My favorite Onion columnist returned 20 years ago today
Smoove B is Cincinnati's greatest charmer and lover. We also have stories about video games, God's mental health, Maxim magazine and child urinators.
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 May 2, 2001.
This week is funnier and lighter than last week! And I’m so happy to talk about Smoove B, my favorite Onion columnist, who last wrote in 1999 and thus has never appeared in this newsletter. Scroll down a bit for that.
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What issue is this?
The front-page headline “Dwarf Falls Equivalent Of 10 Stories” is no longer online, and I suspect The Onion isn’t eager to resurrect it.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
“God Diagnosed With Bipolar Disorder” is a classic Onion trope of treating God both as the wrathful, vengeful Old Testament creator and also a deity who has human-like emotions, desires and interests.
Would The Onion call it “bipolar disorder” nowadays? Maybe, maybe not. It’s not a casual reference — the story hinges on a formal diagnosis made by a fictional minister/psychiatrist, and at least one famous real-life theologian wrote a semi-serious treatment of this article (preview only).
The Onion article takes seriously this discussion of mental health, with the Rev. Dr. J. Henry Jurgens sharing why he made the diagnosis and why earthly medications can’t help God. Instead, Jurgens urges patience, understanding and forgiveness.
There are also anecdotes to explain God’s condition, both from the Bible and from modern humans who have suffered God’s grace and wrath:
"Last week, I lost my dear husband Walter to the flood," said housewife and devout churchgoer Elaine Froman of Davenport, IA. "I asked myself, 'Why? Why would God do something like this, especially when He had just helped Walter overcome a long battle with colon cancer, and we were so happy that we finally had a chance to start our lives anew?'"
The intriguing thing about this story, to me, is not the humor. It’s the subdued tone: If you didn’t know better, you’d think this was a regular news article because it’s so calmly written.
Video games, then and now
“Local Man Exhausted After Long Day Of Video Games” almost assuredly worked as a story back in 2001, especially with the success of PlayStation 2 and other game consoles, not to mention PC games.
This story might work even better in pandemic times. After all, gaming is everywhere — consoles, computers, phones, streaming, virtual reality and more.
In this story, 32-year-old Jon Broskowski is exhausted from playing Madden 2001, SSX Snowboarding, Tomb Raider 2 and Zone Of The Enders. He’s a longtime gamer, all the way back to the Intellivision, an Atari competitor from Mattel.
I can see why Broskowski is exhausted. He played all of those games in one day:
"If I went right to bed [after Zone Of The Enders], I knew I'd be seeing robots in my sleep, so I decided on a quick game of Madden 2001," said Broskowski, who played half a season as the Baltimore Ravens before noticing the VCR clock reading 4 a.m.
He also rented at least one of the games from Blockbuster. It sure is 2001!
The Onion in the early 2000s would sometimes do stories ostensibly based on data and statistics, displaying that logo like a real newspaper might. The “data” is almost always ridiculous, and “Lowest Common Denominator Continues To Plummet” is no exception.
This article feels like a sequel to 1997’s “U.S. Dept. Of Retro Warns: 'We May Be Running Out Of Past.’” But by 2001, even kitsch like “Happy Days” is too smart for Americans ("Fonzie rides a motorcycle, but he also likes girls," one subject said. "I don't get it."). Even Jerry Bruckheimer(!) is worried about the American public’s intelligence.
We are now a country where “The Sopranos” and “Memento”1 are battling with Tom Green and “TRL” for cultural supremacy.
This article hits all my biases about reality TV, pop culture and people’s common sense — I both love this article and am infuriated by it. I’ll just leave this quote here:
"Quite simply, the collective intelligence level is dropping so rapidly that it's becoming increasingly difficult for producers to insult the intelligence of the American public," said News Corp president and COO Peter Chernin. "Without a way to set a floor for the lowest common denominator, even the stupidest material we can develop is not stupid enough for audiences to enjoy."
Area People doing Area Things
This issue has many, many ordinary people going about their lives. Some are simple jokes that satirize stereotypes, like “Asian Man Has Thing For Asian Women” or “First-Grade Teacher Apprehends Urinator,” the latter of which is written like police capturing a serial criminal. Others, like the video gaming story above, tell a more complex tale.
Here are some other favorites from this issue:
“American Gladiator Still Insists Friends Call Him 'Turbo’”: I haven’t thought about American Gladiators in a long time. “Turbo” here is named Dale Brandt, but the real-life Turbo was Galen Tomlinson.
“Maxim Skimmed”: This magazine coincided with my high school days, and it was a big deal around school. As always, I love that The Onion’s “reporter” interviewed some random dude, who had this to say:
"I glanced at the thing about Buffy bad girl Eliza Dushku and read a little of the interview with the guy from Korn," Reiger said. "They also had something about motorcycles I caught a little of and this thing called '100 Things To Do Before You Die.’”
“Slight Inconvenience Avoided” is a delightful short story about a man who saves a few minutes because of a shampoo bottle’s design.
I edit a couple of supply chain newsletters, so “Trucking Industry Honors Methamphetamines” made me laugh more than usual. The punny quote from a (fake) industry group is spot-on:
"Methamphetamines, you are the substance that keeps our nation's truckers 'speed'-ing along to their appointed destinations," NTA president Larry Herrick said.
“Area Man's Free Time Monopolized By Friend With No Other Friends”: This is a well-written, longer story about a guy whose friend is co-dependent emotionally and also always wanting to hang out, but it also felt a little sad to read. Maybe it’s the pandemic timing — when so many people have been isolated, this type of humor hits differently.
That said, I did love this quote — what a pair of interests!
“And he always finds a way to corner me into a conversation about the things he wants to talk about, like his kite-building or his obsession with WWI.”
Were the infographics good?
The 2001 writers’ strike ended up not happening. The threat was real, however, as “Bracing For The Writers' Strike” illustrates.
I love this infographic, especially as someone who watched more TV back then and gets most of the references. I did not know about “Dos mujeres, un camino,” a 229-episode, 1-year telenovela starring Erik Estrada from “CHiPs.”
I’m sure many of you will find the “Hill Street Blues” joke stupid, and you’re not wrong, but I am laughing at the idea of 1980s inner-city cops shooting at the Enterprise.
The last joke references the Infinite Monkey Theorum and mocks Hollywood sensibilities at the same time, which I also appreciated.
Look, I turn 38 this year, so I’m also asking “What Did We Think We'd Be Doing With Our Lives By Now?”
This is another good infographic — the responses feel all too real, topped off by the 1990s reference to telemarketing. I guess website pop-ups and unskippable video ads in 2021 are like telemarketing, except you can annoy people without talking to them.
What columnists ran?
Why do I like Onion columnist Smoove B so much? I think it’s because his columns are good on their own, but they get even better when you read a bunch in a row.
And that’s the genius (for me, at least) in a lot of recurring bits, especially before the internet dominated everything. Each individual segment must repeat the premise and tropes because you can’t depend on the audience to remember. But when you watch them back to back, the repetition becomes an unintended part of the humor.
Anyways, Smoove B is a Cincinnati-based lothario who loves fine things and fine women. There’s no way this person exists, but everything he does and says vaguely feels like a real person.
Smoove usually starts with recent life updates and whether he’s with his lady or pining after her. He usually proceeds to describe the date he has planned, including attire, the mode of transportation, and many details about the meal, whether it’s at home or at a restaurant.
Everything is always the finest — “most beautiful white stretch limousine in the entire city,” “the finest restaurant available,” “the finest wine in all of France.”
There will also be offhand references, written as if he is a flight attendant describing takeoff procedures: “During the limo ride, we will enjoy an assortment of complimentary Pepsi products from the limo’s refrigerator.”
There is always an after-dinner lovemaking session, although this column is light on the details. And there is breakfast the next morning. Breakfast is important:
I will pay for the meal with my Gold Visa, and we will then go to my place and retire to le boudoir, which is French for “my bedroom.”2 There, as the music of Peabo Bryson plays, I will hit you doggy-style all night long.
The next morning, I will serve you breakfast in bed, featuring eggs, two kinds of meat, toast, and your choice of hash browns or grits. You will also receive a tumbler of orange juice.
Meanwhile, I hadn’t thought about “I'm Such A Shitty Senator” in many, many years, but oh man, what a great burn on then-Sen. Max Baucus.
Baucus is spilling the beans on his ineptitude as a senator over the past 20-plus years, including his shame over the wording of S. 915, the Semiconductor Investment Act of 1993. That’s right — The Onion found an 8-year-old bill that never made it out of committee to mock Baucus with. The text quoted in this column is real.
Baucus also shares how he’s gotten the names of constituents wrong, poorly ladled stew at a soup kitchen and misspoke during multiple speeches. He says he should just quit3, and closes with this:
So, people from the great state of Montana, forget you ever even heard the name Max Baucus. Max Baucus… more like Trash… Ruckus.
I can't even pun well.
Most “Hey, it’s 2001!” reference
So many options this week! But let’s go with this closer to Smoove B’s column:
If this scenario is to your liking, you have my number. If you have lost it, simply dial 555-1212 for directory assistance.
What was the best horoscope?
This week’s horoscopes deliver a burn on Texas Gov. Rick Perry without even mentioning him. Somebody on staff didn’t care for Texas!
Aquarius | Jan. 20 to Feb. 18
You will be reincarnated as a being whose status is commensurate with your behavior in your last life. Enjoy governing Texas, you nurse-murdering bastard.
What holds up best?
I think “Local Man Exhausted After Long Day Of Video Games” is still happening all around our country, so I guess that wins by default. I’m not a big gamer, but I’ve certainly played more during the pandemic.
What holds up worst?
Probably the headline about little people.
What would be done differently today?
Many of these stories would need pop-culture updates, like the Maxim and American Gladiator references, but this issue doesn’t feel out of place in 2021.
For example, the infographic “What Did We Think We'd Be Doing With Our Lives By Now?” is not so dissimilar to 2021’s “34-Year-Old Man May As Well Keep Pursuing Dream At This Point.”
What real-life people were mentioned?
Peabo Bryson. KC & The Sunshine Band. George W. Bush. Bill Clinton. Al Gore. Eliza Dushku. Korn. Peter Chernin. Chyna. Tom Green. Michael Chabon. Jerry Bruckheimer. Howard Stern. Pamela Anderson Lee. Mel Karmazin. Jane Austen. Sun Tzu. Joey Ramone. John Updike.
Clinton and Gore are mentioned in “W's First Hundred Days,” while KC & The Sunshine Band is mentioned in “Area Man's Free Time Monopolized By Friend With No Other Friends.”
Tzu, Ramone and Updike are in the horoscopes, with Ramone’s death mentioned for the 2nd time in 3 weeks.
What was happening in the real world?
Here’s the real-life news from April 23-29, 2001, omitting the few days of production before The Onion’s print date. News is from InfoPlease and the front pages of The New York Times (subscription required). Movie and music charts are linked:
NYT profiles cyberspace fighting on message boards. Bush says US will protect Taiwan. US to continue Navy bombing on Vieques island. Whites no longer a majority in many large US cities. Fossil could be bird’s link to dinosaurs. Former senator Bob Kerrey says his unit in Vietnam killed civilians. NYPD keeps all 4 officers from Amadou Diallo shooting. Man pays $20 million for flight to International Space Station. Supreme Court backs arrests for minor offenses. NYT profiles Ichiro’s first year of US baseball. Fulbright Scholar get prison sentence in Russia for marijuana violation. IBM scientists report breakthrough with carbon nanotubes. Developer signs deal for World Trade Center.
Top movie (weekend of April 27-29): “Driven”
Top TV show (April 23-29): “E.R.”
Billboard top single (April 28): “All For You,” Janet
Billboard top album (April 28): “Now 6” compilation
I spent 4 years of college having people tell me how mind-blowing “Memento” was. I’ve still never seen it. Is the movie good, or was everyone being silly then?
I’m not sure this is quite accurate, but I don’t speak or read French.
In real life Baucus didn’t leave office until 2014, when he was named ambassador to China. This Onion column has Baucus discussing his pro-trade position on China, coincidentally.