The Onion: 20 Years Later — April 5, 2000
Bill Clinton struggles with a WWII submarine, the failure of Responsibilityuns, the Census goes horribly wrong and more non-quarantine news.
Welcome back to The Onion: 20 Years Later. Today, we’re looking at Vol. 36, Issue 12, from exactly 20 years ago: April 5, 2000.
I know it’s a weird and difficult time for many of us. I hope this offers a helpful distraction. If you know someone who loves The Onion — or just needs something that’s not #coronavirus to read, please share!
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What issue is this?
This is the 11th Onion issue of the 2000s, even though it says issue 12, because The Onion skipped March 29 publication (or, at the least successfully erased it from history). The photo above is from The Onion’s book collection of front pages and is what print readers saw. Here is the website in 2010 and in 2020.
The stories “'Peeing Calvin' Decals Now Recognized As Vital Channel Of National Discourse” and “World Covers Ears, Chants Loudly As EPA Releases Ozone-Depletion Statistics” were in this issue but are misplaced on the website in 2020.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
You would think the U.S. Census would be getting more attention these days, but that’s not the case with coronavirus, the election, the struggles of local media and whatever else is distracting us.
Back in 2000, The Onion was all over the decennial count, first with an infographic March 22 and now telling us the Census went poorly, as “U.S. Population At 13,462” tells us. This story works for me because it takes a very stupid premise — that any explanation makes sense except for the obvious possibility of a counting error — and has everyone in the story accept the outcome without question.
“No one lives in St. Louis,” apparently. Congress is more or less disbanding because there’s no one for them to represent (what a fantasy that is!). The massive US budget is now divided up among a handful of people, as one elderly man learns:
"Last week, I was turned away by the local V.A. hospital," said Warren Costello, 88, a Medford, MA, WWII veteran and diabetes sufferer who doesn't have medical insurance. "But now I can afford my very own jet-powered walker."
Sad to say that, in 2020, we still don’t have jet-powered walkers. There’s more bad news — the Census results suggest the economy will collapse, and rebuilding the population means we should “commence breeding, America,” in the words of Census director Kenneth Prewitt. But at no point does anyone doubt the data’s accuracy!
"Many theories have been offered, such as disease, or mass genocide by global thermonuclear war, or perhaps devastation from the killer-bee invasions that were predicted to occur sometime in the '90s," Prewitt said. "Many are even speculating that not everyone sent in their Census forms.”
This week, we have stories that fall into a few categories:
Not relevant in 2020 (no one today would care about USA Today’s redesign)
Temporarily impossible because of coronavirus lockdown — unless you’re the shitheads gathering at unsafe distances outside building and blocking the entrance as I write this.
Stories in this genre include “Man Carefully Selects T-Shirt For Night Out” and “Guy At House Party Must Be At Least 32,” as well as “Attempt To Impress Becky Lundegaard Undermined By Interloper.”
All of those have their strong points, and I’ll talk about some of them later. But I want to highlight two particular stories. The first is a long-time Onion classic: “Funyuns Still Outselling Responsibilityuns.”
This isn’t just a one-note joke. Instead, the story reveals an entire company, Delayed Gratifications, that is struggling to understand why none of its un-fun products — including Proprie-Teez Fruit Chews, Auto-Safety-Reminder Cakes, Character-Building Puffs and Homework-First Nut Clusters — are succeeding.
"I just don't understand what went wrong," said James Connell, CEO of Delayed Gratification Foods, the Dallas-based maker of the sober, salted snack. "Everybody knows that responsibility and self-reliance are virtues which, with patience and persistence, bring rewards far greater than the fleeting pleasure of instant gratification. And, frankly, that is all our competitor has to offer. We felt sure that customers would respond to our product's image of hard work and long-term stability."
I love the sort-of smart marketing approach The Onion delves into — everyone is offering snacks for instant gratification, so why don’t we exploit that hidden market of delayed gratification!
I’m only disappointed that there aren’t photos of all the products, not just Responsibilityuns.
My other favorite is The Onion’s fascination with “1980s-style action hero” President Bill Clinton. Here, he is “somewhere in the North Sea” aboard a captured Nazi submarine, but he’s struggling with steering it because — get this — the controls are in German! The story implies that Clinton might have also, somehow, time-warped back to World War II? Anyways, I could read stuff like this all day:
"I can't make head or tail of this Kraut malarkey!" Clinton told mortally wounded Seaman First Class Bruce Cohen, the plucky kid from Brooklyn who heroically fended off Stuka dive-bombers with the deck gun.
There’s also a brief mention of Donna Shalala at the end, who was a Clinton Cabinet member and previously head of the higher education system for the University of Wisconsin, where The Onion was founded.
Were the infographics good?
This is a very “Hey, it’s 2000” piece of content, starting with the premise, continuing through jokes like “New ‘Tonight on Frasier’” section and all the way to the “Gore” headline in the background. It’s fine, but probably was funnier back in the day. Weirdly, the joke about the “Buy This” box holds up the best, since that’s kind of how we do all our online shopping these days.
Look, I think Robin Williams could have come up with 15 jokes of his own, and most would have been funnier. The most egregious mistake here might be the awful illustration of Williams.
What real-life events/people were mentioned?
Bill Clinton. Kenneth Prewitt. USA Today’s redesign. Robin Williams. Women’s History Month. The Oscars. The 2000 Census. Bill Watterson. George Will. Mort Walker. Nadine Strossen. “Gwenth” Paltrow. Tom Hanks. Billy Crystal. Jennifer Lopez. Britney Spears. Julia Roberts. Leonardo DiCaprio. Pokémon. “Who Wants To Marry A Multi-Millionaire.” Rosie O'Donnell. Tom Selleck. Molly Ringwald.
Most of these mentions come from just two articles. First up is “'Peeing Calvin' Decals Now Recognized As Vital Channel Of National Discourse.”
“Calvin & Hobbes” remains beloved, but there was a certain peak of its popularity, and those car decals were certainly part of it. The Onion is not shy about mocking Americans for being unable to explain their political and cultural thoughts in a more complex form than a urinating cartoon (a sentiment I am sympathetic to):
"I used to devote hours to reading newspapers and magazines in an effort to understand my world and the issues that shape it. … But that became a tremendous expenditure of time I simply couldn't afford.”
But it’s not a rant — there’s a lot of funny, detailed depictions, such as the guy who hates the Dallas Cowboys or the idea of George Will’s Time magazine column using the illustration to depict his hatred of subsidized daycare facilities. All the other cartoonists are trying to get in on it, including Mort Walker of “Beetle Bailey.”
There are also lawsuits by Watterson and his comics distributor, and the ACLU president (Strossen) gets arrested defending the free speech aspects of it, which might sound like filler jokes.
But here’s the thing: There were many legal battles over the 100% unauthorized “Calvin & Hobbes” decals, with people being ticketed and arrested for displaying them and the ACLU suing at one point.
Most of the other real-life mentions comes from Jackie Harvey’s Oscars column, in which he talks about not watching the Oscars because he got caught up in “City Slickers” and its sequel. He also talks about, among other things, the Rosie O’Donnell-Tom Selleck gun-rights feud that I don’t remember and do not wish to investigate.
I’ve written effusively about Jackie Harvey before, but this one is not my favorite. Part of Harvey’s appeal is messing up the names and details, and here he’s actually mostly accurate, minus the Paltrow misspelling and mangling “Erin Brockovich” as “Erin Brokaw.”
Frankly, his column was exhausting to research because I don’t remember most of the stuff he was talking about. Can my Pokémon lovers clue me into to what was going on in 2000?
Kids everywhere are going ape for the Pokémon! As a columnist who likes to have his finger firmly planted on the grapevine of what's hot, I had to ask some hard questions: Is it an animal? Is it a game? Is it a movie? All I know for sure right now is that it has something to do with a yellow thing and two lawsuits. More as this develops.
Most “Hey, it’s 2000!” reference
Candidates include everything about the 2000 Oscars and “Calvin & Hobbes,” but it’s hard to top an entire item about USA Today’s print redesign — especially because The Onion blatantly stole much of its visual look from USA Today.
What columnists ran?
Besides Jackie Harvey, we — once again! — are treated to T. Herman Zweibel, the 132-year-old publisher-emeritus of The Onion. Here, we have a long, long monologue about how he is waiting for his sweetheart. But as she fails to show and the hours tick by, he becomes more and more enraged, finally calling to his manservant Standish:
"Procure the Swiss Guard, the iron-clad, the zeppelin, and the two-headed hound! I want that filthy vamp found, treed, and worried to bits! She'll stand me up no more, by cracky!"
Alas, she has not arrived because she is dead.
The Zweibel columns are deliberately uncomfortable to read. First off, we have sentences like “No, the President was not assassinated. If only that were the case! The news is far, far sadder.”
The Onion also pokes at the reader by reminding us of the 1800s aristocratic era where Zweibel originates. Here is the description of his fair maiden’s demise. As Standish reports:
“The cause of death is believed to have been extreme womanness, brought on by mild exertion. Apparently Miss Fiske was simply too feminine to live, sir."
This week 20 years ago, we were also treated to “Sometimes I Wish My Legs Had Never Been Crushed By That Train,” which is somewhat reminiscent to the legendary-and-would-not-run-today “God Answers Prayers Of Paralyzed Little Boy.”
This column is extremely dark and kind of depressing, but from a joke-construction perspective, it hits all the notes of the “looking back, you can’t have regrets!” thinkpieces. Thought Catalog was many years away, or else this would feel like a direct parody of that.
What was the best horoscope?
Taurus sums it up.
Taurus | April 20 to May 20
Try to take the long view: No matter how bad things are right now, you'll be dead in a hundred years.
Was Bill Clinton mentioned? Was an animal quoted?
Yes, he was! No animals. I’ll run this feature for as many years as it takes to get a damn talking animal.
What holds up best?
The “ordinary person’s life” stories still work pretty well, I think. Stuff like “Man Carefully Selects T-Shirt For Night Out” and “Guy At House Party Must Be At Least 32,” for example. I think “Funyuns Still Outselling Responsibilityuns” is still hilarious.
My readers who work in food and hospitality can probably weigh in on how accurate “Kitchen Staff Warned Not To Make Fun Of Regional Manager” still feels.
What holds up worst?
The “What Is Robin Williams Nicknaming His Genitalia?” suffers from not being funny, as well as Williams’ unfortunate passing. Mostly, I dislike it because Williams himself would have done this bit so much better.
What would be done differently today?
Good question. Besides a million coronavirus stories, there probably wouldn’t be a fun Trump story in the vein of the Clinton submarine item. But that’s more a reflection of massive shifts in how Americans approach politics culturally and less about The Onion (I think).
I like the structure of columns like “Sometimes I Wish My Legs Had Never Been Crushed By That Train.” But The Onion of 20 years ago went hard at various disabilities in stories like this (a theme I’ll be returning to), and I think many of the stories could be done differently today. Keep the framework of the story/joke, but tweak the contents.
What was happening in the real world?
The Onion published on April 5, but printing a newspaper requires an earlier deadline. Therefore, here are news items from March 20-April 2, 2000, as listed by InfoPlease and the front pages of The New York Times front pages (subscription required):
Putin elected Russian president. Rezulin diabetes drug yanked. US agrees to settlement in large-scale sex discrimination case. White House looks at Ritalin and Prozac use in preschoolers, while college students use prescription drugs illicitly. Pope John Paul II takes Holy Land tour. President Clinton visits Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, other countries. Automakers to make SUVs less dangerous to other cars. Supreme Court decisions: FDA not authorized to regulate tobacco, but bans on nude dancing are acceptable. Elian Gonzalez custody battle intensifies. “U.S. Cracks Down on Rise In Appalachia Moonshine.” Justice Department investigates Clinton administration emails. Genome decoded for Drosophila fruit fly. Survey: Anti-gay sentiment common in military. Bodies discovered in Ugandan cult deaths. “Invasion of Laptops Spurs a Revolution In College Teaching.” “American Beauty” wins Best Picture while, separately, stolen Oscars are recovered. Astronomers find Saturn-sized planets outside our solar system. Smith & Wesson’s gun settlement brings pressure from rest of industry. Gore, Bush both look at federal intervention in education. Senate candidate Jon Corzine apologies for anti-Italian comments. Family farms struggle. IRS: Tax evasion with inheritances increases. Baseball season begins.