20 years ago, The Onion talked about plane crashes — but not that one
In the last issue before 9/11, we also have friendly zombies, the new Euro, DragonCon 2001, and a man worried about liberty
Welcome back to The Onion: 20 Years Later, where we review the print issue from exactly 20 years ago, find out what’s still funny and examine the cultural impact. Today, we revisit Sept. 5, 2001.
This is the last Onion issue published before 9/11. On the day of the attacks, The Onion’s website remained frozen on this Sept. 5, 2001, issue. And that is … interesting because of this story:
Yes, on 9/11, The Onion’s website had a joke about a plane crash not killing someone.
Of course, The Onion was really a print newspaper that didn’t think much about its website, like many non-satirical newspapers. As longtime Onion editor, writer and editor-in-chief Chad Nackers told MEL Magazine:
At this time and a few years after the 9/11 issue, the website still felt secondary to us. The print issue felt like it was real because you could hold it in your hands, which was generally the case for most publications back then.
So, enjoy this recap! I’ll probably check in next week, but our next full recap will be in 3 weeks when The Onion made its triumphant, defiant return.
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What issue is this?
The wonderfully descriptive headline “Schoolchildren Watch Urinating Horse With Mounting Fear And Awe” is no longer online.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
It’s no surprise that a satirical newspaper that originated in Madison, Wis., was a very white place. And there is perhaps no headline in the history of The Onion that’s whiter than the Sept. 5, 2001, top story: “God Finally Gives Shout-Out Back To All His Niggaz.”
This article has not aged well, even if the quotes of Cornel West, Chuck D and Ice Cube feel pretty accurate. That artwork is also pretty cheap-looking.
The one gem in this article is God giving a shoutout to the unknown DJ Phreek Malik, who is a callback to the 1999 Onion story “Roof On Fire Claims Lives Of 43 Party People.”
These stories are sort of 2021?
Not everything is as dated as that top story, and The Onion 20 years ago even had stories that feel current today.
“Government Encroachment On Individual Liberties At All-Time High, Says Guy At Party” treats “individual liberty” less as a major component of political movements and more like, “That guy who won’t shut up at the bar or house party”
Adam Britt is reasonably upset at how liberty is being sacrificed for common folks in favor of corporations and special interests. He’s also disillusioned by the political system, including the Bush v. Gore court decision.
Interestingly, one of Britt’s chief complaints about liberty is about flying (and remember, this is before 9/11):
"Airport security areas, even in the smallest airports, resemble Iron Curtain checkpoints, yet no one ever complains about their excessiveness," Britt said. "I've seen children's Mickey Mouse suitcases inspected for bomb-making materials. People say they're willing to pay a high price to ensure their safety. But how high? Where do we draw the line?"
I would have loved a 2003 follow-up with this guy about TSA, the Patriot Act and Iraq.
I was informed that DragonCon is a big convention happening right now, and it was in the news 20 years ago, too! “Plan To Get Laid At DragonCon 2001 Fails” feels like a timeless — if easy — joke.
Our protagonist, Garry Melcher, has the same problem that corporations in 2021 complain about with remote workers — not enough face time:
"I know a lot of girls online, but that's not really the same," Melcher said. "I needed to see some face to face."
This article goes as you might expect, with Melcher doing poorly in a trivia contest, not knowing how to talk women and, finally, getting too drunk:
"I distinctly remember talking to this one girl who actually did inking on the last Batgirl series—right before I puked off the balcony."
In 2021, we might not be fully back to in-person conventions, but socially awkward public interactions will never go away.
“80 Percent of U.S. Populace Now Selling Handmade Jewelry” feels like a precursor to Etsy — and we weren’t even technically in a recession! The Onion doesn’t say how these are being sold, although in 2001 it’s probably door-to-door selling or Tupperware parties rather than selling online.
“Third Knocked-Over Glass Of Water Makes Man Want To Give Up” is a good example of an Area Man story. The Onion does a nice job conveying the man’s helplessness:
Drayton then sat and stared at the puddle of water on his kitchen counter for eight minutes before getting a roll of paper towels.
“Friendly Note To Coworker Undergoes Eight Revisions”: Good lord, this feels real. Like, I edit an actual newsletter on leadership, and I feel like a lot of the communication advice is basically, “Here’s how to say what you want to say.” I like the last line of this short article:
Schatz also changed "Thanks!!!" to "Thanks…" fearing that the original punctuation was "a bit too much."
Things that are very 2001 and not 2021
I’ve talked many times about how The Onion of 2000-01 loved joking about plane crashes, especially with celebrities. 9/11 changed that, especially after “Stunned Nation Mourns As French Stewart Survives Plane Crash.”
French Stewart doesn’t deserve this, even if I don’t feel especially bad for him. The Onion’s writers didn’t really want him to die, but it’s a clear example of how humor and our culture shifted after 9/11.
Also 20 years ago, Disney was kind of struggling! Disney didn’t own Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, Hulu or 20th Century Fox. Most of the 1940s features mentioned in “Disney Still Throwing Word 'Classic' Around Like So Much Confetti” are real Disney films, but nobody really remembers them. “Tarzan” is also mentioned in this group.
Other silliness right before 9/11
The Onion asked people about “The Dress-Code Crackdown,” which feels pretty cyclical. Every so many years, people get anxious about the way kids dress.
This is a typical collection of fearful or perverted quotes about teens’ outfits. Someone praises Maury Povich for dedicating his show to sending sexily dressed teens to boot camp.
Meanwhile, this quote from a plumber is a lesson in Joke Writing 101 — the bait and switch:
"What I don't get is the super-low jeans where the thong straps peek out above the waistline. Why aren't those required?"
Paul Cooper • Plumber
There are a couple of other silly items in this issue:
“Cheer Introduces New Higher-Priced Cheer” and “Sounds Of Air Hockey Coming From Supreme Court Chambers” are fun front-page headlines, but alas they don’t have a story with them.
“Tow-Truck Driver Has Great Idea For Tow-Truck Movie” is a long article but is pretty good despite being one long, repeated joke. I enjoy the patriotic tone of this paragraph quoting tow-truck driver/screenwriter Rob Beresford:
"Rob is a real American hero," Beresford said. "He's out there with his wrecker all hours of the day and night, ready to right a tipped truck or haul a stalled vehicle to a mechanic. He's the closest thing to the cowboy we have left these days. But the point is, if something needs to be towed, by God, he'll tow it."
"To me, that's America in a nutshell," he added.
Were the infographics good?
Well, "Top Jack Nicholson Sexual Positions” is a disgusting reminder that people once cared about Jack Nicholson having sex.
I’m not sure this contains any actual jokes. It reads like, “We need to fill space. Find any leftover jokes about Jack — the grosser, the better!”
20 years ago, Europe was uniting instead of falling apart as “The Euro Is Unveiled.” I very much enjoy the Charles de Gaulle joke, as well as “Latin motto makes vague threat to non-participating countries.”
The Onion had 3 infographics this week, also printing “Choosing A Family Pet” and for some reason using this picture that looks like it’s from the 1930s.
If you know your ancient Greek, you’ll see the disturbing implications in this tip: “Select a pet with which you can experience both eros and agape.”
There are many, many jokes here, so you’ll probably find some laughs. Unfortunately, there’s also an extra-gratuitous gay slur and a bunch of jokes that end in the pet dying.
What columnists ran?
I think “Oh, Girls Are No Good At Genocide” will divide the readership. I find it hilarious, this schoolgirl lament about how girls never get to commit genocide or even be the “right-hand man” of a great killer.
It’s deliberately pushing people’s buttons by delivering stereotypes. We have girls being too shy to speak up, much less rally the troops. Or, being bad at math or caring too much about makeup and looks:
Maybe that's why girls aren't any good at overseeing the systematic mass murder of an entire race. It's too messy.
If nothing else, I love that our columnist is sad because, in her world, girls are nicer and not mass murderers:
Girls always want to help people. They want to take care of babies and feed them and dress them up. They don't want to throw them into pits and cover them with dirt while they're still alive.
That said, I get if you say, “No, this column is not for me.”
We also have the 2nd or 3rd Onion reference to zombies in 2001, just a little bit ahead of the big cultural revival of vampires and zombies. “Don't Run Away, I'm Not The Flesh-Eating Kind Of Zombie” is all about our columnist letting folks know that he’s not there to kill, despite his appearance.
(Oddly, both main columns this week are about murder, and yet it’s many years before every 3rd podcast was obsessing over murders and serial killers.)
Unfortunately, our zombie looks like a zombie, moves like one and can’t speak properly:
Please! Don't be frightened by my blood-curdling moan of the undead. That's just my way of saying hello. I can't make myself understood, for my vocal cords have long since turned to dust. But my friendly intentions should be clear from my past actions: I've never eaten a single living human in all my terrible years of shadowy, undead existence. Don't you think that if I were going to eat a person I would have done it by now? What is it with people these days?
I really like this column. It imagines the zombie apocalypse from the perspective of a nice zombie who’s trapped in his own decaying body, unable to communicate and unable to find peace:
How can I go on, walking the moonlit countryside every night, endlessly searching for that which I can never have? How can I accept this piteous, eternal fate when no one, no matter how nice I act, will be my friend?
Most “Hey, it’s 2001!” reference
Probably the story about French Stewart, whose show, “3rd Rock from the Sun,” had been canceled in May 2001. For millions of Americans, this Onion story was the last mention of French Stewart.
What was the best horoscope?
There’s a Johnny Cash mention in this week’s horoscopes, but I’m going to go with Libra:
Libra | Sept. 23 to Oct. 22
Much to your consternation, you discover that it takes more than nudity, llamas, and gin to scandalize the British consulate.
What holds up best?
I changed my mind a few times on this. I think “Tow-Truck Driver Has Great Idea For Tow-Truck Movie” is really underrated, even in how little analysis I give it here. It’s a great use of “Pick a profession, then have that person brag about it.”
What holds up worst?
The Jack Nicholson infographic. Wow.
What would be done differently today?
Hard to say. I mean, it feels like nothing was happening 20 years ago — not compared with COVID and Afghanistan and the Twitter-fueled news cycle. Obviously, The Onion would be regularly updating its website today.
What real-life people were mentioned?
Jack Nicholson. Lara Flynn Boyle. Maury Povich. Johnny Cash. Charles de Gaulle. They Might Be Giants. Andy Hallett. Mickey Rooney. Judy Garland. Suharto. Pol Pot. Idi Amin. Adolf Hitler. Joseph Stalin. French Stewart. Nelly. Busta Rhymes. Lil' Bow Wow. P. Diddy. Jay-Z. DMX. Lil' Kim. Mystikal. Eve. Ja Rule. Jadakiss. Trick Daddy. Xzibit. Method Man. RZA. GZA. Ghostface Killah. Redman. Wu-Tang Clan. Grandmaster Flash. Busy Bee. Melle Mel. Jazzy Jay. Kool Moe Dee. Afrika Bambaataa. DJ Red Alert. the Cold Crush Brothers. Fab 5 Freddy. Kurtis Blow. Kool Herc. Funky 4+1. Funkmaster Flex. Ed Lover. Dr. Dre. Tupac. Notorious B.I.G.. Eazy-E. Scott LaRock. Faith Evans. Notorious B.I.G. MC Hammer. Vanilla Ice. Cornel West. Mos Def. Rev. Calvin Butts. C. Delores Tucker. Orrin Hatch. Chuck D. Ad-Rock. MC Search. Dan The Automator. Ice Cube.
All the murderous dictators are in “Oh, Girls Are No Good At Genocide.”
Many, many rappers are named, along with various folks commentating on God’s shoutouts.
What was happening in the real world?
Here’s the real-life news from Aug. 27-Sept. 3, 2001, omitting the few days of production before The Onion’s print date. News is from InfoPlease and the front pages of The New York Times (subscription required). Movie and music charts are linked:
Little League hero Danny Almonte is exposed for being 14, not 12. US works on federal budget, with Bush pushing defense, education spending. E-book boom fails to materialize. Slobodan Milosevic faces additional UN charges. Surgeon general: US minorities face disparities in mental health care. NIH names labs cleared to test stem cells. US looks to end India sanctions. Appeals court says University of Georgia can’t use race as an admissions factor. US hopes to get around China’s web censorship. US withdraws from UN racism conference over proposed Israel condemnation. Israeli army enters Palestine. Air bags killing fewer children. Americans worked 36 more hours per year in 2000 versus 1990. Funeral held for Aaliyah. Network TV wants to swear like cable does.