20 years ago, The Onion turned the screws on Willy Wonka
We also revisit the great horrors of early 2003 reality TV, including "Joe Millionaire" and "Man vs. Beast."
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 Jan. 29, 2003.
I’m writing to you with COVID (my 2nd time). This one’s my fault — I went on a work trip and assumed someone there would get it. However, had I stayed home, I would have also gotten COVID because of other folks who later tested positive — even though I personally had outdoor drinks with them. The “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” thing is frustrating, especially this many years into it.
Thankfully, I feel OK, but if this column is unfocused or subpar, blame COVID instead of me, OK?
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What issue is this?
This was Vol. 39, Issue 03, the 132nd new Onion issue of the 2000s. Here’s what the website looked like in 2003, 2013 and today.
2 wonderful front-page headlines are no longer online: “Guy At Gym Keeps Offering To Spot Everyone” and “Toddler Thrown From Dog.”
I’m probably a monster because the toddler one cracks me up. That headline is a descendant of 2001’s “Hamster Thrown From Remote-Control Monster Truck,” which I wrote extensively about.
Also, “Alabama Governor Injured Imitating Pro Wrestling” isn’t online — and was missing from the website as early as 2006. Only an audio version remains from The Onion’s old radio news feature. You can still read it on the 2003 archived home page.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
“U.N. Orders Wonka To Submit To Chocolate Factory Inspections” is only slightly dated by its connection to the U.N.’s early 2000s inspections in Iraq.
When people ask me about this newsletter, I talk about the surprises you find from 20 years ago — such as realizing that a seemingly random joke was inspired by real-life news.
“Federal Judge Rules Parker Brothers Holds Monopoly Monopoly” is the best example — it’s a funny story on its own, but there’s extra joy in learning that it’s about the antitrust court ruling against Microsoft.
This Willy Wonka story is much the same. The article opens with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s statement about missing children and “Wonka-run Oompa-Loompa forced-labor camps.”
We also hear from many powerful U.S. officials, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell:
"No more will this sinister figure be free to pursue his nefarious endeavors without fear of reprisal, protected by loopholes in international candy-making law," Powell said. "With this ruling, the U.N. has issued the global community a 'golden ticket' to draw back the curtain behind which this mysterious confectioner hides."
A “golden ticket”!
This is probably a good time to say I’ve never seen Willy Wonka, and even I understand these references.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wants President George W. Bush to consider an invasion, but he also quotes liberally from “The Wondrous Boat Ride.” And Bush is worried about
Saddam Hussain’s Wonka’s nefarious “Wonkavision” technology:
"We are talking about a man who is able to take a rainbow and cover it with dew," Bush told reporters during a press conference Monday. "Who knows what else he is capable of? Left to his own devices, he could, in a worst-case scenario, make the world taste very bad, indeed."
Brilliance all the way around. Would this story be even more timeless if it was the health inspector or OSHA? Probably. But this nearly flawless story shows why The Onion’s the best at what it does.
Presumably, much of the staff was unhappy about the Iraq war. Direct criticism is one way to go, and it’s a powerful weapon. But this Wonka-as-Saddam story reminds us how good The Onion is as humor writers, not just polemicists.
I also want to mention 2 other real-life stories that were huge in early 2003. “Affirmative Action Under Fire” asked people on the street to comment on what would become a still-important Supreme Court ruling on considering race in college admissions (in fact, 2023’s rulings will address the 2003 ruling).
We have the usual political jokes, an unfortunate use of a slur (more on this habit later), and then the weirdest answer to read in 2023:
"Christ. NBC's A Different World wasn't enough, now they want to go to 'real' college, too?"
Frank Krantz • Architect
The other “in the news” headline is the front-page one-liner “Pete Townshend Can't Explain.” Google his alleged crimes (and curious explanations) if you must — I can’t say them here or I’ll get thrown into spam folders.
The Onion’s media coverage
The Onion has always skewered the media because, well, it’s also the media. The Onion’s exceptional at mimicking, mocking and exaggerating the media’s activities and tropes.
This week’s version is “Migrant Worker Family Thrilled To See Selves On Cover Of The Economist.”
The cover story is fake, but the top portion of this Economist cover — with the “Roe v. Wade: 30 years on” and other teaser headlines — is real. It’s from the Jan. 18, 2003, issue.
Mexican-born migrant worker Luis Moreno, currently of Texas, is so excited to see his face on a magazine cover — mainly because of The Economist’s reputation! He also comments on the photographer’s approach:
"The clothes we were wearing created a very interesting pastiche of colors, which is probably why he chose that particular shot," Moreno said. "Also, the photographer caught us at a moment when our expressions powerfully conveyed the great weariness we were feeling."
Moreno buys 3 copies, mailing 1 to his grandmother. Somehow, everyone in his life reads The Economist faithfully! He and his wife, Rosa, get a lot of attention, with Rosa being called “the cover girl,” among other things:
"Our friend Miguel and his wife were teasing us, calling us 'undocumented migrants' like they did in the story," Rosa added, "but it was all in good fun."
The Onion usually brings in an academic for these articles to sum up the cultural impact, but here, they mock their own trope:
"It's amazing what a complex system of social ties we itinerant workers maintain, considering that we are always in motion and have only limited access to modern communications," Moreno said. "Don't you think that would make a fascinating subject for a dissertation?"
I can’t overstate how easy The Onion makes this joke look. Millions of us could think of the basic premise and crack a joke or two. Only The Onion could invent a family, write in the style of a news article, critique immigration policy and how the media covers migrants — and be genuinely funny and realistic.
The Onion also published “AOL/Time Warner Turmoil Over-Reported, Says Time,” which shows the conflicts of interest when media outlets are owned by giant corporations (Bloomberg News doesn’t cover Michael Bloomberg, for example).
The Onion has real-life Time columnist Lance Morrowcarry water for his corporate betters:
"This would be bad enough in times of slow news, but a nation about to go to war and confused about which online service offers the best enhanced e-mail features surely deserves better."
The Onion covers Hollywood
The Onion’s writing about TV and movies is usually the best way to see what American pop culture looked like 20 years ago — and what we’ve entirely forgotten about.
“Fox's Reality Shows” is especially delightful for me. Here’s why: I despise reality TV. I think it (along with cable news) is a massive tumor pressing against the brain stem of our society.
However, as a 19-year-old, my college roommates and I did watch a lot of “Joe Millionaire” and the “Man vs. Beast” special, which I can recall almost beat for beat.
These jokes are solid, and I appreciate the wordplay. That said, the best joke about a fake reality TV show is by “30 Rock” a few years later, with “MILF Island.”
(Also, poor Cloris Leachman. She didn’t deserve to get dragged into this infographic!)
The godfather of reality TV, “The Real World,” makes an appearance with “Real World Producers Still Looking To Fill Eating-Disorder Slot.” This is a depressing article because it doesn’t sound like a joke.
This quote reads like the real-life Hollywood stories we’ve seen since, say, “Crazy Rich Asians” came out:
"We found a woman who was perfect, except she was Asian, and we already had our non-black minority slot filled.”
“New Movie Taps Into Nation's Love Of Rapping Kangaroos” is meant to be a joke, but America actually loves a rapping kangaroo. This movie opened at No. 1, even though it was a terrible film that was extensively reshot from a gritty drama into a semi-animated kangaroo film.
That’s right: “Kangaroo Jack” was reshot to add in the rapping kangaroo. Sadly, Jerry Bruckheimer knew Americans better than The Onion.
Finally, the wonderful Jackie Harvey, The Onion’s resident, clueless Hollywood columnist. He’s back with “When It Comes To Entertainment, My Sign Is Leo!” and messing up the names of all of Leonardo DiCaprio’s movies. Remember “New York Gangs” and “Catch Him … Please!”?
Harvey also talks about Fox’s reality TV shows and mostly gets “Man vs. Beast” correct. I only wish this had been a part of that 2003 prime-time special:
But striking a blow for the humans was grand-master Gary Kasparov, who narrowly defeated a wild boar in chess. Just when I've lost faith in Fox, they pull out a show that answers a big "what if?" for every American.
There are so many malapropisms from Jackie in this one — April Levine’s “Skater Boy,” for example — but I will share one paragraph that sums up Harvey’s mindless, factually vague optimism:
Item! There's a new film about a piano-playing Holocaust survivor in Poland, and it's been getting a lot of critical acclaim. It's directed by Roman Polanksky, who's best known for What Ever Happened To Rosemary's Baby? Roman seems to be getting a little more personal in this one, and I love it. I wish he would make more movies back in the old U.S. of A. After 9-11, we could use someone like him back on our shores.
Area People doing Area Things
“Debate Team State Finalists Live It Up In Super 8 Hot Tub” is a great headline because it’s so specific. Every word is essential.
I stayed at a Super 8 once because it was within walking distance of Dodger Stadium and I wasn’t booked in my employer-paid hotel till the next day. My Super 8 experience was … less fun.
I love the innocent spirit of these debate team kids, who are pumped about things like a whirlpool, free breakfast and soda:
"This is it, guys," said team captain Ethan Howe, sinking back into the bubbling water and raising a can of Orange Slice high into the air. "This is what we've been working so hard for all year!"
One student refused to participate. In the quote below, please note the mention of euchre, that favorite card game of Midwesterners (it’s not bad, I’ve played it several times):
"If we get in trouble, it could go on our permanent record and colleges would see that," said Gawlikoski, two-time recipient of Knauf's Most Valuable Debater award. "I'd be more than up for some charades or maybe a game of euchre, but I really have no interest in doing something stupid that'd hurt my chances of getting into Northwestern."
The other kids stayed up late — after 4 a.m. for 2 of them!
Other Area People stories in this issue include:
“Depressed Roommate Hitting The GameCube Pretty Hard”: This lengthy article is well-written but formulaic: Man breaks up with girlfriend, dives deep into a vice (Nintendo GameCube) and tries to hide his addiction. His friends are very concerned. I do like how our protagonist appears to have a new love interest, but it’s just a character he created in “Animal Crossing.”
The Onion also mentions “forthcoming” games like “Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker” and “Evolution Snowboarding,” but both of those were released in 2002.
“Man Totally Proud Of Last Night's Drunken Phone Calls”: This man is 38! Also, I imagine these were all landline calls, not calls or texts from a smartphone like they’d be today.
“New Swiss Army Phone May Pose Health Risks” is a classic photo of an old-school flip phone in an era when people were worried about cell phone radiation.
Were the infographics good?
The Onion’s front-page infographic was “Toughest U.S. Stains,” which I find to be a hilarious, stupid premise. Your mileage may vary?
I don’t love or hate the jokes themselves. The illustration is probably my favorite part.
What columnists ran?
Yeah, so there’s not much I can say about “This Racist Propaganda Practically Writes Itself!” It’s extremely NSFW and uses many bad words, repeatedly — be warned.
Let’s talk about the good things: This is a column by an avowed racist who doesn’t quite realize he’s unraveling the web of weak excuses, shallow thinking and poor logic. This sentence sums up the column:
The bottom line is, all you need to write racist propaganda is a pen, some paper, and a refusal to take responsibility for your own problems.
Some of his asides feel like 2023’s social media conversations:
Asserting that you don’t need much knowledge because whatever you spill out is still better than the media’s work.
Praising “computer programs that'll correct most of your grammar and spelling mistakes.”
Offering self-help advice, like “I've learned that the hardest part about writing racist propaganda is simply getting started.”
The problem? This column also reads like someone tricked The Onion into letting them use all the slurs they couldn’t use in polite conversation.
I wrote in 2020 — mostly jokingly — that “The Onion in 2000 had at least one staffer who was super-bigoted and hid this by writing edgy stories purporting to attack people for racism and other things.”
“This Racist Propaganda Practically Writes Itself!” is this in spades. On the one hand, it’s a clever (for 2003) takedown of people who think their racism is intellectual. On the other hand, it’s something you’d expect a saboteur to write.
Maybe I’m wrong! I’m open to a humorist telling me why this column is good and important. I’m saying I don’t know how to make that argument, so I won’t.
What was the best horoscope?
The horoscopes are excellent this week. They feature Jimmy Carter, Powell and Bush, John Updike and Superman mythology.
But my favorite horoscope this week is probably Leo, which echoes the 2020s true crime moment:
Leo | July 23 to Aug. 22
They think they’ve won, but take heart: Only you know that they haven't found all the nurses yet.
What holds up best?
Probably the Willy Wonka story, but I’m going to exercise my authority and give this to the front-page headline “Toddler Thrown From Dog.”
This was a headline made for social media and video, and it’s not The Onion’s fault those things didn’t exist in 2003.
What holds up worst?
The racist propaganda story. Otherwise, I liked this issue!
What would be done differently today?
The Onion had a tremendous story this week titled “Drop Box Outside National Archives Allows Ex-Presidents To Anonymously Return Classified Documents.”
This feels to me like the Willy Wonka story. No, it’s not as fantastical and silly. But it resists the urge for the cheapest, most partisan jokes, instead creating something funnier and more imaginative.
There’s plenty of space to rip into Trump, Biden, Pence, etc., about their classified documents. I’m sure The Onion is doing that! But most jokesters can’t do anything more than that. Most of them can’t create a Willy Wonka scenario. And I’m always happy to see The Onion, in the very difficult and different environment of the 2020s, still delivering on its promise.
Hopefully, I feel better next week! Thanks for being here, y’all, and please share with any other Onion fans!
Someone told me recently they had never heard about the Microsoft antitrust case. I get it — they were very young then. I felt very old explaining it to them.
That real-life Economist issue covers topics including a call for Saddam Hussein’s exile, an article on new Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and two topics The Onion also covered in the Jan. 29, 2003, issue: the affirmative action court case and the U.K.’s laws that Pete Townshend ran afoul of.
Lance Morrow’s post-9/11 column was basically the real-life version of The Onion’s Point/Counterpoint “We Must Retaliate With Blind Rage vs. We Must Retaliate With Measured, Focused Rage.”
As someone who stayed up till 3:30 a.m. earlier this week while out with people, I get the appeal. I don’t recommend it, but it was fun.