Welcome to the first Sunday email of The Onion: 20 Years Later. Today, we’re looking at Vol. 36, Issue 02, from exactly 20 years ago: Jan. 26, 2000.
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What issue is this?
This is The Onion’s second issue of the 2000s and the last for the month of January.
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 story (this one, for instance, is classified incorrectly). Once again, Wayback Machine did not preserve the 2000 version of The Onion’s website.
What was the top story, and other first impressions
“Teen Drug Use Traced To Ineffective PSAs” is the top story, and we’ll talk about it a little, but I want to get into “Area Man Consults Internet Whenever Possible.” This is a very funny but mocking story that basically describes every single person alive in 2020. We are all online, all the time, “consulting” things. In this case, the protagonist just happens to be a 36-year-old man like myself who also has searched for Jesuit colleges once or twice.
The passing of time (and of technologies) adds some unintentional humor, too. For instance:
"Without the Internet," Larry said, "she would've been stuck with the one variety of pancakes available from the box."
"Let's face it," he added, "Bisquick boxes are a dead medium."
An Altavista reference that’s not from “Parks & Recreation”!
“… Larry insisted on getting on that AltaVista thing and searching for more," Pamela said.
And, the catch-all excuse for any time we’re buried in our phones on something that’s oh-so-important:
"Pam is always asking stuff like, 'Why don't we just look the word up in our old-fashioned dictionary?'" Wisniewski said. "The answer, of course, is simple: because we don't have to."
Anyways, I think “Teen Drug Use Traced To Ineffective PSAs” is well-written and crafted. I don’t love it, though. Maybe it’s just me, maybe it’s because today few people swear by anti-drug PSAs, whereas back then there was a clear point to the satire.
I do love the fake advocacy groups, such as What About The Children? Foundation, Moms Against High Kids (MAHK) and Stop Ineffective PSAs Now! (SIPSAN!). I can’t get enough of creative fake names and unwieldy acronyms.
This issue swings for the fences more than last week’s, and like any great slugger, there are some strikeouts. “Unpopular Student Ridiculed Mercilessly In Teacher's Lounge” seems out of touch even then, in a post-Columbine era, while “Local Airhead Wants To Work With Kids” has lots of details and is committed to the premise but uses a vocabulary that was already dated.
But there are also home runs! “Mother, Daughter Exchange Encoded Menstruation-Related Message Over Dinner Table” feels like it was a PSA for many male readers. And “Area Supervisor Hates To Break Up Little Party” is an excellent combination of two Onion strengths: “Area Man” local news and “banal office coverage.”
Also, it’s hard to imagine, but yoga was a fad 20 years ago! The Onion notes the early resurgence of yoga with an infographic:
For many years, I’ve occasionally had the phrase “Well, Treat my Williams!” in my head. I figured it was some dumb Onion reference but wasn’t sure. Turns out it’s from this infographic. I love all of these so much.
Two other notes from these catchphrases:
I had to look up Linda Lavin.
I want people to start using “Upholster that!”
Finally, a shout-out to two clever headlines with no story attached: “Coupon Clipper Expires” and “Hair Carefully Disheveled In 20-Minute Ritual.”
What real-life events/people were mentioned?
George W. Bush. Confederate-Flag Controversy.
This is a rather pure Onion issue, with almost all the focus on “local” events a newspaper might cover. Gov. George W. Bush makes an appearance with the paint-by-numbers "Bush Reaches Out To Hispanic Community With Generous Tip.” The article’s written like a typical political horse race article, with quotes from Sen. John McCain, Vice President Al Gore and others. The piece works structurally but is standard political parody.
A couple of obscure details that caught my eye including using the phrase “aide-de-camp” like this was Charles de Gaulle in wartime, as well as the plausibly real person of Kenneth Boehm, who so far as I can tell is made up. It’s an interesting touch to use a fake CEO when the other high-profile people are real.
Bush–who was lunching with aide de camp Warren Hewitt and campaign contributor Kenneth Boehm, CEO of telecommunications giant Pacific Bell …
The other real-life event was that 20 years ago, South Carolina was still flying the Confederate flag over its capitol. And for the second week in a row, The Onion decided it wanted to have a “man on the street” use the N-word. Who on the staff was obsessed with doing this? Despite the sourness of this entire affair, I do love banker Knox Williams’ response:
"I'm from the South, my daddy's from the South, and my daddy's daddy's from the South. All three of us are from the South."
Most “Hey, it’s 2000!” reference
Probably everything in “Area Man Consults Internet Whenever Possible.” Consolation prize to this line from the Jim Anchower column “New Year’s Eve Bit The Big One”:
Wes' peckerhead younger brother Zach was bugging us for a while, trying to get us to play Mario Kart 64. I told him that games like that were for girls, and that any self-respecting man would be playing something cool like Turok 2.
What columnists ran?
The aforementioned Jim Anchower, who might be the “local” columnist I’ve read the least over the years. I legitimately don’t know much about him. Here’s his Onion bio:
Jim Anchower joined The Onion's editorial writing staff in 1993 after several distinguished years on The Come Back Inn dishwashing staff. He comments on community-affairs, automotive, and employment issues. He attended LaFollette High School in Madison, WI.
What I like most about him is that he has a distinctive tone, and absolutely one that sounds like some early blogger townie who’s started his own site and is just talking to the world. I mean, I edit for a living, and I wouldn’t touch a word of this opening paragraph:
Hola amigos. What's goin' down in your part of town? I know it's been a long time since I rapped at ya, but, man, you wouldn't believe how deep the shit has gotten around Casa de Anchower. It's like someone turned on the shit faucet and left town for the weekend. I don't even want to get into it, it's that much shit.
So much small-town talk here, from getting high to “The Song Remains The Same” to going out to the bar and trying to attract a woman’s attention but her talking to Anchower’s friend, to the line “I found Ron playing the bar's ‘Judge Dredd’ pinball machine with some dude he knew from work.”
Repeating from last week is Onion publisher emeritus T. Herman Zweibel in “Son Of Zweibel Strikes Again,” who has received a letter from his fiancée that mentions a baby son, but his manservant Standish believes Zweibel is being extorted. What a Gilded Age/Gatsby problem to have! Is Zweibel willing to listen to his help? Well …
With the help of my iron-lung, I heaved a heavy sigh. It was indeed sad to see one of my most loyal servants hold such a childish grudge against my new sweet-heart.
I appreciate all the old-timey punctuation and verbiage throughout this “missive,” which reminds me of the Twitter account @OldHossRadbourn.
I will also quickly note “I Just Can't Keep Up With My Better Homes And Gardens Subscription,” in which poor Joan Siefert can’t handle the fast-moving disruption of a monthly magazine. How adorable is this?
And, boy, do things change fast! One month, "country" will be all the rage, and Better Homes will be full of patterns for picnic-basket centerpieces and gingham dishtowel curtains. Then, the very next month, the winds of change blow, and Better Homes will announce that "bamboo is back," with 15 pages chock-full of ways to add a sophisticated Eastern accent to one's den."
What was the best horoscope?
Everyone’s office has its own drama that no one else cares about, and this is another angle on that from Scorpio:
Trouble looms at the office when interdepartmental tensions come to a head. This may not be all that exciting for you, however, as you are the night janitor.
Was Bill Clinton mentioned?
Alas, we are now fully in the lame duck year of his presidency.
Was an animal quoted?
20% of my motivation for this project was the anthropomorphizing, and I’m getting screwed over so far.
What holds up best?
The recognition of yoga, if not all the jokes within. I mean, I’m sure the writers did not expect yoga, in all its permutations, to be even bigger today. Topics like “Area Supervisor Hates To Break Up Little Party” and “Movie Fails To Deliver Stupidity Promised in Preview” will always be relevant as long as we have workplaces and movies.
What holds up worst?
Phrasing, mostly. There are some terms sprinkled throughout that wouldn’t be used now, including one of the throwaway headlines. The PSAs article, to me, doesn’t resonate anymore in terms of its topic, although maybe I’m wrong about that.
What would be done differently today?
Obviously, the internet story would be written differently, but I think the idea of “person is too obsessed with new technology/fad” is always a relevant Onion topic. I doubt we’d have a week go by in The Onion today in which almost no real-life people are the subject of stories. Look at The Onion’s front page of Jan. 25, 2020, and notice the contrast.
Is this a good thing? I prefer the older style, obviously, but I understand that maybe today people want to directly connect with the parody and satire. Creating your own universe of characters also requires a lot of staff, time and resources.
What was happening in the real world?
The issue published Jan. 26, but obviously there was a cut-off to accommodate print. So, each week, I’ll look at a week’s time, but set back a few days. Here’s what happened from Jan. 17-23, 2000, as listed by Wikipedia and The New York Times front pages (subscription required):
As noted last issue, Martin Luther King Jr. Day finally became an official holiday in every state. The Rock defeated Big Show at Royal Rumble (Wow, The Rock’s wrestling career goes back that far?). The 57th Golden Globe Awards. The New York Jets were bought. Hedy Lamarr died. A coup d'état in Ecuador. A lunar eclipse. Glaxo and SmithKline agreed to merge. Congress and Clinton fighting over a budget surplus. Russia battling Chechens. Yankees ready a 10-year contract for Derek Jeter. “Ocean Change Making Winter More Volatile.” FDA shuts down gene therapy effort. “Prosecutors Portray the Strands Of a Bin Laden Web of Terror.” States work on health care legislation.