20 years ago, Valentine's Day at The Onion meant divorce, murder and failed lasso pantomiming
Remember when Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman were married? We also have nepotism, Bill Clinton's pardons and Jerry Lewis.
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 Feb. 14, 2001.
Most weeks, we talk about The Onion’s fictional local-news universe. This week, however, we have a lot of early 2000s celebrity gossip and political name-dropping to discuss. There’s also a great column about something called the “cassingle.”
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What issue is this?
Online but not on the Issue 05 page is “'Army Of One' Campaign Attracting Troubled Loners To Military.”
No longer online are these 2 front-page headlines, which are absolutely not about the same people:
“Four-Year-Old Dressed Nicer Than Local Man”
What was the top story, and other impressions?
My best guess is that “Report: Mankind's Knowledge Of TV Trivia Doubling Every Three Years” was The Onion’s top story on Feb. 14, 2001. This story is an Onion staple in terms of diagnosing the American public’s vapidity, as well as the paper’s love for fictional research from think tanks and government agencies.
In this case, there really was The Center for Media Studies at Rutgers University, although it’s doubtful they had anyone say, “There are infants who haven't even watched television who can name all six Brady kids. It's practically genetically encoded.”
This article is fun but also a reminder of how quickly things change. Yes, Americans tend to be more knowledgeable about pop culture than important issues, but in 2021 they generally don’t get that knowledge through “rerun-driven cable networks as Nick At Nite and TV Land, as well as the increased availability of classic TV episodes on home video.”
We probably have more screen time than ever, but it’s divided among a million activities and platforms. There are shared cultures, but not unified culture the way there was when there were only a handful of TV channels.
Still, you should enjoy this article. The premise isn’t just that old-timey shows are universally known. There’s a slight Onion twist — that once-obscure shows are becoming more popular generations later, as if schools are having students learn about the cast of “Bewitched” instead of the Gettysburg Address.
I’ll say two things: 1. The photo above includes “Dinosaurs,” which I vaguely remember as a kid and which friends want to rewatch. 2. I’ve recently started watching “St. Elsewhere,” which really is an incredibly made show for the early 1980s.
Pondering the future of TV trivia, Bennett said: "One day, I envision a world in which every American knows that Happy Days was a spin-off from a 1972 Love, American Style episode. A world in which the phrase 'No whammies!' is instantly associated by all with the '80s game show Press Your Luck. A world in which the importance of TV trivia is as universally undisputed as the greatness of the first three seasons of St. Elsewhere."
Wordplay back when slayings were joke material
“Irrepressible Bad Boy Slays Seven” is simultaneously out of date and also prescient.
First, why it’s out of date: Mass shootings aren’t fodder for breezy satire in today’s era, even fictional shootings. The Onion since 2014 has used the headline “'No Way To Prevent This,' Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens” for real-life mass shootings.
But here’s why this article still works: It replicates the breathless newsstand magazine tone that treats everything like fun gossip, no matter how gruesome. Jordan Jeffries has killed, assaulted and burned his way across the globe, but the only thing the media cares about is “Another Jordan Jeffries sighting!”
Soap Opera Digest, Us magazine and Variety are each name-checked, while the coverage seems more worried about whether all Jeffries’ criminal trials will impede filming.
I also love the fake movies and TV shows Jeffries is part of. There’s a lot of “30 Rock” and Tracy Jordan here:
“To Have And To Hold,” a soap opera where he played alliterative and “duplicitous ladies' man Gregg Grant.”
“G-Force IV: Maximum Thrust,” the latest in his action-movie franchise.
“Whizzer & McDeal,” an ABC show that might be a buddy-cop drama or a game show.
The band Rocketdog, which is almost certainly a play on Keanu Reeves’ Dogstar.
The final paragraph sums up this story well. It’s an incredibly constructed paragraph (I wish I edited more writing that was this good) that depicts the silliness of the celebrity obsession and also the extreme, graphic violence of Jeffries’ crimes.
Even if found not guilty, Jeffries' has more legal hurdles to clear: He still has two other trials pending, one stemming from a much-publicized fistfight with a transvestite prostitute1 in a Burbank alleyway in May 1999, and the other for allegedly assaulting a photographer after a night of drug-fueled partying with rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard and teen socialite Nicky Hilton at music mogul David Geffen's Aspen bungalow. He also faces a $23 million civil suit stemming from a March 2000 incident in which he allegedly kidnapped, tortured, and sodomized three Santa Monica teens.
Our government at work
The Onion took time away from pop culture to also note stories about former President Bill Clinton, Congress and the U.S. Army:
The Onion asked people about Clinton’s controversial pardon of Marc Rich, and this quote sums it up:
"A powerful politician doing favors for a corrupt business crony? America has lost its innocence."
“Congress Holds Weekend Trust-Building Retreat” is a fun romp that combines corporate retreats with summer-camp activities. None of the congressman and senators mentioned are still in office, and several are deceased.
“'Army Of One' Campaign Attracting Troubled Loners To Military” is a short article, and the joke is almost entirely in the headline.
Area People doing Area Things
Romance (or something like it) was defeated in “Pantomimed Lasso Motion Fails To Pull Woman Across Dance Floor,” which notes that Russ Bakke’s “pantomimed fishing rod and butterfly net” move also failed.
“Jerry Lewis Undergoes Emergency Gefloigel Surgery” requires knowing some of Lewis’ schtick. I saw some of his movies with Dean Martin as a kid, so I more or less understood.
“Movie Deemed Acceptable For Mom And Dad” mentions the Woody Allen movie “Small Time Crooks,” as well as Robert De Niro’s “Analyze This” and the stupid-but-fun Ashley Judd-starring “Double Jeopardy.”
Two excellent headlines that have photos, but no stories:
Were the infographics good?
“Customer's Attempt To Complain To Manager Thwarted By Employee” is both an infographic and an article! I’m not sure why the employee vaguely looks like a Jesus rendering.
It’s a complex, fun illustration for a lazy pizza-shop employee expending more effort in fooling an angry customer than in doing the actual work of fixing his order. Matt Wheaton goes so far as to have a co-worker impersonate his manager. It sort of has a happy ending: The customer gets some gift certificates, and Wheaton feels like a mastermind.
"[Marchese] thought he could outsmart me," said Wheaton, opening an industrial-sized can of sliced black olives. "Well, think again, dude. Think again."
“Top Regional-Interest Fiction” is silly, but I do like the references to The Onion’s Midwest roots: “Magnum, WI” is a play on Madison, where The Onion was housed until the beginning of 2001, while Da Yoopers are a comedy/music act from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
It’s hard to believe “The Cruise-Kidman Divorce” was 20 years ago. As you might expect, there are jokes about L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, Cruise’s lack of height and the film “Eyes Wide Shut.” These jokes are so much tamer than last week’s cruel Celine Dion barbs, and that’s not a bad thing.
I love how they have the same hair part in their photos.
What columnists ran?
Jean Teasdale returns with her first column of 2001, “Fashion Victim.” As you might recall, Jean’s been working at Fashion Bug, where she gets along with her boss but has been noticing that the boss plays favorites.
Now it’s escalated to nepotism, as “Ellen” is friends of boss Roz and has gotten a promotion despite being terrible at her job.
Wow. I can’t imagine that ever happening at a workplace.
Jean gets a hard lesson about how rules and competence go out the window if you simply choose to do favors for your friends, instead. Jean also gets no support, as usual, from her husband:
When I finished, he just looked at me and said, "So? I've been passed over for tons of promotions over the years, but I don't get all worked up about it. Like I always say, life's a bitch and then you die." Then he returned to his all-important living-room-floor slot-car race.
I had to look up what a cassingle is for “My Collection Of Cassingles Is Second To None,” and it’s simply a cassette with a single, rather than the whole album. I’m sure I had one or two of these in the mid-1990s.
Larry Harroway really loves this medium:
In the history of civilization, has there ever been a medium of musical expression to rival that pearl of elegant simplicity, the mass-market cassingle? I care for CDs and MP3s no more than I do 8-tracks and 45s.
This is a weird column, but I’m here for the passion. The true spirit of Valentine’s Day is seen in his love of cassingles:
And, of course, some grouse that cassingles deteriorate rapidly after only a handful of listenings. They say they melt when you leave them on a dashboard in summer. They say they are easily chewed by an angry boom box. Fools! Do they not see that the poignant inevitability of such decay only serves to make each listen all the more bittersweet?
Most “Hey, it’s 2001!” reference
A lot of these references, from old TV shows to “cassingles,” are really 20th-century references. What feels most 2001 is any time President George W. Bush talks about bipartisanship, such as in “Congress Holds Weekend Trust-Building Retreat”:
"For years, Congress has been sharply divided along party lines, with Democrats and Republicans teaming up against one another to further partisan goals," President Bush said. "But this weekend, the congressmen came to realize that the only way to accomplish anything—whether it's reforming Social Security or getting three people over a 20-foot wall with just a yard of rope and an old milk jug—is through cooperation."
Was an animal quoted?
Maybe I should start skipping this section and only use when there is an animal quoted.
What was the best horoscope?
This is my favorite horoscope in a while. I’m going to award a tie to these two:
Aquarius | Jan. 20 to Feb. 18
The nation is stunned by Amelia Earhart's miraculous return, especially when she knees you in the groin and shouts, "Thanks for nothing."
Pisces | Feb. 19 to March 20
Remember, the impressive thing is not how well the bear dances. It's how incredibly sexily the bear dances.
What holds up best?
I’ve long said Jean Teasdale isn’t an Onion columnist I particularly connect with, but I thought “Fashion Victim” is really well-told and is something that many of us can relate to. It’s also a great example of the Teasdale character voice.
What holds up worst?
“'Army Of One' Campaign Attracting Troubled Loners To Military” made sense topically in terms of the military’s struggles to recruit 20 years ago. But this one-paragraph story doesn’t really build on the headline.
What would be done differently today?
The specific topics would be different, but I think today’s Onion would welcome a mix of political and celebrity stories that this issue has. Like I mentioned, “Irrepressible Bad Boy Slays Seven” might be told differently, but it’s not a regrettable story — it’s simply that The Onion has changed how it approaches real (or fictional) mass shootings.
What real-life people were mentioned?
Jerry Lewis. Tom Cruise. Nicole Kidman. L. Ron Hubbard. Da Yoopers. Charlize Theron. James King. Amanda Peet. Ol' Dirty Bastard. Nicky Hilton. David Geffen. Bill Clinton. Marc Rich. Leonard Peltier. George W. Bush. Dennis Hastert. Sam Brownback. Earl Hilliard. Russ Feingold. Dick Gephardt. Strom Thurmond. Orrin Hatch. Carl Levin. Bill Jenkins. Paul Kanjorski. Jesse Helms. Tom Daschle. Ted Kennedy. John McCain. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. John Carpenter. Jerry Seinfeld. Amelia Earhart. Craig T. Nelson. Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Howard Jones. Hall & Oates. Mr. Mister. Laura Branigan. T'Pau. Nu Shooz. Boys Don't Cry. Ready For The World. Steve Perry. Thompson Twins. Huey Lewis & The News. Thomas Dolby. Klymaxx. Shalamar. Atlantic Starr. The Deele. Michael McDonald. Peter Cetera. Colin Hay. Animotion. Dennis DeYoung.
Theron, King and Peet are all paramours of Jordan Jeffries in “Irrepressible Bad Boy Slays Seven.”
Peltier, mentioned in “Clinton And The Fugitive Financier,” has been in prison since the 1970s, albeit with controversy, over his role in the deaths of 2 FBI agents.
Bush, then-congressmen Hastert, Brownback, Hilliard, Gephardt, Jenkins and Kanjorski, and then-senators Feingold, Thurmond, Hatch, Levin, Helms, Daschle, Kennedy and McCain are all mentioned in “Congress Holds Weekend Trust-Building Retreat.”
Carpenter was the first “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” contestant to win the $1 million prize. He and Seinfeld are mentioned in “Report: Mankind's Knowledge Of TV Trivia Doubling Every Three Years.”
Nelson, of the TV show “Coach,” is mentioned in the horoscopes.
Many, many, many musical artists are mentioned in “My Collection Of Cassingles Is Second To None.”
What was happening in the real world?
Here’s the real-life news from Feb. 5-11, 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:
Bush orders review of nuclear arsenal, seeks better military benefits, pushes tax cuts. OxyContin becomes a problem for communities, local authorities. U.S. nuclear vessel strikes, sinks Japanese fishing vessel. Ariel Sharon wins Israeli election. Russia says it will destroy chemical weapons. NYT profiles “stagnant Japan.” Man fired from Illinois factory kills four, self. Homelessness on the rise in NYC, elsewhere. EEOC challenges employer’s use of genetic testing, while scientists say human genome has fewer genes than expected. Terror trial continues as ex-Bin Laden aide testifies. Columbine prompts students to report threats. Charles Lindbergh’s wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, dies. Ronald Reagan turns 90. “On Wall St., More Investors Push Social Goals.” Meanwhile, inmate made $900,000 from stocks in 1999.