The Onion

Our Dumb World, The Onion

Little Brown, 2007, 245 pages, C$32.50 hc, ISBN 0-316-01842-2

Every year, just in time for Christmas gift-giving, the fine folks at the satirical weekly newspaper The Onion come out with a big, thick tome of goodness. Since 2000, that has taken the form of a yearly compilation of The Onion’s best pieces, but 1999 saw the publication of Our Dumb Century a faux-retrospective of The Onion’s front pages through the twentieth century that proved to be one of the finest humour book of the last hundred years. This year, The Onion skips the yearly anthology in favour of another massive all-original tome: they take on the entire world with Our Dumb World, a flawlessly-designed parody of an educational geography textbook.

Look at any randomly-chosen page, and you will see that every country is listed, along with their flag, representative photos, quick facts and an annotated map. But look closer, and you will realize that nearly every single line in this folio-sized 245-page book is a joke of some sort. Every single country in the world is put through the wringer, starting with the USA (14 pages of self-deprecation so acid, it feels as if foreigners wrote it) and ending with Greenland (“The Largest Land Mass on Earth”). The completeness of the coverage sometimes become a joke in its own right, with some countries grouped under the headings “A Bunch of God-Damned Islands”, “The Who Cares Islands”, “The Seriously Who Cares Islands” and “Three Countries You Thought Were in Africa”. The book is rarely funnier than when it reflects the image of a bunch of burnt-out comedy writers struggling to find anything to say about a country. (Hence the hilarious low-content take on Suriname: “Why do you insist on torturing yourself? You don’t have to read every page in this book. Who are you trying to impress?” [P.60])

But people looking for a fun and innocuous gift for the entire family may want to read the entire book beforehand and double-check that the recipients have a well-calibrated sense of humour: Despite the jokey front-cover promise of “Better-Veiled Xenophobia”, Our Dumb World often feels like a book-length collection of stereotypes. Self-aware, self-parodying stereotypes, of course, but still rough on whoever is expecting more sophisticated humour. In the grand Onion tradition, countries often become extended riffs on a single joke, which can either play well or become repetitive.

Some high concepts work better than others. Considering Andorra as “The Outlet Mall of Europe” is amusing, and looking at the Central African Republic as a generic no-name nation is a stroke of absurd genius. One of the biggest laughs of the entire book is the page about Jordan, which becomes a junior high-schooler’s love note to Queen Rania. (“Things about Queen Rania That are Beyond Belief: All of Them”) North Korea’s entry is “as if written by the North Korean Ministry of Information”, complete with type-written text glued in place.

Other riffs don’t feel as funny, and often skirt platitudes: Nigeria as a con haven. Bolivia/Columbia as drug factories. The Netherlands as a gigantic red light district. More nuanced portraits are generally more interesting, such as in countries like the United Kingdom or Canada –not coincidentally, countries where Our Dumb World can be purchased as-is. Other concepts work because they go against the grain: There’s a brilliant entry on Switzerland as being “Neutral… Too Neutral” with ominous overtones: “2007: The Swiss enter ‘Phase Three’ which in no way involves relaying secret orders to the Papal Swiss Guard on Aug. 1, 2009 at exactly 4:17:03.29 p.m.”)

And then there’s the stuff that’s just too dark to be funny. The writers at the Onion never forget that comedy feeds upon tragedy, but sometimes their good intentions run away from them. Most of the African entries are thinly balanced between rough humour and moral outrage, and the balance sometimes doesn’t hold: If you want to see the worst of it, turn to “Congo” and grit your teeth. But fans of The Onion already know what to expect.

Sometimes pitch-black, sometimes repetitive, sometime merely amusing rather than truly funny, Our Dumb World falters and doesn’t quite offer what we may expect from the idea of “The Onion doing the World”. But it’s big book, and even if you take out half the jokes as being ordinary, there’s still enough here to be worth a look, as long as you don’t object to The Onion’s trademark mixture of sometimes-offencive humour and deconstructive methodology. It’s nowhere near the excellence of Our Dumb Century, but it’s still a heck of a deal. Or one hell of a gift if you’re not careful about your recipients.

Ad Nauseam: The Onion, Volume 13, The Onion

Three Rivers Press, 2002, 264 pages, C$26.00 tpb, ISBN 1-4000-4724-2

Looking for Christmas presents? The helpful folks at The Onion can rescue everything by rolling out their newest volume in time for gift-wrapping season.

Unlike the previous three Onion books, (two best-of selections and one book of original content), this is a true collection. All 44 issues of The Onion published between November 1st 2000 and October 31st 2001 are contained here, reprinted from the original paper version of the humor periodical. Yes, that includes the famous September 27th 2001 “HOLY F—ING S—T: Attack On America” issue, which tackled the September 11 events well before the rest of America was ready to deal with it.

Compared with their latest best-of collection Dispatches from the Tenth Circle, there’s no denying that Ad Nauseam is, overall, not quite as funny. The Onion can have weaker issues like any other periodical, and this collection also includes those. Still, sifting through the pages, there’s still plenty of amusing material.

Highlights include “New Girlfriend Tests Poorly With Peer Focus Group”, the special “Mayhem 2000” election edition, “I’m Like a Chocoholic, but for Booze”, “Romantic-Comedy Behavior Gets Real-Life Man Arrested” (also found in Tenth Circle, mind you), “Everything in Entire World Now Collectible”, “Girlfriend Changes Man Into Someone She’s Not Interested In”, “Bush Regales Dinner Guests With Impromptu Oratory On Virgil’s Minor Works”, “Author Wishes She Hadn’t Blown Personal Tragedy On First Book”, “Gore Upset that Clinton Doesn’t Call Anymore”, “Stephen Jay Gould Speaks Out Against Science Paparazzi”, “Toaster-Instruction Booklet Author Enraged That Editor Betrayed His Vision” and an article I wish I’d have written; “Everybody Browsing At Video Store Saying Stupid Things”

All of this should be enough to make you laugh for a while. Noticeably thicker than its three predecessors, Ad Nauseam compensates quality by quantity. Even as a cash-grab endeavor, it’s still more than a worthwhile buy for fans of The Onion.

Two things emerge from a linear read of a year in the life of The Onion, though, things that may not be obvious from reading The Onion on their web site:

The first is the developing stories of the “Community Voices” columnists. While I had traditionally considered the recurring columns to be among the weakest sections of the periodical, reading a bunch of them in short succession can really help in making those “columnists” being interesting. I even came to feel a strange affection for Jim Anchower’s “The Cruise”, Hertbert Kornfeld’s tales’o’tha’Accountz Reeceevable Bruthahood and even -gasp- Jean Teasdale’s formerly insufferable “A Room of Jean’s Own”. Go figure.

The second is strictly an accident of history: Reading months of Onion-accentuated silliness before the September 11th 2001 events is a lot like witnessing a nation whistling on its way to a good solid mugging. “A Shattered Nation Longs To Care About Stupid Bulls—t Again” [P.241] indeed. (Fortunately, even recent history shows that America is resilient and does, indeed, care again for stupid stuff.)

One nice side-effect of the “include everything” mission of Ad Nauseam is that I got to re-read one full year’s worth of those terribly sarcastic one-liner “Horoscopes”, which has become one of my favorite features in The Onion over the past few months. Those hadn’t been included in previous collections.

An annoying detail, proving that nothing is perfect: I loathed the splitting up of stories over two, sometimes even three pages. Even though I understand the production constraints leading to that decision, no amount of rationalization could make it look good.

Enthusiasts of The Onion need to encouragement to rush out and grab a copy of this book. Newbies would be best-advised to pick up Our Dumb Century or Dispatches From The Tenth Circle as an introduction: Though there’s nothing specifically wrong about Ad Nauseam, it doesn’t reach the dizzying heights of the first two books.

So… can we hope for Volume 14 next year?

[March 2005: Annual volumes 14 and 15 are out, and if they do deliver hard doses of The Onion‘s trademark type of satire, they’re not books fit to be read all at once and they don’t measure up to the dramatic arc leading to and stemming from 9/11. Recommended, but only for those who already are familiar with The Onion.]

Our Dumb Century, The Onion

Three Rivers Press, 1999, 164 pages, C$24.00 tpb, ISBN 0-609-80461-8

It always amazes me whenever someone opines that history is boring. To hear them talk, history’s just a dull recitation of dates, names and events. Don’t they realize that history can explain everything that happens today? Don’t they know that the best stories ever published don’t even equal some of the amazing stuff that has truly happened in the past? Don’t they even remember Santayana’s admonition?

Maybe all that’s missing is a gifted vulgarizer, someone to make the study of history amusing, accessible and worthwhile. I don’t think that this is what the staff of The Onion had in mind when they set out to put together Our Dumb Century, but the result certainly makes history a lot of fun again.

You might or might not already be familiar with the web humor magazine The Onion ( ), but it doesn’t really matter; all you need to know is that Our Dumb Century‘s shtick is to “reprint” a hundred year’s worth of front pages from the Onion as a retrospective of the century. None of it is available on the web site.

Of course it’s all made up. Headlines like 1917’s “Pretentious, Goateed Coffeehouse Types Seize Power in Russia” or 1953’s “A-Bomb May Have Awakened Gigantic Radioactive Monsters, Experts Say” should be a giveaway. But the most amazing thing about Our Dumb Century (past the funny stuff, of course) is how real it looks. The front pages from the beginning of the century look exactly like the old newspapers did, with shaky typography, badly-reproduced graphics and overstuffed layout. The graphical team responsible for the design of the book truly did their homework, and visually, there isn’t a single detail that looks out of place. It’s one of the small pleasures of the book to flip from page to page and see the evolution of “The Onion” through the century.

All of which is considerably reinforced by the pitch-perfect style of the writing. The Onion’s writers have convincingly re-created the characteristic tone of reporting through the century, through the biased, wordy style of the 1900s to the carefully antiseptic prose of the 1990s. It may or may not be exact, but it adds a lot to the impact of the jokes.

And what jokes they are: From 1900’s “Death-by-Corset Stabilizes at One in Six” to 2000’s “Christian Right Ascends To Heaven”, Our Dumb Century offers a century’s (and 164 pages’) worth of satire. Every page is shock-full of stuff in 8-point type, with enough nastily funny headlines to make you groan in pure sadistic delight. (How about 1963’s “Kennedy Slain By CIA, Mafia, Castro, LBJ, Teamsters, Freemason: President Shot 129 Times from 43 Different Angles” or 1937’s “German Jews Concerned about Hitler’s ‘Kill All Jews’ Proposal”?)

Naturally, this isn’t for everyone. The level of sadistic irony can be shocking (1976: “Cambodia to Switch to Skull-Based Economy”), as can be the intentional profanity (July 21, 1969. ’nuff said.)

Historical figures are in for a thorough irreverent thrashing, of course. There’s an alternate-universe arrest/getaway/manhunt/shootout involving Nixon (1974), a few good slams at FDR (1933: “President confronts depression with ‘Big Deal’ Plan: ‘Big Deal, I’m Rich’ Roosevelt Says”) and welcome nastiness about various great villains of our century (1977: “Idi Amin Praises Former Ugandan Defense Minister as ‘Delicious’”)

A sense of history is, of course, as useful as a sense of humor, but while Our Dumb Century can motivate anyone to learn a bit more, it’s unclear whether a sense of humor can be developed. For those with some knowledge of the past hundred years, though, the payoff is enormous. The staff of The Onion laughs at an astonishing variety of subjects, from arts to politics, military affairs to fashion fads and you never know when your favorite areas of interest might pop up.

The only flaw of the book that I could find was a loss of historical perspective over the last 30 pages of the book in favor of lighter pop-culture references. Maybe inevitable given the lack of perspective… or accurate given the real nineties.

Not only is Our Dumb Century an instant classic and one of the funniest books of the twentieth century, but it’s also one of the best gift ideas I’ve ever seen for smart people. Buy a crate, encourage The Onion, distribute at will and get compliments on your impeccable taste. Easy!

Dispatches from the Tenth Circle, The Onion

Three Rivers Press, 2001, 174 pages, C$24.00 tpb, ISBN 0-609-80834-6

I have long been a steadfast admirer of The Onion, a devastatingly funny web humor magazine with the guts to say out loud what most of us can’t even conceive. That admiration became nothing short of worship on September 26, 2001, when The Onion was the first publication to face the 9-11-2001 tragedy with smart satire. (The “Holy F*cking Sh*t! Attack on America!” edition included such disturbing gems as “God Angrily Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule”, “American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie” and “Hijackers surprised To Find Selves in Hell”)

While Dispatches from the Tenth Circle doesn’t contain post-2000 material, it represents your most accessible option to reward the good staff of The Onion: rush out to your local bookstore and pick it up, along with their previous Our Dumb Century.

Inside, you’ll find 174 densely-packed pages of the best of The Onion over a period of a few years (roughly 1998-2000), a steady assortment of howlers and an unflinching look at today’s North-American society. There aren’t very many book out there that fully deserve their price tag, but if anything, Dispatches is a bargain even at cover cost.

I’d classify the Onion’s shtick to be divided in four rough categories. My general favorite is the “full-blown satire” mode, with such articles as “Doritos Celebrates One Millionth Ingredient”, “South Postpones Rising Again For Yet Another Year”, “Coca-Cola Introduces New 30-Liter Size” or “Video-Game Characters Denounce Randomly Placed Swinging Blades”

Then there are the “Ironic twist on common headlines”, such as “Supreme Court Overturns Car”, “Loved Ones Recall Local Man’s Cowardly Battle With Cancer”, “Fun Toy Banned Because Of Three Stupid Dead Kids” or “ACLU Defend Nazis’ Right To Burn Down ACLU Headquarters”

Some of the best laughs, of course, come from the “Slice of Daily Life” features, where stupid everyday stuff somehow headline material. Who can resist “Woman Who ‘Loves Brazil’ Has Only Seen Four Square Miles Of It”, “Twelve Customers Gunned Down in Convenience-Store Clerk’s Imagination” or “Graphic Designer’s Judgment Clouded By Desire To Use New Photoshop Plug-in”?

I’m not generally a fan of the “Other Features” of The Onion, but the “What Do You Think?” often features small gems. A few Point/Counterpoint features (“You The Man / No, You The Man!”, “My Computer Totally Hates Me! / God, Do I Hate That Bitch”) can be priceless.

Don’t skimp out on the details, either: Some of the best lines in Dispatch are hidden on the margins. Granted, the “STATshot” features are usually lame, but you can’t beat such one-liners as “Standard Deviation Not Enough For Perverted Statistician”, “Georgia Adds Swastika, Middle Finger To State Flag” and “Artist Starving For A Reason”.

Funny? Damn straight. Expect to laugh aloud, groan, roll your eyes and quote the book for weeks afterward.

It’s not stupid humor, mind you. If ever you happen to be familiar with one of the subjects lampooned in The Onion, you’ll find that these guys know their stuff; it’s very, very rare to catch them using an improper reference or to make an unintentional factual mistake.

Of course, the most seductive aspect of Dispatches is how clever it is underneath that veneer of hilarity. Pay attention, and you’ll acknowledge hidden truths about today’s world. The Onion‘s staff is not merely skilled at humor, but at social commentary. (A “vox populi” about middle-east violence includes “Maybe we should stop thinking of it as middle-eastern conflict and start thinking of it as middle-eastern culture.” Ouch.)

Needless to say, Dispatches from the Tenth Circle is highly recommended. It makes a great gift, and should provide you with enough quotable/photocopiable material for a while. Don’t you dare miss it, nor any of The Onion’s other collections. Needless to say, you can always go to for your weekly fix.