Monday, May 17th, 1999
It’s the third (more or less) week of the May sweeps, and I’ve been celebrating by not watching television just as much as I possibly can. It’s probably quite an indictment of my tastes in entertainment, but somehow I’ve been able to pass up the enticements offered by NBC ("Atomic Train"? "Atomic Train"!?) and CBS (LeeLee Sobieski plays the young Helen Hunt in "Joan of Arc"), and I saw all the revealing stuff from ABC’s "Cleopatra" back in April on Entertainment Tonight.
So-that freed me to go wander the bookstore, and I returned not with great literature, but great satire-and I’ve been laughing myself to sleep every night for most of a week now.
I hold in my hand "The Onion presents Our Dumb Century-100 Years of Headlines from America’s Finest News Source."
The concept is simplicity itself. The 8 1/2 by 11 book presents us with reproductions of the front page of The Onion-one or two a year-from the past hundred years of this newspaper’s existence. We’re taken from the Puritanical, early-industrial America of the 1900s on a long march through the decades-touching somehow, on everything newsworthy, trendy, or pop-cultural along the way.
This is a particularly neat trick because The Onion has really only been around a decade or so. It’s a heretofore little-known humor publication, based in Madison, Wisconsin. Their conceit-a restrained, generic American newspaper simply reporting the news and trends of the day-makes for an amazingly effective way to satirize, spoof, and generally cause spontaneous humor combustion.
This book is so damn funny-and observant-on so many levels. It is lighthearted on one page, savage on the next; a bit juvenile one moment, and then it wheels about and out-intellectualizes the Harvard Lampoon moments after that.
A scan of the headlines for January 1, 1900-one page out of 160 or so-might give you some sense of the bounty to be had: "A New Century Dawns!/McKinley Ushers In Bold New Coal Age/ Nation’s Skies Filled With Beautiful, Black Smoke/Death-by-Corset Rates Stabilize At One In Six/Ladies Breathe Slightly Less Painful Sigh Of Relief." On the same page: "Vatican Condemns ‘Rhythm Method’", and a summary of "To-Day’s Extinctions," and a proud corner-box exclaims "Fewer Printing-Press-Men Killed Every Day."
No, I guess it doesn’t give you the idea, here, because a big part of the book’s payoff is in the presentation. "Our Dumb Century" is a beautifully-crafted design parody, too, expertly reproducing the cluttered, smudgy, old metal-typeface look of a century past, and bringing us up all the way to the USA Today-like front page of the 90s, complete with weather map, pointless graphs, and last night’s lotto numbers. Context and content had me LOL, ROTFL, and all those other Internet acronyms.
I remember thinking at the bookstore cash register "Boy, this better be 15 bucks worth of laughs." (It hadn’t been a good day up till that point.) Well. "Our Dumb Century" is so dense, so packed, so much fun that it’s a bargain at twice that price. Read this book, visit their website (www.theonion.com) regularly-support and cultivate this source of fine American satire. I have a feeling we’ll need all we can get.