20 years ago, The Onion was talking about Bush, the dot-com bust and best friends
Destiny's Child! Pearl Harbor! A new Wal-Mart store! Lots of ancient history to tide you over as we revisit the week of Memorial Day 2001.
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 30, 2001.
Today’s look back is a good reminder of how 9/11 changed satire, as we have an incredibly silly terrorism story. Also, “Pearl Harbor,” the awful movie, is 20 years old. Wow.
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What issue is this?
No longer online is the front-page headline “Modern-Day Jesus Says He'll Come Back To Fix Everything But Never Does.”
What was the top story, and other impressions?
I’ve remarked many times that The Onion did not cover politics as much 20-plus years ago. So maybe “Bush Actually President, Nation Suddenly Realizes” is a wake-up call to The Onion’s staff, not just the American people.
This article certainly is written from the perspective of people who did not vote for George W. Bush, but I think there’s also some representation of people who don’t really care about politics, or think it’s all a big game. See this quote, for example:
"I guess with the media circus and all the other craziness surrounding the election-recount fiasco, I just kind of looked at it like it was some sort of funny TV show," said Amanda Milner, 37, a Red Wing, MN, bank teller.
There’s a real contingent of Americans for whom politics is simply another form of entertainment.
There’s also a woman from Ocala, Fla., who was listening to the latest Jay Leno joke about Bush and realized, “Oh, he’s president!” Republicans like Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah are also surprised, which perhaps is a foreshadowing of their reaction to the 2016 election. And, of course, The Onion eventually reminds us that Bush is shocked, too.
"My fellow Americans," Bush said. "God, it sounds so weird to actually be saying that. Anyway, I know we've all had a bit of a shock lately. To be honest with you, I'm a bit blown away by it all myself. But it appears that, for whatever reason, I am now the leader of the free world. And that's something we're all, myself included, going to have to get used to."
This is solid B, B+ satire. Nothing too imaginative, but gets the job done.
The better big story from this issue 20 years ago is “Dot-Commers To Receive Unemployment Benefits In Form Of Stock Options,” which reminded me that apparently some people called the dot-com era the “New Economy.”
Elaine Chao, who seems to become a real-life Cabinet official every so often, was secretary of labor 20 years ago and explains this unemployment alternative as a way to “double, triple, or even quadruple the value of their unemployment checks."
There are numerous failed startups mentioned. Only eToys and drkoop.com are real, both going bankrupt in 2001. Even today, none of the URLs appear to work for the fake companies.
This new concept of “eBenefits” has even created businesses like Governmentcheck.com and DotComCasualties.com, both not real.
This article is a cynical look at the way employees are discarded from once-successful companies, but this idea of stock options in lieu of unemployment doesn’t sound that far-fetched, either.
We also have a subtle yet devastating story, “Wal-Mart Opens Store In Winesburg, Ohio,” that essentially paints Wal-Mart as the perfect retailer for a dead-end, depressed, tragic Pottersville of a town. Wal-Mart is unafraid to admit this!
"Some naysayers claim that Winesburg is but a procession of grotesques — grotesques who so ardently embrace certain truths that these same truths sour into falsehoods. But we at Wal-Mart cherish the American Dream, and nowhere does it manifest itself so deeply as in small-town America."
I’m not sure if it’s The Onion giving sympathy to fading Midwest towns or mocking them, but maybe it doesn’t matter.
You get a lot of passages like this one:
Perhaps most disturbing of all is the new Wal-Mart's manager, the foul-tempered, malodorous Wash Williams III, who nevertheless commands a perverse respect.
"This Sam's Choice Cranberry Apple Juice was spoiled before it was shipped here. It was a foul thing come out of a factory more foul," Williams told a complaining customer before refunding her money.
Don’t look to this story to improve your mood, but if you need to jump-start your novel of American tragedy, this might be your inspiration.
Fascism and Terrorism
There are two stories that hit a little different 20 years later, but both are so silly that I think we can collectively appreciate them. “America A Fascist Police State, Stoned Underage Drunk Driver Charges” is a classic story of someone trying to distract from their own obvious mistakes.
"This whole country is, like, totally Hitlered-out," Shifflett told friend Glen Withers, who posted his $500 bail.
We also have “Hidden Valley Ranch Bombed By Balsamic Extremists.” My only complaint is there’s no elaborate illustration of a Hidden Valley HQ being attacked, perhaps with dressing flying everywhere. Regardless, this is 3.5 months before 9/11!
"Let no salad again be foully tainted by the corrupt regime of Hidden Valley," said Martin Pulaski, leader of the Nation Of Balsam, in a statement claiming responsibility for the deadly attack.
I’m not sure whether having a Pulaski in charge means that Poland, or at least the Polish community of Chicago, is also allied with the Nation of Balsam, or if that’s just a coincidence.
Area People doing Area Things
“Best Friends Each Secretly Think Of The Other As Sidekick” is part of the great Onion genre of “people’s inner thoughts revealed.”
We learn a lot about college students Marc Morrell and Justin Rotham and their friendship, although there’s a surprising amount of “Black Adder” debate. I guess Rowan Atkinson (aka Mr. Bean) was a bigger deal 20 years ago.
Marc and Justin offer several arguments for proving they are the alpha, including that their roles of driver and navigator, respectively, on road trips demonstrate their authority.
Both of them also say that they are Ferris Bueller and the other one is Cameron Frye. Neither of them is dating, unlike Ferris.
I love these stories because you have to pretend that, somehow, these guys are baring their souls to this random Onion reporter but not talking about this to each other.
Other fun Area People stories include:
“Mediocre Painter's True Talent Lies In Acting Like A Painter”: Credit to The Onion for quoting real-life Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight, who won a Pulitzer just last year!
“Longtime Sexual Fantasy Awkwardly Fulfilled”: I don’t expect anyone to email me saying, “Wow, this story reminds of this one time …”
“Promotional Jacket Worn Everywhere” is just a small photo of a “Chucky” movie jacket, which made me chuckle for whatever reason.
Were the infographics good?
“Pearl Harbor” was a garbage movie, not least because of how inaccurate it was. But if the historical inaccuracies were closer to what The Onion proposed in “Pearl Harbor's Historical Inaccuracies,” it would have at least been more fun!
I’m not saying these jokes are good ideas. I’m simply saying that the real movie was that bad. I’d still rather see actor Ronald Reagan and Japanese military/political leader Hideki Tojo both being at Pearl Harbor and getting into a fistfight that Reagan wins, but somehow he doesn’t become famous for. And yes, President Franklin Roosevelt’s “day of infamy” quote was cool, but what if he originated The Rock’s 1990s WWF catchphrase and kicked aside his secret wheelchair to do so?
The idea of Ben Affleck marrying Anne Frank was fun until I did the math and realized she would have been 16 in 1945, but I guess I applaud The Onion for rescuing her from the Nazis?
Anyways, this Onion infographic has flaws, but I enjoyed the aggressive stupidity in its approach. And again, it’s better than what Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay actually created.
On the other hand, “Why Aren't We Able To Feel Anything In Our Toes?” isn’t particularly daring. Christopher Reeve jokes were the laziest of the genre back then (Eminem also leaned heavily on Reeve jokes, for example).
That said, the last two jokes are pretty imaginative. “Kangaroo on toes refuses to leave” is a funny/terrifying image, and the ToeNumm joke feels very much like an SNL fake-product ad.
What columnists ran?
Jean Teasdale is back with “Just Being Neighborly,” and her columns have grown on me during the past 18 months. This time around, she’s met 3 fans of her columns — two male and one female college students who moved in downstairs.
All is well — they have similar tastes in kitsch, the young folks say how they love her column, and they make fun of Jean’s terrible husband, Rick. We also learn how Jean and Rick got together:
"How are things at the tire center, hubby Rick?" they exclaimed in unison when he walked in the door. I hadn't seen Rick that befuddled since he woke up next to me after our first night together!
I just have a feeling that these young college students are making fun of Jean, or their fandom is more ironic and sincere. There’s no way they actually want to watch a VHS version of the 1976 figure skating romantic drama “Ice Castles,” right?
Poor Jean. I’m happy she has some friends, but I am worried for her.
The other column this week is the long-titled “There's More To Life Than Just Traveling The World And Marveling At Its Varied Peoples And Cultures.” I was skeptical, but we soon learn that this is the classic tale of a middle-aged person looking back on life and saying, “What have I done?”
Except Dr. Peter Masterson has nothing to regret. The son of two National Geographic roving journalists, he’s already “one of the world's leading anthropologists, an accomplished archaeologist, and an award-winning novelist” at age 41.
But he sees what he’s missing when he’s not traveling the world, helping communities and making important discoveries:
Every weekend, in malls across America, guys hit on girls and dine on food-court Chalupas and Mountain Dew, then go off to buy the new Tool CD. Why am I not among them? Because while they're spending genuine quality time in fluorescent-lit shopping corridors, stupid me is off becoming a blood brother of the Blackfoot Indians or observing a Haitian voodoo ceremony.
He goes on to marvel at the Frito, a chip he’s never tasted, and laments traveling to Zanzibar to hear a creation story that sounds a lot like the Book of Genesis. Poor Zanzibar — it’s not their fault! This guy’s really mixed up.
We also get some great late 1990s/early 2000s cultural references, like Donkey Kong 64, “Miss Congeniality” and the Spice Channel.
Most “Hey, it’s 2001!” reference
The entire story “Average Age Of Wacky TV Neighbors Dropping,” in part because it’s referencing shows that are as much 70 years old, and also because there’s no such thing as the wacky TV neighbor anymore, at least not like it used to be.
What was the best horoscope?
Going with Cancer this week:
Cancer | June 21 to July 22
The funny thing about next Monday won't seem very funny to you, but rest assured that it'll be hilarious to the bartender, the coroner, and all the monkeys.
What holds up best?
“Dot-Commers To Receive Unemployment Benefits In Form Of Stock Options” predicts the rise of everything being online — including checking your benefits — as well as the 21st-century obsession with turning everything into a complex financial arrangement that promises to make you rich but feels unsettling.
And since there’s a lot of political debate about unemployment benefits right now, a story about that suddenly seems relevant.
What holds up worst?
The front-page headline “Destiny's Child Referred To As 'Feminist Icons' With Straight Face” can be looked at in a couple of ways. Maybe this headline is bad! Destiny’s Child remains admired and influential, after all, and Beyoncé is a legend.
But you might argue that “feminist icon” is best reserved for scientists or activists or a high-ranking person like, say, the current U.S. vice president. Or, at the least, musicians like Aretha Franklin or, you know, Beyoncé! Not the whole group.
What would be done differently today?
There’s a lot to like in this issue, from strong political coverage to good columnists and infographics to fun Area Man-style coverage. For sure, many topics would need a 2021 update, but this issue feels pretty modern.
What real-life people were mentioned?
Christopher Knight. Destiny’s Child. Adolf Hitler. Jerry Bruckheimer. Ronald Reagan. Tojo. Ben Affleck. Anne Frank. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. James Jeffords. Madonna. Patrick Swayze. George W. Bush. Jay Leno. Orrin Hatch. Bill Clinton. Marc Rich. Elaine Chao. Christopher Reeve. Thomas Coughlin. Chuck D. Flavor Flav. Johnny Carson, Ed McMahon. Kurt Vonnegut. Rowan Atkinson. John Digweed. Paul Oakenfold. Jesus.
“The Jeffords Defection” asks fake people what they think of Jeffords leaving the Republican Party, thus giving Senate control to the Democrats. Jeffords retired after his term ended in 2006; Bernie Sanders holds his seat today.
Madonna and Swayze are mentioned in Jean Teasdale’s column.
Clinton and one of his controversial pardons, Rich, are in the Bush story.
Longtime Wal-Mart executive Coughlin is mentioned in the Wal-Mart story.
Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Carson and McMahon, Vonnegut and DJs Digweed and Oakenfold are all mentioned in “Best Friends Each Secretly Think Of The Other As Sidekick.”
What was happening in the real world?
Here’s the real-life news from May 21-27, 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:
Sen. James Jeffords switches parties, gives Democrats control. Congress finalizes tax cuts. Study suggests “placebo effect” isn’t real. US to get more involved in Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bush calls for private efforts to help the poor. NYT writes favorable story about the Taliban destroying heroin crops. Bridgestone/Firestone won’t sell tires to Ford as feud continues. Rudy Giuliani’s girlfriend legally banned from mayor’s residence. New York Times names Howell Raines as next top editor. Congress votes for World War II memorial. House vote would bring annual testing to grades 3-8. NYT profiles Enron CEO’s influence on White House, federal regulators. Health care costs rapidly rising, including for employers. Great Plains revert to frontier status.