20 years ago, The Onion redesigned its website
The Onion returns from vacation with jokes about spam mail, Cheney, stoners, Kiss, Puddle of Mudd and Rolling Stone.
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 July 17, 2002.
The Onion took 4 weeks off in summer 2002 and also redesigned its website.
Hello to subscribers who signed up during the hiatus! This is a lengthy newsletter that’s meant to be a guide to everything The Onion published. Don’t feel you need to read straight through — if you see a link that sounds funny, explore it!
What issue is this?
The website redesign offers a different look than the early 2000s site, but there are no real changes in content, as far as I can tell. It’s still a print-first era, which is great for this newsletter.
No longer online is the front-page headline “Bitch Wife Forgot To Tape Cops Appearance.”
What was the top story, and other impressions?
“Anti-Spam Legislation Opposed By Powerful Penis-Enlargement Lobby” is a goofy reminder that spam is persistent.
As I’ve said many times, The Onion loves stories about fake industry groups lobbying in Washington, D.C. I edited newsletters for trade associations for many years, so this delights me on multiple levels.
This article is full of NSFW genitalia puns and parodies of spam emails. We also have porn star Ron Jeremy lobbying Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond (R-MO):
"I don't recall the First Amendment saying, 'Speech is free unless you're promoting a pill that's guaranteed to make your dick longer and thicker,'" Jeremy said.
The Onion imagines that the biggest spammers have united to oppose this anti-spam legislation. Imagine if politics were this honest!
"The penis enlargers have shrewdly formed a coalition with other industries that depend heavily upon mass e-mail, including the American Association To LOSE WEIGHT FAST and the National Alliance To GET OUT OF DEBT NOW," said Nicholas Lerman of the Cato Institute. "This coalition also includes the formidable National Organization To GO FROM AN A-CUP TO A D IN JUST 10 DAYS."
This is a very 2002 article. But it also feels like a warning — everything online is corrupted by spam eventually.
More politics from The Onion
“Cheney Caught Moonlighting” is probably the most light-hearted article The Onion ever wrote about Vice President Dick Cheney.
This isn’t an attack piece. It’s more of a “vice presidents doing hijinks” story that The Onion specialized in with Al Gore and Joe Biden.
Cheney’s 2nd job at a Denny’s was a secret for many months, and it was exhausting him. He almost got caught when he showed up to the Oval Office wearing his Denny’s uniform. Ultimately, he is discovered in a comedic fashion by President George W. Bush:
"At first, I didn't recognize him, because he was ducking his head, covering his mouth, and speaking in a French accent," Bush said. "He seated us and went away very quickly. Whenever he passed our table, he would turn his head and hide his face behind a menu. Finally, he collided with a server right in front of us, sending a whole tray of food flying. Once we helped him to his feet, the jig was up."
Why did Cheney take the job? To pay for a fur coat for his wife. (The Onion shares that Cheney’s not even the first Bush official caught moonlighting! Norman Mineta was bartending in 2001 to pay for a classic Ford Mustang.)
It’s unusual to see anyone satirize Cheney this way, and I like how The Onion reimagines this stale sitcom plot of a double life. The juxtaposition of Cheney applying cloak-and-dagger tactics against his low-wage fast-food gig is enough to make this a good read.
The 3rd political story in this issue is much less fun. “Executing The Mentally Retarded” is The Onion getting people’s reaction to a real-life Supreme Court decision ruling that such executions violate the 8th Amendment.
I’ve talked about this word several times in this newsletter. It was used throughout society, including by The Onion — sometimes as an insult and sometimes as a legal/neutral term. The New York Times covered this ruling, for instance, with the same wording.
Obviously, the language has shifted in the past 20 years, and we now view The Onion’s usage in a different context. Unfortunately, the actual jokes are not particularly imaginative, funny or considerate.
Who’s the joke? A look at 3 stories
Let’s talk about the tricky part of evaluating 20-year-old jokes in The Onion. First of all, The Onion shouldn’t be nice — you don’t become the best at this style of humor by pulling punches.
As longtime Onion Editor-in-Chief Scott Dikkers said, the job “is to manipulate the reader’s emotions, to push their buttons,” and “Only satire that angers or offends people will be remembered.”
In this newsletter, I try to apply this test: “Is it clear who The Onion was trying to make fun of?”
The Onion’s 9/11 issue is a great example of doing this well. All the jokes are about tragic circumstances, but you never think the people killed on 9/11 are being mocked.
By contrast, 2001’s “Northern Irish, Serbs, Hutus Granted Homeland In West Bank” seems to target diplomats and politicians who are eager to declare peace without actually solving conflicts. But the story can also be read as mocking minority/oppressed groups as little more than bloodthirsty clans.
Basically, I want to know whether The Onion landed the joke. I can still criticize the outcome, how it aged or even whether it was ever funny, but that’s different than saying The Onion’s process was bad.
“Outdoor-Music-Festival Grounds Mistaken For Refugee Camp” makes fun of Red Cross volunteers who stumble upon Countryfest 2002 and assume it’s a refugee camp. American music festivals can be disgusting, to be fair:
"This certainly is not the worst camp I've witnessed in my travels," said Montoya, 44, who has participated in relief missions in Rwanda, Sudan, and India. "But this being America, and given the fact that the camp has dubbed itself the 'Fun-In-The-Sun Country-Music Spectacular,' I would've expected them to have at least basic sanitation. Not so."
The Red Cross volunteers compare everything to refugee camps they’ve seen, and that’s probably a commentary on the American safety net or something. The writing is strong enough that readers won’t be confused into thinking that refugees are being mocked.
Who else is a target? City folk:
"I had a hard time understanding the refugees' almost indecipherable dialect, but I did glean some information," Elson said. "They call themselves 'country folk.'
The big draw, as I understand it, is the promised appearance of 33 of their tribe's most prominent music makers, including Travis Tritt, Kenny Chesney, and Martina McBride."
“Missing White Girl Drives Missing Black Girl From Headlines” is another example of The Onion delivering a laser-focused joke on a sensitive topic. It’s clear that the media is being mocked, not the (fictional) missing girls.
In 2022, this story is more political than ever. In 2002, it might have been inspired by the Elizabeth Smart disappearance.
The 3rd example this week is “Israeli Bus Driver Wants Really Big Raise,” which is a reaction to multiple bus bombings in June 2002.
You could criticize The Onion for not being more political here, too. But for better or worse, this is a joke about bus drivers complaining. The only unusual component is the setting.
Area People doing Area Things
“Stoner Uncle All The Kids' Favorite” feels out of date because society is more permissive of marijuana today. And lots of people get high without being a hippie or, in this case, literally a devotee of Hunter S. Thompson. Many users have families and aren’t “in an on-again, off-again relationship with a 44-year-old massage therapist and renaissance-fair hobbyist named Guinevere.”
Mike "Gonzo" Dornheim has metal sculptures in his yard, makes tree forts, loves Frisbee and Bugs Bunny and tattoos — and he doesn’t discuss drugs or leave paraphernalia around. And the kids love hanging out with him. Hard to complain about this guy!
The article is fun even if it feels almost pointless today.
Other Area People stories in this issue include:
“Horrible Band Obviously Not Listening To Its Influences”: Puddle of Mudd singer Wes Scantlin1 gives a ridiculous quote to real-life Spin writer Charles Aaron. This feels like the May 2002 Tara Reid story: Easy targets, but you kind of feel bad for them now.
“Winning Dad Forces Tired Child To Finish Monopoly Game”: I laughed at this simple joke. Hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place! That poor kid is screwed.
“Sherwin-Williams Triumphantly Reports Nearly Half The Planet Covered In Paint”: For this joke to work, you must know that Sherwin-Williams’ logo has red paint being dumped on the Earth with the slogan “Cover the Earth.” Real-life CEO Christopher Connor says the goal is to finish “before the giant space bucket runs out of paint."
“New Wheelchair Has That 'New Wheelchair' Smell”: A front-page throwaway headline.
“German Fairy Tale Ends Predictably”: A better version of the front-page joke.
Were the infographics good?
It’s wild to think Rolling Stone was more worried about Blender than the decline of print or massive changes to the music industry. Anyways, RS fired its editor, hired a Brit who ran FHM (such a 2002 move) and vowed to publish shorter articles.
Many of these jokes are responses to Rolling Stone’s new direction. Good lord, you don’t get more 2002 than a Hoobastank2 pictorial. The final joke — “Target baby boomers and their teenage children; attract neither” — is mean but accurate.
How did this overhaul go? Not good enough — in 2008, the magazine literally shrunk in size in another attempt to be “cool.”
“What Is Kiss licensing?” feels incredibly old now. The jokes are good but irrelevant.
What columnists ran?
“Hi, I'm Just Calling To Follow Up On That Make-Out Session We Had Last Week” would be embarrassing to witness in real life. But that’s the point. This guy acts like he’s on a generic sales call and trying to schedule a follow-up meeting.
Here’s a sample:
If I may, let me get to the point. I'm sure you must be very busy. Those were some very enjoyable French kisses we shared last week, weren't they? I thought the whole thing went very well. A little petting—not too much. Some nice lower-lip nibbling. Plenty of tongue. I thought we really clicked there. Are we on the same page here?
Anyway, just thought I'd give you a buzz to see if we wanted to follow up on that. I got your contact info from Alexandra. What do you say? Just throwing it out there.
That’s how everyone flirted before dating apps, kids.
The Onion clearly had fun talking in 1940s-speak about flying hotels, a “fibre-glass birdhouse” from DuPont or the automatic moving sidewalks that Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza wished for.
Here’s how the first answer begins — in response to a letter-writer asking about trouble with her stepmother:
Flying Wing A Three-Story Hotel In The Sky! Breaking the aerial sound barrier is all well and good for Colonel Yeager, but what about those businessmen who need to breakfast in Boston and sup in Sacramento?
What was the best horoscope?
I liked the horoscopes this week, with jokes about falling off horses, an amateur magician’s inability to save the girl, bad juries and more. But my favorite is the simplicity of Pisces:
Pisces | Feb. 19 to March 20
Oh, and be careful of that tricky first step. It isn't there.
What holds up best?
This issue has lots of funny but ancient stories. If we’re talking about most relevant 20 years later, it’s “Missing White Girl Drives Missing Black Girl From Headlines,” although it’s not the best or funniest story.
What holds up worst?
Clearly the Supreme Court story.
What would be done differently today?
These are funny, well-written stories. They just need a modern setting. Like, find 2022 equivalents to Puddle of Mudd, Rolling Stone, Kiss and Dick Cheney.
Happy to be back with y’all! Next week, we’ll look at Denzel Washington meeting a fan, The Onion’s TV listings and the classic “Dad Keeps Dropping Hints About Mom's Sexual Proclivities.”
Scantlin reemerged at the start of the pandemic for a truly painful Nirvana cover, after years of legal and drinking problems.