Parents' bad music, Ralph Nader and more from The Onion of Sept. 6, 2000
This week, we need to understand summer 2000's current events if we want to understand The Onion's satire.
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 Sept. 6, 2000.
Welcome, new subscribers! This project started in January as a way to revisit The Onion’s work in the 2000s, but I’ve learned so much by looking by at history from 20 years ago. For instance, I’ve found that much of culture and history repeats — the New York Times 20 years ago had front-page stories about topics like e-commerce, new ways of working, race in America and police controversies.
And 20 years is also a good marker because there’s an entire generation of young adults for whom 2000 might as well be 1950. 20 years is most of or all of their lifetime, and so maybe they don’t understand what “TRL” was, what it was like to be offline or what the Clinton presidency was actually like.
OK, let’s explore this issue!
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What issue is this?
This was Vol. 36, Issue 31, the 30th published Onion issue of the 2000s and the 29th issue of new content. Sadly, I have no record of the print edition or of the 2000 website.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
The Onion, especially 20 years ago, focused on “area man” local newspaper stories, and also on parodies/satire of real-life events. This issue has a lot of both.
We’ve seen throughout 2000 that The Onion will take real-life events as a basis for headlines, then warp them beyond recognition. For example: The Microsoft antitrust trial became “Federal Judge Rules Parker Brothers Holds Monopoly Monopoly,” and a Florida jury’s ruling against Big Tobacco became “Hershey's Ordered To Pay Obese Americans $135 Billion.”
This week 20 years ago, The Onion did less work to disguise the joke. “Christian Right Lobbies To Overturn Second Law Of Thermodynamics” is almost certainly based on the August 2000 primary defeat of 3 Kansas Board of Education members who removed evolution from state science tests.
So, there’s a point to the parody. The idea of an anti-entropy lobby is amusing enough, but the problem here is that few people will read this article as a joke. People instead will view this article as good or bad based on their politics.
Even I, in reviewing this article, was distracted by this fake quote of Ralph Reed. After all, scientists are still exploring about how our universe behaves (including any expansion or heat death) — it’s not solely a religious issue:
"What do these scientists want us teaching our children? That the universe will continue to expand until it reaches eventual heat death?"
So, yeah, the article is a pretty good synopsis of the real-life religion-versus-science debates, and it’s well-written in terms of a news article, with good quotes, background, etc. One strength of this article is having everyone assume lawmakers can repeal laws of nature:
"Were the second law to be repealed, random particles would collect and organize themselves instead of dissipating, which could affect such basic processes as combustion, digestion, evaporation, convection — that sort of thing," Columbia University superstring theorist Dr. Brian Greene said.
But overall, you have to do a lot of homework to understand the premise (not to mention knowing Greene was a popular writer about string theory around 1999-2000). And we must ask, is this article funny 20 years later? Or is it just going to start arguments?
Share wisely, depending on what outcome you’re hoping for!
More topical content from summer 2000!
The Onion of 2000, as I say nearly every week, is a fascinating reminder that cultural satire was not always based on political affiliation or internet memes.
This week, The Onion does cover the 2000 election, but only to mildly poke fun at eventual spoiler Ralph Nader in “Nation Trying To Fix Up Ralph Nader With Date.” What do you need to know in 2020? Well, Nader was and is a famous political activist and consumer-safety advocate, ran for president numerous times and was key in the 2000 outcome, and he’s a private, somewhat odd man who famously chose career over marriage.
This story works better, for me, because Nader is no longer a lightning-rod figure in today’s political debates. The storytelling again is strong — The Onion writing as if this were a grassroots political campaign and not a weird matchmaking effort.
Nader himself rejects any romantic setups, but he is not made of stone:
“I thank the Coalition To Find Ralph Nader A Special Someone for its concern, and I'm sure all these women are terrific, but these efforts are misguided. People would be better off spending their time focusing not on me, but on the things I have to say."
Added Nader: "Did that bioethicist really say she thought I was cute?"
Also in the news 20 years ago was “This Lethal Injection Is Going To Hurt The State Of Texas More Than It Hurts You,” a parody of the classic parental spanking admonition that’s probably based on then-Gov. George W. Bush letting executions proceed throughout his presidential campaign.
The Onion commits to the bit — Judge Randolph J. Fowler hits all the notes of a disappointed parent and a disappointed judge, as he names all the state services Texas provided in vain to the condemned, as well as the personal pain he’s suffering:
“Do you think I enjoy this, Mr. Jackson? I do not. When you die, a little piece of me will die with you. Not as big as the piece of you, of course, since your whole body will die, but it will be a very important piece of me — the one that had hopes and dreams for you.”
The other major 2000 news story covered was “The Firestone Tire Recall,” which was big even for a consumer recall because of the dozens of people who died and the public admittance of fault by Firestone and Ford alike.
The Onion has jokes about the Michelin baby, hatred of SUV drivers and Consumer Reports’ reaction. The Onion also points out parochial prejudices that enter even a straightforward controversy, such as:
"I still say it's better to careen off a cliff in a Ford than drive a Chevy."
Ed Westlake • Systems Analyst
Area Man had a big week
Don’t worry, The Onion still practiced local journalism. We start with “Area Man Just Wants Regular Haircut Without All The Frou-Frou,” which I appreciate as someone who hasn’t gotten a haircut since January.
Bud Easler is a grumpy man, but I sympathize with him asking for a basic haircut and instead enduring continuous upsell pitches.
"I told her my follicles were fine and that I just needed a quick, regular, old-fashioned haircut," Easler said. "Even my wife can't shop forever."
A salon haircut is merely annoying, but “Area Man's Recommended Daily Caloric Intake Exceeded By 9 A.M.” highlights Len Blake’s questionable diet.
We also have “Long Story Short, They Had To Cut Off Area Guy's Arm,” which is a simple but effective joke.
And before we move on, let’s talk about “Parents' Record Collection Deemed Hilarious,” which from the picture does look hilarious. I must caution any parents reading — just because your music is on CDs, hard drives and the cloud, your kids will probably laugh at your musical tastes, too.
The Onion is especially (and hilariously) mean to Donald and Peggy Schnell, inventing an expert to mock them:
"At turns atrocious, tasteless, tepid, and self-parodying, the Schnell discography is a perfect encapsulation of the listening tastes of the American bourgeoisie in the mid- to late 20th century, as well as a knee-slappingly hilarious compendium of misguided trends in popular music," said Lydia Dreifort, director of the Alan Lomax Center For American Ethnomusicology in Oxford, MS. "Can you believe they actually own Neil Diamond's Jonathan Livingston Seagull?"
This issue has a lot of little gems. Here are a few of them:
“Exit Interview Goes Well” — This really hits at the worst of the workplace and HR bureaucracy.
“God Damns Minnesota Vikings As Requested,” which published several months before the Vikings lost 41-0 in the NFC Championship Game.
Were the infographics good?
“Top Verbs Appearing On Résumés” has a big caveat — the gay slur — but does have goofy fun otherwise. I love “Spearheaded” because it’s still written by everyone even though I feel I’ve never seen anyone say it out loud. “Hypertyped” and “Megafiled” never caught on, but credit to The Onion for trying.
Western U.S. wildfires seem, tragically, like a regular occurrence nowadays, but apparently the ones 20 years ago were worthy of an infographic.
I had to look up the names mentioned here. Applause to the jokes about Vegas, Montana, Idaho and the cavalry — each insulting in a different way. Also, “Bombing Iraq” is itself topical — a reminder of the “no-fly zone” in place during these years.
What columnists ran?
T. Herman Zweibel quickly became the weirdest columnist The Onion’s ever published, even when he was just a 132-year-old man. But during August 2000, he was transformed into a giant cockroach.
Now, he is back to being a man in “Check Off One Orchard,” and The Onion deliberately refuses to explore the science of either change. It’s maybe a little lazy, but nothing about Zweibel’s existence has ever made sense, so I appreciate the consistency.
For some reason. I loved Zweibel’s callousness at cutting down the orchard planted by his “father's Muscovite half-brother, U. Vanya Zweibel” to make some rental-property income:
As I write this, the happy ring of axes can be heard through-out my estate, and I look forward to a respectable cash influx very soon.”
What real-life events/people were mentioned?
Ralph Reed. Brian Greene. Ralph Nader. Winona LaDuke. Maureen Dowd. Marc Morial. Chris Liwienski. Randy Moss. Wonder Twins. Michael Martin Murphey. Leonard Maltin. Herman Melville. Larry King. Pebbles. Duran Duran. Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass. The New Christy Minstrels. The Fifth Dimension. Helen Reddy. Tony Orlando & Dawn. Jo Ann Castle. The Carpenters. Glen Campbell. Arthur Fiedler & The Boston Pops. John Denver. Boots Randolph. Ferrante & Teicher. Alan Lomax. Neil Diamond. Henry Mancini. Mitch Miller. Percy Faith. Up With People. Jim Morrison.
Reed led the Christian Coalition during most of the 1990s but departed in 1997 — The Onion incorrectly names him as president in “Christian Right Lobbies To Overturn Second Law Of Thermodynamics.” Also in that story, Greene actually is a Columbia superstring theorist.
LaDuke was Nader’s running mate on the 2000 Green Party ticket. Dowd is (somehow!) still a New York Times columnist. Both are mentioned in “Nation Trying To Fix Up Ralph Nader With Date.”
Morial was mayor of New Orleans 20 years ago, although he probably did not give away or personally certify “a free 'Certified Muff Diver' T-shirt," as The Onion claims.
Moss and Liwienski were Minnesota Vikings for several years.
The Wonder Twins were part of the animated “The All-New Super Friends Hour” and other television, while Murphey is a singer-songwriter. Both are mentioned in “Western Wildfires.”
Film critic Maltin, musical artists Duran Duran and Pebbles, and “Moby Dick” author Melville are mentioned in the horoscopes.
King is mentioned in “Top Verbs Appearing On Résumés” as the verb “Larry-Kinged.”
Every musical artist from Alpert through Up With People is named (and mocked) in “Parents' Record Collection Deemed Hilarious.”
The late Doors frontman Morrison is in the headline-and-photo “Jim Morrison Stares Creepily Out Of Apartment Window.”
Most “Hey, it’s 2000!” reference
You can’t really go wrong with Ralph — Nader or Reed — but I think I’ll go with the photo from “Exit Interview Goes Well.” The fashion, the hair, the random papers, that computer!
Was Bill Clinton mentioned? Was an animal quoted?
Not this week.
What was the best horoscope?
This week’s horoscope feels relevant during a pandemic in which we’re supposed to be reinventing ourselves:
Pisces | Feb. 19 to March 20
Drastic change will elude you for the 768th straight week this week.
What holds up best?
I know it’s weird that I think “Exit Interview Goes Well” has the best shelf life of any story, yet I didn’t talk much about it. This issue focused mostly on “area man” banalities and “August 2000 current events,” but this timeless, tragic gem also made the cut.
What holds up worst?
Arguably, The Onion’s 2 major blind spots in 2000 were its love of mocking the mentally challenged and using gay slurs. Both are in this issue, with “Someday, I Will Drive This Short Bus Myself” thankfully being a rather sweetly written column, even if The Onion wants us to think the joke is on the young person.
What would be done differently today?
There would be more coverage of the election and of Bill Clinton’s last months in office. Because of the online news cycle, today would include even more stories about current events.
What was happening in the real world?
I skipped this last week. Here’s real-world news events from Aug. 21-Sept. 3, 2000, keeping in mind The Onion’s production schedule was a few days ahead of its publishing date. The news is pulled from InfoPlease and the front pages of The New York Times (subscription required):
U.S. wildfires expected to cause over $1 billion in damages. UN team to inspect Iraq. President Clinton visits Colombia, Tanzania, Nigeria, delays missile shield. NIH approves stem cell work. Debate over religion’s role in politics? Bush, Gore spar over health care, education. Putin expresses regret for Russian sub disaster. Mitsubishi: We covered up vehicle defects. Tiger Woods repeats at PGA Championship. Pope John Paul II hosts festival with more than 2 million youth. “Paul Bunyan Settling Into His New Cubicle.” NYT profiles such topics as “Survivor”; Cheney and Lieberman’s pro-business credentials; and man who won’t stop pretending to be a NYC subway worker. School districts, military Reserves each struggle to recruit. Fake press releases hurt stocks. Boy Scouts face backlash after ban on gays. Los Alamos spy case continues. Claim: Robot created that can itself create robots.