The terrifying mutation in The Onion from 20 years ago
Plus, what if the government offered breakfast food? And we hear from The Onion's paper supply columnist
Welcome back to The Onion: 20 Years Later. Today, we’re looking at Vol. 36, Issue 09, from exactly 20 years ago: March 8, 2000.
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What issue is this?
What was the top story, and other impressions?
This issue, first of all, is way better than last week’s. Thank goodness.
There’s also this article, which is not about a virus but feels pretty damn on the nose right now: “Terrifying Mutation Killing Off U.S. Cabinet Members One At A Time.”
But what do I really want to talk about? The Onion of March 15, 2000, has two themes that I repeatedly touch on in this newsletter:
Some things that were jokes in 2000 are real life in 2020.
The Onion, like any creative effort, did some stuff that was well-crafted but would not be done today.
Let’s talk about No. 1 now, and save No. 2 for the “What would The Onion do differently today” section.
2000 jokes, 2020 real life
“Racist Merely Misspoke” is almost too spot-on to be a joke. For instance, this is probably a verbatim quote from some politician or celebrity:
"I can see how my remarks could have been misconstrued as offensive, but I can assure you they were not intended as such," Jeffries said.
“Sitcom On PBS Assumed To Be Intellectual” is cousins to the American love of “Downton Abbey,” a decent enough show that Americans loved because of its British accents (sorry, it’s true!). “I Dare Say, Mr. Pumsby!” is an excellent fake TV show name.
“Baby-Shower Attendees Quickly Drain Box Of White Zinfandel” is just a photo, but that’s all it needs to be. Everyone knows this tale.
I loved, loved, loved “Federal Government Introduces Six New Sizzlin' Skillet Breakfasts” — it’s inventive, overly detailed and very stupid. Not only do we get descriptions of the menus and the available seniors discount, we have George W. Bush and Al Gore feuding over it. Bush, perhaps unexpectedly, is more worried about the unhealthy, fat-laden menu items, while Gore counters that Bush is ignoring the Veggie Skillet.
Meanwhile, President Bill Clinton is apparently not concerned about the space creature killing his Cabinet members and is happy to be living out the Phil Hartman “SNL” McDonald’s sketch:
"When I first ran for president, I envisioned a future filled with hot, fresh food served fast and with a smile," Clinton said. "In 1980, Reagan said it was morning in America. Well, he hadn't seen anything yet. Come and get it, America."
There was a lot to like this week, even if there were some swings and misses. Here are my highlights:
“Executive Quits Fast Track To Spend More Time With Possessions”: Look, The Onion is saying: “We can cure overwork or we can cure the worshiping of material possessions — we can’t do both.” Love the details of chemical CEO Edwin Randle’s possessions, and setting the story in Houston (the US oil/gas/chemicals capital) is a nice touch. I also enjoy this quote, with its very 2000 mention of Hammacher Schlemmer:
"Can you believe I wasn't even there for the delivery of my first anti-gravity back-stretch/relaxation table?" Randle asked. "My wife had to sign the Hammacher Schlemmer invoice all by herself. I should have been there to lift that baby out of the box, but I was working at the time. What a fool I was."
“Parents Of Nasal Learners Demand Odor-Based Curriculum”: A jam-packed article with — one of my favorite 2000-era Onion tropes — fake groups such as Parents Of Nasal Learners, Nasal Learning Research Institute and the Nasal/Olfactory Secondary Education (NOSE) certification program at Brown University. I will caution that I do understand and support efforts to help all children learn regardless of obstacles. This piece, though, does feel like a good out-there absurdist take on the situation (and before No Child Left Behind!).
Finally, a special mention for the two headline-only items that were in the 2000 print edition and website but no longer exist on the web:
“Pronunciation Corrected Incorrectly”
“Pelvis Thrust At Camera”
Were the infographics good?
I love this ecstasy infographic both in the quantity and quality of jokes.
“Similar to cocaine but without that ‘hanging with total assholes’ sensation” is so good, as is “Provides euphoric sensation Christianity promises but fails to deliver.”
Not as good is this short St. Patrick’s Day infographic, with the main credit going to some Onion writer properly punning off of “Cead Mille Failte,” although maybe it’s misspelled? If anyone’s got an answer, let me know.
What real-life events/people were mentioned?
George W. Bush. Al Gore. Then-Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman. Then-Commerce Secretary William Daley. Then-Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater. Mozambique flooding. Rip Taylor.
Most “Hey, it’s 2000!” reference
The one that jumped out to me was in the “Ecstasy Boom” infographic, where “Only drug that makes huge, baggy pants feel like a snug fit” brought back many memories of how stupidly we all dressed 20 years ago. I was in high school then, so that trend was even worse among the youth.
I will also accept the mention of “Spin City,” the sitcom where Michael J. Fox plays New York City Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty, in the article “National Interest In Anything Hovering Around 3 Percent.”
What columnists ran?
OK, here’s a confession: I have loved “Cash-Room Bitch Be Havin' My Shortie” for a long time. I know, I know, there are SO MANY PROBLEMS with the article and especially the character itself.
The Onion realized this, too, because they killed off Herbert Kornfeld in 2007.
Re-reading this column in 2020, here are my thoughts:
I feel like I’m reading a foreign language, the slang is so dense.
This is a Michael Scott character years before “The Office'“ for two reasons. Obviously, both are white guys wishing they were part of black culture. But there’s also an unusual dedication to office supply superiority. I mean, H-Dog loves Midstate Office Supply and the office-supply life:
“I gonna give him all tha thingz I never had as a shortie. He gonna have his own dry-erase board wit' multicolored markers, a set of looseleaf accountin' ledgas, a all-purpose desktop monthly planner, and a full supply o' Scotch tape, paypa clips, an' Post-It notes 'til he turns 18 and can fends for hisself. Hell, I might even spring foe a filin' cabinet.”
I genuinely laughed at Herbert telling his origin story (Also, all those “Big Willie” references have to be Will Smith-related, right?):
“Mah daddy wuz a regional manager foe Waldenbooks, an' when I still be in mah Underoos, some Big Willie give him a job at tha corporate headquarterz of Kraft Foodz.”
The best thing to say about Herbert Kornfeld is what Sam Morrill says in his recent special: “Some of these jokes, the content you’re not going to like, but structurally they’re going to be really solid.”
Also running was “You Sure As Hell Don't Want To Take The River Road Exit,” which is a delightful pre-cellphone, pre-GPS rambling of utterly confusing directions from an Area Man. Here’s just a taste of Harlan Porter’s advice:
“Once you're on Cedarburg Road, you're practically home free, except you gotta remember that out in the country, the roads don't always go where they ought to, strictly speaking.”
Finally, my main man T. Herman Zweibel answered reader fan mail in “Readers' Inquiries Answered.” I enjoy how he fails to understand what an email address is or that a letter from “Family Clearinghouse Sweepstakes” to “Occupant” does not require an assassin’s intercession.
What was the best horoscope?
Many contenders this week. For sheer depth, I will go with Aries.
Aries | March 21 to April 19
Your promise to be "the best sister in the world" if God saves your pet hamster is complicated by the fact that you have no siblings, you are not female, and Mr. Squeaks is a rat.
Was Bill Clinton mentioned? Was an animal quoted?
Yes, Bill Clinton delivered this week! No animals, but you can’t have it all.
What holds up best?
“Racist Merely Misspoke” and “Pronunciation Corrected Incorrectly” are eerily on target. And if you didn’t like “Federal Government Introduces Six New Sizzlin' Skillet Breakfasts,” please don’t unsubscribe, but do understand you will be disagreeing with me a lot going forward!
What holds up worst?
I’ve elided over this week’s flaws, maybe because I’m just happy about the improvement over last week. But “Suicide Attempts A Desperate Cry For Death” is absolutely something The Onion would not do now.
A semi-trend I’ve seen is that 2000 The Onion’s love of fake trade associations seemingly overrode their good judgment, and it’s true here with that article’s National Psychiatric Association, which is not even clever. It reads like someone in Legal said, “Please don’t mention the APA.”
What would be done differently today?
The Onion would go for different wordplay than “Pederast Judge Tries 11-Year-Old As Adult,” for sure.
Herbert Kornfeld, obviously, would be replaced. RIP H-Dog.
As always, there would probably be less silly political humor in a presidential year and more election humor. That said, this Friday’s “Health Experts Worry Coronavirus Will Overwhelm America’s GoFundMe System” is a modern example of The Onion being able to skewer the real world without simply mimicking headlines.
What was happening in the real world?
The Onion published on March 15, but printing a newspaper requires an earlier deadline. Therefore, here are news items from March 6-March 12, 2000, as listed by InfoPlease and The New York Times front pages (subscription required):
Gore and Bush finish off primary challengers. Napster worries music labels. Warmest US winter on record. Pope John Paul II apologizes for centuries of mistakes. INS reduces enforcement as businesses need workers. “Web Research Transforms Trip To The Doctor.” 3 convictions in Abner Louima assault. Boeing engineers on strike. Nine West Group agrees to fine for fixing prices on shoes. MGM Resorts buys Mirage. Iranian reformist wounded in shooting. UN opens peacekeeping inquiry. Afghan girls seek literacy despite Taliban. Space shuttle safety questioned. Cincinnati basketball star Kenyon Martin breaks leg. Reno aides suggested Gore inquiry. Survey finds love for creationism theory in schools. NYT profiles Stephen Sondheim at 70 [and is doing so now at 90].