Reviewing The Onion: Jan. 19, 2000

The first issue of the 2000s (but not of the millennium, terrorists note)

Welcome to the first review of The Onion: 20 Years Later. Today, we’re looking at Vol. 36, Issue 01, from Jan. 19, 2000.
Who am I? I’m an editor by day who’s been reading The Onion for, dare I say it, more than 20 years. It’s a big part of my humor, and I’m excited to revisit the old days with you.
So what will this review look like? I’ve divided it into sections to highlight The Onion’s recurring features — local columnists, “Area Man”-type stories, horoscopes, etc. — and I’ll try to track other events, like whether then-President Bill Clinton is in a story and what was happening in the real world.
Thanks in advance for reading. Feedback and second opinions are welcome — it’s the best way for me to make this a better offering.
Finally, did you know there is a newsletter every Sunday? Sign up!

What issue is this?

This is the first issue of the 2000s for The Onion, which hadn’t published since Dec. 22, or nearly a month.

You can view this issue online as it looks today, and here’s how it looked in The Onion’s online archive in 2010. I’ll be linking to the 2010 archive in this issue. Where’s the 2000 website? Wayback Machine, sadly, does not have a capture for the day in question.

What was the top story, and other first impressions

“Important Christmas Lessons Already Forgotten” is not a bad lead story but also feels to me a bit generic. Like having a month off and the spectacle of the 2000s led The Onion to say, “Let’s go small.”

The little details are what shine here, such as the bio for “James Samuelson of the Hartford-based Institute For American Cultural Mores & Values, which tracks the rise and fall of human love and kindness throughout the year.”

Later, we get these incredibly detailed personal stories from “Boston investment banker Carl Thompson” and “Janice Frye, 34, a Los Angeles single mother.”

Going small has its advantages. Notice the oblique Valentine’s Day heartbreak reference in Samuelson’s quote:

“This leads to mid- to late February, a magical time of year when people everywhere feel overpowering, soul-crushing emotional pain, causing them to hate their coworkers, their loved ones, and themselves." 

The rest of the issue has a nice balance of local-news minutia (“Stemke Family Murder Rate Lowest In 20 Years and Area Sales Rep Played A Little Football Back In College), commentaries and some throwaway one-liners (“Police Officer Hooks Thumbs Into Belt” and “Years Taken Off Face”).

The whole issue trends small, so it’s not the most quotable at parties. But you do receive the joy of “local” stories with way too many details. The “Area Sales Rep” story includes many paragraphs about Kevin Resnick’s brief college career, including that his old coach doesn’t remember him. Goddamn Ficus Plant Should Come With Instructions is short but gives play-by-play of someone who’s made a terrible purchase and is suffering the consequences.

The infographics are … nothing special. I suspect this will be a trend — usually the infographics were based off something silly or a recent news hook (in this issue, a flu outbreak) that we won’t care about 20 years later.

Where this issue really shines is in terms of its prescience. The real-life headline and jokes in this issue read like Nostradamus’ predictions in hindsight, as I’ll discuss in a moment.

Overall? A nice start to the 2000s, if not the most memorable issue.

What real-life events/people were mentioned?

Osama Bin Laden, AOL-Time Warner, John Rocker.

Well, it’s a little eerie when this issue comes out 21 months before the 9/11 attacks and Osama Bin Laden is quoted. But “Millennium Actually Starts In 2001, Terrorists Note” is actually a fantastic short article.

If there are pedants in 2020 fighting the meaningless fight over whether 2020 marks a new decade, then surely in 2000 people spent most of January fighting over this — especially considering it was a new decade, century and millennium. For the record, Bin Laden agrees 2001 is the new millennium.

Speaking from a secret bunker in the Kashmir hills, Osama bin Laden agreed. "We were all set to blow up the Eiffel Tower," bin Laden said, "when one of my suicide bombers pointed out that it should actually be done next Jan. 1, not this one. I suppose we'll just have to wait."

Photo via Wikipedia

The AOL-Time Warner story is one of those that probably took very little time to write — I could see this being a snarky headline pitch and everyone deciding, “Great, write something up!” But with hindsight, “AOL Acquires Time-Warner In Largest-Ever Expenditure Of Pretend Internet Money” is 100% accurate. Young people today have no idea what it was like to wait for a free CD to arrive in the mail if you wanted to go online.

Do you remember John Rocker? He was one of many baseball relief pitchers more famous for his wild antics than his pitching. That was fine until he said many racist, homophobic and otherwise unpleasant things to Sports Illustrated.

Let’s remember that — he KNEW he was being interviewed and said, “Yes, let me shout out these thoughts!”

The best part of The Onion’s “American Voices” feature on Rocker? The reply by Richard Hamill, Systems Analyst:

"I can't believe an organization like the Atlanta Braves would be associated with racism. It almost makes me ashamed to do the Tomahawk Chop."

The worst? Um, probably the open use of the N-word! Wow. I read that about 15 seconds before writing this sentence, so believe me, I’m also surprised. I’m sure another joke could have been found.

Most “Hey, it’s 2000!” reference

From the AOL-Time Warner story:

“In an effort to keep pace with AOL, website is expected to acquire General Motors sometime later this week.”

What columnists ran?

The great Onion publisher emeritus, T. Herman Zweibel. Zweibel is always depicted as some sort of cross between an ornery Gilded Age plutocrat and a Mr. Burns-style curmudgeon. He doesn’t disappoint from the first sentence:

Yesterday, I was listening to Beavers, my aide-de-camp and advisor in matters financial, narrate the financial abstract of my vast personal fortune when he mentioned in passing that I was doing quite well in the Stock-Market.

Also featured were:

What was the best horoscope?

I’m going with Aries, considering that the Mets’ Yoenis Cespedes injured himself fighting a wild boar last year!

“Looking back, you can't figure out how a win/win situation turned into a win/be savaged by wild boars situation.”

Was Bill Clinton mentioned?

Yes! “Cousin Oliver To Join White House For Last Year Of Clinton Presidency” is not my favorite Onion Bill Clinton piece, but it’s in my opinion the type of presidential parody The Onion is best at. The Onion can go directly at a politician, but straight-on is not always its best style, and there was no shortage of comedians doing that even in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Where The Onion shines, in my mind, is creating an alternate universe around the politician (or Tim Duncan), like with Joe Biden or pre-9/11 George W. Bush. Here we have that very 1990s trope about Clinton’s hokey, hillbilly family, I guess?

Also, if you are looking for ridiculous quotes from Beltway pundits assessing the political impact of Cousin Oliver, you’re in luck!

"Adding an adorable moppet to the White House cast at this late stage in the Clinton presidency is nothing more than a cheap gimmick," conservative commentator Laura Ingraham said. "This boy, although undeniably cute, is neither a seasoned professional politician nor an expert in economic and international policy."

Was an animal quoted?

Sadly, no anthropomorphizing of animals this week (my all-time favorite Onion story).

What holds up best?

Obviously, for tragic reasons, it’s “Millennium Actually Starts In 2001, Terrorists Note.” The Onion knew Bin Laden’s reputation before the rest of us did!

What holds up worst?

Definitely the racial slur in the John Rocker item! I wonder whether any debate occurred inside The Onion offices about that.

What would be done differently today?

Like all these issues from decades ago, there’s relatively little content. 20 items, but only 14 stories (along with 2 headlines, 2 photo items and 2 infographics). I also think there would have been more political coverage — Boris Yeltsin is always good for a joke, and the 2000 primaries were only weeks away. Maybe no one had any good Bill Bradley jokes.

What was happening in the real world?

Just some of the world events listed by Wikipedia between Dec. 22, 1999, and Jan. 19, 2000:

George Harrison was stabbed but lived. Boris Yeltsin resigned, ushering in Vladimir Putin. Y2K had passed, relatively uneventfully. “Peanuts” ended its run of new comic strips. Yahoo! was a darling stock. Al-Qaida was meeting to plan big things, although apparently only The Onion’s writers knew at the time. AOL decided to buy Time Warner, a corporate move we’ve been laughing at ever since. Target got its name. Martin Luther King Jr. Day finally became an official holiday in every state.