The Onion discussed Britney, Canadian girlfriends, family vacations 20 years ago
Plus: models, cats, PlayStation 2, Claymation Jesus and Rudy Giuliani
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 24, 2000.
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What issue is this?
This was Vol. 36, Issue 19, the 18th published Onion issue of the 2000s, as The Onion skipped March 29, 2000.
The photo above is from the Onion book of front pages, and here’s how the website looked in 2000, 2010 and today. You won’t find “U.S. No Longer Responsible For Lost Or Stolen Items” on today’s issue page, but it’s still online.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
Let’s get it out of the way. "Twelve Customers Gunned Down In Convenience-Store Clerk's Imagination” is sharply written and illustrated, and it effectively parodies someone’s fantastical inner monologue and the dread of working retail. But it also embraces the kinetic energy of mass shootings. The Onion, here and previously, was clear that Columbine and other incidents were not off-limits. That’s OK. But do you need to read this? No.
This article has a lot in common with Eminem’s “The Marshall Mathers LP.,” believe it or not. Both debuted the same week 20 years ago, each well-crafted. Both present simultaneously brilliant and unacceptable forms of horrorcore. Both are monuments to pop culture and society in the year 2000, even if Eminem’s album is a much larger monument.
The thing with monuments is they represent what has happened; they usually don’t inspire the future. This article, like that Eminem album, exists in a point of time we should remember but don’t need to return to.
Many little delights from (sort of) real life
This issue is full of little stories about ordinary life, and some have more twists than others. “Area Cat Allergic To Kevin Strenlow Dander” is a classic switcheroo, and my only complaint is that the veterinarian is quoted, not Tibbles the cat. “Atheist Swayed By Claymation Story Of Christ” is a short but sweet Onion example of Mad Libsing a word or two to change an otherwise dull story.
“Overweight Man To Lose Weight If He Gets Really Overweight” is even more straightforward, and the only twist is the suggestion of a larger avoidance issue:
“Schuitt has also vowed to take out a bill-consolidation loan if his debts hit $15,000.”
Meanwhile, “Model To Give Acting A Shot” is a fun headline but is barely satire, nor is “TV Executive Claims To Be Looking For Edgy.” The latter article might reflect The Onion’s flirtation with TV networks throughout the 1990s.
Weirdest of these somewhat bland real-life stories is “Awestruck Video-Game Fan Describes Brush With PlayStation 2.” The headline and article feel funnier now than when PlayStation 2 was actually coming out. PS2 debuted in North America just before Halloween 2000, so why wouldn’t someone be excited about a preview in May?
We also have a few articles that read like ordinary tales but have increasing levels of irony or silliness.
“U.S. No Longer Responsible For Lost Or Stolen Items” takes the commonly known lost-and-found box and imagines that the federal government operated hundreds and hundreds of these centers but has decided to discontinue them. There are some funny details, to be sure, but perhaps this also is a subtle critique of the Clinton/GOP smaller-government era?
(A source close to this newsletter reminds me that TSA has sort of become the nation’s lost-and-found section. Zing!)
Meanwhile, The Onion conducts a thorough investigation of Timothy Woronoff’s claim to have a foreign beau named Audrey de Trudeau.
Woronoff has produced a picture of his lady, but he’s full of excuses about why they don’t see each other, from Y2K (seriously) to expensive flights to Audrey’s parents’ anti-American attitude. Woronoff has even refused local girls’ advances, confusing his friends further.
"I'm at the point where I'm going to call Alberta information and ask if there's an Audrey de Trudeau there," Dwight said. "If Tim is lying about this whole thing and living in a pathetic fantasy world, that's his own deal, I guess. But I've just gotta know. It's killing me."
The best part of both these stories? We don’t find out if the heart-transplant recipient lives, and we don’t find out the truth about Audrey de Trudeau.
Finally, I want to talk about “Slightly Upset Woman Declared Insane,” which I was fearful of reading. I suspect it will bring up a range of feelings in the readership, but I do like that there’s a subtle implication that The Onion knows who the butt of the joke should be. I mean, this poor Gayle woman already has a lazy husband, and then:
According to coworkers, she has reacted irrationally to everything from having to work weekends to having her assigned parking spot taken away.
For folks looking for jokes and wordplay, we do get the clever, almost-read-over-it title for Dr. Marvin Schaffer: '“director of hysteriatrics at St. Joseph's Hospital.”
The Onion’s print edition used to include a few headlines, sometimes with a photo, on the front page. The headlines with no photo are no longer online, and while many of those jokes are dated or unremarkable, this week’s are better. They’re below, and also in the above cover photo.
“Greenspan Tattoos 'Fed Life' Across Abdomen” — honest to God, why was Alan Greenspan such a celebrity?
“Woman On TV Gives Birth To Four-Month-Old Baby”
Also featured was the ridiculous headline and photo “Earliest Known T-Shirt Found.” Is it brilliant or really dumb? Or both?
Were the infographics good?
May 2000 also featured Britney Spears’ second album, which was as big an event as Eminem’s. As you might guess, 16-year-old me was more interested in one of those albums.
I think the jokes here are OK, especially as it was probably written by guys not really listening to her music. I asked my co-worker Katie, this newsletter’s unofficial Britney correspondent, about this infographic, and she did note one omission: no comments on the red outfit we see above.
This infographic is just stereotypes, but thankfully nothing that has aged horribly. Credit — and demerits? — for getting a “Battlefield Earth” reference into an infographic for the second consecutive week. And "My Bassoon Teacher’s Décolletage” forced me to ask how to pronouce “décolletage.”
Finally, we have “Planning A Family Vacation,” which comes at the topic from about a dozen angles. Some of the joke genres include:
Murder plot: “Not all life-insurance policies will pay out if your family is killed in a foreign country. If this is your plan, ask yourself whether you're doing it for financial or personal reasons.”
Old-even-in-2000 song reference: “Lindsay Buckingham found out long ago: It's a long way down the holiday road. Holiday ro-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-oad.”
German efficiency: “Organization is the key to a successful vacation. Have a German army officer plan your trip.”
My favorite? Probably this one, even if there’s a debate to be had (please, not here) about hours of service regulations.
“Whenever possible, encourage your children to distract sleep-deprived, speed-addled men driving 20-ton trucks.”
What columnists ran?
Much like many of the “news” stories,” we have a real-life sentiment stretched into absurdity in the column “Even Though I'd Never Seen Major League, I Found Major League II Surprisingly Easy To Follow.” Unlike Don Grella, I’ve seen the first movie and not the second, so I am confused in the opposite direction.
Also, remember how boring Friday nights were 20 years ago if you just wanted to watch some TV? Grella writes.
There were the Daytime Emmy Awards on ABC, some boring old musical on TNT, and four straight Saturday Night Live reruns on Comedy Central.
There was, admittedly, Major League II on Cinemax. But despite my love of baseball, I fretted that I'd likely be lost in the plot, not having seen the 1989 original.
This article goes deep into how the “Major League II” producers made sure newbies know what’s going on, and I learned a surprising amount about the actual movie’s plot. So, thanks, The Onion!
T. Herman Zweibel returns, as he always does, but this time he’s not musing about people who have wronged him, his dead fiancée or recently discovered son. No, he’s debuting his third play in “A Drama In Three Acts.”
Unfortunately, “The Syphilis-Crazed Young Norwegian Man” is not good. It is, however, short!
What real-life events/people were mentioned?
Charlie Sheen. Bob Uecker. Britney Spears. Backstreet Boys. Minor Threat. Rudy Giuliani. Hillary Clinton. Jewel. Yanni. Alan Greenspan. Jesus. Bruce Babbitt.
The column about “Major League II” mentions Sheen and Uecker, while the Backstreet Boys and Minor Threat are briefly mentioned in the Britney infographic.
Then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani had dropped out of the U.S. Senate race against Hillary Clinton while fighting prostate cancer (he also randomly announced his separation at a May press conference), and The Onion asked people, “What do you think?” People are not terribly sympathetic, although one respondent, cook Hector Ramirez, is confused: “Madre de Dios! Jewel y Yanni tienen cáncer?"
Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt appears in “U.S. No Longer Responsible For Lost Or Stolen Items,” scolding Americans about losing so many items and expecting the federal government to find and return them. In real life that week, Babbitt took blame for the National Park Service losing control of a fire that destroyed homes.
Most “Hey, it’s 2000!” reference
“Planning A Family Vacation” includes the advice to “Visit a local travel agency and load up on Caribbean-cruise brochures.”
This reminded me of “The Americans,” where the main characters operate a travel agency in the early/mid-1980s. That era of travel seems infinitely closer to 2000 than 2000 does to now.
There’s also the idea of dialing “information” on a phone in “Canadian Girlfriend Unsubstantiated.” My favorite also comes from that article, where Timothy’s friend Dwight questions some of Timothy’s excuses:
"Tim said he couldn't fly there because his parents wouldn't let him travel over New Year's, with the whole Y2K thing and all.”
Oh, Y2K. It’s been so long that people now think the entire thing was a ruse (it was not).
Was Bill Clinton mentioned? Was an animal quoted?
No, but stay tuned for next week!
What was the best horoscope?
Libra looked behind the curtain this week in the horoscopes.
Libra | Sept. 23 to Oct. 22
Your outgoing nature, sweet temperament, and love of family are in no way evident outside of your description as a Libra.
What holds up best?
There’s not much topical about “Even Though I'd Never Seen Major League, I Found Major League II Surprisingly Easy To Follow” that resonates today — not the movies, not Charlie Sheen, not channel-surfing on a Friday night — but the idea of seeing a sequel and realizing you don’t need to have seen the original is a pretty timeless experience.
What holds up worst?
The joke in the family vacation item about selling your daughters to finance a “Far East” vacation certainly seems off-putting now. First of all, if the “Taken” franchise taught us anything, it’s that you hunt down those guys, not do business with them. There are also more serious, real-life objections.
What would be done differently today?
I think The Onion today would not focus on weight in “Overweight Man To Lose Weight If He Gets Really Overweight,” and even the tag about debt feels from a different era of politics.
Again, nothing in this issue about the 2000 presidential campaign, although the Rudy news was very topical.
What was happening in the real world?
The Onion published May 24, but printing a newspaper requires an earlier deadline. Therefore, here are news items from May 15-21, 2000, as listed by InfoPlease and the front pages of The New York Times (subscription required):
Rick Lazio replaces Giuliani in Senate race. Sierra Leone rebel leader captured after rebels captured UN peacekeepers. South Carolina removes Confederate flag from Capitol dome (flies smaller one nearby). Charges brought in 1963 church bombing. Banned drug thalidomide can be a useful treatment, scientists say. Mothers march against gun violence. Japan’s ex-prime minister dies after April stroke. Supreme Court strikes down Violence Against Women Act provision permitting federal lawsuits against attackers. Bush introduces Social Security proposal. Internet portal Lycos agrees to sale. Fed rate reaches 6.5%. “In the Pursuit of Cybercriminals, Real Detectives Rely on Amateurs.” Congress won’t set deadline for Kosovo troop removal. Time Warner, Disney resolve cable dispute. Study: Women react to stress differently than men. FTC wants broader authority to regulate Internet. Tony and Cherie Blair welcome a baby. NBA player Malik Sealy dies in car crash.