20 years ago, The Onion sent Ted Turner back in time
We also get updates on Iraq, Robin Williams and St. Patrick's Day in this final issue before the invasion of Iraq.
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 March 12, 2003.
This is The Onion’s last issue of new content before the invasion of Iraq began. Once again, American society is irrevocably changing, and The Onion will change with it.
Thank you to all the people commenting with extra tidbits and trivia! I love it! There’s no way I’ll spot everything, so I appreciate y’all jumping in (and your enthusiasm).
A programming note: No newsletter next Sunday! We’ll be back on March 26, when The Onion returned from its break.
If you’re new here, welcome! Please sign up!
What issue is this?
This was Vol. 39, Issue 09, the 138th new Onion issue of the 2000s. Here’s what the website looked like in 2003, 2013 and today.
The front-page headlines no longer online are the fantastic “Eighth-Grade Oboist Plays Weezer” and “Designated Driver Stoned.” That 8th-grader was too young for Weezer’s 1st album, right? Was “Hash Pipe” or “Island in the Sun” being played? If you were an 8th-grader but loved the Blue Album back then, please let me know.
Also no longer online is the column “Irish-Americans Gear Up For 'The Reinforcin' O' The Stereotypes,’” which has a confusing history. I’ll explore more below.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
“Ted Turner Sends Self Back In Time To Prevent AOL Time Warner Merger” reflects how much attention our country paid to the AOL-Time Warner merger. It was a huge merger and a hilariously bad idea, but people obsessed over it!
For background, Ted Turner founded CNN, TBS and TNT, and owned many other properties, including the Atlanta Braves and MGM’s back catalog of movies, TV shows and cartoons. He merged the Turner empire with Time Warner in 1996, so he had limited power to stop the merger with AOL (and lost billions of dollars in the aftermath).
In the article, Turner invents a mysterious time-travel machine that sounds very much like the “Terminator” movies:
"From what we understand, the machine acts only on living human flesh," Turner spokesman Marty Wellssaid. "If Mr. Turner has been successful, he has materialized in January 2000 completely nude, with no ID or money, save for a few billion dollars in Year 2000-value Time Warner stock. To survive, he'll need to steal clothing and rely on whatever crude weapons he can fashion with his bare hands."
Maria Bartiromo, then of CNBC, is skeptical of the plan’s chances. And a physicist warns that Turner could ruin his marriage to Jane Fonda (they actually divorced in 2001, so you’d think he’d also try to save that!).
I love a good alternate universe scenario — I’m one of those annoying people who considers “It’s a Wonderful Life” a science-fiction movie — and I love the “Terminator” parallels throughout:
Compounding Turner's troubles is an unconfirmed report that enemy forces within AOL have responded with their own time-travel initiative, dispatching back in time hundreds of cyborg drones disguised as ordinary mailmen to deliver CD-ROMs promising thousands of hours of free AOL access to every human household.
Two other notes:
Turner is praised for his daring by “investment guru” Warren Buffett and by “Fortune reporter Doug Bergeron” — Bergeron was the CEO of VeriFone in 2003.
Buffett notes that Turner’s greatest feat lies 10 years out: “single-handedly defeat the alien warrior-financier Zygax The Investorator in hand-to-hand combat.” I love this mental image despite not getting the Zygax reference.
I was thrilled to see Robin Williams in The Onion, although what a tough assignment! How can you be funnier than he is?
“Robin Williams Leaves Entertainment Reporter In Stitches” is more of an homage than satire. (That Photoshop above is easily the worst part of this article.)
All the big names of early 2000s entertainment "journalism" are here: Maria Menounos, Pat O’Brien, Billy Bush, Leeza Gibbons, Jules Asner and Byron Allen.
The Onion does a good job describing plausible Williams shtick. I enjoyed this one the most:
During a May 1992 press junket for the film Toys, Variety columnist Army Archerd had to be administered oxygen by paramedics after Williams overcame him with rapid-fire impressions of Jack Nicholson, a human beat box, and Ross Perot, squeezing in references to the savings-and-loan scandal and The Crying Game along the way.
The Onion wrote a St. Patrick’s Day story and promptly buried it
If you Google “Irish-Americans Gear Up For 'The Reinforcin' O' The Stereotypes’” in 2023, you’ll see the headline and a photo, but no story. That item is what The Onion published in March 1999.
But in March 2003, they expanded this into an entire article — although it’s mysteriously not in The Onion’s book recapping its 2003 stories. So maybe this is a repeat from a different year?
Nonetheless, this story got attention in 2003, including this college blog, so I’m treating it like it’s new. But good luck finding it online! Even Internet Archive’s version doesn’t have the images.
Anyways, this is exactly what you’d expect — fellas with very Irish names in the Eastern U.S. (and Notre Dame) talking about folk songs, drinking and bad behavior. The Onion eventually finds a professor who studiously explains the complexity of immigrant populations expressing pride in their heritage. But that, too, goes awry:
"I must admit, we're weak for the demon drink, we are," Shanahan said. "This coming Monday, in bathroom stalls across the land, you will hear the joyous sound of Irishmen shouting, 'Erin go blearrghhh.'"
What’s going on in politics?
This Onion issue from 20 years ago is surprisingly modern: Full of politics, celebrities and real-life news.
“Congress Accidentally Approves Arts Funding” offers a classic critique of Congress — they throw around money without thinking, and they pass bills without knowing what’s in them. The twist is that they’ve accidentally funded the National Endowment for the Arts — infamous among politicians as a scapegoat for all of America’s problems.
"I don't know how this could have happened," Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-MN) said. "I thought I read the thing pretty carefully, but toward the bottom of page 117, those four words are right there in black and white: American Jazz Masters Fellowship."
This is a very good equal-opportunity Onion story. Republicans blame each other for the error. Democratic Rep. Debbie Stabenowproposed NEA funding as a lark and accidentally got it approved. And the NEA is ready to make everyone regret this mistake:
Dana Gioia, the internationally acclaimed poet, critic, and educator who was recently named NEA chairman, was "as shocked as anyone" by the financial windfall.
"I can't wait to start making calls," Gioia said. "There's a Latina artist in Los Angeles who makes these amazing multimedia collages that combine the religious iconography of her strict Catholic upbringing with photographs of horse vaginas."
While the war in Iraq hadn’t officially begun, people were already declaring victory. The Onion talked to some of these people in “Life After Saddam.” I like the jokes, although they’re predictable. This one got the best chuckle from me:
"Oh, man, we're not gonna make Iraq the 51st state, are we?"
Dennis Doering • Landscaper
Other political stories in this issue include:
“Bush Orders Iraq To Disarm Before Start Of War”: It doesn’t hurt to ask. I love this quote from President George W. Bush: "This madman has every intention of firing back at our troops when we attack his country."
“White House Pretty Sure Uzbekistan Diplomat Stole A Bunch Of Soap”: The fictional diplomat’s name, Otkir Halilov, is taken from Uzbekistan’s then-prime minister and a top parliamentary figure. I guess this is a joke about the White House, but it feels more like a cheap insult of Uzbekistan.
“Ari Fleischer Replaced By Toby Keith”: There’s no article, but I love the Photoshop of Toby Keith, hat and all, in the press briefing room.
The Onion put all its stories about abuse in 1 issue
There’s nothing particularly unusual about these 2 stories and a headline. But it’s strange that they are all in the same issue!
“Love Me, Love My Violent Alcoholic Rages” is an opinion column that follows a well-worn road. This is at least the 5th column about alcohol abuse since the beginning of 2000. Just 4.5 months earlier, in December 2002, we had “Forget All That I Said About Me Being An Alcoholic.” (I discussed/linked to the other 3 stories in 2021.)
So while this column is fine on its own, I’ve read it before. It’s also really direct and casual about domestic violence, which … isn’t light reading.
The column mostly goes like this:
We're all human, and we need to all be tolerant of each other. So if I respect the fact that you can't parallel-park to save your life, you should respect the fact that I drink too much and end up picking fights and hitting people.
And while this newsletter rarely says, “The Onion shouldn’t have written this,” I also won’t recommend this column. It’s a tough topic to get excited about, especially when there are better Onion columns about drinking problems — just from the 2000s alone!
We also have “Florist Saves Abusive Relationship.” That’s a decent front-page headline, but it’s so obviously a lie that it negates the “Get it, that’s the joke!” element for me.
Finally, there’s “Abusive Husband Was Himself Abuser As Child,” which at least has a fakeout in the headline. “Just another textbook case of the abuser growing up to be the abuser.”
Area People doing Area Things
“Adulthood Spent Satisfying Childhood Desires” feels like the people who complain about the younger generation, whatever that happens to be (millennials, now Gen Z, although people still think “millennial” means born in 2000).
What this story gets absolutely right, even 20 years later, is our society’s love for nostalgia — even if the old thing wasn’t very good or even if we weren’t alive when it was big!
As such, we have a 29-year-old man collecting all the Bionic toys from the “Six Million Dollar Man” — a show that went off the air when he was barely in kindergarten! He’s watching “Scooby-Doo,” playing the Atari 2600 and eating Fruity Pebbles.
Being tethered to mediocre childhood things has also affected his relationships:
"When Jeff and I were living together, he'd always stay up way after I went to sleep," said Carla Green, Riesman's ex-girlfriend. "I'd say 'Come to bed,' and he'd always snap back that he's an adult and can stay up as late as he wants. I have no clue what that was about."
I write a newsletter about the past, but at least I’m writing about the best satirical publication of recent memory.
The Onion talks to a doctor who calls this a medical condition:
"The only thing an afflicted individual can do is try to curb those youthful desires while still in their twenties and pray they aren't still pursuing them at 45.”
I turn 40 in July, for what it’s worth.
Other Area People items in this issue include:
“'Watermelon Capital Of World' Claim Goes Unchallenged”: This isn’t a parody: Cordele, Ga., does call itself this and has an annual watermelon festival. And Knox City, Tenn., is the self-proclaimed seedless watermelon capital.
“Man Offered Cocaine By Guy He Met At Urinal 90 Seconds Ago”: I love the last line: “Bouchard declined the man's generous offer, bypassing a chance to strengthen their urinating-in-close-proximity bond.”
Were the infographics good?
Oh, the Oscars. “Oscar Gift Bags” reflects an era where getting 33 million viewers in 2003 was a big disappointment. Last year’s broadcast had 50% fewer viewers.
Anyways, I would love a CD burned by Owen Wilson or $10,000 in cash. This is a very strong infographic — the jokes are nearly as outlandish as the actual gift bags from 2003.
“Top Causes Of Back Pain” is simple and funny. “Reaching age 34” and “Flashing red discomfort arrows” are my favorite.
We also have ”Museum-Appreciation Tips,” which is a nice collection of jokes about jogging through the Louvre, experiencing paintings with all five senses, the origin story of Tobey Maguire’s “Spider-Man,” and my favorite:
“Though many are painfully dull, some museums gots cars in 'em.”
What columnists ran?
God bless local columnist Jim Anchower — always ready to lift our spirits with his complaints and extracurriculars. Usually he talks about getting a job, hating his job or quitting that job. But today, he’s got another common complaint — car trouble. In this case, an expired registration.
“The DMV Can Suck My Left Nut” is exactly what I’d expect from Anchower. As usual, he causes his own problems — drinking too much the night before going to the DMV, then falling asleep there and missing his turn in line. He forgets a 2nd form of ID, so he must go home and return before the DMV closes.
Also, he got the flu.
Honestly, not much happens in this column! Just happy Anchower is street-legal again.
What was the best horoscope?
My favorite horoscope this week anticipates the Silicon Valley trend of getting youthful blood.
Pisces | Feb. 19 to March 20
The blood of legends will soon run in your veins, thanks to your purchase of a home legendary-blood transfusion kit.
What holds up best?
Maybe “Robin Williams Leaves Entertainment Reporter In Stitches” was meant to criticize Williams somehow. But today, it’s a wonderful example of how generous he was with everyone, even the forced interactions with entertainment TV people at premieres and other canned events.
What holds up worst?
If you find dark humor in “Love Me, Love My Violent Alcoholic Rages,” that’s great. For me, it’s an occupational hazard — I read all these stories, they stick in my brain, and I’m ready for the early-2000s genre of “Onion alcoholic columns” to be done for a bit.
What would be done differently today?
The Onion wrote very funny and smart jokes ahead of the Iraq war. Hard to imagine The Onion topping that in 2023 — especially with also having to create for social media, video and more.
I’m grateful to have y’all here, but also glad for a week off. It’s been a long few weeks — not bad, just tiring.
Also, while The Onion didn’t publish a new issue on March 20, it did print a newspaper. You can see what that looked like on the print front page and The Onion’s 2003 website.
See you in two weeks.
I’ve edited business news for most of my career, and even I’m astonished, in retrospect, at how much attention regular Americans paid to this company.
Worth noting that “Marty Wells” combines Marty McFly from “Back to the Future” and the last name of H.G. Wells (“War of the Worlds”) — and Claudia Wells, the actress who played McFly’s girlfriend in the 1st film.
I’d never heard of Allen, but that’s on me — he’s had quite a long and varied career. The Onion mentions the “recently cancelled” show “Kickin' It With Byron Allen,” but it still exists in 2023.
The Onion forgot that Stabenow became a senator in 2001, apparently.
Ironically, the NEA under Gioia received a large funding increase — just not until 2008.
Given how gutsy and ahead of his time Ted was, it wouldn't surprise me if he actually did attempt a time machine...
And Allen's been making inroads, he owns The Weather Channel these days and has been advocating against the buyout of Tegna (the TV station group formerly known as Gannett) by vulture capitalists.
And accidentally approve arts funding. Whoops