20 years ago, The Onion worried about terrorism (and SUVs)
We also have Jean Teasdale, bad fan fiction, an NPR reporter's cursing, and God consolidating the Holy Trinity.
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 Feb. 26, 2003.
I’ll admit: I have no recollection of this issue. So we’ll be exploring this one together.
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What issue is this?
This was Vol. 39, Issue 07, the 136th new Onion issue of the 2000s. Here’s what the website looked like in 2003, 2013 and today.
The front-page headline “'Only In New York,' Says Manhattanite Watching Squirrel” is no longer online, which is a shame.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
The Feb. 26, 2003, issue is less about Iraq and more about Americans’ fear of terrorism. Why? The Onion was reacting to real-life news, namely the terror alert level being raised to “orange” on Feb. 7. 2003.
The national terror alert level was never lower than “yellow,” the 3rd-highest of 5 levels. And from Feb. 7-27, 2003, it was at “orange,” the 2nd-highest level.
“Orange Alert Sirens To Blow 24 Hours A Day In Major Cities” is a good Onion story but feels a little perfunctory — like the writers decided, “Guess we should say something about it.” That’s not bad — even a B+ Onion story is really good.
I like how The Onion conveys the government’s guidance: Be alert constantly, but act like nothing is wrong. It’s a perverse “Keep Calm and Carry On” minus the existential threat (i.e., German bombing).
From Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge:
"Some may find their normal sleep patterns disrupted, but it's a small price to pay to ensure our collective awareness of the heightened danger," Ridge said. "The key to preventing terrorist attacks is to have the threat constantly on your mind but still remain calm and act normal."
"Go about your usual business," Ridge said. "Of course, while you do so, keep in mind that we are just barely this side of Red Alert, the highest level of danger possible."
Everyone in the 50 largest U.S. metro areas would hear this siren 24/7. The siren itself has multiple levels: The default sound is for “normal” conditions. There are also “wail, “alternate wail” and “pulsating steady” — and these are just the “orange” alert sirens!
Should the country be raised to Red Alert status, an entirely different set of patterned horn bursts would be put into use, the details of which will be available at www.fema.gov.
There are also 5 new alert levels — each a shade of orange between orange and red.
While I’m not blown away by this article, it’s a good satire of 2003’s state of mind — where terrorism was a legitimate worry but the government response was often contradictory or counterproductive.
It’s also a reflection of how the internet hadn’t quite taken over our lives — the government (or The Onion’s satirical version) was the dominant source of information 20 years ago in a way it never could be today.
The Onion also addresses Americans’ fears with “Preparing For The Worst.” This is a good mix of jokes, from the politically charged (the jokes about civil liberties and Bush wanting to demonize potential 2004 opponents), to the biblical (“Smear lamb’s blood on doorpost so terrorists will pass over it” is obligatory but a classic) to the silly (root beer!).
I suspect The Onion’s deft coverage of terrorism — mocking the excesses without forgetting people’s emotional and psychological scars — stems partly from its 2001 relocation to New York City. They went through 9/11 there, made it OK to laugh again and never stopped finding humorous angles.
Other Iraq or War on Terror jokes include:
“Iraqi Homeowner To Wait A While Before Re-Shingling Roof”: I love how this takes a suburbanite’s chore and relocates it to Baghdad, where this resident instead “plans to spend next weekend insulating his front windows with energy-efficient plywood boards.”
Finally, the front-page headline (with no story) “Report: Al-Qaeda May Be Developing 'Dirty Soldier’” is silly but is a good-enough headline joke.
The Onion has another random senator story
Every so often in the early 2000s, The Onion would run a big story on a random senator like “Former Senator Still Hanging Around Capitol” or “57 Lawmakers Feared Dead In Senate Mine Disaster.” These stories feel like The Onion was sick of talking about real-life news or didn’t have a fresh angle on the president (Clinton or Bush). And that’s OK!
This week, it’s “Sophomore Senator Eager To Move Out Of Congressional Housing,” a premise that’s more relevant in 2023 than 2003, thanks to “Alpha House” and the real-life senators who lived together like frat boys. Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., just started his 2nd term in the Senate, and he’s bummed about all the noise (other senators playing 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” at 3 a.m. on a Monday night) and not having his old Senate friends around anymore:
"Ever since [Sen.] Daniel [Akaka (D-HI)] and [Sen.] Mike [DeWine (R-OH)] left, Jefferson Hall hasn't been the same," Allard said. "I go hang out at their place on Wisconsin Avenue all the time, but it's not like being able to just walk down the hall."
Allard’s also sad that his friend Sen. Lincoln Chafeewasn’t assigned to his dorm.
I don’t know how colleges work nowadays, but this is a great parody of many colleges’ dorm policies circa 2003:
Allard is critical of the rule requiring legislators to stay in congressional housing for their first two terms.
"I can see why it's smart to make us stay in C.H. the first term," Allard said. "It really helps you acclimate to Washington and build strong bonds. But 12 years is a little much. Look at England. They only make their legislators stay in the dorms one term, and the second term is encouraged but optional. That makes way more sense."
SUVs were bad
“The Anti-SUV Movement” is a fascinating story 20 years later because SUVs won this war. The big push now is for electric SUVs, not getting rid of them.
Yet in 2003, automakers faced real threats to SUVs, including the Sierra Club in February 2003 calling for aggressive tax audits of SUV owners.
Here, The Onion asks people on the street what they think. The jokes hit on common targets (Americans are fat, buying gas guzzlers supports Saudi oil), but I most enjoy this joke about the literal name “sport-utility vehicle”:
"But what if I need my SUV for sporting or utilitating?"
Carl Davis • Roofer
Area People doing Area Things
“Man Has Derogatory Nickname For Every Neighboring Town” is a great headline for anyone who grew up in a town with local rivalries — and the people who took them incredibly seriously.
Paul Sadecki is from Vandalia, Ill., which was the state capital for part of the 1800s but is otherwise a small random town. Sadecki has juvenile insults for countless Illinois communities, including Greenville, Mulberry Grove, Brownstown, Litchfield, Hagarstown, St. Elmo and Van Burensburg:
Some Sadecki nicknames play off a particular town's geography, such as his "Land O' Lake Trash" moniker for Keyesport, which is located on the western bank of the polluted Carlyle Lake. A majority of the nicknames, however, are produced via a simple pun-based, Wacky Packages-style modification of the town name. Examples include Heaver Creek (Beaver Creek), Show Yer Boner (Shobonier), and Bunghole (Bingham). An estimated 40 percent call into question the heterosexuality of the town's inhabitants.
Of course, a 2003 list of insults would include gay jokes — although, unlike other instances, The Onion distances itself from the protagonist.
Sadeck is eventually exposed as a hypocrite by former roommate Wayne Kessler:
It's not like he truly believes the girls in Litchfield are bitches; last year, he had a girlfriend from Bitchfield. I mean Litchfield. Shit, now he's got me doing it."
“Breakup Hints Misinterpreted As Marriage-Proposal Hints” is one of many Onion satires about deteriorating relationships. (2000’s “Break-Up Made Easier With Colorful Visual Aids” is just one example).
Yes, all of the hints Amanda Gentry is receiving could suggest a proposal, but when law-school boyfriend Wilson Crandall says things like this, maybe she should be a little more concerned:
"I can tell Wilson is getting ready to pop the question," Gentry said. "The last few weeks, he's been acting so weird. He keeps saying he needs to 'take stock of his life' and 'face some important decisions he's been putting off.' I hear wedding bells!"
Gentry misinterprets many, many actions from Crandall — including a search for plane tickets and talking about moving back to Chicago:
"It's so cute how he's trying to cut back on expenses," Gentry said. "We never go out to dinner anymore, or the movies, or even the bars. He must be working on one doozy of a rock."
Oof. This is funnier when you know it’s not about a real person! Also, I wish we had heard from the boyfriend.
Other Area People stories in this issue include:
“God Quietly Phasing Holy Ghost Out Of Trinity”: The Holy Ghost’s last day is Easter Sunday. Even God has to worry about the budget, I guess.
“NBC Cancels CSI”: 2003 was the tail end of NBC’s “Must See TV” dominance. Plus we get a mention of Jeff Zucker, former top executive at NBC and CNN.
“New Bailiff Tired Of Hearing How Old Bailiff Did Things”: I like the stenographer comforting the bailiff by saying, “it took years for the judges to accept her way of using semicolons.”
“Corey Flintoff Unleashes Sonorous, Pleasantly Modulated String Of Obscenities”: Flintoff is a retired NPR reporter. I’ve never been a regular listener, even though I’m eternally grateful for NPR boosting this newsletter last year.
“Power-Plant Employee Sneaks Electricity Home In Lunchbox”: Very silly, but not bad for a front-page joke. The illustration is deliberately stupid.
Were the infographics good?
The answer to “Worst Fan Fiction” is “all of it” (sorry, fanfic people!). Of course, these the pop culture references are very old. I refuse to believe anyone has thought about “Hardcastle & McCormick” (1983-86) in the past 20 years.
That said, “Star Wars,” “Jackass” and Picard are still culturally relevant, so good job! The Picard joke is … curious because a 2003 throwaway joke from The Onion isn’t that far off from real-life fan discussions of Picard.
What columnists ran?
“It Takes A Village to Stitch 20,000 Dallas Cowboys Sweatshirts” is a fascinating 1990s/2000s combination of Hillary Clinton’s “It Takes a Village” worldview, the sweatshop scandals of the early 2000s (like Kathie Lee Gifford’s line)and the Dallas Cowboys as America’s Team.
Guatemalan worker Maya Tapantí understands her factory’s role in the important ecosystem of providing Cowboys sweatshirts to Americans:
"Look at this fine, upstanding Russell Athletic-brand sweatshirt. Do you think one person could have brought this item into the world in isolation? Of course not. It takes the contributions of every last member of the community. We all have a job to do, whether it be sewing on the sleeves, silk-screening the silver-and-blue Cowboys star onto the chest, or checking for irregularities.”
This story pulls no punches in depicting the conditions often seen in overseas factories — the low pay, safety problems, the use of child labor. But it frames all of that like a motivational speech you’d give a sports team or a corporate sales team:
We don't do this for the money—although $15 a month is certainly a generous salary. We also don't do it for the fame, although everyone in southwest Guatemala knows which town has the Russell Athletic sweatshop. We do this for the Plano, TX, bank teller who wears one of our pre-shrunk Dallas Cowboys sweatshirts while watching his team take on the hated Philadelphia Eagles. For the Ft. Worth tax attorney who wears one while cheering on the team from his company's skybox at Texas Stadium. And for all of Dallas, a city that truly bleeds silver and blue.”
Our other columnist is the great Jean Teasdale, whose 2nd-floor balcony decorations have been stolen. Despite suffering this personal, even scary attack — who climbed onto her balcony to dismantle her carefully curated display? — Jean focuses on “Spreadin' A Little Sunshine.”
This is a sad column! Jean’s arts-and-crafts adventures are usually flighty or superficial, often involving a celebrity crush. But this one is more meaningful:
You see, growing up, I never had a lawn. For most of my childhood, we lived in a three-bedroom house, but shortly after we moved in, my parents had the entire yard paved. Not with patio-type flagstones, but with cement. My father didn't want ants and termites, and he thought having grass would increase the odds of them entering the home. He also stripped the ivy from the house and chopped down the oak trees, including one with a treehouse built for the previous residents' kids.
Jean also delivers a patriotic guilt trip that the Department of Homeland Security would be proud of:
There might be a big war soon, and we on the homefront need to be as kind and helpful to each other as possible. I'm not saying what happened to me was necessarily terrorism, but in my book, people who commit cold-hearted acts like stealing perfectly innocent "Danger: Chipmunk Crossing" signs are as anti-American as they come.
(Also, it’s 100% clear to me that her horrible husband, Rick, did this.)
What was the best horoscope?
This week’s horoscopes have many good jokes, including suits made of bubble wrap, Jack Palance’s one-armed pushups and Boston’s 2nd-biggest fire. But I’m going with Cancer for predicting the Wayne Brady-Dave Chappelle saga of 2004.
Cancer | June 21 to July 22
You will experience a surge in popularity when talk-show host Wayne Brady publicly declares you his personal nemesis.
What holds up best?
I know it’s literally 1 sentence, but I love “‘Only In New York,' Says Manhattanite Watching Squirrel.” I expect most of y’all will have a different favorite.
What holds up worst?
A few jokes have aged badly, but this is a strong issue. While it wouldn’t make, say, my “top 5 issues I’ve reviewed for this newsletter” list, it’s a good representation of The Onion’s humor.
What would be done differently today?
This issue has a lot of political and current-events humor, and we’d have more of it in 2023.
“Worst Fan Fiction” would have different pop culture references, especially considering “50 Shades of Grey” started as “Twilight” fanfic.
Usually, I’d say The Onion’s columnists wouldn’t exist today, but The Onion ran a Jean Teasdale column out of the blue in January 2023!
Next week, we have stories about Bush offering another tax refund, Drew Barrymore’s career, The Onion becoming aware of Fox News and a throwaway joke that sounds like the plot of “National Treasure.”
Chafee was a Republican appointed to the Senate seat after his father died, winning a full term in 2000. He voted against the Iraq War, considered challenging Bush in a primary, then subsequently became an independent, a Democrat governor who served as President Barack Obama’s re-election co-chair, and a Libertarian in 2019. Someone needs to write a biography of that journey!
The Onion took this to its logical conclusion with 2006’s “Report: Everything Made In Sweatshops.”
Rick Teasdale - I hope he’s in prison by now!