctioning while doing so. It’s so vicious, however, that it’s closer to Bill Burr’s famous (extremely NSFW) roasting of an unruly Philadelphia crowd.
“Bush Takes The Lead” is The Onion talking to people about George W. Bush’s post-convention poll bump, and it’s a solid set of one-liners. The Onion is famous for talking to systems analysts, and this week’s entry sums up the swing voter:
"I usually vote Democrat. On the other hand, that was a lot of confetti they dropped on Bush."
Rob Weatherspoon • Systems Analyst
Meanwhile, I’m struggling with “Republicans' 'Diversity Through Imported Africans' Plan Criticized,” which is mostly a dig at Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina. My problem is less the story topic or the jokes but the mindset of the writer.
My hypothesis is that The Onion in 2000 had at least one staffer who was super-bigoted and hid this by writing edgy stories purporting to attack people for racism and other things. When I read that story or last week’s “Texas Sheriff Cracks Down On Chicken-On-Chicken Violence,” I find myself asking, “Who are you really satirizing here?” The same goes, especially, for Onion stories earlier in 2000 where white characters are randomly saying racial slurs.
I’m open to other interpretations of these stories, but to me these pieces seem like an Onion staffer saying, “Oh, this is a chance for me to say racist stuff and call it comedy!”
The tone of those is different than, say, March 2000’s “Diversity Celebrated With Compulsory Luncheon,” which pokes fun at the real ways people (and businesses) awkwardly and superficially try to address race.
“Hey, it’s 2000!” (but this is not a good thing)
All this leads up to the most egregious story I’ve read in a long while.
Now, America in 2000 wasn’t particularly generous to gay people. Matthew Shepard had been killed less than 2 years earlier, the federal Defense of Marriage Act was less than four years old, and Vermont’s establishment of civil unions in 2000 was concurrent with several states in 1999 and 2000 banning gay marriage.
But still, would you expect The Onion to run a story with a gay slur in the headline (albeit, one used extremely frequently by Eminem and others in the same time period)? And then have the story run close to 600 words as one long joke about the hilarity of gay people ordering food?
Again, I think The Onion thinks it’s mocking homophobes, but it comes across like a staffer saying, “Finally, I get to rip on gays under the guise of satire!” The only restraint is the bland image of the Hardee’s in question rather than illustrating the people in the car.
As I’ve said several times now, I’m not condemning great art here. These stories are not really all that funny. It’s not like, let’s say, Woody Allen and Roman Polanski movies, where a film historian can’t write credibly about late 20th-century film without being aware of them.
You don’t need these stories to get The Onion, or satire, parody or cultural criticism.
OK, here are some stories I liked
“Stoner Architect Drafts All-Foyer Mansion” is delightful for me, and I assume that stoners and architects will also like it? Can anyone tell me if this blueprint is structurally sound?
I also love this quote (and the fake trade magazine Stoner Architectural Digest):
"Sadly, the field of stoner architecture is usually dismissed by conventional architects, who insist on clinging to such tired, ossified notions as functionality, coherence, and basic structural integrity," Gordon said.
Some other fun stories:
“Alec Baldwin Secretes Own Hair Gel” is a great random photo and headline, especially considering his career was near its low point.
“Congress Debates Coolness Of Rush” is a great niche take on a legendary cult band. The Onion was years ahead of “I Love You, Man” and even Rolling Stone, which didn’t put Rush on the cover till 15 years later.
I spent nearly 4 years in Oneonta, N.Y., working for the local paper, so it’s a delight to see it as the dateline and tragic to see it misspelled as “NEONTA” in “Area Maggot Has Urgent News About Reincarnation.”
The front-page headline “‘Leave Your Daughter At Work Day' A Huge Success” is stupid but made me chuckle.
“Needle-Exchange Program Attracting 'Druggies’” is a simple but effective parody of “thing being criticized for doing the thing it said it would.” Also, needle-exchange programs were a bigger deal 20 years ago, I think.
Were the infographics good?
What’s most interesting about “What Are We Naming Our New Mall?” is that malls were still opening 20 years ago.
“Combating Music Piracy” is such a 2000 topic, as the courts were turning against Napster. I kind of like “Sending e-mails to known MP3 pirates filled with disapproving emoticons,” as that feels like something people are still doing, only with emoji instead of emoticons.
Also, what a bizarre little illustration in this infographic.
What columnists ran?
I have long advocated for Onion publisher emeritus T. Herman Zweibel, although his columns have gotten weirder and weirder. This week, “Zweibel's Metamorphosis" involves maintenance on his iron lung and a healthy dose of laudanum. Next thing he knows, he believes he has become a giant insect.
Has he? We’ll have to wait until next week.
Jean Teasdale’s 4th column of the 2000s continues her journey through a bad marriage and into the arms of Jesus (via her brother’s church) with “Sign Of The Crossed.” But that doesn’t last:
“I'm having a hard time knowing how to put this, but, well, let's just say I'm sorry about all the born-again Christian stuff I said in my last column. I thought I was born again, but I guess I'm not.”
As I’ve mentioned before, it’s hard for me to get into these columns because they’re so depressing. Her terrible husband, Rick, manipulates Jean into visiting her mother, who harangues her for going to her brother’s church and for not being Catholic enough, even though she’s divorced and Rick never goes to Mass.
Meanwhile, Reverend Andy and the congregation are extremely in Jean’s space, and it leads Jean to be done with organized religion all together.
Finally, we have guest columnist Royce Mullins with “After Five Years, I Think I Can Be Trusted With The Turtles Again.” Mullins is a zoo employee trying to regain trust from some kind of turtle incident.
He really loves the Reptile House and misses it. The genius of this column is that we don’t get a full picture of what happened, just some hints. Such as:
“You may also recall how I offered to personally apologize to every man, woman, and child who witnessed the incident in question. Both you and the police department strictly forbade it, but I would like it noted that I made the offer nonetheless. I believe that shows just how remorseful I was for what occurred, as did my offer to clean up the entire mess myself, on my own time and at my own expense.”
What real-life events/people were mentioned?
Al Gore. George W. Bush. Jesse Helms. Dick Cheney. Alec Baldwin. Rush. Dick Armey. Peter DeFazio. Neil Peart. Geddy Lee. Roxette. Right Said Fred. Limp Bizkit.
Cheney is mentioned in the “Bush Takes The Lead” feature.
Armey returns after a June appearance, this time as the anti-Rush congressman in “Congress Debates Coolness Of Rush,” while DeFazio is pro-Rush (and still in Congress today). Peart and Lee are the Rush members who get mentioned. Meanwhile, the other musical acts are in the music piracy infographic.
Most “Hey, it’s 2000!” reference
The infographics are extremely of their time. Malls were a booming industry 20 years ago. As the BBC noted this year, more than 100 malls a year used to open in the 1990s, but by 2007 there were zero openings.
Was Bill Clinton mentioned? Was an animal quoted?
Nope. I guess I’ll need to retire this Bill Clinton feature once we get past his presidency.
What was the best horoscope?
Some fun ones this week, but I really enjoyed Aries:
Aries | March 21 to April 19
In your explanation to the EMTs, you get no further than the part where you were "just trying to get the badger back into the mason jar."
What holds up best?
Video games have changed tremendously since 2000, but even with the realism and technological advances, gamers still debate the in-game dynamics. Beyond that, “Video-Game Characters Denounce Randomly Placed Swinging Blades” is just very well-written and entertaining in a classic Onion style.
I also think “Young Couple Hasn't Yet Realized They Don't Have To Do Grocery Shopping, Laundry Together” works pretty well, especially considering marriage is less common these days and so there are many more couples navigating these issues.
What holds up worst?
I ran through all that up top, so I won’t bring down the mood by rehashing it.
What would be done differently today?
I think the political stories would dominate today, so there’d be fewer of the columns and local news stories.
There are some similarities in 2020, though. Today’s Onion still hates D.C. political media as much as it did in 2000, as seen with “D.C. Journalists In Awe Of Australian Reporter Able To Speak To Trump Without Succumbing To His Raw Animal Magnetism.”
And the top story on The Onion’s website on Aug. 8, 2020, is the lovely “‘Run! Dear God, Run!’ Screams Woman Who Forgot About Sourdough Starter As Doughy Tendril Wraps Around Throat,” which feels 100% in line with the stories we discuss here every week. So, that’s heartwarming for me.
What was happening in the real world?
Cheney officially named Bush’s running mate as convention held. US offers proposal for climate measurement. Clinton vetoes bill on marriage tax. Army looks at bigger combat role for National Guard. How hospitals handle sexual assaults affects prosecutions. GM says it will beat Ford on fuel efficiency, also introduces the Hummer. UK’s Queen Mother turns 100. UN peacekeepers take up post along Israel-Lebanon border. Inhaled steroids deemed effective against asthma. NYT profiles Laura Bush. Hugo Chavez wins in Venezuela. US phone workers threaten strike. How the music industry censors its own albums. Brownouts possible in California. NYT profiles India’s Robin Hood-like outlaw.