The Onion 20 years ago wrote about Big Raccoon's demands
Finally, anthropomorphized animals! Also, why I'm still publishing this weekend.
Welcome back to The Onion: 20 Years Later, where we review the print issue from exactly 20 years ago, trying to find out what’s still funny and examining the cultural impact. Today, we look at the issue from May 31 , 2000.
I thought about delaying this email given the crises facing our country right now and many people preoccupied with the news, protests, supporting people in need, grappling with the coronavirus or unemployment, and so forth. I’m reluctantly publishing on schedule beceause while I wouldn’t call The Onion: 20 Years Later an escape — we can do more confronting challenges head-on — everyone needs a break, whether it’s from work, stress, strife or struggle. I hope this is that break for you.
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What issue is this?
This was Vol. 36, Issue 20, the 19th published Onion issue of the 2000s, as The Onion skipped March 29, 2000.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
Probably 20% of the reason I started this newsletter was the chance to discuss The Onion’s use of talking animals in stories. But for more than four months, I have been stymied, until now.
Some people will not enjoy “Raccoon Leaders Call For Loosening Of Garbage-Can Lids.” This is unfortunate. But I understand that maybe you don’t want to accept the ludicrous preconditions of this satire:
There are talking raccoons, and this is normal
These raccoons have a long-established political/lobbying arm
The raccoons still act like normal raccoons when not giving speeches
The US government and human society interact with them like any other interest group
National Wildlife Federation mascot Ranger Rick is a real raccoon and simultaneously works for NWF and the raccoon group North American Raccoon Federation (seems like a violation of ethics laws!)
Ranger Rick kills cats, according to homemaker Denise Durbin
Possums are still considered worse in this universe
Also, “Rummaging Into The 21st Century” is a brilliant slogan. Put your faith in me and read the whole thing.
Troubles at work, at home, on the streets
This week, The Onion has many stories about local people, which usually hold up better 20 years later than, say, “Battlefield Earth” jokes.
Another recurring theme in this newsletter is that sometimes 2000’s jokes become 2020’s real life. This occurs with the headline-and-photo “You Can Tell Area Bank Used To Be A Pizza Hut.”
Why is this 2020 in real life? Well, there was literally a “Today” show feature this month on former Pizza Huts becoming banks!
This 2000-to-2020 trend also negatively affects one of The Onion’s most-remembered stories, “Five Or Six Dudes Jump Out Of Nowhere And Just Start Whaling On This One Guy.”
First, let’s recognize this article’s lasting appeal. Much of the early Internet has disappeared, but you can still find old message board threads or blog posts citing this article as a favorite. As late as 2018, it made a list of Gawker Media’s favorite Onion posts. You can also find “Five or Six Dudes …” as part of grammar discussions about “whaling on” versus “wailing on” and in a book about The Onion and philosophy.
But the events of late May 2020 also make this article feel incongruous, no matter how silly its stoner-slang dialogue. For me, the tone and wording still ground it as fantastical satire, but your mileage may vary, and that’s OK.
One last note on “Five Or Six Dudes Jump Out Of Nowhere And Just Start Whaling On This One Guy”: My favorite twist is that The Onion creates doubt as to whether the incident happened but fails to resolve that uncertainty. We’re left to imagine the outcome, just as we had to with last week’s “Nothing Going Right For Area Surgeon Today” and “Canadian Girlfriend Unsubstantiated.”
Here are quick hits on other “local” stories in this week’s issue:
Cleaning was a theme, with our protagonists feeling anxious in “Woman Apologizes For What Appears To Be Clean House” and “Apartment-Wide Porn Sweep Precedes Date's Arrival.” The latter is explicitly detailed about a young man’s 2000-era collection, including quaint concepts such as VHS videos, magazines like Playboy, Details, Perfect 10 and Maxim, and a “partially completed Vivid Video mail-order form.”
“Conversation With Boss Puts Man An Hour Behind” is painfully relevant for most people, except it’s shifted from a physical office to Zoom.
Public bathrooms can be stressful for people! “Area Man Coughs To Let Others Know He's In Bathroom” summarizes this problem nicely.
While Toys ‘R’ Us is dead, the spirit of “Toys 'R' Us Sign Triggers Pavlovian Shrieking Response In Child” lives on in all parents.
The Onion spotlights the annual search for colleges and also displays its collection of inside jokes about the University of Wisconsin system in “High-School Senior Amazed By Coolness Of University Of Wisconsin-Whitewater.” One mind-blowing feature of the campus is “a computer center that's open 24 hours a day,” reports high-school senior Chris Knopecke.
Odds & Ends
The phrase “Bikini Inspector” makes its second appearance in The Onion in as many months, this time as part of the “What Do You Think” feature “Federal Security Breaches.” Here, it’s “Federal Bikini Inspector,” as opposed to April 26’s “Official Bikini Inspector” T-shirt.
That same article also includes this ominous quote:
"As a terrorist, I say the public release of this report detailing specific security flaws in key federal buildings is a positive first step."
Were the infographics good?
For most of early 2000, President Bill Clinton and Congress grappled with a trade bill to give China improved trade status. The resulting law is something we’re living with today, for better or worse.
This infographic most obviously suffers from the slur in the fourth joke., but it’s not that funny in the rest of the jokes. At best, we learn how naive we were to think US brands would dominate Chinese culture or that Wal-Mart and Pizza Hut would be the battleground rather than Big Tech, factory-made goods and IP theft.
What columnists ran?
Staff columnist Jean Teasdale publishes her third column of the 2000s with “Praise The Lord... And Pass The Chocolate!” She’s still getting grief from her husband, and her constant ability to spin that awful relationship remains off-putting (to me, at least).
She also has to deal with her brother, who confronts her over her recent arrest and also tries to convert her from lapsed Catholic to born-again. At least her mom reads her stuff!
"Mom showed me your past few columns," Kevin said. "You were arrested? What kind of life are you living, Jean?"
"I was hoping you'd be the only one of us kids without a rap sheet. But now you're on those mind-altering anti-depressant pills, too? Jean, can't you see that this sort of trouble is bound to happen when you refuse to let Jesus into your life?"
Things aren’t going well! But when Kevin mentions that Jesus > chocolate, Jean is intrigued and agrees to attend a local Baptist service. There, she’s asked to speak to the congregation, pours her heart out, and gets the courage to tell her husband, “Get thee behind me, Satan!"
Will Jean remain devoted to Jesus? I genuinely don’t know. We’ll just have to wait until her next column.
We also have “Genocide Is Such A Harsh Word” by fictional Myanmar/Burma Gen. Myanaung Phauk. It’s an excellent depiction of the lies told to excuse bad behavior while adopting the “What, me?” tone of any good Bond villain. Here’s a good sample paragraph:
True, it was the Shan miners at Bawdwin who were seized and burned to death inside the shafts. And, yes, it was Shan workers who were split throat-to-stomach and stacked up like cordwood in the smeltery at Namtu. But to call these massacres? That's so extreme.
Finally, Onion publisher emeritus T. Herman Zweibel appears yet again with “Advice For Gentle-Men,” critiquing the men’s magazine “Gentle-Man’s Quarterly Gazette” and offering an alternative. Zweibel is about 18.5 years ahead of the real-life GQ in declaring it “a magazine that isn't really trying to be exclusively for or about men at all.”
His advice is not exactly admirable, but there are some nuggets of truth, notably:
“Bosoms above the fold sell more papers than anything, excepting war. Arranging for either is not all that difficult.”
What real-life events/people were mentioned?
Bill Clinton. Then-Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio. Ranger Rick. Sen. Frank Lautenberg. Rudy Giuliani. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Nancy Reagan. R.E.M. Pope John Paul II.
Jorge Sampaio makes his only Onion appearance in "Clinton Goes On Fun Plane Ride,” one of many late-administration stories where The Onion turns Clinton into a cartoon character.
Lautenberg, Giuliani and Hutchison all appear in “Raccoon Leaders Call For Loosening Of Garbage-Can Lids.” Lautenberg is bowled over by “their little pawsy-hands” and “widdle bandit masky-wasks,” while Hutchison is critical of raccoons, calling them “animals.” Meanwhile, Rocky Raccoon was kidnapped and placed in the Central Park Children’s Zoo after meeting with Giuliani.
Reagan is briefly mentioned in “Federal Security Breaches.”
The pope appears in the front-page non sequitur “Pope Breaks Cinder Block With Head,” which is no longer available online.
Most “Hey, it’s 2000!” reference
You know when people say old TV plots wouldn’t work today because of smartphones and/or the internet? The same goes for “Apartment-Wide Porn Sweep Precedes Date's Arrival,” in which all of Randy Thaler’s frantic preparation could be simplified to, I don’t know, closing browser tabs, clearing his history and locking his phone.
Honorable mention to two quotes from “High-School Senior Amazed By Coolness Of University Of Wisconsin-Whitewater,” one about the college town’s record stores and one about the campus center’s events calendar:
“I looked under R.E.M., and they had almost every album by them. They even had an entire section of rap music. Just as amazing, though, is this other store, The CD X-change, where you can buy used CDs for, like, half the price of new ones. I'm gonna be there all the time."
"Every Wednesday, they have an open-mic night down in the U.C. basement, just like on MTV Unplugged.”
Was Bill Clinton mentioned? Was an animal quoted?
Thank God, yes to both! Clinton is mentioned in the raccoons article as well as "Clinton Goes On Fun Plane Ride.”
What was the best horoscope?
So many pizza references in this issue, so let’s go with Gemini.
Gemini | May 21 to June 20
You will dashingly send out for an enchanting pizza and fall gloriously asleep in front of the majestic television.
What holds up best?
“Conversation With Boss Puts Man An Hour Behind,” obviously. In my day job, I edit a workplace leadership newsletter, and I’ve learned almost everything boils down to communicating well and respecting people’s time — or not. We’ll never shake interpersonal problems, and hopefully we can always laugh through them.
What holds up worst?
“U.S.-China Trade Pact,” for many reasons.
What would be done differently today?
“Sierra Leone Burns Down” isn’t much of a joke, and while it’s nice The Onion of 2000 consistently paid attention to this international story, it would ideally do something more here.
Again, no presidential campaign stories. Maybe it’s good our society was less obsessed with mixing politics and satire back then? I don’t know. But the absence is noticeable today, even if other Washington news is covered.
Sadly, I don’t think such a detailed raccoons-as-lobbyists article would exist today, but there’s always hope.
What was happening in the real world?
The Onion published May 31, but printing a newspaper requires an earlier deadline. Therefore, here are news items from May 22-28, 2000, as listed by InfoPlease and the front pages of The New York Times (subscription required):
House votes for China trade bill. United Airlines to buy US Airways. Space Shuttle Atlantis returns from repairs at International Space Station. Supreme Court overturns federal law restricting sexual content on cable. Bush: US needs fewer nuclear weapons, also needs a missile-defense system. NYT profiles home-schooling movement. AT&T wins Justice approval for MediaOne cable buy. Charges dropped against Linda Tripp. People want high-speed internet wired into new homes. Israel withdraws from Lebanon. Northern Ireland peace accord survives latest test. Chile revokes immunity for Augusto Pinochet. Corruption plagues Peruvian election. Army general loses new job after sexual harassment accusation. N.J.-to-Pennsylvania flight crashes, killing 19. Exports drive Asian economies’ growth. Counterfeiters focus on Russia’s Vologda butter.