20 years ago, The Onion talked about Bush's hunger strike
We also get a dad who's too proud of his sex life, Prilosec's marketing campaign, grad students criticizing menus, scoliosis testing and TV Guide-style listings
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 24, 2002.
So, Onion founding editor Scott Dikkers noticed this newsletter!
The Onion: 20 Years Later @Onion20yrslaterSomething I'll be linking to in my @TheOnion newsletter tomorrow -- writing advice from @ScottDikkers https://t.co/TrjlRBv2ud
This newsletter baffles me sometimes, too — why do I consider this a break from real work? Anyways, happy to have y’all here, and if you’re new, please sign up!
What issue is this?
“On TV Tonight,” one of my favorite old-time features, can be found on the 2012 website (and republished below). Also not online are the front-page headlines “Drug Dealer Builds Better Life For His Family” and “Karaoke Singer Will Survive.”
What was the top story, and other impressions?
This is one of the most packed issues I’ve ever reviewed. Let’s get to it.
The Onion wasn’t constantly writing about the president 20+ years ago, whether it was Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. But on July 25, 2002, “Bush Begins Hunger Strike To Protest Human-Rights Abuses In Nepal” put the president front and center.
This story published several months before the Iraq War,1 but Bush is concerned here with the real-life civil war in Nepal.2 Bush has advocated for the Nepalese people for years, first through a Yahoo chat group and then with a candlelight vigil in 2000.
Bush, a member of Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders, says he would never send troops to Nepal without the American people’s backing.
This is my fight. I will not let my personal convictions affect my obligation to the American people. Nepal's plight has touched me deeply, and to take direct political action without the mandate of the American people is to go against everything democracy stands for."
Bush also conducted a hunger strike as Texas governor to protest former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, and the exertion nearly killed Bush.
I love this photo:
These pre-Iraq stories always read differently, but there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s The Onion making fun of a president, which should always be done.
“Dad Keeps Dropping Hints About Mom's Sexual Proclivities” has always made me laugh. The key, I think, is that it’s written from the kids’ perspectives rather than a 46-year-old telling us about his marital lovemaking.
Here are a few of the things the dad, Rodney Granger, says around his children:
“Your mother doesn't get tired very easily.”
“It's time to do some drilling.”
“It's seed-planting time.”
Calls wife Sandy “the best kisser in town" before adding, "Just ask your Uncle Kyle."
The marriage seems great, but why does he say this around the kids? I guess he’s trying to make Dad Jokes, but it’s gone horribly wrong.
Obviously, the kids are unhappy with the situation:
"I spend a lot of time at my friend Danny's house, and his parents never touch each other at all," Andrew said. "Why are Mom and Dad still chasing each other around the table and tackling each other in piles of leaves on the front lawn? It completely makes me want to barf. If I grow up warped, it's so their fault."
The Onion does a solid job here — it’s difficult to be dirty without being disgusting. I just want an update in 2022 with 33-year-old Andrew.
“Nation To Be Tested For Scoliosis Friday” reminds me that I don’t technically have this condition, but I have never been able to touch my toes, even when I was running 70 miles a week and relatively limber.
This article feels 20 years old in a couple of ways. One, that Photoshop job is not great. Second, the article only casually mentions that all Americans must show up for testing on the same day! It’s not a vaccine, but still — what an alternate world of government overreach!
"If you're sick or otherwise unavailable on Thursday, we'll be contacting you to reschedule," Krasnow said. "We'll also be on the lookout for forged parental notes excusing people from the test."
In fact, the Department of Human Services has had mandatory scoliosis testing for years (including a comic book called “Scoliosis Man”).
And that’s not all HHS is doing:
Thompson3 was alluding to such unpopular HHS programs as the annual mandatory head-lice inspection, the hearing test, and "Friday the Thir-teeth," a dental-hygiene fair at which HHS officials dress in foam molar costumes to distribute toothbrushes and small red tablets which, when chewed, expose plaque on the teeth.
The Onion notes that next mandatory event is the menstruation-focused “It's Perfectly Natural."
What’s on TV tonight?
TV Guide was celebrating its 50th anniversary 20 years ago. The Onion sometimes parodied TV Guide’s grid-style listings — notably after 9/11.
Most “On TV Tonight” features have disappeared from the internet, but some of the old Onion print books contain them.
These follow a loose formula: The grid has many jokes exaggerating what the major networks and cable stations are known for. For instance, The Onion mocks VH1 and MTV’s love of countdown shows, Fox’s adolescence and PBS’ stuffiness (“Our Friends The Oil Conglomerate” is a great joke).
There are also BET jokes, most of which have aged very poorly. One possible exception: “Tide Commercial: African-American Version” because it skewers how corporations market to people based on race.
Looking back 20 years, those “Law & Order” jokes are fun. So are the Game Show Network and PBS jokes. “Ken Burns’ Urkel (Part 8)” gets better with every syllable.
The Comedy Central jokes are unpleasant, but that’s what the network ran back then!4 (The 9 p.m. slot is about “The Man Show.”)
Keen observers will notice that GSN and ESPN2 are airing “Excruciating Pantsuit Challenge” at the same time.
The Onion doubled down on TV jokes this week with the front-page infographic “Top New Women's TV Networks.” There’s no way this could live up to the TV listings, but there are 2 great jokes.
“Listening Network” is kind of a predecessor to the “30 Rock” episode about porn for women, and “KMC: The Kidnapping Movie Channel” is basically like 20% of cable TV programming today.
Real-life people doing things
Two Los Angeles-based stories this week worth noting:
“Celebrity Disappointed After Meeting Fan”: Denzel Washington makes a rare appearance, and The Onion is smart enough not to joke about him.
“More Police Brutality In L.A.”: The Onion asks people about a real-life trial of a police officer accused of assaulting a Black teen. The jokes are sobering but still relevant, including this one:
"That tape was shameful. One cop brutalizes a suspect while five others just stand around? What do I pay my taxes for?"
Emily Schofield • Dietitian
Area People doing Area Things
“Grad Student Deconstructs Take-Out Menu” is well-written and was probably inspired by The Onion’s former base of Madison, Wis.
But it’s certainly more political and less enjoyable in 2022; it’s the type of story that starts a fight nowadays.
Even the grad student, Jon Rosenblatt of Harvard University, doesn’t want to be overanalyzing the Mexican restaurant’s menu. He just wants a burrito, but he can’t help himself.
Before he could decide on an order, he instinctively reduced the flyer to a set of shifting, mutable interpretations informed by the set of ideological biases—cultural, racial, economic, and political—that infect all ethnographic and commercial "histories."
Rosenblatt is considering taking time off to live in his mother’s basement. I guess that insult existed before it was used to disparage bloggers!
These kinds of Onion stories usually end with analysis by a fictional academic. Here, a Skidmore College professor can’t help but fall into the same trap as Rosenblatt:
"The menu can be viewed an infinite number of ways, depending on viewer perspective," Nystrom said. "None of these differing views would be any more or less 'correct.' However, the menu's Pancho Villa-style burrito caricature, complete with bandoliers, six-guns, gaucho moustache, and sombrero, would be considered problematic by most scholars."
Other Area People stories:
“Family Upgrades To Shells & Cheese” is a great little joke, and I didn’t realize going from Kraft to Velveeta was such a big deal. The family also hopes to switch from Hydrox to Oreos.
“Alcohol-Themed Bar Opens”: Simple, yet effective. I don’t know if I love or hate J.T. O’Drinky’s as the bar name.
“Man Trying To Remember How That Music They Used To Play Before HBO Movies Went”: I’m way too young for this, but I think it’s this theme.
“Husband Chooses Car Based On Lowest Passenger-Side Impact Rating”: This feels unfocused. Is the joke that he’s trying to kill her or that a Geo Metro is so unsafe that no one is surviving it?
The front-page headline/photo “Car Bomber Given Shittiest Possible Car” is a good companion joke about car safety.
“Motivational Tape Gets Man Excited For 20 Minutes”: People still struggle with this, although not with cassettes.
Finally, the front-page headline/photo “Fountain Simulates Vomiting Lion” is the best pure joke in this issue.
Were the infographics good?
“The Corporate-Fraud Bill” is something I don’t remember at all. This is basically straightforward political criticism by The Onion. Credit to them for wrapping that critique in some decent jokes, including an insiders joke about The Capitol Steps, who were finally done in by COVID.
What columnists ran?
The Jackson intro is based on a real-life Jackson speech where he accused Tommy Mottola (Harvey calls him “Tommy Lasorda”) of being racist and “devilish.”
We also get multiple anecdotes of how Harvey recorded an album of John Philip Sousa marches as a child, plus Harvey’s tips for using vinegar when barbequing.
This is a good but not great Harvey column. I do appreciate how confused he was by the charges against Martha Stewart:
Word has it she was involved in a stock brouhaha that was either insider trading or a phony IPO or something like that. I'm not really sure. I never did have a head for figures and business gobbledygook.
Our other column is “This Promotional Pen Works So Great, Imagine How Well The Drug Must Work,” in which Dr. Jeanne Horschart is dazzled by the pens sent by the folks at Prilosec.
Big Pharma has always stoked political debate, maybe now more than ever. The Onion is deliberately pushing buttons with passages like this:
Traditionally, I've shied away from prescribing drugs for the treatment of heartburn. I tend to encourage patients to make changes in their diet instead. Well, that was before I saw this pen. It's a great pen. Yes, this pen completely changes the way I feel about the prescription of omeprazole. Now I'm all for it.
What was the best horoscope?
My favorite horoscope this week is Capricorn’s joke about TV/movie tropes:
Capricorn | Dec. 22 to Jan. 19
Though you and the dedicated cop will have many things in common, such as a love of the hunt and a taste for danger, it can only end one way.
What holds up best?
Just like last week, we have a story that is shockingly relevant 20 years later in “Grad Student Deconstructs Take-Out Menu,” even if it’s not necessarily the story people are enjoying the most.
What holds up worst?
This issue is strong enough that I’m basically nit-picking. “Drug Dealer Builds Better Life For His Family” and “Husband Chooses Car Based On Lowest Passenger-Side Impact Rating” feel like unfinished jokes to me.
What would be done differently today?
I often note how the modern Onion, with a 24/7 website and social channels, has to crank out so many jokes each week. This print issue is remarkable in how many jokes and stories it features — all within one print newspaper!
This was harder to write than I first thought! So much to cover, and I’m sure I left out some good jokes or observations. Thanks for sticking with me, and we’ll see you next week with stories about the national debt, Hello Kitty, AOL, Matthew Perry and more.
This civil war lasted several years longer before Nepal transitioned from a Hindu monarchy to a secular republic.
We see HHS chief Tommy Thompson for the 1st time since April 2002’s “U.S. Children Getting Majority Of Antibiotics From McDonald's Meat.”
Shows like “Reno: 911!” and “Chapelle’s Show” debuted in 2003.