What: Our Dumb Century: The Onion Presents 100 Years of Headlines from America’s Finest News Source, a 1999 “compilation” of more than 100 fictional newspaper front pages from the years 1900 to 2000. (The Onion itself, as it turns out, has only been published since 1988, despite some evidence elsewise. But that little detail didn’t stop them.) It is published by Three Rivers Press and randomly serialized on The Onion’s site.
Why: It’s hard work being funny. One joke can take days to craft. So imagine your job was to create thousands of jokes about everything that’s happened in a hundred years. That’s the job the Onion’s editors took on toward the end of the twentieth century, running the world through its uniquely grief-colored glasses. The newspaper warps from a broadsheet to a USA Today-clone tabloid, spewing forth quarter-column-inch throwaway headlines ranging from “Unsingable Song Of Explosions And Defeat Becomes New National Anthem” to “Spielberg Reveals The Two Secrets Of His Success: Monsters, Jews.” Every trial is the “trial of the century.” Lady Liberty gets repeatedly assaulted by caricatures of America’s foes. Pop culture icons become real: Peter Parker dies from a radioactive spider bite, Mr. Potter pays 50 cents on the dollar, and Sharon Tate is slain by the Partridge Family. Zapped! sweeps the Oscars. And it all makes perfect sense. Here are some highlights:
April 22, 1906: “Earth-Quake Marks Least Gay Day In San Francisco History”
October 22, 1929: “Stock Market Invincible: ‘Buy, Buy, Buy!’ Experts Advise”
September 3, 1939: “WA— (Headline Continued On Page 2)“
July 28, 1953: “Korean War Ends In Tearful 3-Hour Finale”
July 21, 1969: “Holy Shit! Man Walks On Fucking Moon”
November 20, 1978: “Anthropomorphic Juice Pitcher Among Dead In Jonestown Cult Suicide”
May 26, 1996: “Oprah Secedes From U.S., Forms Independent Nation Of Cheesecake-Eating Housewives”
Impact: Our Dumb Century became a #1 bestseller, aptly enough, on April 1, 1999. It came out amid a hurricane of centenniospectives from important-sounding publications like Time and Life. They’re all useless, landfilled on some metaphorically obvious ashheap. That’s because they portrayed the century as smart. The Onion knows better, and so its book will last forever. The Onion followed it up in 2007 with Our Dumb World: The Onion’s Atlas of the Planet Earth (free globe inside!), an equally biting and brutal tome, where Nigeria’s entry is a chain letter and Nicaragua’s is a flashback to the NES game Contra. I hope there’s an encyclopedia in their future. (Bonus fun fact: The Onion is the first thing that comes up when you type “onion” into Google. What, that’s not all that fun? Okay, try just typing “the“.)
Personal Connection: I can remember exactly where I was when I first saw The Onion. My mates and I were hanging in The Daily Northwestern offices plotting some no-doubt-revelatory investigation of pop prices in the student union. Some plugged-in freshman wandered in with a copy of an early printing of The Onion, saying “This is what the J-students are doing in Madison.” Now, you have to understand that this was the top of the class of the best journalism school in the world, bound for the best newspapers in the country. And to a man, every one of us said, “Can we go to school there?”
Other Contenders: Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, wherein, for example, “accordion” is defined as “an instrument in harmony with the sentiments of an assassin”; The Lazlo Letters, a series of insane letters to businesses and politicians from Don “Father Guido Sarducci” Novello’s lunatic patriot Lazlo Toth, and the letters he gets back; James Gilbert’s The World’s Worst Aircraft, which will teach you never to get in something called a “Christmas Bullet”; The Darwin Awards: Evolution in Action, which you should read if you don’t want to be in one of its sequels.
Programming note: Speaking of centuries, this is column #100 of The Most Beautiful Things. Thanks for coming along for the last 100, and for the next. (Update: Except it isn’t. It’s #101, and I can’t count. But I still can be thankful for people reading this.)