20 years ago was The Onion's 100th issue of the 2000s
2002 was a very long time ago, with stories about the early housing bubble, McDonald's, Silicon Valley and Ben Affleck's assistant. Also, sex parties are difficult to plan.
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 April 17, 2002.
Welcome to new subscribers! One of the fun parts of writing this newsletter is being reminded of old things I’d forgotten about — or, in the case of the 2002 movie “Changing Lanes,” things I’d never heard of. We’ll get into that in a bit.
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What issue is this?
This was Vol. 38, Issue 14, the 100th Onion issue of the 2000s and the 99th issue of new content. The Onion didn’t do anything to mark 100 issues, and I might be the only person to track it this way.
The front-page headline “Movie Touted As 'From The Studio That Brought You Remember The Titans’” is no longer online. I’m not sure whether this is a burn on the movie or a joke about how many early 2000s movie promos used this tagline.
The front page also had 2 headline/photo combos, but today’s Onion site is missing almost all its old photos. Both made me laugh, although I hear the voices of friends telling me pit bulls have an undeserved bad reputation!
What was the top story, and other impressions?
“U.S. Children Getting Majority Of Antibiotics From McDonald's Meat” is a curious story to read 20 years later. Yes, people still talk about McDonald’s nutritional value and the unfair health care system, but not in the same ways as they did in 2002.
After all, 2002 was 2 years before Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me” and 8 years before Obamacare. So when you see The Onion casually suggesting that millions of uninsured children get alternative medicine from McDonald’s and other fast-food chains1, just know the perspective is different.
While the story’s circumstances are somewhat dated, the storytelling is great. We see Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson for the first time since August 2001’s “Bush Vows To Wipe Out Prescription-Drug Addiction Among Seniors.” Thompson offers a good Bush-era privatization argument for why McDonald’s can help you stay healthy:
"When your daughter gets strep throat, head straight over to McDonald's and prescribe her a delicious Quarter Pounder or nine-piece Chicken McNuggets," Thompson said. "She'll not only receive the amoxycillin she needs to get better, but also a whole array of growth hormones proven to speed a child's physical development."
Burger King is doing its part, too, with a brochure featuring a cartoon cow that reminds parents of how burgers can help with bacterial infections:
"If your child has a sinus infection, he or she can drop by before and after school for a Double Cheeseburger 50cc Meal or a delicious Chicken Tetracycline," Burger King spokeswoman Linda Jacobs said. "As we're fond of saying here at Burger King, 'This won't hurt a bite!'"
The Onion is being absurd here, but brands are constantly making questionable claims about their products’ health benefits. The strength of this story is that this situation doesn’t sound completely implausible.
“Orgy A Logistical Nightmare” is an incredible display of The Onion taking something ordinary but complicated — party planning — and stretching the concept of “party” to the breaking point.
This story’s humor is partly shock value, yes. But there’s also this clever theme of focusing on the logistics of party planning. Our host, Jerry Belsner, is trying to balance work demands, confirm RSVPs, scout additional guests, buy supplies and balance everyone’s needs and preferences. It’s a lot of work!
He’s also hosting this at his house, which seems dicey — and he’s exploring catering options?
By the way, that to-do list is an incredible creation. Great job by The Onion staff.
Anyways, Belsner is struggling to get everything ready while ensuring a guest list that has the proper gender ratio. He’s also, for some reason, made it a themed party, choosing sombreros instead of togas:
"That was stupid of me," he said. "Mexican food isn't really good for an orgy: No one wants to lick salsa off someone's privates. But I'd already spent two nights Photoshopping sombreros onto the nude pictures on the invitation, so I can't back out now."
The Onion talks to an expert swinger, who advises Belsner to not get too worried about the details and instead focus on everyone having a good time. That, ironically, is decent advice.
“Home-Buying Up Among Lame-O's” is also a story that reflects a different time, as it published a few years before the housing crisis and Great Recession.
The 2001-02 housing boom is blamed on the Federal Reserve’s lowered interest rates — although Alan Greenspan is embarrassed by this.2 There’s also a quote by a Kiplinger’s writer that is a beautifully concise takedown of uncool people:
"Lame-o's across the country are making appointments at financial institutions to ask men in ugly neckties and women with hairstyles 10 years out of style to adjust their mortgages to a slightly more favorable rate," Akkaf said. "When that's done, they return to their homes, where they stare at their $12.99 Monet prints from Target and listen to Andrea Bocelli on their mini-stereos. What kind of life is that?"
This story is centered on the Washington, D.C., metro area, which is a hotbed of well-to-do but boring professionals. I guess I’m one of them, minus the house?
Apologies to all my friends buying houses lately, but Freddie Mac chief economist Frank Nothaft had this to say:
Sure, renting costs more over time than owning, but do you want to spend your weekends cleaning out leaf gutters and fixing the garage-door opener, or do you want to be happy?
Federal government news
The Onion had 2 short political items, one being “Bush To Sacrifice Own Life For Good Of Nation.” It’s fine, but mostly relies on your view of Bush at the time.
The Onion also asked people on the street what they felt about “Drilling For Oil In Alaska” — a hot-button issue of Bush’s first term (and beyond). As usual, The Onion correctly describes how Americans abandon their principles at the slightest personal inconvenience:
"America needs to reduce its overall oil consumption, but I can't bring myself to ride the bus with a bunch of puds. So Arctic drilling it is."
Tim Wills • Machinist
Area People doing Area Things
“Marine Never Knew What Freedom Was Until He Left The Marines” is a classic Onion template: Write a regular news story, then change 1 or 2 important details.
Troy Leffler has escaped to America from oppression and totalitarianism, and he’s finally enjoying the freedoms that Americans take for granted. The twist, of course, is that Troy Leffler didn’t escape anything; he was discharged from the Marines.
"It's hard for free Americans to understand this, but from day one of basic training, Sarge tells you how and what to think," he said. "Not only are you expected to surrender your idea of the individual and begin thinking as a member of a group, but they actually regulate your speech. You have to call a wall a bulkhead, a floor a deck, a gun a weapon. You're reprogrammed to think like one of them."
This story is careful to note that Leffler served from 1998-2001 and presumably was already a civilian on 9/11.
Other Area People stories include:
“Street Performer Dreams Of Performing On Streets Of Paris”: Credit to The Onion for naming a real street in Albuquerque, N.M.
“Teen Worried About Friend Who Tried Pot”: This is one of the “change 1 detail” stories that doesn’t work as well. You can diagram the joke, but it’s not that funny.
“Area Man Has No Idea Where To Get Envelope”: I recently moved and had to pay the 1st utilities bill with a check. Not only did I have to locate envelopes, I also had to use a checkbook for the 1st time in probably 5 years.
“That Guy From That One Show Not Looking So Hot”: A timeless joke, especially because the actor isn’t named. I also like the phrase “sources close to the TV set reported Tuesday.”
“Doctor, Patient Have Wildly Different Definitions Of Word 'Hope’”: Not haha funny, but well-written. The disease mentioned is fictional.
Were the infographics good?
The Onion again bases an infographic on a weekly magazine’s real-life cover, although “Silicon Valley Reboots” is from Newsweek instead of Time. This is a decent collection of jokes about the dot-com bubble and human nature.
If only “mindshare” actually disappeared from the corporate vocabulary!
Two trivial notes:
“dot-comback” was in a real headline in 2003, but from Bloomberg!
If True Value had a Hardware Hints section, it wasn’t on the website in May 2002, the earliest date I could retrieve.
“What Are We Reduced To Eating Dinner Out Of?” is a decent set of quick jokes, and also a reminder that Ben Stiller and Janeane Garofalo made a 1999 movie called “Mystery Men.”
What columnists ran?
Anchower has $63 in emergency funds, which wasn’t enough even in 2002, so he decides to invest this money — in the real-life Ho-Chunk Casino in Wisconsin.
(Upstate New York also has tribe-operated casinos, and I once visited one of them about 15 years ago with co-workers. I won about $60 on blackjack, and I haven’t been to a casino since.)
Anchower does well on the slots but loses money on blackjack and roulette. And he almost learns a valuable lesson about gambling:
I learned a valuable lesson that day: Blackjack and roulette are for suckers. As we were leaving, I saw on the wall that Ho-Chunk has slot tournaments on Wednesday nights. I should definitely go back for one of those, since that's the one thing I was pretty good at.
Our other column this week is “It Hurts My Feelings When You Leave Before The Credits Are Done,” ostensibly written by Ben Affleck’s personal assistant from the 2002 film “Changing Lanes,” which came out in April 2002.
I am devastated to inform you that the “Changing Lanes” IMDB page does not contain an assistant for Affleck. In fact, all of the mentioned crew members are fictional, despite the columnist’s insistence that you “go to the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) to see what else the people in the Changing Lanes crew have worked on.”
I’m not sure “Changing Lanes” really matters for this story, as you could write it about any movie. Our columnist, Mr. Affleck’s assistant, talks about several crew members’ contributions and discusses the unintentionally hilarious movie term “best boy.”
What was the best horoscope?
My favorite horoscope this week is Virgo, if only because D.C. people love talking about pandas. Also, it’s technically the National Zoo, but whatever:
Virgo | Aug. 23 to Sept. 22
When they announce the pregnancy of the Washington Zoo's panda next week, just sit back and smile knowingly.
What holds up best?
I struggled with this. All the long articles are outdated in certain ways, even if they remain well-written satire. “Area Man Has No Idea Where To Get Envelope” feels like the most realistic, but that doesn’t make it timeless.
Maybe it’s “It Hurts My Feelings When You Leave Before The Credits Are Done”? There’s a modern internet quality of someone who has a legitimate complaint (crew members not getting their due) but makes a self-centered argument for it. Plus, Ben Affleck’s back in the news!
What holds up worst?
The Aries horoscope sounds like a horrible experience. I get the tone The Onion was going for, but it doesn’t read as light-hearted today.
Aries | March 21 to April 19
Give yourself a well-deserved treat by mixing incompatible drugs and having an ill-advised sexual encounter. You owe it to yourself for the week you're about to have.
What would be done differently today?
This issue has very little that could run in 2022 without changes, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad issue, unfunny or poorly written.
What holds up best, perhaps, are the themes of the 4 main stories:
an atypical Area Man problem
a satire of an American institution
2 big-picture “life in America” stories
In 2022, The Onion still uses those 4 themes for its humor, even if the specifics are different.
Also, Jim Anchower would probably be betting on sports through FanDuel instead of going to the casino.
We’ve got a few more weeks before The Onion took a random week off in 2002, so look for another issue next Sunday!