20 years ago today, The Onion canceled an issue because of 9/11

The Onion would take the next 2 weeks to grapple with the biggest story of its existence and create maybe the greatest issue of its long run.

If there were no 9/11, this would be a run-of-the-mill review of The Onion’s Vol. 37, Issue 32, from Sept. 12, 2001.

That issue was ready to go. But, of course, 9/11 did happen, and that issue was canceled, along with the following week’s. Meanwhile, as we discussed last week, The Onion’s homepage remained frozen with its Sept. 5, 2001, issue.

I encourage you to read MEL Magazine’s oral history of The Onion’s 9/11 issue, which dives deep into The Onion staff’s struggles with knowing whether to publish at all, how to address 9/11 and what turned out to be a near-unanimously admired issue. You’ll learn a lot, such as:

My challenge in a couple of weeks will be to find something to discuss that’s different from what MEL did! In the meantime, here’s a little background on why I do this newsletter (it’s not for the nonexistent money!)

I read The Onion in high school, but it was college where I became most obsessed with its humor and tone, not to mention the headlines. Like the other things that really, really made me laugh (“I Love Lucy,” “The Honeymooners,” Conan O’Brien, early Letterman, MAD Magazine, “NewsRadio,” etc.), there was this brilliant mix of smarts and stupid, of funny writing and great delivery.

The material was meant to make the audience laugh without presuming it was too dumb to get the joke.

Another factor, surely, in my love of The Onion was that my 2nd day of college classes was 9/11.

I don’t recall when I saw the 9/11 reaction issue. It must have been online, as I don’t The Onion was in print in my city. Was it right away, or days or weeks later? I’m not sure. But it stuck with me, whenever I read it.

I’ve been thinking about this issue for a while, both as humor and in the context of American culture in those weeks — and American culture today. What I come back to, which is the reason I do this newsletter, is that The Onion is tremendously effective at performing in-the-moment satire and hitting on lasting truths about the human condition, sometimes in the same article or joke.

The 9/11 issue is a testament to both those abilities. And it’s maybe the most overt example of The Onion growing beyond a small-town newspaper parody into a cultural commentator.

I’m not always a fan of this — I’ve been critical of 20-year-old Onion stories in this newsletter for being, essentially, generic jokes that fill in the blanks with the latest celebrity or politician.

In fact, my first review of The Onion was actually in 2013: “How The Onion Has Changed Over 15 Years: Reviewing the Issues of Dec. 9, 1998, and Dec. 12, 2013.” In that, I noted how The Onion had to create so much more content because of the web and fast-moving news cycle, and that inevitably was a strain, even if The Onion remained funny.

But all of that was many years away in September 2001. The Onion’s 9/11 issue is considered but cutting, direct without being obnoxious. It’s anything but knee-jerk reaction.

I’ll see y’all in a couple of weeks to talk about it.

James