The Onion: 20 Years Later — Pandemics and the Apocalypse
The Onion didn't publish 20 years ago, so this week we'll recap the year 2000 so far and review The Onion's coverage of pandemics and the apocalypse
Welcome back to The Onion: 20 Years Later, especially to the many new subscribers! Grateful to have you.
If you don’t know who I am, I’m an editor whose lifelong love of words and wordplay naturally dovetailed with things like “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” many TV shows and long books and, of course, The Onion. If you really want more, here’s my professional website and Twitter.
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What issue is this?
Normally, we’d be examining Vol. 36, Issue 11, from exactly 20 years ago: March 29, 2000. But here is the problem: There was no March 29, 2000, issue. The Onion took a week off.
But we won’t. What will today’s issue explore? Two themes:
How The Onion has covered pandemics in the past, as well as its coverage of the apocalypse and end times.
A quick recap of this newsletter’s coverage of The Onion in 2000 — especially helpful for new readers.
We’ll be back to regular programming next week, when I’m incredibly excited to discuss stories like “Funyuns Still Outselling Responsibilityuns.”
The Onion and the apocalypse/end times
This is The Onion’s print cover from November 1991 — an issue that apparently was meant to cover the two weeks before Thanksgiving all the way through the Monday after the holiday. Back then, The Onion wasn’t quite an official college newspaper in Madison, Wis., but that was pretty much its approach and its audience. There was no website, and the front cover routinely had coupons at the bottom for local businesses, just like many local/college papers would.
Of this article, I most enjoyed the section “Scream at the top of your voice! Words mean nothing! Communication is useless!” for some reason. Unfortunately, all I have is the cover from a book The Onion published in 2009, and so I can’t tell you how this story ends.
The Onion during the Mayan apocalypse and other end times
2012 was a much-anticipated year for doomsayers, and The Onion had numerous articles noting the supposed Mayan prediction or making fun of it. That’s just some of the end times coverage The Onion’s offered us over the years, including a few stories that might especially relevant to us in 2020:
“Man Who Will Die In Great Eastern Seaboard Flood Of 2023 Preparing For Mayan Apocalypse”: I enjoy how this guy is really into the Mayan garb, wearing a feathered headdres and “painting the traditional designs of a Mayan warrior on his face and chest.”
“Report: Apocalypse Actually Happened 3 Years Ago”: This August 2011 story has one of those great headlines that you can twist to fit almost any time. I’m sure such mutterings were issued by people during the Roosevelt administration (either Roosevelt), or by some Southerner in 1863 about Lincoln, or by a Roman during the 410 sack of the city by the Visigoths, and so on and so forth.
“Solitary Crow On Fence Post Portending Doom, Analysts Warn”: This almost-literary account tells of how the US government and military is on high alert — a $14 billion crow task force is convened! — because of this particular crow, as well as how the days of the Dust Bowl told similar stories. We get a great quote from President Barack Obama, who The Onion usually struggled (or didn’t try) to parody:
"Oh, crow, why must you taunt us with your unholy knowledge?" the president continued. "Leave us be or make haste with your nefarious doings!"
“Are Violent Video Games Adequately Preparing Children For The Apocalypse?”: This Onion video from 2009 parodies well the obsession with blaming video games for everything bad. Here, I enjoy the twist — the critics say video games are not doing enough to equip for violent anarchy. Not every panelist is pessimistic, however. Says American University professor Robert Haige;
“72% of kids said that they know how to find items to barter at weapon shops and how to use medicine packs to heal zombie bites.”
“Increasingly Paranoid Campbell’s Begins Stockpiling All Its Soup To Prepare For Doomsday”: This article is from less than 18 months ago! Great “Mad Max” reference at the end of the article:
“At press time, Campbell’s elders had commanded a band of mohawked, flamethrower-brandishing marauders to mount their diesel-belching dune buggies and take control of a Progresso refinery.”
“Woefully Misguided Man Stocking Up On Gallons Of Milk For Armageddon”: Why do people buy perishables to ride out the long haul? Is there something I’m missing about this habit?
“Report: Majority Of Americans Unprepared For Apocalypse”: I’m not here to cast aspersions on anyone. If you’re a doomsday prepper, you’re probably feeling vindicated. And if you’ve been woefully understocked on household goods, I get it — you’ve got a lot of things going on in your life. All that said, I love how The Onion takes the basic premise of Americans being unprepared and immediately moves it beyond reality:
"Our survey of households in seven U.S. regions demonstrated that few citizens have bothered to equip themselves with fireproof suits and extinguishers to deal with volcanic upheaval, solar flares, or the Lord's purifying flame," Malthusian Institute director James Olheiser said. "Almost no one is prepared for a sudden shift in the Earth's polarity or the eating of the Sun and moon by evil wolves Skol and Hati during Ragnarok."
We even get a fun map of the disaster scenarios!
The Onion and pandemic
The Onion used the word “coronavirus” only once before 2020, and that was in this 2013 MERS story “World Health Organization: ‘Not Sure How, But Adam Levine’s New Fragrance The Only Antidote To MERS Virus.’” Adam Levine is an easy target for mockery, but I did laugh at this quote:
When reached for comment, Levine said that learning his new perfume product provided effective relief from the latest fatal strain of coronavirus was “awesome, man. So cool.”
The Onion has also asked people on the street about the bird flu vaccine, broke the news on Nerf’s biological weapons development, and noted the CDC’s inability to stop the “virulent” pathogen known as mayonnaise.
Also noteworthy is The Onion’s 2014 article “What You Need To Know About Ebola.” Perhaps the most prescient joke was this:
How do you contract Ebola?
Ebola is contracted through contact with a health care system that vastly overestimates its preparedness for a global pandemic.
The Onion has also commented on hypothetical or fantastical pandemics. A few examples of these flights of fantasy:
“What If We Could Live In A World Without War But Way More Famine?”: This is a very weird and dark story, even for this publication.
“Dangerous Mutated Strain Of Fernandomania Discovered In Rural China”: I was too young for Fernando Valenzuela’s heyday, but congratulations to The Onion writer who came up with this in 2012. As World Health Organization director-general Margaret Chan says:
“Powerful Rest And Fluids Industry Influencing Doctors' Treatment Of Colds”: I always enjoy The Onion’s use of fake trade groups and industry associations, and the “Rest and Fluids” lobby is a great example.
Recapping our coverage of The Onion from 20 years ago!
Thank you for making it this far! You can check out the archive here — we’ve done 10 official issues.
If you’re brand-new and want a quick sense of, “What was The Onion’s best work from 20 years ago?” here are my top 5 articles from early 2000:
“Area Girlfriend Still Hasn't Seen Apocalypse Now” is one of the smartest, sharpest Onion stories ever, and I can only imagine how many real-life couples are having this very conversation during the quarantine.
“Area Man Consults Internet Whenever Possible,” as I wrote in January, is fun to read now and laugh at, but it’s also a preview of how we live now — constantly immersed in our screens, websites and apps.
“Catchphrases That Never Caught On”: I’m sorry, I just love all these stupid jokes.
“NFL Star Thanks Jesus After Successful Double Homicide” happened right as the Ray Lewis saga was starting. It’s still a great piece of writing that takes sports metaphors and uses them literally to describe murder. The fake NFL star also has quotes that eerily mimic Lewis’ real-life quotes more than a decade later.
The Onion had a character named T. Herman Zweibel, who was born in 1868 and was still alive in 2000. He had been the longtime editor and wrote delightful old-timey columns that often talked about the mid-1800s Whig political party, among other things. In February 2000, The Onion ran a column by Zweibel’s dead father, who decides to haunt his son from the afterlife. The next week, we get “Pater Is Haunting Me Again.” I am awed at the idea of The Onion crafting this ongoing soap opera for no reason at all.