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:

  1. How The Onion has covered pandemics in the past, as well as its coverage of the apocalypse and end times.

  2. 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.”

Drop me a note on Twitter or by email if you’ve got thoughts on this week’s issue, questions or just want to say hello!

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:

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:

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. “Catchphrases That Never Caught On”: I’m sorry, I just love all these stupid jokes.

  4. NFL Star Thanks Jesus After Successful Double Homicidehappened 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.

  5. 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.