20 years ago, The Onion compared 'Yeeeee-haw!' to 'Allahu akbar'
The Onion also reports on 2003's terrorism fears, women's empowerment, Ben & J.Lo, and David Foster Wallace.
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 Feb. 19, 2003.
“Iraq, Kentucky Vie For World Shooting-Into-The-Air Supremacy” is an Onion classic and one of my all-time favorites, but I admittedly hadn’t read the article in at least 10 years. Does it hold up?
Also, I’m stunned to report that The Onion’s reporting on Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez is as relevant as ever.
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What issue is this?
This was Vol. 39, Issue 06, the 135th new Onion issue of the 2000s. Here’s what the website looked like in 2003, 2013 and today.
These front-page headlines are no longer online:
“Okay, TiVo Gets It, You Like Porn”: A very early 2000s technology reference.
“Space Pen Explodes”: A joke about the Columbia space shuttle disaster.
“Chinese Man Still Writing 'Horse' On Checks”: You can read an incredibly dry scholarly analysis of this joke.
Today’s Issue 06 webpage is a mess. It’s missing several stories and mistakenly lists 2 stories (“Kids Excited Mom Learning To Swear” and “N. Korea Wondering What It Has To Do To Attract U.S. Military Attention”) that actually ran on Feb. 12, 2003.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
We’re just weeks away from the Iraq War (or, as The Onion called it in 2002, “Gulf War II: The Vengeance.”)
The Onion’s secret weapon is its ability to write like a journalist while creating an alternate universe like a novelist. We’ve seen that in 2003 with giant robots in North Korea, secret nukes in North Dakota, and the UN’s investigation of Willy Wonka. And we see it in this story below.
“Iraq, Kentucky Vie For World Shooting-Into-The-Air Supremacy” is an Onion masterpiece — topical, silly, taking a lazy trope (the hick Southerner, namely) and offering a fresh take.
The writing is sharp, with details like having an international body for shooting guns in the air — Federation Internationale des Discharges-Aeriales (FIDA). If you’re parodying an absolutely stupid activity, you must give it a classy French name.
I love that FIDA has judges — this is a sport, not a spontaneous activity:
"The Iraqis' preference for automatic military weapons give them the edge in rounds-fired-into-the-air-per-minute, whereas the Kentucky double-barreled shotgun or squirrel rifle has a much greater bore, allowing for a louder, more full-bodied sound and a much greater weight of vertically propelled lead per shot."
Now, is The Onion playing on an easy stereotype of Southerners? Absolutely. And would The Onion be this stereotypical about other groups (say, an inner-city gang)? I doubt it — and that’s a good thing.
That said, I’m not too bothered by the portrayal. Why? To me, this isn’t a story about Kentuckians or Southerners. Rather, it’s a classic Onion template: Investigative journalism, but it’s about something stupid.
The Onion isn’t saying, “Shooting your guns into the air is moronic, haha.” No, it’s treating it like a cultural tradition — say, the religious beliefs or traditional foods of Iraqis or Kentuckians.
If you want to be upset, get mad at this quote from the FIDA judge:
"Though they may have different meanings, the cries of 'Yeeeee-haw!' and 'Allahu akbar!' are, in spirit, not actually all that different."
Yes, The Onion equated “Yee-haw!” to the phrase many Americans considered a terrorist war cry. I wonder what kinds of letters The Onion received for this one.
Other Axis of Evil-related news
The Onion’s Iraq coverage continues in the Point-Counterpoint “No Blood For Oil vs. Exactly How Much Oil Are We Talking About?” This directly addresses the common anti-war criticism that the Iraq war was about enriching oil companies.
Our Point columnist, Susan Winger, gives a straightforward critique of the Bush case for war. For example:
The president claims that Iraq is "a danger to the world," but it is the U.S. that represents the real danger. We are the ones who act like bullies, intimidating those who don't go along with our imperialist agenda with threats of invasion and worse.
OK, normal enough. Many real-life pundits had the same criticisms.
Kenneth W. Parton, our Counterpoint columnist, has a different perspective. He wants to run the numbers of all this blood and oil. What’s the blood-to-oil ratio? How low could gasoline prices go?
Most weirdly — what types of blood?
We should also know what kind of blood we're giving up. Is it O-positive, the universal donor? I'd be more reluctant to part with that than some useless AB junk. If Bush and Rumsfeld spill, say, 100,000 gallons of B-negative or AB-positive soldier blood for an equivalent amount of primoMideast oil, that may be well worth considering.
Is this a Jon Stewart-like takedown? No, but I don’t think that’s The Onion’s best use of its talent. Instead, let’s recognize how a satirical paper made us laugh while pointing out the stupidity.
The Onion also covered Axis of Evil member North Korea, asking people on the street about a real-life news story. “Can N. Korea Nukes Reach The U.S.?” has fairly standard jokes.
This one intrigued me as a reflection of post-9/11 feelings:
"It's about time the West Coast started carrying its fair share of the scared-shitless load."
Jennifer Cotto • Research Assistant
Early 2003 was an unpleasant mix of post-9/11 and pre-Iraq fears. There’s a lot of both in this issue.
“Terrorism 'Not Likely' Cause Of Fire At Local Laundromat” reflects the public worry that everything bad was the work of terrorists — no matter how unlikely.
This story discusses a routine fire at a laundromat in Ohio. Still, the Department of Homeland Security feels compelled to downplay the likelihood of terrorism — even while investigating the 7 Muslims who live there just to be safe. DHS Secretary Tom Ridge offers the usual boilerplate “to remain extra-vigilant in these times of heightened alert.”
The Onion, notably, doesn’t make fun of the locals. The people most feverish about terrorism are the feds, including President George W. Bush:
"The Euclid fire appears to be an isolated incident unrelated to terrorism," Bush said. "But next time, we might not be so lucky. That is why we, as a nation, must do everything we can to drive out Saddam Hussein and his ilk. By confronting terrorism head-on, we can once again live in a nation where we don't jump every time a dryer buzzer goes off."
Also, the laundromat owner is named Mike Birbiglia. While that’s the name of the popular comic who had already appeared on David Letterman’s show by 2003, I’m guessing this is a coincidence.
The Onion covers women’s issues
“Women Now Empowered By Everything A Woman Does” fascinates me. I think it holds up incredibly well in some ways but is deeply flawed in others. Then again, I’m not the target audience, so I invite you to form your own opinion.
The premise is that feminism must encompass every single thing a woman does. You can mine a lot of humor from that starting point, but these jokes feel easy — like, almost anyone can make a few cracks about women’s studies professors.
And while I love a silly joke, some of these felt too disconnected from reality. For example:
The study also cites the act of pumping one's raised fist in a gesture of female solidarity against the oppressive forces of air pressure.
"Nearly 90 percent of study participants have done this at least once in their lives, often accompanying their action with the exhortation 'You go, girl!' or, simply, 'Whooooooo!'" Klein said.
Yes, I like the phrase “oppressive forces of air pressure.” And “Whooooooo!” has the correct amount of Os. But when you read that, do you recognize it as a satire of a plausibly real person? (And didn’t “How I Met Your Mother” do a far superior “Woooo girl” bit?)
Compare that paragraph with the 9/11 classic “Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake.” You know instantly who that article is (gently) satirizing — and why.
Or look at “Newlyweds Regret Saving Sex For Marriage” from this Feb. 19, 2003, issue. We can easily imagine many real people in this situation.
But maybe I’m wrong. The Onion was based in Madison, Wis. — maybe this article is parodying students and professors at the University of Wisconsin?
Despite this criticism, I think this article is actually better in 2023 for 2 reasons:
This article is harsh about the capitalistic impulse to to support causes by buying products. For example: “… today's feminist asserts control over her biological destiny by wearing a baby-doll T-shirt with the word ‘Hoochie’ spelled in glitter.”
It’s easy to imagine big brands and Instagram and TikTok influencers collaborating on such merchandise.
Women’s studies professors are such a media bugaboo. I can imagine Fox News running a segment that sounds like this article. Would The Onion’s staff would be delighted or horrified by this?
Let’s end on a positive note. I loved everything about this paragraph:
"Unlike traditional, phallocentric energy bars, whose chocolate, soy protein, nuts, and granola ignored the special health and nutritional needs of women, their new, female-oriented counterparts like Luna are ideally balanced with a more suitable amount of chocolate, soy protein, nuts, and granola," Klein said. "Proto-feminist pioneers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony could never have imagined that female empowerment would one day come in bar form."
Area People doing Area Things
“Girlfriend Stops Reading David Foster Wallace Breakup Letter At Page 20” is about the author David Foster Wallace's writing style. Also, my condolences for anyone who's received a 67-page breakup letter.
So many things to marvel at. The footnotes (in the image above) make this story a delight! I also love the details that aren’t in this letter, like the 88-item note DFW wrote to ex-girlfriend Claire Thompson about “why he didn't want a birthday party."
Also, this burn of DFW at the end:
"Maybe I'll pick it up again," Thompson said. "I'd sort of like to see how it ends. Then again, knowing David, it probably just leaves a whole bunch of loose ends untied."
Other Area People stories include:
“Bacon Good For You, Reports Best Scientist Ever”: Simple jokes are wonderful. This isn’t Dr. Albert Gruber’s 1st discovery, either: “In 1997, Gruber, a Mayo Clinic cardiologist, was awarded nine Nobel Prizes in Medicine for discovering that frequent oral sex with models cures cancer.”
“Paintball Team Visits Vietnam Memorial”: I love the line “Bechet bowed his head in silent prayer for his splattered comrade.”
“No One At Ad Agency Remembers Hiring Carrot Top For Commercial”: This joke writes itself. Credit to The Onion for always naming the real-life ad agencies — in this case, Young & Rubicam for AT&T.
“New Prisoner Recognized From 'Scared Straight' Visit”: Well-constructed joke, but sad to read.
“Pizza Hut Introduces New Meat Sympathizer's Pizza”: This sounds like a real pizza.
Were the infographics good?
It’s wild that Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez are back together and that “The Ben And J. Lo Show” makes sense in 2023.
These jokes are predictable, but I like them. “Practice off-the-cuff anecdotes about how in love they are” reminds me more of J.Lo and Alex Rodriguez, though.
Also, poor Matt Damon.
“Where's The Baby?” is the human follow-up to Feb. 5, 2003’s “Who Is Watching Our Cats?”
The Onion loved an Anne Geddes joke in the early 2000s! “Wasn’t she with you?!” is funny if it’s not happening to you.
What columnists ran?
“Well, I Think Michael Jackson Looks Nice” reminds us that prime-time TV specials were still a huge deal 20 years ago! More than 27 million people watched his ABC special.
As I mentioned above, The Onion’s greatest strength is its ability to satirize, even be absurd, while still making jokes that feel real. This column is a good example.
Yes, many people disliked Michael Jackson. But our columnist, Elaine Paretsky, also feels realistic: She sees only the good in MJ and doesn’t like the public ridicule.
For example, Jackson’s face is unusual, but it’s his overall look that counts:
So many of the stars today walk around looking all sloppy and disheveled, like they just rolled out of bed. They wear the backwards baseball caps and baggy pants that are falling off their tushies. Michael, on the other hand, always wears a matching pantsuit or a handsome jacket with gold braids.
She also loves “his cute little button nose.”
I mean, I get Elaine’s point. She doesn’t want to see anyone mocked for (seemingly) no reason. Her own son went through a divorce, so she’s sympathetic to MJ on that front.
That said, Elaine might be missing a few details:
When I was growing up, it wasn't unusual for a father to leave all the parenting to the women, so it sure brings a smile to my face to see Michael surrounded by all those children.
What was the best horoscope?
My favorite horoscope this week is Aries because it’s a 2003 version of modern-day people (Gina from “Brooklyn 99”?) whose personalities are defined by GIFs and emojis:
Aries | March 21 to April 19
You will soon be forced to admit that your entire emotional range can be conveyed with a set of cleverly arranged punctuation marks.
What holds up best?
I didn’t talk much about “Paintball Team Visits Vietnam Memorial” earlier, but this is a well-executed joke about how we try to cosplay as heroes.
I don’t think The Onion is mocking this paintball team so much as mocking all of us.
What holds up worst?
The front-page joke “Chinese Man Still Writing 'Horse' On Checks” is very, very stupid.
But I’ll pick this horoscope, which is randomly mean instead of being mean for a reason:
Libra | Sept. 23 to Oct. 22
This week's mishap won't set your zookeeping career back much. Anyone could have mistaken Tyne Daly for a majestic silverback lowland gorilla.
What would be done differently today?
I think The Onion would have many more jokes about the Iraq war, and they’d be more pointed and less silly.
Why less silly? A few reasons. The 24/7 news cycle demands quick jokes, not spending a week on an article. Many readers encounter The Onion on social media, so the headlines have to convey the entire joke — little room for nuance or subtlety.
And many readers today, I’d guess, want The Onion to attack things they dislike rather than joke about them.
But I’m not too worried. For decades, The Onion’s resisted outside pressure to influence its work, and I think they’ll continue to do so.
Plus, for better or worse, The Onion remains unafraid to piss people off. Even I was taken aback by this headline: “Justice Department Concurs With Matt Gaetz Defense That 17-Year-Olds Pretty Much Ready To Roll.”
Another week in the books! Next week, we’ll look at the terror alert system, the anti-SUV movement, and a new column by Jean Teasdale.
Google Translate interprets this as “International Federation of Air Discharges,” while Deepl prefers “International Federation of Aerial Discharges.”
“Primo” — a classic Onion phrase still in occasional use, particularly in Jim Anchower columns or Vice President Joe Biden stories.
We have a little bit of that now with China’s balloons — a real concern, but also, some local hobbyists probably got their balloon shot down.
Or, as a friend once experienced, a breakup in the form of a sheet of paper listing all her faults!
the DFW burn is precious!
I actually think the "still writing horse one checks" joke is funny!