20 years ago, a dog wrote a column for The Onion
We also have Bin Laden being an evil telemarketer, Bush fighting West Nile, the return of Herbert Kornfeld and a Texas mom advocating for migrants.
Welcome back to The Onion: 20 Years Later, where we review the print issue from 20 years ago, find out what’s still funny and examine the cultural impact. Today, we revisit Sept. 18, 2002.
Last week, I talked about The Onion pivoting toward Iraq on the anniversary of 9/11. This week, we still talk about Iraq, but Bin Laden returns, George W. Bush is fighting other wars — and we read part of a dog’s memoirs.
Overall, this is a jam-packed issue! I’m excited to share it with y’all.
As always, thanks for being here and opening the emails! If you’re new, please sign up!
What issue is this?
This was Vol. 38, Issue 34, the 117th new Onion issue of the 2000s. Here’s what the website looked like in 2002, 2012 and today.
The tremendous front-page headlines “Brawl Spills Out Of Teachers' Lounge” and “DRBONG Pulled Over Again” are no longer online.
The teacher headline is much different than March 2002’s “Hilarious Hamlet Essay Circulated In Teachers' Lounge,” where the teachers were being cruel to students, not each other.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
Before we get into the actual top stories, let’s talk about “I'm Not Proud Of Some Of The Things I've Done.” This is my absolute favorite Onion genre: The Anthropomorphized Talking Animal.
Tuffy is a 12-year-old dog who spends this column (an excerpt from Tuffy’s memoirs, “The Confessions Of St. Tuffy”) sharing all the classic dog sins: disobeying commands, biting people, causing destruction, stealing food, humping other dogs.
There are so many good one-liners, but I especially love the discussion of biting and Tuffy’s revelation: “now I see that turning to the tooth never solves anything.”
Tuffy even confesses to being a selfish puppy!
“Even as I slid from my mother's womb into the cardboard box in the tool shed, I was already not without sin. Yea, I sucked greedily at my mother's teat, trampling my six brothers and sisters in my milklust. I burdened my master with my youthful exuberance, repeatedly scampering out of the box and forcing him to chase me down.”
In my experience, people either love The Onion’s talking animals or think it’s a very stupid bit. So bear that in mind.
The 2 important things to know about “Report: Al-Qaeda Allegedly Engaging In Telemarketing” is that the Do Not Call list did not exist until 2003 and that Osama Bin Laden’s videos were national news.
The story format here is pretty simple: The Onion discusses Al-Qaeda’s operations as if telemarketing is a key business alongside terrorism, drug trafficking and money laundering:
"I couldn't believe what I saw," said [Maj. Gen. Dan K.] McNeill, who also discovered bomb-making instructions and detailed maps of U.S. landmarks in the cave. "On top of all the destruction these people had already unleashed, plans were underway to harass the American people with a merciless assault of offers for everything from discounts on home DSL lines to pre-approved, low-interest credit cards."
CIA chief George Tenet notes the horror that “these calls have occurred, unthinkably, during the dinner hour,” while CNN refuses to air Bin Laden’s motivational selling speech that includes the slogan “Smile And Dial." There’s also a story of a Florida woman who was scammed into ordering $3,000 of faulty siding for her home.
This article is a great example of how 20-year-old Onion stories can age well: The specific references are out of date, but the theme — scammers harassing ordinary citizens through their phones — is as important as ever.
The Onion in 2002 faced an evolving challenge when portraying President George W. Bush. The pre-9/11 “Bush is actually a genius” portrayal had been discontinued, but it was also tough to rip into Bush right after 9/11.
(I wonder whether Will Ferrell’s famed Bush portrayal was also a problem — The Onion couldn’t compete with “Saturday Night Live” jokes without having the voice or look.)
But by late 2002, things had shifted. Bush was in the news a lot as he pushed for war against Iraq. Meanwhile, the U.S. was being invaded by West Nile.
“Bush Sends Troops To West Nile” is The Onion combining clueless Bush with “War on Terror” Bush. You might recognize the Bush/Rumsfeld themes of “the enemy is threatening our way of life,” “they are an enemy without borders,” “they have weapons of mass destruction,” etc.:
"The United States will not stand idly by while people or insects who despise everything we stand for develop weapons of mass infection," Bush said. "The only way to fight a pestilence such as this is to attack it right where it breeds—in this case, the lands to the west of the Nile River."
How is the U.S. stopping mosquitos and other evil-doers? By erecting Army netting over the entire region. (There’s no comment as to what Egypt thinks about this solution)
The Onion indulges in true silliness with this description of the assault:
,,, Air Force F-15 aircraft armed with mosquito-seeking Sidewinder missiles flew in support of F-18s deploying military-grade citronella napalm. By nightfall, special DEET-dispensing flamethrower tanks of the First Armored Infantry were scouting out possible base camps 100 miles west of the Nile.
The Onion tries to balance out the criticism. For example, Sen. Tom Daschle criticizes Bush, but mostly for reacting too strongly to ecological threats. And a CDC official criticizes Bush for not deploying the military at home!
“Besides, Bush should have deployed those anti-mosquito jet fighters along the eastern seaboard and garrisoned the Mississippi River area last year, when there was still a chance to contain the disease's domestic spread."
I like this version of Bush better than The Onion’s ironically peace-loving Bush. There’s more room to make jokes beyond “Hey, see how he’s not this way?”
Other politics and real-life news
The Onion asked people on the street about “Europe, The U.S., And Saddam” — France and Germany, in particular, opposed any military campaign against Iraq. This insult feels very early-2000s:
"Fuck Europe. I hate those sniffy little watered-down wimps. So what if they're absolutely right? Fuckin' horse-eaters."
There’s also the amusing story “Senators Wish Domenici Would Bring Dog To Work More Often” featuring occasional Onion subject Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. This sheepdog, named Luke, is very popular:
Virtually every senator has encouraged Domenici to bring in Luke, with the notable exception of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), who is "so allergic to that thing, it's not even funny.
Finally, The Onion once again wrote about the fast-food crises of 2002. In 2022, we assume that fast food is less healthy. But 20 years ago, the scandals and lawsuits against fast-food chains dominated the news. And McDonald’s was the biggest target:
“Making McDonald's Healthier” is a solid list of insults, and no one’s going to feel sorry for McDonald’s. My favorite joke is probably “Thinner straws in shakes.”
And, of course, we have another joke about the once-famous McDonald’s Monopoly games.
Area People doing Area Things
“Area Man Always Nostalgic For Four Years Ago” feels like a callout of this newsletter!
Our protagonist is Seattle photographer/graphic designer Eric Bagley, who is currently pining for 1998. He had just moved from Ohio, had money to burn, was making great friends and hung out on the apartment terrace many nights.
However, he’s apparently misremembering the glory days of 1998:
"Every other night, he was calling me and telling me how much he hated Seattle," said Katie Gorn, a friend of Bagley's from his years in Columbus, OH. "He was always complaining about not having a job, how he just watched a lot of TV and pissed away all the money he'd taken years to save up. For him now to say he misses that time in his life is a total joke."
These complaints alone would make for a funny story. But The Onion goes further.
They interview one of Bagley’s 1998 roommates, who says Bagley was nostalgic about 1994 back then. In particular, hanging out with friend Mark Tanner and enjoying the music of The Melvins.
Then, The Onion contacts Tanner!
He was always talking about how great things were in college, back around '89, '90, when he had a band called The Trials and this hot redheaded girlfriend named Trish. Christ, if I'd had to listen to the Melvins or his Trials demo tape one more time, I would've strangled him. But he said it was the only thing that cheered him up, so I let it be."
Finally, a childhood friend says 5th-grade Bagley was always saying how 1st grade was better.
I didn’t expect this article to be so good! Wonderful job by The Onion in calling out false nostalgia.
“Teen Humiliated By Activist Mom” is a fascinating story to read in September 2022 because it’s about a woman in Texas who “established a non-profit foundation in Austin offering free legal counsel to Mexican migrant workers.”
But this story isn’t about Gov. Greg Abbott, nor is it some kind of dig at Cindy Sheehan, because that was also years away. What The Onion is doing here is simply a clever take on the classic “kids are embarrassed by their parents” tale. Apparently, it applies no matter your profession.
Even Craig’s older sister wishes their mom would act differently.
"I mean, it's fine that she wants to help poor people and stuff, but she does it in, like, this really embarrassing way," Michelle said. "Couldn't she find a way to do her protesting less publicly?"
Honestly, this story is framed as being about the teen son Craig, but 20-year-old Michelle has the better quotes:
"Everyone else can say that their parents are bankers or doctors or whatever," Michelle said. "What are we supposed to say? That she's an advocate for positive social change through direct action? That she gives a voice to the voiceless? I don't think so. I just say she's a waitress."
“Just a waitress”! This story would have inspired a lot of tweetstorms if released today.
Other Area People stories include:
“Jury Selection Proving Difficult In Trial Of 'The Jury Killer’”: This has a 1990s Onion feel, and I love it. What a silly, effective joke.
“Son Surprised Dad Knows Johnny Cash Song”: Remember that lovely early 2000s Johnny Cash revival? This reminds us that many people don’t want to admit they have anything with their parents.
“Apartment Set Up To Create Illusion Of Well-Rounded Life”: I’m dying here at someone dressing up their apartment with an acoustic guitar and a bunch of old New Yorkers. Instead, this guy “devotes 95 percent of his evenings to playing his Nintendo GameCube or patronizing a local topless bar.”
“Director of High-School Play Buys Director's Chair Out Of Own Pocket”: Yet another fun joke about Area People pretending to be high-brow.
Finally, the other 2 front-page headlines are “Smithsonian Institution Politely Declines Sofa From Charles In Charge” and “iPod Flaunted.” I’m having my own nostalgia moment — I love these jokes, but would they make sense to young people?
Were the infographics good?
“Top New Terms For 'Nerd’” is OK. It’s just a collection of random insults, and that’s probably good enough for the front page.
“Coen brother” is an interesting joke to me — almost certainly meant to insult cult fans of “The Big Lebowski” (and maybe “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”).
The Onion also published “Tracing Your Genealogy,” a long list of tips. These are decent jokes that touch on the less-than pleasant surprises of digging into your family tree. The most stark joke might be the one warning Black Americans that “your research may take you to the mansion of a fat, ugly white man in Vicksburg who is less than happy to see you.”
There’s also this 1990s reference that somehow has stayed relevant:
If you trace your family back six generations, you should arrive at the great-great-great-great grandfather of Kevin Bacon.
What columnists ran?
I barely have space to discuss my favorite anachronistic office-supply CPA, Herbert Kornfeld, who returns in “Keepin' It Real In Tha Midstate Crib.”
Kornfeld is in a fighting mood, reminding everyone that his 1st column 6 years ago warning that “H-Dog wuz a BAD ASS who best not be fucked with.”
He’s also fighting the stereotype that office workers are just watching “Jenny Jones” or hanging up cat pictures. Not Kornfeld. He’s all business — including putting a man in the hospital for forwarding a list of Monica Lewinsky jokes!
Anyways, Kornfeld describes how he was tricked into goofing off at work. His natural reaction is to be angry and violent, and then he realizes it’s a surprise birthday party for him!
Ashamed at being caught off-guard, Kornfeld attempts to resign, but his accounts receivable colleagues support him.
"An' as foe tha birfday partay, sheeit, y'all know them wack bitchez be pullin' that girlie shit all tha time on tha A.R. posse," Casio say. "It be a occupational hazard. Like, you know, carpal tunnel syndrome."
This story is almost incomprehensible with the slang and stupidity, but Herbert Kornfeld is truly a one-of-a-kind Onion character.
What was the best horoscope?
My favorite horoscope this week is the depressing but tough love Pisces:
Pisces | Feb. 19 to March 20
Drugs and alcohol are not the answer to your problems. Then again, hard work and self-reliance are, so drugs and alcohol will have to do.
What holds up best?
“Area Man Always Nostalgic For Four Years Ago” is incredibly good, especially in this era where so much pop culture is just stuff rehashed from decades or even years ago.
You could also go with “Apartment Set Up To Create Illusion Of Well-Rounded Life,” especially with so many more people living on their own these days.
What holds up worst?
I love Herbert Kornfeld, but his column has aged terribly!
What would be done differently today?
I like “Teen Humiliated By Activist Mom” and think it could run today, but the context would be very different, especially with the Texas setting and the focus on migrants.
In the dog column, Tuffy talks about getting a “vigorous shoe-whacking” for knocking over the garbage can. You don’t see those big YouTube and Instagram accounts flogging their dogs!
I feel like I barely did these stories justice. What a good issue! The Onion is really on fire at this stage, and it’s not just nostalgia to say so.
We’ll see you next week, when The Onion (again) marks the 9/11 anniversary, talks about zombies and Barbie, Jack Welch’s retirement and “American Idol” winner Kelly Clarkson.
I’m fairly certain I ordered horse without realizing it in summer 2003 when I was in a small Italian town. That was during a mad-cow scare, too, so maybe horse was just the backup meat.
I found no proof of Domenici having sheepdogs, but he did have a secret son.
I've always liked "dodorkahedron" and "Vibrant Gardens HealthaTeria."