Not every Onion is a classic: Reviewing The Onion from March 8, 2000
It's spring break, and maybe The Onion's writers were too hungover this week
Welcome back to The Onion: 20 Years Later. Today, we’re looking at Vol. 36, Issue 08, from exactly 20 years ago: March 8, 2000.
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What issue is this?
What was the top story, and other impressions?
Last week, I wrote how the March 1, 2000, issue was my favorite to review so far. This week was … not my favorite.
This issue was more like the modern Onion in that it was reacting to real-life events as well as trying to create a fake small-town newspaper.
For instance, the story “Fox Voluntarily Removes Reality From Programming” is in reference to a real-life story I’ve been noting at the bottom of this newsletter.
In early 2000, Fox aired “Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?” which was a two-hour special that garnered big ratings (remember Darva Conger?). However, there was immediate backlash, as well as controversy over the groom’s actual wealth and his past actions. The head of Fox said, hilariously in hindsight, that Fox was done with “exploitative material.”
20 years later, reality TV survives, much to my chagrin.
Anyways, The Onion article plays off of this controversy, and it’s cute but difficult to understand today without context. Other entries that are fun but not amazing include “Football Fan Disappointed By 'Super Tuesday’” and “Spokeswoman Gives Birth To Spokeschild.”
And, though not a real-life story, “Kansas Changes Spelling Of Name To 'Cannsas'; 'It Looks Cooler That Way,' Governor Says” is too dumb even for me.
The real-life story that I do think plays well is “Bush 'Refuses To Dignify' Mass-Murder Allegations,” and not necessarily because of who is being parodied. This is structurally a good Onion satire. We take a real-life situation, like a presidential candidate’s past being scrutinized (in this case, Bush’s past drug use), stretch it beyond all reality — but do so while maintaining the journalistic tone of a serious investigation.
I mean, if a candidate really was accused of being part of an event “in which 17 people were ritualistically murdered and skinned,” I’d like to think they’d try to deflect attention from it, as Onion’s George W. Bush does here:
"We've got people across this country without health care, a broken educational system, taxes that are way too high, and all you want to talk about is something that may or may not have happened 16 years ago? I'm sorry, but I find that offensive."
As I was writing this, I was informed that the dateline on this story — Sunnyvale, Calif. — is a “Buffy” reference, so good job by The Onion in sneaking that in.
The other thing The Onion also here is mock the TV pundits, fake-quoting the late Robert Novak in the role of “the media tries to spin everything”:
"A lot of voters feel he could bolster his campaign by admitting his guilt, expressing regret, and moving on. The way he's running the campaign now, he comes off as disingenuous and secretive. No one wants that in a president."
Finally, these three Onion stories are not classics — each is a relatively short article — but each have their chuckles:
“Real-Life Family Feud Offers No Fabulous Cash Prizes”: The fact that “Family Feud” is somehow bigger than ever in 2020 is amazing.
“Area Father Praised For Helping Raise Family” is biting in its effusive praise for extremely minor things.
“We'd do 400 push-ups every morning, even at the height of monsoon season. There'd be 50-foot waves crashing over us, but Sgt. Culpepper would make us keep going.”
Were the infographics good?
They are kind of gross. I’m not sure whether that counts for good.
I had a feeling “Spring Break 2000” would not age well. It doesn’t, even if perhaps many of the activities described were actually happening in real life. I also never went on spring break during college, and that’s probably a good thing.
On the other hand “Who Aren't We Inviting To Our Dinner Parties?” is OK, and I love that we have percentages for no reason at all.
“Gary, considering the last time,” is a great line — one of those “tell a story in 6 words or less” type of classics. However, I could have used an extra couple of jokes in this infographic.
“If an ingested poison is flammable, spit out over open flame for awesome fireball effect.”
What real-life events/people were mentioned?
George W. Bush. Robert Novak. Kansas Gov. Bill Graves. Amadou Diallo.
The not-guilty verdict had recently been issued for the police officers accused in the death of Amadou Diallo, which was a big enough event to repeatedly be on the New York Times front page. The Onion wisely decided not to try and fictionalize it, instead using the verdict for the “American Voices” ask-a-person feature. The Onion’s fake regular people are appropriately caustic, and the last answer calls back to the 1997 Abner Louima case, for which there were actual convictions and compensation.
Most “Hey, it’s 2000!” reference
A strong candidate is “Neighbor Bragging About 20-Pound Box He FedExed,” because it feels like a very old thing to marvel at shipping a package.
The Fox story is also very dated. People don’t care about dignity on TV anymore. Not does anyone care what broadcast networks are doing. Pay-TV is dead, people!
What columnists ran?
Just last week, I said how I was loving T. Herman Zweibel’s columns! This week, he writes again, but it’s maybe the weakest of the new millennium.
I love the concept of “My Employees Of The Month,” especially how he both includes President James Garfield and the man who assassinated him, Charles Guiteau. There’s also the fantastic use of the word “thaumaturge” to describe Thomas Edison.
Look, this is a B+ column — the article has some fun insults but also resembles a logbook of rewards and people. It’s not his best work, but it’s still fun to view the world through his undying, arrogant and bizarre eyes. I mean, the punctuation alone in “worth-less” delights me:
However, from time to time, certain rare individuals in my employ have been able to see beyond their worth-less lives and dedicated themselves to furthering my cause.”
This week’s Onion, in a sentence, was one of great potential, not quite realized.
I should like “I Wish I Were One Of TV's Golden Girls” more, because it’s well-written and well-constructed as it reveals this poor author's plight, but it’s just so damn sad. This is how the column ends:
But by sticking together, they're able to face even the worst. As for me, I am left to face the world alone.
What was the best horoscope?
Going to go with Leo this week. What a fun joke that reveals itself as you read through it.
Leo | July 23 to Aug. 22
You will gain insight into an exciting new dimension, thanks to a pair of red-and-blue-lensed cardboard spectacles.
Was Bill Clinton mentioned? Was an animal quoted?
What holds up best?
The Bush story holds up in terms of parodying our ridiculous dog-and-pony show that is the presidential election process and media coverage. (You can tell I have strong feelings here)
The details of the article might need updating but “Area Father Praised For Helping Raise Family” is surely very real for many readers here today.
Name-checking Judge Judy (albeit rather disrespectfully in “Poison-Prevention Tips”) and “Family Feud.”
What holds up worst?
SO. MUCH. Almost all the jokes in “Spring Break 2000,” to start.
The article “Survey: Less Than One Percent Of Pedestrians Gots 50 Cent For The Bus,” which is probably not that bad but has this very off-putting slang talking it gives to the homeless people in the story. I would normally love an Onion story that quotes a fake trade association (American Panhandlers Association), but I don’t think it’s funny enough to overcome its more dated aspects.
What would be done differently today?
What’s weird to me is that there are a decent number of relatable cultural references that this issue nails — not just the people, but things like dads getting abundant praise for minor gestures, or a former Marine bragging about his time on duty.
But it’s just not that funny, and if you’re struggling to create fake small-town journalism, why not just do a bunch of political jokes like today’s Onion specializes in.
What was happening in the real world?
The Onion published on March 8, but printing a newspaper requires an earlier deadline. Therefore, here are news items from Feb. 28-March 5, 2000, as listed by InfoPlease and The New York Times front pages (subscription required):
Officials: Bin Laden directed failed plot. Philip Morris admits cigarettes are a drug. Pinochet released, expedited to Chile. Darryl Strawberry receives 1-year suspension. Congress ends earnings limits for Social Security recipients. Bush wins 3 key states, apologizes for not criticizing Bob Jones University. McCain criticizes Robertson, Falwell. “Airlines cut seats to add to profits.” Booksellers catch on to Harry Potter mania. Poor people on death row face extra challenges. 6-year-old boy fatally shoots classmate. Gore fundraiser convicted. Investors snap up Palm Pilot maker’s stock. DoubleClick [now Google-owned] says it won’t link personal data with anonymous data. Tiger Woods proves ratings boon. Army to cut deployment lengths for National Guard, reservists.