Peeling Back the Years

TITLE: Our Dumb CenturyEDITOR: Scott DikkersPUBLISHER: Three Rivers Press, $15From Lafayette, Lousiana comes a wire-service report about a controversy surrounding a touring rock show titled the Family Values Tour, which barnstormed the South like yesteryear's Sid Vicious. When the citizens of Lafayette saw the roster of names -- Orgy, Limp Bizkit, Incubus and Ice Cube -- some of them apparently sent their kids off to the show, secure in the understanding that with a name like Family Values, it's got to be good. Instead, they got Trouble with a capitol T. And promoters of such shows may now find themselves facing jail time, following a recent ordinance banning such titles as misleading.It's bad news for the bands and promoters, and even worse for the First Amendment, which extends to satire, and which should prevail if this thing ever gets into the courts. But it's a great day for the young target audience of this tour, because for the rest of the summer, they can ride around town, breaking curfew, secure in the knowledge that their elders really are completely clueless.And so, for the sake of the family, here is some summer remedial reading suggested for all ages. It's called Our Dumb Century, and it's a compilation of 100 years of newspaper headlines and stories from a small, somewhat mythical Midwestern newspaper called The Onion. Besides being one of the funniest books in recent memory, Our Dumb Century is a sharp satire of a media-blanketed society, as well as a primer on how to get the joke. And -- sorry, Peter Jennings -- it's the only Millennium-themed book you really need.Jokes in Our Dumb Century aren't just set-ups and punches; they're as layered as the paper's eponymous eyewater-producing vegetable. Started in the late '80s as a really alternative newsweekly in Madison, Wisc., The Onion is known to its fans as the funniest rag around. It has a website, of course (www.theonion.com), but it's in hard copy that The Onion works best.The weekly paper's targets are scattershot. There's labor ("Auto Workers Strike for More Acrylic Novelty Baseball Caps"), religion ("Pope Calls for Greater Understanding Between Catholics, Hellbound"), and little defenseless infants ("Study Reveals Babies Are Stupid"). Other headlines resist analysis entirely: "Foppish Dandy Disregards Area Constable"; "Chess Supercomputer Beaten Up by More Popular Computer"; "Area Bassist Fellated." If free verse is like playing tennis without the net, The Onion's particular brand of poetry is like baseball without the hoops.In Our Dumb Century, which is edited by Scott Dikkers and written by what must be a bunch of very funny University of Wisconsin dropouts, the newspaper traces its history to a 1765 broadsheet called The Mercantile-Onion. (This information comes courtesy a letter of introduction by T. Herman Zweibel, the Onion's 132-year-old publisher, who recalls: "The Onion was my very life, and I loved it more than any woman or fine buggy.") The surviving front page of this 18th century document includes a letter from London by one Mr. Percy Sheridan, a "Gentle Man of Leisure," who says in passing that Parliament is passing a Stamp Act, but spends most of his time discussing his personal problems with lice: "I have confider'd drawing a Water Bath, and immerfing my Head in it, fo as to drown the fmall Wretches; but it is moft difficult to haul out a Pail of Water from the Publick Well without its emerging full of Tar, Swine Vomit, more dead Cats, and other Impurities."The well stays full for the rest of the paper's history. The book is composed of a series of reproductions of The Onion's front pages, from Jan. 1, 1900, when the paper announces "A New Century Dawns!" (with the subhead "Nation's Skies Filled with Beautiful, Black Smoke; Will Man-Made Grime Reach the Very Vault of Heaven?") to a front page dated Jan. 1, 2000, which concludes with the book's most tasteless report, an account of Muhammad Ali knocking out President Ronald Reagan in a nursing home scuffle. It's an illustration of Steve Martin's dictum that comedy isn't pretty, and a clear attempt to offend anyone who made it through the rest of the book unruffled. Other turn-of-the-century headlines are less controversial: "Meteors Headed for Earth Today"; "Christian Right Ascends to Heaven"; and a TV listing for "John Mellencamp's Slightly Rockin' New Year's Day Brunch."In between these Y1K and Y2K bookends are stacked an exhaustive account of the years, parodying the major news events -- wars, assassinations, moon landings -- with an uncanny ability to conjure up each decade's pop culture icons. (In 1990, we learn, Michael Jackson underwent a "complete blackendectomy"; in 1976, Chuck Barris dedicated the Tomb of the Unknown Comic and a "jogging-suit-wearing bionic man was appointed Secretary of the Metric System"; entertainment news back in 1925 included the report that the state of Indiana is "curiously free of the jazz menace," and Stan Laurel was warning that a "spector of famine looms over world." And in 1949 it was revealed that a "Bing Crosby Record Reveals Secret Message When Played Backward: 'Have a Swell Day, Ladies and Gents.'"Such subliminal messages abound throughout Our Dumb Century. Each front page is rendered in its era's newspaper style and typeface, and the book is a visual masterpiece rendered in archive photos and clip art. After reeling through these years, anyone -- even in Lafayette -- should be able to discern that things aren't always what they seem. Sure, taking on touring rock shows is kind of dumb, but it's been a dumb century. If life gives you onions, make onion-ade.

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