20 years ago, The Onion talked about murder and burglary
We also have a giant highway built over the United States, a local man's complaints, "Crime and Punishment," Raymond Carver and European politics
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 May 15, 2002.
The Onion took a week off on May 8, publishing this collection of old stories, and good for them. It was also a nice break for me, as much as I like writing this newsletter.
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What issue is this?
This was Vol. 38, Issue 18, the 104th Onion issue of the 2000s and the 102nd issue of new content.
The front-page headline “How The Fuck Was Orderly Supposed To Know That Was Lady Bird Johnson” is no longer online. This one makes me laugh, maybe because it presumes the Secret Service detail wasn’t a big enough clue.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
This week’s issue has a lot of absurd local happenings and delightful complaining. The top story, however, is political satire that also remembers to be funny and clever.
“U.S. Protests Mexi-Canadian Overpass” imagines the U.S. being helpless to control its borders and having no recourse against the whims of foreign invaders. This is not quite a NAFTA parody, although construction of the fictional highway began one year after the real-life trade agreement. (NAFTA had a provision for improved highways connecting Canada and Mexico, but I doubt CANAMEX was part of The Onion’s approach.)
It’s also a richly detailed depiction of a truly incredible highway — 18 lanes, 1,600 miles, and rest stops built into the highway so no one ever needs to exit. The leaders of Mexico and Canada are so proud of themselves for this massive deal, too.
850,000 Americans have been internally displaced because of this project, and they have legitimate complaints. However, they complain through stereotypes:
"The noise and dirt of the construction was one thing," said San Antonio, TX, resident Floyd Paymer. "But now, with all the traffic, it's just unbearable. The honking, the chickens, the sound of thousands of cars going back and forth to Canada and Mexico is more than I can take. I can hear those goddamn radios blaring Mariachi music and Rush all day and night."
The American government has failed to stop the project, with Vice President Dick Cheney frustrated by President George W. Bush’s poor negotiating.
Rarely does an Onion story have 3 photos or illustrations, but this one does. I love the outrageous size of this highway:
The other real-life entity parodied by The Onion is also a story of absurd excess: “John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Goes On Wild Endowment Binge.”
Interestingly, The Onion names all the real-life leaders of this foundation, including President Jonathan Fanton (misspelled as “Jonathon”), Chief Financial Officer Lyn Hutton, Treasurer Marc Yanchura and Vice-Chairman Elizabeth McCormack.
I don’t believe this is a real photo of Fanton and Hutton, however:
The story is a classic tale of a spending binge driven by low self-esteem, except it’s not shopping or gambling but charitable donations.
Things kind of snowballed from there, and by 4 a.m., we'd given $81 million in grants to 16 different groups. I think we even gave a few million to [rival philanthropic organization] Pew Charitable Trusts1."
The MacArthur Foundation, having hit rock bottom, joined an addiction support group and has heard from fellow philanthropists:
"After hearing about our endowment binge, the chair of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation gave me a really encouraging phone call, saying they'd gone through the same thing in the '80s," Fanton said.
This is really solid work by The Onion in taking a well-known premise and twisting it.
“Area Man Criticizes Hazelnut Coffee, Volvos, New Mexico's Flag In Two-Minute Span” is more important to me now than it was in 2002, if only because it’s set at a Caribou Coffee in St. Paul, Minn. When I interned at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in 2005, I spent a decent amount of time at Caribou, and I remain disappointed that Peet’s replaced Caribou in D.C. years back.
First of all, Daniel Devore is wrong about hazelnut coffee. But at least complaining about that in a coffeeshop makes sense. And when Devore complains about New Mexico’s flag for being “the stupidest one,” it’s because someone’s backpack had the flag on it.
But even his companion, Meredith Caranza, is mystified at Devore’s anti-Volvo rant:
"I have no idea what brought that on," Caranza said. "I looked out the window, scanned the paper, checked the stuff on the table, and couldn't find a single thing related to Volvos. He was obviously following some bizarre train of thought in his head."
That said, Devore’s friends like some of his complaining:
"Sometimes, Dan will go on some hilarious 20-minute tirade about how much he hates Bob Costas, and you'll be in stitches," former roommate Ron Bleier said. "Those are the good times."
We also have “Father's Dying Wish A Real Hassle,” in which Gerard Sumlin’s children are stuck planting and maintaining lilacs at his sister’s house.
Saying yes to a deathbed request is understandable, but his kids now regret the decision — especially because they don’t even really know their aunt, who is not interviewed here.
"I remember Mom pointed her out at Cousin Henry's funeral 20 years ago," David said. "It's kind of weird, not really knowing this woman at all and then calling her up and saying, 'Your estranged brother is dead; when can we bring over this bush?' Couldn't we just donate money to some charity in Dad's name instead?"
You can’t go wrong with a story about adult children complaining about their parents while trying to still be respectful.
Area People doing Area Things
Lots of fun and short local stories this week 20 years ago!
“Woman Forced To Converse Awkwardly With Bank-Promotion Clown”: Do banks still have promotional clowns anymore? The only recent reference that I can think of is a years-old episode of “The League” where Taco dresses up for a bank.
“Christian Weightlifter Bends Iron Bar To Show Power Of God's Love”: Pretty obvious joke, but sometimes that’s good enough.
“Latest News Of Israeli-Palestinian Violence Makes Man Hungry For Falafel”: The Onion had many references to Israel and Palestine in early 2002, sometimes with a heavy tone. This is a … less serious take.
“Routine, Affordable Medical Procedure Put Off Another Year”: It’s rather shocking that anyone would be nonchalant about a rectal polyp.
“Friendship Blossoms Into Unrequited Love”: One of the front-page headlines with a photo. No story needed here.
“Last Beer In Six Pack Drunk With Plastic Rings Still Attached”: Another headline-photo combo, and it looks like a Budweiser, which is still the 4th-best-selling beer even as craft beers have proliferated in the past 20 years.
Famous dead authors
“Producer Wants To Call Movie Crime And Punishment Anyway” feels like something that could really happen in Hollywood. Also possible in 2002 Hollywood: A producer being excited about a Val Kilmer-Wesley Snipes movie
I do like the producer’s misplaced confidence combined with his complete ignorance of who Fyodor Dostoyevsky is.
Shuler said he is confident he will be able to “buy out this Russian guy."
Our other dead author feature is the column “Ask Raymond Carver,” the latest in The Onion’s “Ask A …” series that features classic advice-column questions, paired with answers that completely ignore the question.
I’ve read little or no Carver, but I enjoy this long-winded tale that starts like this:
Pam and I spent the day down at the old speedway. She was reading the paper and saw there was a flea market there all weekend. She said, "Let's go, maybe we'll find a cheap lawn mower or some end tables." We both had Sunday off, so we went.
The “Ask A …” columns can occasionally be confusing, but once you get the premise, they can be a lot of fun, like this one.
Were the infographics good?
I just recently saw an in-theaters screening of the original “Star Wars,” but I’ve only seen the first 3 movies (and “The Mandalorian”) and would never classify myself as having “Star Wars Mania.”
I like these jokes because they are clearly written by people looking to take down “Star Wars” a peg. “Yoda hit by train” is a stupid joke but short and simple enough that I loved it.
"Top Murder Weapons By Income” is very silly, and I appreciate that 20 years later. The only thing making it dated is that the highest income bracket starts at $590,000. I’m pretty sure Elon Musk has a different range of murder weapons available than, say, a baseball rookie.
I also love the bread maker and Sharper Image jokes.
What columnists ran?
“Burglary Is The Sincerest Form Of Flattery” is easily my favorite headline this issue.
Joseph Paltz’s byline says “twice-convicted felon,” but he’s gotten a lot better over time, apparently, because he sedated the guard dogs and climbed up to the 2nd-story window at 3 a.m. But still, caught by the homeowner, to whom he is now explaining himself. And by “explaining himself,” he tries to share how his burglary is actually a great compliment.
It is a difficult undertaking, burglary—the constant stress, the endless waiting, the ever-present need to remain one step ahead of the law. But don't you see, my friend? You are worth it! Only a home such as yours, a home chock-full of the most precious items money can buy, would warrant such effort. Consider yourself a man on the receiving end of a true compliment, one from the heart.
To be fair, the story gets darker, as the burglar notes that he knocked out and bound the homeowner — not out of sadism but “the utmost respect for your physical prowess.”
What was the best horoscope?
Lots of fun horoscopes this week, including a reference to a “nuclear sex bomb,” but I’m going with Libra:
Libra | Sept. 23 to Oct. 22
You're not actually the lost prince of a world within our own, forced to hide among the surface dwellers to protect yourself from your vengeful uncle. But thinking that may help you somewhat.
What holds up best?
I liked this issue but felt a little distant from it. That said, “Area Man Criticizes Hazelnut Coffee, Volvos, New Mexico's Flag In Two-Minute Span” feels universal. People love to complain, especially about unimportant things that don’t affect them.
What holds up worst?
Our other political story this week is The Onion asking people on the street about the “Rise Of The Far Right In Europe.” In early May 2002, Jacques Chirac defeated Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose daughter recently lost her own election bid.
The obvious problem with this item in 2022 — and in 2002! — is The Onion using the racial slur very casually to make a joke.
What would be done differently today?
The easy answer is that there would be more politics, whether about whatever was going on with Bush and Congress, or politics in Europe, or the deadly explosion in Russia.
Also in May 2002, WWF rebranded to WWE, which was a big deal!
Glad to be back and glad to be with you! Next week, The Onion investigates the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal, discovers the Internet isn’t perfect and reminds us that Tara Reid was once a star.