Welcome back to The Onion: 20 Years Later. Today, we’re looking at Vol. 36, Issue 03, from exactly 20 years ago: Feb. 2, 2000.
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What issue is this?
This is The Onion’s third issue of the 2000s, and it published on Groundhog Day.
You can view this issue online as it looks today and how it looked 10 years ago, in 2010. I’m linking to the 2010 archive whenever possible, especially because today’s website doesn’t include every feature, like the headline-only jokes. Once again, Wayback Machine did not preserve the 2000 version of The Onion’s website.
What was the top story, and other first impressions
Last week, we talked about how some Onion stories, like “Area Man Consults Internet Whenever Possible,” have evolved from satire to how we act in real life in 2020. This week has another of those in “Coworker Obsessively Checks E-Mail Every Couple Of Minutes.”
The Onion likes to mock obsessions with new technology. It’s a good starting point for satire, and sometimes The Onion is inadvertently predicting the future. I mean, think of push notifications! Every phone, app and website wants to constantly notify us nowadays. This article, by contrast, is picking on a guy for checking email because push notifications don’t exist.
The story itself is short and unremarkable, although I like how the Onion reporter cites “adjacent-cubicle sources.” But that’s not why I’m writing about it. Looking back 20 years, we’re seeing how much has changed about how we live and act. Yesterday’s novelty is today’s background noise. This will be a theme of the newsletter, I suspect.
That said, not all things change. For instance, a hot political topic today is wealth and income inequality. The top story from 20 years ago fits this bill.
“Report: Rich Consistently Outearning Poor” is sneaky, as you might think it’s a parody of how the media covers economic issues or that it’s a politically driven satire about class. I think those elements are there, but there’s another, sillier thread running underneath it.
Right away, the wording, especially from fake institutions like the Institute For Statistical-Data Quantification, sound like typical quotes about economic inequality, but they also sound slightly off. Go a few paragraphs further, and the joke starts to reveal itself:
“In all cases in which a poor person was compared to a corresponding wealthy person of double his or her economic standing, the richer person had 200 percent more financial assets.”
Put aside that it should be 100%, and we now have a story that’s one long tautology of how being poor or rich is defined by your wealth, and yet everyone in the story seems confused by this. There is a political argument in here, and there’s also goofiness like this quote:
“There is clearly an unknown mitigating factor at work here, and I strongly suspect it may be financial in nature."
I liked the data that this eight-year study supposedly revealed:
Every Ferrari Testarossas was bought by rich people
Every 1974 AMC Gremlin was bought by poor people
Every English butler in America is employed by non-poor people.
It’s a good effort, but it also feels like an idea that’s a bigger hit in the comedy writer’s room than anywhere else?
What’s the rest of the issue look like? As with last week, it’s very local and with little coverage of real-life politics. Here are a few of my favorites:
“X-Files Fan Killed For Knowing Too Much” is written like a local crime story, and even The Onion knows they should have written this in 1996. having the character Julie tell police: "And it's not even all that popular anymore."
“Roommate's Boyfriend Drinking Yet Another Can Of Soda” feels more relevant today because so many adults have roommates, while this story is set in a college dorm. Also, people will always mooch off each other like Andrea Bloch’s new beau.
“Local Homemaker Fights To Overcome Rubbermaid™ Addiction” is delightful to me because The Onion puts that little trademark symbol after every mention of Rubbermaid and its products. I’m not even sure how to interpret it, but I love the idea of The Onion talking about someone’s Rubbermaid addiction and deciding, wait, let’s respect the brand trademark.
“New Hampshire Returns To Obscurity” is this week’s only explicit mention of the presidential race, which is amazing to see 9 months before Election Day. I do enjoy the idea of New Hampshire being so sleepy that the governor’s next task is “to begin work on her keynote address for the Merrimack Maple Festival, scheduled for Nov. 11-14.”
“Nabisco Discontinues Wheat Thicks.” Very stupid. Exactly what I want to see.
Were the infographics good?
Apparently, The Rock “wrote” a “book” in 1999 (Look at The Rock’s face on that book cover!). Other wrestlers were publishing memoirs, too. Are these jokes good? Maybe? But they are not timid.
I couldn’t determine whether the Super Bowl had anything resembling “inspirational computer-generated ads” in 1999 or 2000, so maybe this is just The Onion having fun imagining things. Anyways, the jokes are not fucking around. “Muhammad Ali wins at Jenga” is close to a Greg Giraldo roast joke.
What real-life events/people were mentioned?
WWF books. Patrick Stewart. Chechnya. Elizabeth Taylor.
Pretty light week on the real-life aspects, but some quality content. Stewart is mentioned in a photo/headline that still holds up: “Voice Of Patrick Stewart Lends Air Of Legitimacy.”
Chechnya is the topic of this week’s man-on-the-street feature after President Bill Clinton mentioned it in his real-life State of the Union. This also reminds me that I have no idea what happened to Chechnya. It just stopped being in the news at some point. I’m much like Dennis Walker, systems analyst, who says:
"The U.S. should waste no time in condemning General Mashimkov's brutal occupation of the city of Plovsk in the Chechen province of Azgakasban. Okay, I made that up."
“I was the greatest of them all. … There was a maharajah who came all the way from India to beg one of my silk stockings. Later he strangled himself with it!"
Most “Hey, it’s 2000!” reference
Probably the X-Files article and Chechnya. Maybe it’s the guy watching an infomercial at 3 a.m. on Channel 21, as is seen in “There's No Such Thing As A Free Seminar On How To Buy Distressed Properties For No Money Down.”
What columnists ran?
Onion publisher emeritus T. Herman Zweibel is indefatigable, writing for the third straight week. The Onion saves its political big guns for Zweibel’s “The Importance of the Vote,” in which he tells us that “the voting-franchise is a good and useful ruse.”
I do enjoy how he seems to be writing from 1910 and has no further knowledge of history:
We have not yet had an Irish-Catholic in the White House, mercifully sparing us all the Papist manipulation, drunken womanizing, and regrettable necessity of assassination which that would entail. Women have not yet achieved the right to befoul the polls with their hoop-skirted cackling. And, at last report, the votes from the entire God-forsaken state of Texas are still thrown, uncounted and burning, into the River Charles.
Sometimes, a crew member on a TV show dies, and the next episode is dedicated to him or her. This is easy to miss, but The Onion noticed, and thus we get the pleasantly detailed “Thanks For Dedicating That Mediocre Sitcom Episode To My Memory.” As the fictional Bill Unseld writes from the grave:
[My wife] Linda knew me better than anyone else in the world, so she no doubt recognized that this wacky, mix-up-packed episode of Veronica's Closet was truly what I was all about.
(“Veronica’s Closet,” by the by, starred Kirstie Alley and was one of many forgettable NBC attempts to develop a new “Seinfeld,” “Frasier” or “Friends.”)
Finally, I have a soft spot for Onion columns that are sharing way too much personal information, like “There's No Such Thing As A Free Seminar On How To Buy Distressed Properties For No Money Down.” Honestly, the main surprise is that he sort of sees through the scam.
The big secret cost $129.95! Can you believe it? After all that, we're supposed to fork over hard-earned money for the secret! Talk about disillusioning.
What was the best horoscope?
I liked this collection a lot, but I’ll have to go with Taurus:
You finally think of that perfect comeback several days too late, but it wouldn't have affected the judge's decision in the least.
Was Bill Clinton mentioned?
Nope. And I’m not sure when he’s coming back!
Was an animal quoted?
I might have misremembered how often animals were featured in The Onion.
What holds up best?
All the office stuff. Not just the one about email, but also “Office Politician Runs For Coffee” with its tale of one guy trying to curry favor by offering to make a Starbucks run.
Even though I think The Onion would approach “Local Prostitutes Eagerly Await Dentists' Convention” differently today, I do think the core joke — that dentists are insecure because they’re “neither an admired craftsman nor a full-fledged member of the medical community” — is a devastating burn.
This week, I literally heard someone make an aside about a dentist passing himself off as a real doctor. (I love my dentist and his staff, for the record!)
What holds up worst?
I’m open to nominations here. To me, most of this still works or, at worst, is quaint, like parts of the WWF and Super Bowl infographics, or Zweibel’s column.
What would be done differently today?
The tone of “Local Prostitutes Eagerly Await Dentists' Convention” clashes with today’s vocabulary, but to my reading, the joke is on the sad plight of dentists, so that still feels like a worthy target.
There would be more political humor, for sure, and probably more about the Super Bowl. And the office-related stories might have been set at a startup like WeWork or something rather than an insurance or plastics company.
What was happening in the real world?
The issue published Feb. 2, but printing a newspaper requires an earlier deadline. Therefore, here are news items from Jan. 24-30, 2000, as listed by Wikipedia and The New York Times front pages (subscription required):
Super Bowl XXXIV was played — here are the ads. Clinton gives State of the Union. Bill Belichick hired by New England. Big snowstorm in North Carolina and Virginia. National Guard deployed to Bosnia. Bush and Gore win Iowa. GOP, Democrats unhappy with primary process; candidates complain about negativity. Israeli-Palestinian talks. After-school programs become popular. NYC to digitize subways. Supreme Court upholds $1,000 campaign limit. Disney names Robert Iger likely next CEO. Elian Gonzalez dispute becomes national news. Hans Blix becomes Iraq monitor. Osama bin Laden linked to Algerians. Coca-Cola lays off 20% of employees. China loosens Internet restrictions. Treaty signed on genetically modified products. Reality TV invades America.