20 years ago, Congress wanted a new Capitol
The Onion discovers Netflix.com, plus topical stories on melting Antarctic ice, Cannes, spam email and CNN infographics.
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 May 29, 2002.
I’m writing this ahead of Memorial Day, when I’ll be traveling. Meanwhile, this issue published just after Memorial Day 2002. And, of course, The Onion was in the news recently, although not necessarily thrilled to be.
Today, we’ll be talking about a lot of jokes that are still funny but might be even better if you receive some historical context. Let’s get started.
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What issue is this?
The excellent front-page headline “Road-Kill Squirrel Remembered As Frantic, Indecisive” is no longer online. RIP, squirrel. The Onion revisited this premise in April 2021, although “Squirrel Can’t Wait To Ruin Man’s Day By Running In Front Of Car And Getting Killed” is — in my opinion — not as funny.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
“Sexual Tension Between Arafat, Sharon Reaches Breaking Point” feels its age, and not just because Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat are long dead.
The headline and story feel like an ‘80s, ‘90s or 2000s sitcom premise — combining the “will they/won’t they” of Cheers” and “Moonlighting” with the famous “Seinfeld” expression of “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
The Onion story starts with the revelation of Sharon and Arafat’s meeting “culminating in a passionate kiss before a shocked delegation of Mideast negotiators.” It then goes back to describe how negotiations were occurring and the argument that led to the big moment.
There are quotes from top US and Russian officials, as well as then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who seems unusually familiar with this allusion to Western childhood crushes:
"It's like the boy in the schoolyard who torments the girl and pulls her pigtails because he's got a big crush on her. For the longest time, Yasser and Ariel simply didn't know how to express their true feelings for each other. Now they do."
This is not the first time they’ve locked eyes, if not lips, as Arafat once tripped on a rug and right into Sharon’s arms, while Sharon admitted to a crush over wine the year before.
All of this is classic sitcom fodder, and good for The Onion for finding something humorous during an especially violent and downcast period in 2002. Admittedly, the tone is unusual — the final paragraph turns the Palestinian people (and, presumably, Israelis) into mere viewers of a reality TV show:
"One mini make-out session and now we're supposed to wait who knows how long to find out if they actually get together? Oh, it makes me so frustrated," said Olfat Hafez, a Palestinian refugee who for the past 18 months has been living in a camp near Hebron. "Still, if these two do end up getting together, the end will have justified the means."
We have one other foreign policy story this week, and that’s “Suicide Bombings In The U.S.?” where The Onion asked people on the street what they thought about U.S. intelligence concerns. There are a couple of zingers directed at President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
However, this feature is memorable for, I believe, the first Onion reference to Netflix:
"Did you say I can get unlimited DVD rentals from Netflix.com for just $19.95 a month? Oh, you said suicide bombers may attack here. Never mind."
Tom McEwan • Systems Analyst
“Congress Threatens To Leave D.C. Unless New Capitol Is Built” is an homage to all the sports teams holding cities hostage for new, taxpayer-funded stadiums. (In fact, this is still happening!) This is also about 6 months after Major League Baseball unsuccessfully tried to eliminate 2 teams, in part because those teams couldn’t secure new stadiums.
In fact, The Onion deliberately confuses the issue by writing the story as if Congress wants a ballpark. Note the illustration above, as well as nearly every quote from a senator or congressman. For example:
"Don't get us wrong: We love the drafty old building," Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-IL) said. "But the hard reality is, it's no longer suitable for a world-class legislative branch. The sight lines are bad, there aren't enough concession stands or bathrooms, and the parking is miserable. It hurts to say, but the capitol's time has come and gone."
Several smaller American cities are named as potential destinations for Congress, as well as Toronto, which is a nice subtle joke.
The cover illustration is among the many architectural proposals. The Onion naming the firm HOK is deliberate — HOK designed the Baltimore Orioles’ Camden Yards and many other “retro-style” ballparks:
Among the early favorites is the ambitiously titled "Halls Of Power," a retro-futuristic design by the Kansas City architectural firm of Hellmuth, Obata, and Kassabaum. The Halls Of Power would feature a retractable rotunda for daytime sessions, a Dancing Waters fountain in the front courtyard, and 55 more luxury boxes than the current building.
The Onion does a masterful job of highlighting all the real-life concerns of sports teams, like TV viewership affecting in-person attendance, revenue share, advertising rights and the desire for new construction instead of renovation. The ability to sign big talent is also a fan worry:
"Sure, the capitol's a little beat-up, but it's got its charms," said Geoff Lapointe, a Glendale, CA, voter. "The real problem is the legislators. Back in the old days, you had big stars like John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Who've they got today? Evan Bayh? Paul Sarbanes? Who's gonna get excited about those guys?"
That fan also calls Congress “a bunch of spoiled, overpaid crybabies.”
Area People doing Area Things
20 years ago today, The Onion had a couple of school-based stories that were, mercifully, less serious that recent real-life events. The front-page photo “Field-Trip Mishap Fulfills Child's Wish To Be Oscar Mayer Wiener” is ridiculous, although better without an article. Leave it to your imagination.
The long school-based article is “Nerd's Parents Afraid Son Will Fall In With Popular Crowd,” which at first glance felt like a fairly simple joke. Would there be anything besides changing one word (“popular”)?
The worries of Lawrence and Martha Sprouse are fairly generic:
"Other parents always worry about their kids experimenting with drugs and sex," Lawrence said. "Marcia and I never did. But now, there are all sorts of new questions. What happens when Adam is offered a joint? Or he meets a girl who's ready to go beyond first base? Or a group of kids invite him to drive to Chicago and stay overnight in a hotel?"
They are worried about their son, Adam, for many reasons: hanging out with a baseball player, wanting designer jeans, not letting Martha cut his hair, and skipping advanced classes he’s taking at the community college.
There’s just not a lot to this article. The son, Adam, isn’t quoted, nor are any of his new or old friends. To be fair to The Onion, the idea of “helicopter parents” wasn’t as popular 20 years ago, but this feels like it’s missing something.
“Man Blames Hangover On Everything But How Much He Drank” is also a relatable topic, but this is a better effort because The Onion overloads us with this guy’s excuses and theories. We should also remember that this is a fictional character with a drinking problem, not a real person.
Matt Van Duyne makes some good points, at least in the abstract. You shouldn’t drink on an empty stomach. You should have water. Possibly, taking two aspirins before bed could help (mixing with alcohol, though, that’s a question for your doctor).
Some people don’t react well to red wine, either! However, Van Duyne blames red wine sulfites rather than the 3/4 of a jug he drank. His co-workers have also noticed:
"My favorite is when he explains that he forgot to follow the 'beer before liquor, never sicker' rule," coworker Thomas Juno said. "Sorry, Matty, but when you're pounding six of each in just over three hours, I don't think it really matters what order you drink them in."
The Onion has Van Duyne make many excuses, and even his friends notice how creative he is. And, for better or worse, he is a resilient drinker:
"I'm still feeling kinda shitty, but I can't miss 2-for-1 apple-martini night at Insomnia," Van Duyne said. "So long as I take two tablespoons of olive oil beforehand, I should be fine."
Other Area People items this week include:
“Worst Person Woman Knows Pregnant”: The Onion gives no indication of whether this woman will actually be “a dark and evil mother.”
“Overweight Man Receives 'Lose Weight Fast' Spam E-Mail Featuring His Picture”: This feels very possible even in 2022, even if the rest of the story is a Web 1.0 tale — the man posting vacation photos on his “web site” and local teens somehow also seeing that spam email and mocking him.
“CNN Graphic Designer Asked To Combine Dollar Sign, Syringe, Fighter Jets, Panda”: I like the guess proffered by the graphic designer: "Maybe, like, the Beijing Zoo was smuggling drugs into the U.S. inside pandas, and we bombed them or something."
“83-Year-Old Sneaks Into 65-To-80 Singles Dance”: I love this idea, although the old man somehow makes this creepy. The line "When I go produce shopping, I want my vegetables, you know, fresh" is haunting.
Were the infographics good?
“Cannes 2002” is little more than a stereotype of movie titles and national sensibilities, but there are still some fun entries. The American entries are all gauche, with “My Eccentric Ethnic Family And Our Sumptuous Traditional Dishes” presumably a send-up of 2002’s “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” which came out in April 2002.
The Danish and Finnish entries also make me laugh even though they are heavy-handed jokes.
“What Posters Are We Taking Down?” has some deep cuts like Ross Perot and Adm. James Stockdale, as well as Bryan Abrams from Color Me Badd, who had released a solo album in 2001. The last joke reminds us that The Onion was founded in Wisconsin — and is 2 years since The Onion published ““High-School Senior Amazed By Coolness Of University Of Wisconsin-Whitewater.”
What columnists ran?
“Look Out, Corporate America, Here Comes My Pirate Radio Station” published months after XM Radio officially launched and about 2 months before Sirius launched nationally.
While this column is more about the radio equivalent of public access TV, I wonder whether the real-life shakeup in radio had any influence. Here, we have a classic anti-corporate rebel who won’t give you the same songs the pop music stations are playing or the fake authenticity of public radio:
While most radio listeners are complacently soaking in the latest teeny-pop brain sedative or the semi-digested pap of the Tweedledee & Tweedledum Morning Zoo show, I'm out there telling it like it is. I'm not afraid to talk about the class war against the poor, the deplorable state of popular music, or the sham election that put Dubya into the Whitewash House. Corporate America, you'd better watch your backside, because there's a new sheriff on your radio dial!
You get the idea. Our columnist has lots of other thoughts, and even tried taking callers, but “All I got were two 12-year olds making fart noises with their hands and requests for (ugh) Ja Rule and (double ugh) Nickelback.”
Our other column is one of the greatest Point/Counterpoints: “Help! Sandal Season Is Here, And My Feet Are A Mess vs. Help! I'm Trapped In A Burning Bus”
It’s similar in tone to “I Am So Starving vs. I Am So Starving” in that one person is having a very minor crisis and the other person is literally dying. Both columnists are crying out for help, declaring an emergency and worried that time is running out.
I’ll let you read through this gem, but here’s the final paragraph for comparison:
“I'm running out of time. The fashion calendar says I've got to lose the heavy shoes and slip into a pair of cute flip-flops or sexy sling-backs. But they're not going to be so cute or sexy on my hideous feet. Help! Save me!”
”Oh, God. I'm running out of time. I'm not ready to die! There's so much I haven't done yet: have children, write a novel, travel the world. This can't be the end. Help! Save me!”
What was the best horoscope?
My favorite horoscope this week was Gemini. I love this joke:
Gemini | May 21 to June 20
Your career as a plastic surgeon is in danger of coming to a premature end this week, when you confront your arch-enemy, the dreaded Steel Surgeon.
I stopped including the “Hey, it’s 2002!” feature because so much of every issue is obviously dated, but I must mention this horoscope. Here’s what the Dell guy is up to now.
Scorpio | Oct. 23 to Nov. 21
Everyone knows you're the one who murdered the Dell Computer dude, but relax: There isn't a jury in the world that'd convict you
What holds up best?
“Man Blames Hangover On Everything But How Much He Drank” is not a happy tale, but it definitely feels like it’s satirizing real life. Like many great Onion stories, it’s a good headline and premise, but it’s the richness of the details that makes it great.
What holds up worst?
I didn’t think the nerd story was particularly funny or interesting, but it’s fine. “83-Year-Old Sneaks Into 65-To-80 Singles Dance” did not have the fun or hijinks I expected.
What would be done differently today?
We’d have a lot more current events coverage — or, at least, high-level political current events. Ukraine, D.C. The school shooting, unfortunately.
Grateful to have all of you here! Next week, we get an update from Onion columnist Jean Teasdale and find out why the federal government is giving out life vests to all Americans.