20 years ago, The Onion talked marijuana, Ray Allen and Russia
Almost everything topical reminds us that 2001 was a lot different than 2021! Almost all the "local" stories are still fantastic.
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 May 23, 2001.
I love researching and writing this for y’all, but it was also nice to have a week off.
Today’s Onion website says all these stories are from May 9, but we already covered the real May 9 issue. it’s just another example of how The Onion’s archives are … not well-managed.
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What issue is this?
This was Vol. 37, Issue 19, the 62nd Onion issue of the 2000s and the 61st issue of new content. Here’s what the website looked like in 2011 and today. Today’s webpage is disorganized and missing multiple links.
No longer online are these two headlines. One is incredibly detailed and brilliant, the other incredibly dull.
“Christian Led Down Path To Iniquity By Yahoo! Search For Bush-Trimming Tips”
What was the top story, and other impressions?
The first article is about Ray Allen, the now-retired NBA star who I grew up in Connecticut watching him at UConn. You might also know him from the Spike Lee-Denzel Washington movie “He Got Game.”
This article is somewhat timely, in that there’s a long-running debate over what kind of role models athletes should be. Just looking at the NBA, you had Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan as a generation that did not want to be role models, and even Magic Johnson’s HIV advocacy in the past 30 years has mostly been acting cheerful and busy.
Nowadays, of course, many (if not all) NBA players are much more outspoken, and social media makes all of us more vocal.
Anyways, this article is in a different time, and there’s a good and bad to it. Yes, it’s funny to see people commend Ray Allen for asking a woman who fell on ice if she’s OK, or for doing a normal interview with ESPN’s Dan Patrick, or for never skipping practice or committing violence against women, or for simply shaking hands.
"I knew when he came into this league that he had the potential to be a standout player," said Sports Illustrated basketball writer Marty Burns. "He had a reputation as a guy who would not only hit the clutch shot down the stretch, but also make eye contact with the towel boy. He has the potential to be a decent human being in this league for another 10 or 15 years if he stays healthy."
The bad of this story, to me, is the assumption that the average NBA player or pro athlete is lazy, cruel, violent and inconsiderate. I guess that’s part of the joke, so maybe I’m the one not getting it. Anyways, I still enjoy the article, and especially the Ray Allen focus.
“Russia Acquires Amway Distributorship” has aged poorly, both in terms of the 1990s perception of Russia as a bumbling, naive democracy with training wheels, and also in this sympathetic profile of Vladimir Putin as a victim of Amway’s persuasive arguments.
That said, I enjoy the premise that Amway is not only powerful enough to sway a large country, but also that Amway’s networking is 2nd to none. This “longtime Putin friend” has Russia’s top leaders regularly visiting Iowa, which made me laugh:
Russia's involvement with Amway began when longtime Putin friend Elaine Pendergast, a 44-year-old Skokie, IL, homemaker, told him about the program during a recent visit to Moscow.
Putin and the rest of Russia’s leaders are excited about the Amway culture, as well as buying almost everything the country needs through Amway instead of other channels.
However, former Soviet republic Tajikistan tried and failed to warn Russia, having had a bad experience with Amway. Quoting President Emomali Rahmonov1:
"At this point, though, they're too brainwashed to reason with. If you try to warn them, they'll just say you're bringing in negative thoughts and that they have to be like a rhino and bust through all of that. I can't believe we were once that way, too. I'm just glad Iran didn't call for a jihad on Tajikistan, what with the way we were constantly bugging them to buy toothpaste from us."
Other things that are out of date in 2021
I think it’s clear that “Supreme Court Agrees To Disagree On Abortion Issue” was The Onion being deliberately naive about this debate. In this story, the Court agrees to never talk about the topic again.
“The Medical-Marijuana Ban” is not entirely out of date, as law and legislation on marijuana issues are huge, although more at the state level. This fake Q&A with ordinary people comes after the Supreme Court’s ruling — unanimously — 20 years ago that no exception existed in federal law for medical use.
I especially enjoyed this answer (in a morbid sort of “enjoy”):
"Luckily, people with health problems still have the healing powers of alcohol at their disposal."
David Dawson • Mechanic
Area People doing Area Things
Lots of Area People this week, and because these stories mostly poke fun at the human condition, they hold up pretty well 2 decades later.
The best and most complete article is “High-School Senior Marvels At What A Long, Strange Trip It's Been,” which also reflects my high-school graduation year. This has all that local nostalgia that high-schoolers had (and maybe still have) for things that feel extremely important during those pivotal years. Some of them remain important, but some things don’t, like the ephemeral BFF friendships described here:
"Remember how everybody thought Janelle was going to be B.F.F. [Best Friends Forever] with Andrea, but she ended up being B.F.F. with Stephanie instead?" Renee Marks chimed in. "We were so young back then… so foolish and young."
Do high-schoolers have physical yearbooks nowadays? I can’t imagine yearbooks matter like they did 20 years ago. Credit to The Onion for continuity — “Lunch at Stella’s” is written on that yearbook page and mentioned in the article, and there’s a “Wassup" inscribed, since that was a big catchphrase back then.
Various seniors share the good times, bad times, wild times and the things they learned in this obsessively detailed article. It ends with this — the MTV programming possibly being “TRL,” but we don’t know for sure:
"Four years ago, I was but a boy. But now, I am a man," Moeller said. "It's a sad and beautiful world." He then went home to eat Fruit Roll-Ups in the den while watching MTV.
Other Area People stories included:
“Area Woman Can't Understand Concept of Suggested Donation” is entirely about those museums that list an admission price, but you technically don’t have to pay that amount.
“Vast Array Of Lip-Balm Options Paralyzes Shopper” hits on a couple of levels, picking on a shopper who should just choose one and also inadvertently supporting real evidence that too many choices is counterproductive.
“Mom Brought To Tears By Thing Picked Up At Airport”: The Onion was really going after woman consumers this issue, huh? Maybe they could have spread these stories out over a few weeks. This one goes to lengths to show the mother’s incorrect level of gratitude, which is so much that even the son, Troy, is starting to feel bad for his gift-shop teapot purchase. That said, Troy could have done worse
"Mom cradled it in her arms like it was a Faberge egg," Troy said. "It made her so incredibly happy. I guess I made the right decision when I chose it over the pewter replica of the St. Louis Arch."
“Man Hoping To Accidentally See Roommate's Girlfriend Naked” is exactly what the headline promises — no less and no more.
“Family Not Appreciably Enriched By Trip To Mount Rushmore” was inadvertently turned into real life in 2017 with this complaining New York Times story.
Were the infographics good?
China did get the 2008 Summer Olympics, but in 2001 this was still only “China's Olympic Bid.” All the authoritarian jokes about China hold up pretty well, less so the testing-for-MSG joke.
Features like “Least Requested Personalized License Plates” often don’t age well, in my experience. Either the jokes feel like leftovers, or there are cultural/social things that don’t hold up — either because they’re offensive or no know knows the references. This one … is fine, if not terribly exciting.
“INXS4EVA” is a prime example of a pop culture reference that was already nearing its expiration date. “FREEMUMIA” is oddly relevant, at least in the sense of Rage Against The Machine advocating for it just 2 months ago.
“MID40S” is pretty funny, though.
We also have the “Moving-Day Tips,” which has a lot of winners. We have the silly good jokes:
“To avoid breakage, glass items should be melted down, then re-blown after moving into your new home.”
We also have the jokes that feel too true to real life:
“Six weeks before moving day, fill one small box with books, seal it tightly, and write ‘books’ on top in permanent marker. Then do nothing more until the day before your move.”
What columnists ran?
The Onion 20 years ago was focused on marijuana and shoppers, apparently, as we get Jim Anchower’s 8th column of the 2000s: “My Weed Connection Is Dried Up.”
Last time, I introduced the idea of Anchower’s column as follows, and this still holds true:
As always, he’s starting or quitting a job and has various small-town life problems occupying his thoughts.
This time, he’s just quit an insurance company job paying the huge sum of $10.35 an hour, as he felt too buttoned-up in a tie — after 2 days.
Anchower gets philosophical about handling life’s challenges, as he often does, and then reveals his true problem: His weed dealer, Randy Rasmussen, has found a lady and is having a kid and no longer wants to sell weed, which Anchower implies is rather selfish of him. So Anchower decides to farm his own stash with the help of his friend Ron, who’s regularly in these columns.
Sadly, as of publication, nothing’s grown yet, and he’s feeling desperate. I’m not sure how accurate the “marijuana withdrawal” aspect is. As usual, Anchower is in a tough spot but will probably be fine.
The other big column this week is “I Guess You Could Say Lying On Couches Has Been A Lifelong Love Of Mine.” And it’s quite a journey. Did you ever have a stranger say, “Let me tell you the entirety of my childhood story?” and you replied, “Please, don’t,” and then they did anyways? That’s what this column is.
It starts off innocently enough, with a childhood couch that was left behind after a move to Arizona. We hear about the comics he read on the next couch. But then it gets more adult, and we learn that the couch was also a romantic destination, then a college-era drinking spot, and then a resting place in the break area at work.
There’s also a PlayStation 2 mention, because The Onion was obsessed with this video game system.
Most “Hey, it’s 2001!” reference
Probably the front-page photo “John Ashcroft: 'Obey.’”
What was the best horoscope?
In the Boy Scouts, the most important thing is to “Be Prepared.” I wonder whether a former Scout wrote this horoscope.
Scorpio | Oct. 23 to Nov. 21
Preparation is the key to success. For instance, you can save yourself a lot of pain and stress next Friday by studying how pins go back into grenades today.
What holds up best?
I personally love “High-School Senior Marvels At What A Long, Strange Trip It's Been,” but maybe I’m just succumbing to my own nostalgia. “Moving-Day Tips” is also pretty strong.
What holds up worst?
“Russia Acquires Amway Distributorship” is a funny story in terms of the concept and writing, but it doesn’t feel great to see how much everyone, even satirists, underestimated Putin.
What would be done differently today?
Many of these stories desperately need updates for modern references, but a lot of the jokes and story ideas still work. There’s even a bit of politics in this issue, although surely today’s Onion would not be going weeks without mentioning the president.
And, of course, the biggest difference is that in May 2001, The Onion skipped a week of publishing and didn’t update its website. We’ll see the effects of that on Sept. 11, 2001, among other dates.
What real-life people were mentioned?
Anthony Kennedy. David Souter. Cheech & Chong. The Grateful Dead. Dave Matthews Band. Yes. John Ashcroft. Ray Allen. Dan Patrick. George Karl. Magic Johnson. Marty Burns. Vladimir Putin. Emomali Rahmonov. Mikhail Kasyanov.
The two famous jam bands are mentioned in “High-School Senior Marvels At What A Long, Strange Trip It's Been,” while the band Yes appears in the moving tips list.
What was happening in the real world?
Here’s the real-life news from May 14-20, 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:
Nuclear families hit all-time low as percentage of U.S. Supreme Court rules against medical marijuana, while NYT says police say marijuana causes violent crimes. Silvio Berlusconi regains Italian leadership. Conflict between Palestinians (suicide bomber) and Israelis (air strikes). George W. Bush offers energy plan. Ex-FBI agent Robert Hanssen is indicted on spying charges. U.S. panel calls for cholesterol-lowering focus to reduce heart attacks. U.S. vehicle fuel economy hits 30-year low. NYT profiles Big Farm subsidies. U.S and U.K. seek to end trade ban with Iraq. Vegas casinos warm to online betting. SUV sales on the rise.
Top movie (weekend of May 18-20): “Shrek”
Top TV show (May 14-20): “E.R.”
Billboard top single (May 19): “All For You,” Janet
Billboard top album (May 19): “Survivor,” Destiny’s Child
He now goes by Emomali Rahmon and is still president of Tajikistan. Of course, it helps when you haven’t held a presidential vote since 2013.