20 years ago, Chicago was struck by a deadly 'meatwave'
The Onion doesn't mention "Mission Accomplished" but does explores Bush's 1980s political inspiration, James Brown's 70th birthday and under-petted dogs.
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 7, 2003.
The Onion has multiple stories about President George W. Bush this week. Interestingly, none of them mentions the “Mission Accomplished” speech that had just occurred.
Despite that oversight, we have some of the best “local” coverage I can remember, so let’s dig in.
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What issue is this?
The front-page headlines “Friend's Wedding Ups The Ante” and “Playboy Playmate Weighing Her Option” are no longer online. I would have loved a full article about the friend’s wedding.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
One of The Onion’s great strengths in the 1990s and 2000s was its pitch-perfect parody of newspaper stories. The tone, the structure, the alternating of facts and quotes from experts and witnesses — all of this was familiar to readers. Even if you’ve never read a physical newspaper, you might still recognize (even subconsciously) that the article format is part of the joke.1
The only problem? How can you parody local newspapers when they’re all dying? I called this out 10 years ago:
“… the old Onion was in many ways the world’s most precisely crafted, warped replica of the stereotypical local newspaper, and therefore must change.”
The Onion of the past 10 years is still very good, but it’s no longer tethered to that news-writing structure. If anything, it’s trying to keep up with the rage-inducing social media cycle. I don’t envy The Onion this challenge, but it’s undeniable that the publication has changed.
There’s a Substack I recently read that blamed The Onion’s decline on Donald Trump, social media and progressive politics. I think there’s merit to this argument, although I’d argue that The Onion’s challenges would still exist if Trump never ran. I mainly blame the economic devastation of print’s demise — by moving from print to online, The Onion had to create many times more jokes for a fraction of the revenue.
Regardless, this passage describing 2001’s “Area Man Likes To Think Of Own Past As Sordid” is an excellent reminder of how The Onion used to resemble a local newspaper:
The full report itself, if you read it, is effortlessly rendered news copy—the partial quotations, the detail-rich tangents that inevitably circle back to earlier lines of inquiry, the photos that editors clearly took the time to either create or compile—and it deploys all of those things in service to chronicling one man’s very normal, very pedestrian, very ridiculous thoughts in a news article. This was a time when the Onion was really trying to fool you that it was a real newspaper, and but for the obviously contrived subject material it easily came close to doing so. That was the narrow space in which the laughs arose.
Forgive that long preamble. I bring this all up because the May 7, 2003, issue creates “the narrow space,” starting with the lead story: “Dozens Dead In Chicago-Area Meatwave.”
This article has a few real-life inspirations, notably the 850 Chicagoans who died during the 1995 and 1999 heat waves. There’s also the stereotype of Chicago meat-loving residents. And, of course, The Onion’s Midwest roots make it a keen observer of the Chicago vibe.
Like a real news story, The Onion describes the scene, quotes public officials (Mayor Richard Daley is at his “command center” at Ruth’s Chris Steak House) and offers medical insights.
Here we learn more about “meatwaves” from Max Peltz, director of Emergency Medical Services And Barbecue for Cook County:
“The human body, as you may be aware, is roughly 60 percent water,” Peltz said. “However, many don’t realize that it’s also 75 percent meat. If that percentage rises too high too quickly, it may result in a distended stomach, intestinal bloating, and even death. Believe me, it’s not a pretty way to go. A coroner never forgets the first time he examines the body of someone who died from roast-traumatic stress.”
Look at those sausage links in the photo! Amazing work.
Like a newspaper, The Onion shares the health advisories from Chicago officials, advising residents to procure Zantac, Tums and Immodium AD. And if you see someone suffering from “The Meats,” you want to gradually help them recover — much like you would with a heatstroke victim:
“Bring their meat index down gently and gradually by first immersing them in cold cuts. Call a doctor and talk to them while you wait for help to arrive. Under no circumstances should you let them have another pork chop, ham slice, or New York strip. Administer a solution of turkey tetrachloride, give them coffee, and don’t let them lose consciousness.”
On top of all that, let’s enjoy the vocabulary: “meatwave,” “meatstroke,” “roast-traumatic stress,” “cardiac beefurcation,” “smoked-sausage inhalation,” and “the San Francisco Panquake of 1970.”
Area People doing Area Things
“Local Man Ruins Date By Just Being Himself” is a classic Onion example of a “news” story that feels important but is actually about something tremendously banal — a bad first date.
Here, we have 1,300(!) words about divorced tax attorney Marc Scanlon, whose friends tell him to “just be his true self” on a first date with Rachel Loftus.2
That turns out to be terrible advice. I thought this article might be about Scanlon being a little weird or quirky. But it’s much worse:
"I'm glad he felt comfortable being himself," said brother Chris Scanlon, 39. "But when you're in full-blown mid-30s-crisis mode with misogynist tendencies and a desperate, neurotic need for approval, maybe 'the real you' is not the best thing to put forward."
According to reports, Scanlon's profound insecurity led him to monopolize the first 45 minutes of conversation, talking about nothing but himself. Worse, his inability to get over his divorce prompted him to meticulously detail every phase of his failed marriage.
Scanlon also wore a Billy Joel “River Of Dreams” tour3 T-shirt under a sports jacket, which feels very 1990s.
Most Onion dating stories from 2003 only interview 1 of the 2 people. This time, it’s Loftus, whose many complaints about Scanlon include Ivy League bragging:
"Yale this, Yale that," Loftus said. "Any way he could work it into the conversation, he would. It was so obvious that he was clinging to his Ivy League pedigree out of insecurity, as a way of making himself look like an intelligent man of substance. It really just made him look like a dick."
I was on the school newspaper in high school and college, but I don’t recall any interactions with the yearbook staff. Are they natural rivals? Do most schools even print yearbooks? Does anyone buy them?
Anyways, “Yearbook-Staff Meeting Devolves Into Discussion Of Popular Kids” put these questions into my mind. This article is straightforward: Yearbook kids complaining about the cool kids and jocks.
Also, having a new Volkswagen Jetta in 2003 made you cool?
The staff especially likes the prom queen and some of the meaner athletes. There’s only one moment of tension — events editor Janine Boyd says Adam Welter is a nice guy, which yearbook assistant copy editor Paul Garnock disputes because he was shoved into a locker by Welter.
I love the idea of a newspaper reporter attending high-school yearbook meetings just to write about their complaints.
In addition to these local stories about trivial events, The Onion’s front page has 2 excellent wordplay headlines, each with a small photo:
“Male Bonding Leads To Bail Bonding”
“Kiddie Pool Falls Into Disrepair”
Other Area People stories in this issue include:
“8-Year-Old Forced To Eat Organic Macaroni And Cheese”: Merely calling something “organic” could be a joke 20-30 years ago. You can see a few more examples here.
“Compliment Goes Horribly Awry”: A Michael Scott-level misunderstanding about praising someone’s butt. We also get a Jennifer Lopez reference.
“Stripper Failing School She's Working Self Through”: I like the premise — no one ever asks them how school is going. The Las Vegas strip club mentioned here appears to be the Cheetah’s that apparently was seen in “Showgirls.”
“Nation's Dogs Dangerously Underpetted, Say Dogs”: I’m always happy to see a talking-animals story! I love that there’s an official group, the Association of American Dogs (AAD), and this quote:
“Every night, thousands of U.S. dogs go to bed without so much as a scritch behind the ears," AAD president Banjo said.
The Onion’s coverage of Bush and Iraq
“Bush Cites The Last Starfighter As Inspiration For Entering Politics” was tricky because I’d never heard of “The Last Starfighter.” If you're like me and don't know anything about this film, The Onion gives a thorough recap of the events and themes.
Bush is genuinely inspired to fix his life because of this film. The 1980s were a busy but unfocused time for him:
"I was holding down two jobs, one at an oil well, the other for a third-rate professional baseball team," Bush said. "I had gotten a local girl pregnant, and I spent my weekends watching golf on TV and drinking with my buddies. My dad was vice-president then, and occasionally he'd offer me some vice-presidential stuff to do, you know, just to get a taste for politics. But I was too distracted by other things. Basically, I was your typical unfocused kid."
“A local girl” is his wife, Laura. Also, this movie came out in 1984 and Bush didn’t buy a stake in the Texas Rangers until 1989.
I know The Onion is making fun of Bush, but there are worse ways to be inspired:
"When my spirits were sagging, I'd watch the scene where Alex tells Centauri that he's just 'a kid from a trailer park,'" Bush said. "Centauri replies, 'If that's what you think, then that's all you'll ever be.' It helped me remember that the only boundaries that exist are those you create in your mind."
We also have “Bush To Lovely Chilean Ambassador: 'I Must Paint You,’” which feels like pre-9/11 Bush coverage, where The Onion made fun of his dumb reputation by having him be ridiculously cultured.
Though she eventually agreed to pose for the president, Verdugo drew the line at "an afternoon of fiery passion" among his charcoal sketches.
That last line is a “Titanic” reference, of course.
Finally, The Onion’s only real Iraq coverage was “Continuing Clashes In Iraq,” where people on the street commented on the ongoing skirmishes. Among the jokes:
"Did we tell them the war was over in English? Maybe they just didn't understand."
Audra Thaler • Waitress
Were the infographics good?
“Top-Selling Health Cereals” doesn’t click with me. These are dated 1990s jokes that treat healthy/natural food like hippie nonsense. But maybe I’m missing something.
“The Godfather Of Soul Turns 70” is about the legendary James Brown, who died about 3.5 years later. There are decent references to his band members, nicknames, songs (“Get on the Good Foot,” notably), tax troubles and late-career hair.
Also, Bobby Byrd, longtime collaborator who helped discover Brown, sued Brown and his record label later in 2003.
Whatever we think of these jokes, honoring this legend was a good choice.
What columnists ran?
“Why Am I Always The One To Get Chlamydia?” is a simple joke: A woman confuses the number of times having sex with the number of sex partners:
It's not like I'm any more sexually active than the average girl. My best friend Amy has sex with her boyfriend almost every single night, and she's never had it. Me, I'll be lucky if I have 20 one-night stands in an entire year! So if she's having sex at least 10 times as often as me, why hasn't she ever had it?
Sharon Glauber’s also had “that rare strain of Southeast Asian chlamydia.” As commenters have noted recently, The Onion really paid attention to medical developments in the early 2000s! I couldn’t find an article about this strain before 2003, but there was a 2006 article.
Anyways, this column is meant to be absurd, but there are a surprisingly high number of adults who think this way:
And it's not like I don't have standards. I tend to go for preppy, Abercrombie & Fitch-type guys, the kind who'd be very unlikely to have an STD. Plus, I almost always have them use a condom if they don't swear up and down that they're clean. So what's the deal?
In less-sexy news, Onion columnist Jackie Harvey is back with “Have You Been Bitten By The Matrix Bug?” Regular readers know that Harvey is a walking malapropism. For example, he refers to the 2nd Matrix movie as “Matrix 2: Back To The Matrix” and Laurence Fishburne as “Black Morpheus.”
Harvey also has some … interesting opinions on the hot topics of spring 2003:
Iraq: “It's so great that they're not poor or oppressed anymore. Good job, everyone!”
SARS: “I know they say SARS isn't a threat here, but just to be safe, I'm staying away from Panda Wok down at the mall food court.”
Baseball: “There's nothing I like better than seeing those athletes step up to the plate, bat in hand, and swat a few balls deep into the outfield. Ah, the thrill of raw competition: Two teams enter, one team leaves. That's why it's the great American pastime.”
There’s so much more in this article, but there are 2 mistakes by Jackie Harvey that absolutely delighted me. One is the Douglas family line — Kirk Douglas, Michael Douglas “and son Kirk Cameron.”4
The other is this description of Colin Farrell:
Buttery Scotsman Colin Feral sure does seem to be handy with the ladies. Every night, he's reported gallivanting around town with a different sexy starlet. Where was this guy last year, when we needed him to take our minds off all our problems?
What was the best horoscope?
This was a weird collection of horoscopes — we have references to the conservative publication The American Spectator that may or may not have been topical, a joke about office sex and an “asexual harassment” lawsuit.
Let’s cleanse the palate with Libra:
Libra | Sept. 23 to Oct. 22
Though it should be easy to prove that giant robots are not constantly sneaking up on you, you remain remarkably resistant to dissuasion.
What holds up best?
With apologies to the meatwave story and the brilliant “Male Bonding Leads to Bail Bonding,” I’m going with “Nation's Dogs Dangerously Underpetted, Say Dogs.” This headline predicted about 20% of all social media videos.
What holds up worst?
I think this is a twist on the classic “Xerox your butt on the copier” joke and not meant to imply that you’ll be repeatedly assaulted.
Leo | July 23 to Aug. 22
Once again, it's a bad week for romance in the workplace, but romance has nothing to do with your coworkers taking you from behind while you're Xeroxing.
What would be done differently today?
“Stripper Failing School She's Working Self Through” feels archaic.
The Onion had a brilliant story this past week: “Mysterious Deaths At Churchill Downs Investigated By World-Renowned Horse Detective Ahead Of Kentucky Derby.” It felt like it would fit perfectly into the 1990s or 2000s.
While I occasionally criticize The Onion’s current humor, it’s still a uniquely smart website, and that story shows why.
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 look at Pfizer’s latest drug, the beginnings of the anti-straw movement, shipwreck survivors and more coverage of the latest “Matrix” movie.
The Onion also mimicked how The Associated Press writes national and political stories. Most of the congressional stories I’ve covered in this newsletter follow this style, such as “57 Lawmakers Feared Dead In Senate Mine Disaster.”
“River of Dreams” was released in 1993 and is Joel’s last rock album. So, Scanlon’s shirt is probably 9-10 years old.