Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you'd like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at email@example.com.
I don't know whether this would be a conflict of interest or blatant self-promotion, but this is a question I've discussed with my friends before, and it's always entertaining: If you had to choose one Onion article that defined who you are, that you identify with so much that it actually makes you a bit uneasy, which would it be?
For myself, it's either "Area Man Really Wants To Like The Marx Brothers" (I take myself a bit too seriously when it comes to my film preferences/opinions) or "Area Man Has Sad Little Routine For When He Needs Cheering Up." —Jasmine
There's no self-promotion involved: The A.V. Club is not The Onion. Though it has its origins in the same detritus-strewn office in Madison, Wisconsin, for many years, we've effectively been our own publication under the same corporate umbrella as The Onion. When we see references to us as The Onion A.V. Club, or worse, The Onion, it hurts our feelings, and occasionally—only occasionally—makes us cry.
That said, you won't find bigger Onion fans than those of us who write for The A.V. Club. We love our sister publication, recognize how much we benefit from our association with it, and value our friendships with its staff, past and present. (In case you were wondering, they're a great bunch of people through and through.) I also consider The A.V. Club and The Onion philosophically simpatico. For all the cutting commentary in its pages, The Onion is pretty short on cynicism. When it hurts, it hurts because it cares. And it cares a lot. I like to think The A.V. Club comes from the same place of humane, exacting skepticism.
The story I turn to time and again is a news in brief from 1997: "Glorious New Tomorrow Postponed Indefinitely," which begins thus: "In a move many observers described as inevitable, representatives of nearly every major belief system on Earth announced Monday the indefinite postponement of the glorious new tomorrow that has been collectively promised humankind for more than six millennia." I'd quote more, but it really should be read in full, references to "rock-hard abs" and all. I don't love the piece because I consider myself a pessimistic person—others may argue otherwise—but because I've learned it's best to live with a healthy distrust of the blinkered promises of miracles stitched into any all-encompassing belief system wherever I find them, be it the claims of televangelists and politicians, or the butt-simple feel-goodisms of The Blind Side. Anyone who claims to have all the answers just doesn't.
"Aging Gen-Xer Doesn't Find Bad Movies Funny Anymore" pretty much is me, right down to the baffled frustration and fear that I'm boring. The only difference is that I never had a vast collection of terrible kitsch that I don't like anymore; I just used to enjoy bad movies more than I do now that I'm aware how many good movies I haven't watched yet. As a bonus, here's the single Onion article that's most affected my behavior over the years: "Area Man Constantly Mentioning He Doesn't Own A Television." Around the time this article came out, I was in a pretty big anti-TV period, where I was just devoted to film and thought television was a boring waste of time. (Obviously I didn't get rid of my TV, since I needed it to watch movies, but I didn't have cable or an antenna to pick up broadcast, so I was completely cut off from live television.) But the specter of this article, and the fear of sounding like the choad profiled in it, kept me from expressing any pride in my entertainment decisions, which is really just as well. Actually, I mostly sheepishly refrained from talking about it at all, unless someone tried to corner me to see what I thought about the latest episode of some inescapably popular thing like Friends. Which I've still never seen a single episode of.
While I was reading it, I literally thought "Vehement Anti-Cell-Phone Guy Finally Caves" had been written about me. It came out in 2005 only a few months after the San Francisco office (RIP) opened. Some of the comedy writers had come out to SF for a launch party with Patton Oswalt, and after the show, several of us had several drinks, at which point I probably said a lot of dumb things about cell phones, including the quote in the opening line of the piece, where the protagonist calls it "the item single-handedly responsible for the erosion of our nation's social and cultural foundation." There's a reference in the article to Marc's Big Boy, which I figured was the big finger pointing at me—it's called Bob's Big Boy out here, and I had no idea Marc's Big Boy was an actual restaurant. And, alas, my life has somewhat imitated the art: I did finally cave three years ago and got a cell phone (at Radio Shack, no less), but I've pretty much stuck to my Luddite ways, and I only turn it on during long drives, when I'm at SXSW, and when I have multiple plans with multiple people in one night. So yes, my friends totally hate me.
October 17 will remain forever burned in my memory, because that's the day the good folks at our sister publication absolutely nailed my ass to the wall with "Area Man Has Far Greater Knowledge Of Marvel Universe Than Own Family Tree." I have long feared that as the years go by, stuff like my home address and how to drive will drop out of my brain, while Cloak & Dagger's secret identities will remain with me forever. And I already know more about the Kree-Skrull War than the American Civil War. So if I'm not this guy already, I'm at least well on the way. (In my defense, the Marvel Universe contains a smaller proportion of racist hillbillies than my own family tree.) So that's the winner by a landslide, though those who know me would probably recognize this one as a distant second: "Shit Parking Ticket Fuck."
"Sociology 101 Assignment Stretched To Incorporate '70s Punk Rock" reads a headline from the March 13, 2002 issue of The Onion. Coincidentally, that's the day before my birthday. And the article's character, Justin Hoyer, has a name suspiciously similar to my own. But the synchronicity doesn't end there. I went to college sporadically throughout my 20s and early 30s, and although I was far too busy playing in bands and putting on shows to actually graduate, I was there long enough to subject my teachers to more than one tangential reference to '70s punk—the style of music that's been my hands-down favorite since I discovered Buzzcocks and The Clash when I was 16. As that music seems to grow increasingly irrelevant to music fans and critics as time goes by, I've pretty much given up on trying to insinuate The Lurkers and X-Ray Spex into everything I write. Someday, though, someone will pay me good money to spout off about that shit. Maybe then I'll look up this J.H.-from-another-mother so we can jam on a thesis about the paradoxically Marxist undercurrents of Skrewdriver's Chiswick oeuvre.
I know you were asking about how we identified with the content of the articles, but I always feel a twinge whenever I see "Ugly Girl Killed," because sometimes I wonder if the Onion people got a picture of me at the ugly stage of my girlhood and used it for the article. Seriously, look at me. So even though I am no longer a girl, nor killed, nor that ugly, I always laugh at and feel weird about that article, because I think it's the fear of every single girl in America not just that she'll be murdered, but that she'll be remembered for being ugly. Fortunately I think it's hilarious that whenever I see that poor dead ugly murdered girl, I think of myself.
Well, the only real Onion article I could find to express who I am now was "Enormous Man Spends Another Day Indoors," which is not the image I want to leave the world with, and my wife probably wouldn't like if I went with "Recently Married Man Ready to Start Dating Again," so let's return to the heady days of my youth, when the only thing I was terrified of was losing my virginity before marriage (oh, and/or getting drunk). Yeah, I spent a lot of my adolescence at various Christian youth functions, despite a vague, niggling sense that the kind of Christianity I'd been raised in was not really for me. That whole, weird, squeaky-clean fundamentalist underbelly that seems all-American but also ever so slightly "off," like anyone could be killed at any given moment? I was really into that there for a while, until I abruptly wasn't. I've been to Christian music festivals, Power Team rallies (which, if you don't know, please don't ask), and assorted puppet shows wherein woodland creatures reenacted the death and resurrection of Christ. I even took a day class in Christian clowning. Y'know, as a fallback. Hence, I'm going with "That Teen Abstinence Rally Totally Rocked!" which reads almost exactly like it was written by me at the age of 15, well before I went off to college, fell headlong into the ways of the world, and ended up writing about television for a living. (Come to think of it, this is almost exactly what my Sunday-school teachers warned me would happen.)
It may not be a completely accurate portrait of me—although I think on a good day, I could almost pass for the photo that accompanies the article—but I identify most with the classic post 9/11 profile "Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American Flag Cake." I'm not a baker, so for me it would have to be "…Woman Knits Patriotic Hat And Scarf Set." It's the sense of domestic action in the face of unimaginable tragedy that really captures something about me. I've always been the type that's right on the edge of being utterly paralyzed by bad news. It's easy for me to imagine giving up in the face of the downward spiral of world events. My usual strategy is avoidance, but at times like 9/11, that's impossible. So I tend to busy myself in the insignificant yet comforting spheres where I do have control. And my greatest hope is that someone will understand both the futility and the existential imperative of those projects, like the Topeka baker's friend does in the last sentence of the Onion story. I can't eradicate al-Qaeda or secure the world's nuclear stockpile or reverse climate change. Ultimately, one or the other of those problems may destroy all of our futures. But I can knit you a blanket. I hope you like it.
Blame it on both iPod culture and the lingering effects of Youthful Music Elitist Syndrome, but when I head out to the bar, I always make sure there's a crisp $5 bill in my pocket—for the express purpose of ruling the jukebox for 30 minutes. So it was with a healthy dose of self-awareness (and a twinge of remorse) that I laughed along with the exasperated reactions of the bar patrons in the recent Onion news brief "Report: Guy Just Put 10 Bucks In Jukebox," which is eerily based in the city where my jukebox-hogging habits were born. The Onion is often at its best when it makes us confront the absurdity of our personal quirks (Here's another recent brief that probably hits too close to home for a lot of A.V. Clubbers and commenters), and while I never play a song more than once in a given jukebox set I have been known to throw on songs that run as long as or longer than "Paradise By The Dashboard Light"—which is a way of saying "I'm sorry" to anyone who's ever ordered another round at Opal Divine's Freehouse, only to hear the druggy chug of The Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray" kick in just as their server is out of earshot.
Have we really gotten a handful of answers without hitting "37 Record-Store Clerks Feared Dead In Yo La Tengo Concert Disaster" yet? The story, published in 2002, offered a dead-on glimpse into the nerdy world of record-store employees, a job I held for nearly a decade. As with all the best Onion stories, the tiny details ring true: names of record stores, guys geeking out on particular songs, etc. But the hilarious undercurrent is that all the survivors are more concerned about geekery than the lives of their brothers in indie-rock: One hopes the club will be rebuilt in time for an upcoming Death Cab/Dismemberment Plan show, another notes that he went to the bathroom during "Moby Octopad"—one of his least favorite YLT songs—or he would've been dead, too.
I am constantly referencing stories from The Onion. I like to think that the story of my generation can be told exclusively though Simpsons quotes and Onion headlines, yet I'm drawing a bit of a blank here. Like Tasha, I related way too closely to "Aging Gen-Xer Doesn't Find Bad Movies Funny Anymore." You get to a certain point, and you start to value your time too much to indulge in some of the sillier habits of your youth. So I have only so much energy for the Norbits of the world. I had an ex-girlfriend who genuinely thought the story "Study: Depression Hits Losers Hardest" was written about her. Back in the bleakest days of my own depression, I thought about the headline "Utter Failure To Spend Rest Of Day In Bed" an awful lot. Also, in the life-following-art department, my ex-girlfriend Amy posed for the photograph for this story, and, at the time, she had not in fact seen Apocalypse Now.
I've got to go with "Ironic Porn Purchase Leads To Unironic Ejaculation." Wait! Wait! Come back! It's not what you think. Here's what I mean: When I was in my 20s, I tended to surround myself with kitsch. I scoured the dollar bin of video stores for awful-looking horror movies and instructional tapes. I bought Archie comics from the supermarket checkout line. If I found a goofy-looking retro toy or game at a garage sale, I purchased it. I owned a Leonard Nimoy album, for God's sake. I was a lot like the girls in Ghost World; I was all about "so ugly it's beautiful," or "so bad it's good." Then in my 30s, I began to compartmentalize better. I got rid of a lot of the really worthless junk, and became more honest about my reactions to what I'd previously thought I'd only been consuming for a larf. Cheesy '80s pop? Corny kids' comics? Old game shows? Well, whaddaya know? It turned out I'd actually been enjoying them all along. And I've spent a portion of the last decade here at The A.V. Club trying to explain why, such that now I'm worried I'm becoming more like another well-known Onion headline: "I Appreciate The Muppets On A Much Deeper Level Than You."