20 years ago, The Onion made fun of The Economist
We also have The Osbournes, Ralph Macchio, Mideast peace, a small-town newspaper and someone angry about cursing in adult films
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 24, 2002.
Some weeks as I prepare this newsletter, I fondly recall old favorites. Other weeks, everything feels very dated. This week, thankfully, the stories are out of date but still funny!
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What issue is this?
This was Vol. 38, Issue 15, the 101st Onion issue of the 2000s and the 100th issue of new content.
The front-page headline “Mixed-Nut Ratio Total Bullshit” made me laugh and is also no longer online.
The front page also had these 2 small photos with headlines. Alas, newspapers have also died, and Andrew W.K. is still partying (and engaged to Kat Dennings), although he definitely peaked in the early-mid 2000s.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
“Mideast Peace Process Derailed, Burned To Ground, Shoveled Over With Dirt” is a story of exaggerated metaphors — an Armaggeddon of descriptive language, if you will. It’s also loosely describing the actual failed peace process of March-April 2002.
This paragraph sums up the tone. The 1st two sentences are regular things that diplomats might say. But while “lay the foundation” and “ran into obstacles” are standard metaphors, the 3rd sentence reveals what The Onion is doing:
"The goal was to establish a substantive, mutually respectful dialogue between the two sides that would lay the foundation for a lasting settlement," said Secretary of State Colin Powell upon returning from his failed diplomatic mission. "Unfortunately, at an early stage of the negotiation process, these efforts ran into obstacles. More specifically, they violently slammed into the obstacles at 190 mph, bursting into flames upon impact."
Other metaphors become literal moving objects, such as:
“Arab-Israeli tension” flying miles into the air before exploding
The peace process crashing through a building “and causing it to shatter into countless pieces”
Peace talks that “belched thick plumes of black smoke.”
There’s also a mention of the many hundreds of people actually killed in the conflict.
I wouldn’t call this a legendary Onion story, but really shows how smart and creative The Onion’s writers could be.
Famous people in the news
I remember when “The Osbournes” came out, but I hadn’t thought about it in many, many years. What’s fascinating to me in 2022 is how huge reality TV was 20+ years ago. Shows like “Survivor” and “Big Brother” were covered in The Onion (and real media) as huge events — but also like the early internet, as if this were just a fad.
Nowadays, someone doing a reality show isn’t news. But The Osbournes were so popular that they inspired other fading celebs to jump on the bandwagon.
As for this infographic, The Onion’s jokes really do sound like storylines. I love the idea of Ronnie James Dio (RIP) making a pot roast that’s not very good. “Ozzy angrily hits Cuisinart with a shoe” made me laugh, too.
Speaking of famous people, “Former Big Celebrity Finds New Career As Pathetic Former Celebrity” also reminds us that Ralph Macchio was mostly famous for being formerly famous until the Karate Kid/Cobra Kai revivals. (To be fair, in 2002, someone like Jason Bateman was probably less famous than Macchio.)
Sadly, Macchio was never on “King of the Hill” or “The Drew Carey Show” despite the mentions here. Also, I love this ad concept:
Macchio will also appear in an upcoming Stanley Tools ad, in which, over an image of his face, the announcer says, "Some things come and go, but Stanley is forever."1
Other famous people in the news include:
“Fashion Industry Pretends To Care About Plus-Size Models”: Probably the most truthful statement in this entire issue. Anna Wintour is quoted here. However, the next Vogue issue will “celebrate female boniness, featuring hundreds of photos of women weighing no more than 103 pounds.”
“Cardinal Law Under Fire”: The Catholic Church sex abuse conspiracy had been getting more public attention in early 2002, with a focus on Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston. The Onion asked people for their thoughts, and the one pure joke is this:
"If nothing else, Cardinal Law is a great name for the TV movie that will inevitably be made about this."
Michael Polk • Civil Engineer
“Cardinal Law” feels like a show that NBC would have promoted heavily but canceled about 10 episodes in.
Area People doing Area Things
Lots of “local” stories this week, none more meta than “80 Percent Of Small-Town Newspaper Written By Jerry Schoepke.”
I worked a small daily newspaper in the late 2000s that also printed the even smaller rural weeklies. The newspaper image above is a decent imitation of those papers. For what it’s worth, the real-life Crestline, Ohio, had about 5,000 residents in 2002 and a newspaper, the Advocate, dating back to 18692.
Schoepke is born and raised in Ohio, just like LeBron James, and we learn a bit about his day-to-day job is like. Besides all the articles he’s credited for, he ghostwrites other items. Plus, he writes a monthly column! Here’s a sample:
In one recent installment, titled "No More 'No Parking'!" Schoepke humorously railed against the proliferation of No Parking signs downtown. He compared the signs to flowers, noting that "every spring, more and more of them seem to pop up." In the tongue-in-cheek piece, Schoepke also expressed fear that visitors to Crestline could become confused and think the name of the town is "No Parking."
Yup, that’s local columnist material! Jerry loves the job, although he has to work part-time at his wife’s store. He also has a strange definition of objective journalism:
"So if I have an opinion, I put it in an opinion column, not a news story. Or else, I'll write a letter to the editor and sign it 'Anonymous.'"
“Magic-Store Employee Not The Same Since Losing Virginity” is an easy joke to make, and so The Onion’s challenge (for me) is to make the writing funny and descriptive enough to overcome the blasé premise.
I think this succeeds! Scottie Reuss is a workaholic and magic fanatic. But then he goes to a recent party in which he consumes Malibu and orange juice before having a passionate night with a woman (who has a boyfriend). Suddenly he’s bad at his job!
This reminds me of the “Seinfeld” episode where George has to be celibate and almost immediately turns into a genius, lapsing back to his normal self post-coitus.
We hear complaints about Reuss’ changed ways from the owner of Merlin’s Magicland, a regular customer and friends. We also get commentary about Penn and Teller:
"Scottie's shift ends at 5, but he always used to stay later," said Jonathan Friel, 17. "Lots of times, he'd still be there when it was time to close up at 8 because we'd gotten into a heated argument about whether Penn and Teller are doing more harm than good for the magic community."
The magic community can’t understand why he wants to spend his time at parties, but they aren’t too worried. “He'll realize that getting laid is temporary, but magic is forever,” says his best friend, Andrew Welch.
The obviously fake CEC MidCorp is the company here, and after the petrochemical company suffers massive losses and is featured on CNN/fn (CNN’s long-defunct version of CNBC), local residents take up a bake sale, flea market and, ultimately, a 3-day festival.
The story is a good satire of local stories about someone down on their luck getting community assistance, except that the beneficiary is this giant corporation. Unfortunately, not only is the $7,348 raised not nearly enough, it’s not even appreciated:
"Thank you for your interest in CEC MidCorp," Brodhagen's letter read in part. "But while we greatly appreciate the support of our investors and welcome new ones, we prefer that CEC MidCorp stock be purchased by conventional means, through an accredited broker."
Other Area People stories include:
“South Dakota Considering Maybe Putting Mount Rushmore On State Quarter”: The actual South Dakota quarter didn’t debut until 2006 and, unsurprisingly, featured Mount Rushmore. I do like that other options range “from the historic birthplace of Cheryl Ladd to our oft-used highway system.”
“Man Turns Vegetarian For 36 Hours”: The Onion is always good for jokes about people’s lack of commitment. Notably, this man previously had a “strict three-day exercise regimen of 100 sit-ups every morning.”
“Opium-Inspired Ad Executive Composes Epic Tums Jingle”: The use of opium here makes me think this is some old-timey joke. The jingle starts, by the way, with “When Vulcan's fires spout and rage / within a roiling acid sea.”
Were the infographics good?
“Top-Rated Programs on The Food Network” is definitely mocking, but the network saw ratings increase 20% in 2002!
“Chef Shouty” feels like a Homer Simpson line to me, or maybe I’m just thinking too much about “I call the big one Bitey.”
What columnists ran?
“Why Do Porn Actors Have To Use Such Foul Language?” is an old favorite. Today’s Onion website lacks bylines, much less photos, but this story is even better when you see who’s writing it.
This is a classic “won’t someone think of the kids?” lament about pop culture. The twist is that it’s also a graphic description of pornography viewing habits.
The worry about the children takes a strange turn, however:
Porn actors have a responsibility to their younger fans. There are impressionable young kids watching these videos, and the people up there on that screen need to be aware of that. They need to realize that the things that come out of their mouths have as much of an impact on those kids as the things that go in them.
There’s nothing I can write that can match that.
Our other column is another Point/Counterpoint!
“According To The Economist, NASA Is An Industrial Subsidy In Disguise vs. Oooh, Look At Me, I Read The Economist!” is from a different era, long before SpaceX and the private space industry. It’s also about 1 year before the space shuttle Columbia disaster.
But mostly, this is making fun of people who think they are smarter/superior because they read The Economist or some other high-falutin’ publication. And The Onion does a good job in raising real issues discussed in 2002 and more recently, like whether we overemphasize astronauts.3
But let’s get to The Economist mocking!
Oh, no! My brain just got larger! Help! I need more knowledge to fill up the new brains! Get me the new issue of The Economist at once! I can't live if I'm even remotely unaware of anything that is happening in the universe! I must have my weekly issue of The Economist, or I risk de-evolving into the sort of mouth-breathing rabble by which I am surrounded daily!
The Economist is a fine publication, but this Point/Counterpoint is a delight.
What was the best horoscope?
My favorite horoscope this week is Gemini, with this observation that accidently predicted our declining birth rates!
Gemini | May 21 to June 20
Your plan to have children by the time you are 35 will go awry when you're shown a cute picture of a Weimaraner puppy in a bucket.
What holds up best?
So much of this issue is based on long-ago pop culture trends or references, but the Point/Counterpoint remains a wonderful satire of people using books, magazines, TV shows, etc., as a proxy for their intellectualism.
What holds up worst?
I feel compelled to defend Ralph Macchio. That said, if not for the recent revivals, “Former Big Celebrity Finds New Career As Pathetic Former Celebrity” would hold up much better.
What would be done differently today?
This is a really good issue. The challenge in 2022 would be to find fresh topics while being equally funny and cutting. And, as always, there would be much more politics and breaking news.
I have a lot of fun with this newsletter, even if it takes a while to write, and I’m glad to have you along.
Next week, we’ll look at The Onion’s coverage of Queen Elizabeth II’s 50th year on the throne, a Saddam Hussein joke and the spammy pitch about making money while working from home. Yes, that scam was around in 2002!