20 years ago, The Onion cast John Ashcroft as Frankenstein's monster
The Onion moves on from the Iraq war (temporarily) and talks about Syria, Arbor Day, murder and much more.
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 April 30, 2003.
I rarely think about John Ashcroft nowadays, but he was a big deal (and much feared) in the early 2000s. This week, we revisit a wonderful parody of “Bride of Frankenstein” involving him.
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What issue is this?
This was Vol. 39, Issue 16, the 144th new Onion issue of the 2000s. Here’s what the website looked like in 2003, 2013 and today.
The front-page headline “Least-Powerful Roommate's Posters Relegated To Bathroom” is no longer online. “Least-Powerful” is a wonderful, weird adjective.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
“Ashcroft Rejected By Newly Created Bride Of Ashcroft” is a fantastic parody of the 1935 Boris Karloff film “Bride of Frankenstein,” in which Attorney General John Ashcroft plays Frankenstein’s monster.
The Onion copies a lot of the “Bride” plot and dialogue, down to the bride’s creator being Dr. Pretorius. Ashcroft utters dialogue by the Monster, including “We belong dead” and "Alone… bad. Friend… good."
We also get the 1st mention of real-life D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey since February 2003, when The Onion made Ashcroft into a werewolf:
"They may have burned up in the fire, but you have to remember that we're dealing with a creature so horrible that only a half-crazed mind could have devised it," D.C. Chief of Police Charles H. Ramsey said. "My fear is that she and Ashcroft survived the flames and will return anew to stalk the land in darkness."
The Onion did more with the Dark Universe than Universal did!
The Onion notes that Ashcroft, long criticized for curtailing civil liberties, had bigger problems now:
Recently, however, Ashcroft has also begun to draw criticism from another sector: angry peasant villagers.
This is fantastic Onion humor — well-written, unafraid to go after a target, seamlessly combining topical and historical references. Compare this article with this headline from April 28, 2023: “Goofy Beats Ron DeSantis To Death With Crowbar.” Any idiot could write that joke — only The Onion could craft this Ashcroft story.
One final note: This article mentions a fictional CNN reporter named William Hurlbut. That’s the name of the “Bride of Frankenstein” screenplay writer. But it’s also a well-known Stanford University researcher who in 2003 was serving on President George W. Bush’s bioethics commission and had commented on cloning.
Iraq and Syria stories
The Onion barely mentions the Iraq war this week, in part because this issue published just 1 day before the infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech.
The only Iraq mention is The Onion asking people what they think of “The Dixie Chicks Controversy,” and these jokes are pretty basic for 2003: A fat joke, a nod to Toby Keith, a contrarian saying their music sucks anyways, a “Dukes of Hazzard” reference and, of course, praise for the one rebel everyone agrees on:
"The only country artist qualified to express his political views is Johnny Cash, because that man's seen it all. And he once torched a forest while tripping on mescaline."
Alan Cramer • Systems Analyst
Like last week, The Onion is already anticipating an invasion of Syria. For sure, “CIA: Syria Harboring More Than 15 Million Known Arabs” makes fun of the CIA. But the main target is Americans who treated Arabs and Muslims as a terroristic monolith.
In this article, CIA Director George Tenet refers to Arabs as a “group,” as if these folks all joined a gang. Similarly, Islam is discussed solely as a threat:
"Disturbingly, more than 90 percent of these Arabs have been linked to the practice of 'Islam'—a defiantly non-Western system of faith whose core principles are embraced by none other than Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein," Tenet added. "If this is true, and we do consider this information to be correct in all particulars, then this is troubling at best."
The Onion asks people on the street about this threat from Syria, and like the CIA, regular Americans are deeply suspicious and not exactly well-informed:
"The more I learn about Arabs, the less I like them," said Carol Schecter of Norfolk, VA. "Beirut, Teheran,Baghdad… everyplace there's trouble, they're there, and now we've found them in Syria. I just hope they don't hurt the regular Syrians."
This article is a timely late-April 2003 story that’s perfectly fine today, but you aren’t missing much if you skip it.
Area People doing Area Things
“Band Teacher Gay In Retrospect” is an extremely 2003 story in the way it discusses being gay. What does feel timeless is the idea that adults look back on high school or middle school and realize, “Oh, I never realized ____! How did I not know?"
That said, if liking “The Music Man” makes you gay, then a lot of straight people are lying (including Conan O’Brien):
"Me and a bunch of people at work were reminiscing about middle-school band class," Dolan said. "I was just about to say something about how my old teacher Mr. Moreland used to be obsessed with The Music Man when it suddenly hit me. How in the world could I have not seen that he was gay? I mean, he was so gay."
Other dubious indicators of Mr. Moreland’s sexual orientation include “sack lunches of yogurt and carrots,” playing 20 musical instruments, “driving to Little Rock to see art exhibits and musicals,” and being moody if the class misbehaved.
To be fair to our protagonist, Gary Dolan, he’s playing catchup:
Added Dolan: "I knew he was different, but as a 12-year-old, my understanding of gay culture was limited to Three's Company. I had no idea they actually walked among us in Pine Bluff."
Dolan doesn’t seem bothered by this revelation, and he hopes the other teachers were nice to Moreland:
"I don't think he hung out with any of his colleagues much, except for Mrs. Pickens, the art teacher, and occasionally Ms. Sarnofski, the gym teacher. Holy shit—Ms. Sarnofski."
“Recovering Alcoholic Clearly Kind Of Proud Of Once Being An Alcoholic” could have been a cruel, disastrous article. But because it’s The Onion, this former drinker is humanized. The only laughs at his expense are about his personality, not his drinking.
Tim Schwann is always down to share his favorite drinking stories — a little too eager, you might say.
One such story involves his favorite bar, Sullivan's Wake:
[The owner] “told me he had to order an extra keg of MGD per week after I started showing up. He used to say I was putting his kids through college—which was kind of ironic considering I got kicked out of high school for sneaking vodka into class."
This article shines because it’s constructed like a real newspaper profile. We learn about Schwann’s background and the highs and lows of his drinking, including the incident that put him in rehab. And like any good feature, the article closes with a quote of Schwann reflecting on everything that’s happened:
"I've been sober for almost two years now, and I finally feel like I'm in control of my life," Schwann said. "Sure, drinking Shirley Temples and going to AA meetings isn't as exciting as waking up in a ditch with a splitting headache and no clue how you got there. But even though I miss all those fun times, I don't miss the actual drinking that much. Besides, I know in my heart that if I wanted to, I could still out-drink anyone out there."
Other Area People stories include:
“Desktop Zen Rock Garden Thrown At Assistant” is a tremendous front-page headline. I hope y’all haven’t experienced an executive who pretends to be chill but really has an anger management problem.
I haven’t eaten Taco Bell in over a decade, but I admire their Frankenstein-like pursuit of new food combinations. “New Taco Bell Menu Item Ready For Testing On Humans” is still as relevant today as in 2003.
“Chimp Study On Human-Evasion Response To Feces-Hurling Nearly Complete”: This needed to be a longer article. Such a brilliant concept, right down to the final sentence:
“Dr. Jingles first made his mark in science in 1993, when he earned a Nobel Prize for conclusively proving the deliciousness of bananas.”
“South Dakota Asked To Water North Dakota's Crops Over The Weekend”: This is silly, but I love the comparison of the Dakotas (and Minnesota and Montana) to suburban neighbors. This is the first mention of the Dakotas since February 2003, when North Dakota was hiding nuclear weapons.
“Restaurant Patron Seeking Corroboration That Soda Is Not Diet” reminds me of my grandmother, who always asks if the coffee is fresh at a diner or restaurant. She’s in her 90s, so she can get away with such direct accusations.
“Family Embarrassed By Way Son Died”: The Onion was years ahead of David Carradine in terms of autoerotic asphyxiation.
“Horse-Race Announcer Clearly Had Money on 'Little Dancer'": No notes, really. I just liked this one.
Were the infographics good?
“Why Did We Dump Our Boyfriend/Girlfriend?” is fine, but wow does it feel ancient. Jokes about television reception and stamps? Is this a 1960s bit? “Was into Jamiroquai” makes me laugh, maybe because of April 2023’s “Lori Lightfoot Solemnly Removes Official Mayoral Jamiroquai Hat.”
It’s hard to imagine something I care less about than a 20-year-old collection of jokes about “The New York City Budget Crisis.”
Credit to The Onion for feeling like they could make fun of their adopted home of New York City. Jokes about the subway, the Port Authority and the New York Mets are perfectly fine, but you’re not missing much 20 years later.
What columnists ran?
“An Open Letter To Those Of You Who Blew Off My Arbor Day Party” is brilliant. Look, if you hold an Arbor Day party, you’re either passionate about this holidayor very pretentious. Our columnist is both.
I do feel bad for Vance Kanner. Zero people showed up. That sucks. Why does he throw this party? Because his family instilled the love of Arbor Day when he was 4, even planting a tree that still stands.
At this party, our columnist planned to share the history of Arbor Day and deliver ruminations on roots and branches. He also had gifts:
I don't suppose any of you are bothered by the fact that I have a garage full of red maple saplings that I planned to give away as door prizes. Sure, you could come by and pick them up, but, alas, they are all dead. Don't get me wrong: I'm not bothered by the fact that I spent $500 for unwanted baby trees. I just can't bear the lingering stench of dried sapling corpses that wafts over me every time I need to pull some steaks out of my freezer. Steaks, by the way, that I planned to grill for the party.
Again, I feel bad for this guy. But this warning is ominous:
But one day, sooner than you think, you'll be old. You'll look out the window, and you'll see a big space in your yard and a bigger space in your soul where there could have been a tree. Then you'll think, "My God, what sort of treeless life did I live?" Then, not long after that, you will die.
Our other columnist delivers excellent wordplay in “I've Got To Stop Taking Lives So Seriously.” Yes, James Lee Grady is in a mid-life crisis. He wonders how he can recapture his youthful enthusiasm and joy.
The problem, as you might have guessed from his 3 names, is that he’s talking about literally capturing and killing living things:
Whatever happened to those sunny teenage years, when I could go down to the railroad tracks, sever a dog's vocal cords, and happily hum "The Thieving Magpie" as I slowly skinned him alive? I used to have such a blast doing stuff like that. Every kill was a new adventure. Now, it's more of a grind.
The details in this are gruesome. But credit to The Onion for not half-assing this. Just look at all the details in 1 paragraph:
I'd also love to pursue my "death match arena" project, in which I cage several receptionists for a week or so with nothing to eat but my feces, and then dose them all with cocaine and make them fight each other for more coke. I'd need at least 100 square feet for that, but I could make room if I consolidate my Pain Lab into just the electrified clamps and soldering irons. And I could make a neat little scoreboard at Kinko's. That'd be a hoot.
Also, for the 2nd time in a year, we get a reference to Christian tract author Jack Chick. This time, our columnist/murderer reminisces about making his victims act out Jack Chick comics.
I’m glad The Onion’s writing staff put this creativity into writing about murder and not committing murder.
Finally, The Onion also had “Cooking Tips,” which includes jokes about the 1970s Florence Henderson “Wessonality” commercial, a diss of Julia Child, and praise for men for just reading the article.
I really like these 2 jokes:
Stone soup gets its fullest, heartiest flavor from sandstone or dark shale. Igneous and metamorphic stones tend to overwhelm the flavor of the vegetables.
The general rule of thumb for vinegar is: The browner, the better. If all you have is buck-a-gallon white vinegar, toss in some soy sauce or a brown Magic Marker.
What was the best horoscope?
My favorite horoscope is Pisces, which is the 1st real piece of wisdom offered by The Onion’s horoscopes in a while:
Pisces | Feb. 19 to March 20
Long-established patterns of behavior will not magically change for you this week.
What holds up best?
I loved this issue. The Ashcroft story is masterfully constructed. The chimps study is a great premise. The Arbor Day and serial killing columns are gold.
But the most timeless joke is easily the front-page headline “New Taco Bell Menu Item Ready For Testing On Humans.”
What holds up worst?
“Why Did We Dump Our Boyfriend/Girlfriend?” isn’t bad, but the jokes are outdated. And if you want funnier pre-internet breakup scenarios, you could watch “Seinfeld.”
What would be done differently today?
The Onion’s coverage of Syria would certainly be different today, given the decade-plus of civil war. The Onion’s tone has been all over the place — here’s a short list of representative stories.
“Horse-Race Announcer Clearly Had Money on 'Little Dancer’” is a funny joke, but sports betting is much more than horse racing today. I could imagine a modern version focusing on the NFL or NBA with a famous announcer like Joe Buck or Mike Breen.
Appreciate all of you being here and reading this far. As always, let me know what you remember from this era of The Onion or what I’ve missed.
Next week, we’ll look at a headline I only discovered a few months ago: “Dozens Dead In Chicago-Area Meatwave.” It’s quickly become one of my all-time favorites.
Longtime Onion fans might recognize “systems analyst” as an inside joke — nearly every Onion “What Do You Think?” has someone with this job title. A Google search reveals more than 2,700 instances.
While “Tehran” is the common spelling today,“Teheran” is not a misspelling. It was used in the New York Times as late as 2011.
I love talking animal stories, and this reminded me of 2021’s “Young Mare Can’t Believe Stallion She Slept With Lied To Her About Being 5-2 Favorite In Preakness Stakes.”
I went to an excellent neighborhood Earth Day party last weekend and saw an old friend’s band play, so I’m not mocking here, I swear!
First the "wire mommy" references and now chimp scientists-- someone had primate research on the brain!
The Onion writers have incredibly gruesome imaginations. There's also the article where a forensic investigator is reassuring the parents of a murdered teen that at least their daughter probably died quickly.