"Hamster Thrown From Remote-Control Monster Truck" is 20 years old today
We also hear about Canadians, collectibles and love letters, while I Google "All Your Base Are Belong To Us" because I don't remember its meaning.
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 March 21, 2001.
This issue has one of my favorite Onion stories ever, plus some stories based off real events you’ve surely forgotten about, like the 2001 bankruptcy-reform bill.
And as spring arrives and vaccinations increase, hopefully this email is another small bit of fun for your day.
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What issue is this?
The front-page headline “Lazy Slasher Leaves Trail Of Victims From Couch To Fridge” is no longer online.
Two items are online, but not on today’s Issue 10 page:
What was the top story, and other impressions?
I don’t have the front page or the 2001 website, so I can’t be sure what the top story was, but it doesn’t matter. “Hamster Thrown From Remote-Control Monster Truck” is always the top story.
I write email subject lines for a living. And let me tell you — a strong noun-verb combo like “Hamster Thrown” gets right to the point and grabs your interest. The other words offer context and additional surprises, but it starts with the jarring, hilarious imagery of “Hamster Thrown.”
I love the use of the inset photo, showing that ridiculous hamster face. You can practically imagine him in the pickup of that toy truck, rushing through the house before tragedy struck.
The writing structure is also fantastic. It’s partly a sports story reporting on a game, with all the breathless action described. It’s also partly a local crime story, as the young boys who did this to Harry the Hamster have committed other crimes and “were never brought to trial.” And like most stories about a crime victim, we hear from a neighbor:
"This is a tremendous shock," said Bourke next-door neighbor Paula Gates upon learning of the mishap. "Harry is well-liked by all the neighborhood children, and for his life to be jeopardized in this manner is terribly upsetting."
Two comments upon reflection:
These boys are ill-equipped to have a hamster, whether because they’re immature, poorly parented or little sociopaths. This is Harry’s 4th near-death experience in a year!
The Onion does a good job of remarking on this while quickly redirecting you to the real issue: That a hamster tumbling through the air is hilarious.
[The truck] swerved out of control and crashed into a Lincoln Log structure, sending the hamster flying through the monster truck's driver-side window and knocking over three nearby Fisher-Price Little People.
The scene quickly devolved into pandemonium, with the launched hamster tumbling humorously in mid-air several times before landing at the foot of the sofa and fleeing in shock.
Collectible toys: The crypto of 2001?
I’m not trying to start a fight, I swear!
I just think there’s something interesting about “Everything In Entire World Now Collectible” reflecting the mad speculation around Beanie Babies, trading cards and other collectibles from the 1990s and early 2000s, whereas today people are speculating with digital assets instead of physical ones (and also trading cards). If nothing else, this is a great example of the world moving online.
Is this article funny? I think so. There’s plenty of humor about people thinking all their junk is valuable. The lust for collectibles is so great, according to experts consulted by The Onion, supply-and-demand concepts no longer apply.
"Rarity is nothing. Do you have any idea how many Beanie Babies are out there?" asked Barbara Mason, editor of Beanie Baby Illustrated. "Let's put it this way: There are approximately twice as many Scoop The Pelican Beanie Babies on the planet Earth than there are actual pelicans. And they're worth more, too."
This article mostly pokes fun at the bubble around collectibles and people who like things just because they’re perceived as important and valuable. Thankfully, The Onion mostly avoids an “old fogey” mentality about the early Internet. Instead, it gets really absurd, as with this photo and caption:
(This is the 2nd straight week of Powerpuff Girls being mentioned, also.)
The Onion comments on real life
Wikipedia tells me the “All Your Base Are Belong To Us” phenomenon dates back to a 1980s Japanese video game, but its internet life took shape in late 2000 as part of a techno track, followed in early 2001 by Flash animations and Photoshopping.
Wired magazine covered the meme in February 2001, weirdly lamenting that marketers couldn’t monetize the Web efficiently because of people having fun. This is a real passage:
Parody? No. It's the Dada "reality" of a medium that refuses to be tamed into predictability. Armies of marketers toiling for years can't figure out how to grab Web-users' attention, and then a flash file with screen-shots from an outdated arcade game accompanied by clumsy subtitles conquers the world.
Those poor marketers.
Anyways, “Congress Adds 'All Your Base Are Belong To Us' Amendment To Bankruptcy Bill” plays off this riddle while discussing a real-life bankruptcy bill, and you either got the joke or didn’t, I suppose.
The Senate did pass a bankruptcy-reform bill in 2001, but it wasn’t until 2005 that a version became law, in part with Joe Biden’s help.
Another real-life story had been the U.S. military’s run of deadly accidents, including a Navy crew being distracted by civilians on a tour and the vessel accidentally ramming a fishing boat. The Onion offered some commentary in “Preventing Military Mishaps.”
The Onion for a long time seemed to regard the military as imbeciles who can barely read, and that continues with jokes like “Rethinking decision to teach high-school dropouts to work with computers.”
The jokes are fairly predictable, but I always like a Beetle Bailey mention, and we get the topical “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” reference. The best joke that’s barely parody is probably “Adding another $1 trillion to military budget.”
In another real-life story, people used to think reality TV was actually real. The Onion asked people “How Real Is Reality TV?” and the results are fun, if hopelessly naive. There’s a woman who insists you write “lies” as “lie$” so people know she’s serious, and a reporter answering as if she’s doing an on-air introduction, but this is my favorite:
"This is the classic Heisenbergian situation in which the behavior of the observed is altered by the act of observation. Nonetheless, Kimmi is my favorite."
Robert Lau • Physicist
Finally, we have “15,000 Years Of Human Artistic Endeavor Culminate In See Spot Run,” which is about a David Arquette movie from March 2001 that I’ve never heard of.
Area People doing Area Things
I’m not sure whether “Hilarious Love Letter Found In Street” ages well in terms of the vocabulary, but one thing is true: Love letters are hilarious if people who aren’t the intended recipient read them.
"When Trent read the line, 'Your eyes are like a calm lake / on which my love canoe can silently glide,' I just fuckin' lost it," Sweeney said. "A couple hours later, we were sitting in chemistry lecture, and he just looked at me and said, 'love canoe.' Fortunately, we were way up near the back, because I couldn't stop laughing for about 10 minutes. That won't be the last time the love canoe gets referenced."
Hard to top that article, but here are some other highlights:
“Control Freak Wishes She Had More Free Time” really sells itself. The only thing that slightly dates it is making Suzanne Kreutz an advertising executive at Leo Burnett. That job still exists, but there are more modern symbols of burnout.
“Woman's Day Writer Recounts Own Harrowing Battle With Caffeine Addiction” has a great writing style — the first-person confessional you see in magazines all the time. There’s also a fake book called “Caffeine Freed” by Dr. Charlotte Kelsey. And people really do worry about coffee consumption nowadays! The only negative is that I’m confused why coffee addiction was framed as a women-only issue.
“Reverend Blessed With Nine-Inch Penis” is just a photo, but not that kind of photo.
A nice companion piece to the item about Congress’ bankruptcy bill is “Company You've Never Heard Of Wants To Reward You For Your Good Credit,” which reminds the reader “you remain $8,000 in debt on your current Visa card.”
The only flaw with “Man From Canada Acts Like He's Not Cold” is that the article is very short. I could have used 5 or 6 more examples of his bravado.
Were the infographics good?
Besides the military infographic, we also have “Groups Banned From Marching In The St. Patrick's Day Parade.” which is not the greatest read in 2021.
The Onion really wants you to know that gay groups were being banned from parades in real life. I can imagine The Onion in 2001 felt this was transgressive, calling out homophobia without make it explicit.
However, like similar Onion items in 2000 and 2001, it reads today like a lot of cheap gay jokes (and Irish jokes, too, in this case).
What columnists ran?
As always, he’s starting or quitting a job and has various small-town life problems occupying his thoughts. He’s found a dead mouse in his kitchen, realized existentially we’re all mice, and complains about gas prices, bad drivers, sloppy friends and modern rock bands like Third Eye Blind and “Eve’s Vertical Matchbox.”
All of this comes despite specifically saying he’s got to stop complaining so much. Habits are hard to break!
We’ve also got the group-house column “Education Is The Key To Cleaning Up This Apartment,” which feels more fitting 20 years later because of so many people moving back home and more adults having roommates.
This story is sort of a political stump speech that’s critical of “tough on crime” policy, but as if a politician gave this speech to his roommates instead of a crowd.
Here’s a sample paragraph:
Without education, we may wipe away that thick layer of grime from the kitchen countertop and stove, but we will never truly wipe away the grime in our hearts and souls that caused such a mess in the first place.
Of course, he wants a lot of funding for his plan. This column is understated but well-written. It didn’t grab me emotionally, but it’s solid work.
Most “Hey, it’s 2001!” reference
Let’s honor this paragraph from the collectibles story:
Do you have a Taco Bell "Defeat The Dark Side… And Win!" cardboard cup-top playing piece from the restaurant's 1999 tie-in sweepstakes for Star Wars: Episode I lying around somewhere? Chances are you do, because more than 80 million of them were made. But don't throw it out: According to the March issue of Game-Piece Buyer's Guide, it's worth $295.
What was the best horoscope?
I wasn’t familiar with this real-life Target commercial from 1999, but someone on staff at The Onion was still bitter about it.
Scorpio | Oct. 23 to Nov. 21
You will never completely overcome your murderous rage at the people who turned an anti-corporate Devo song into an ad jingle for Target.
What holds up best?
I love “Hamster Thrown From Remote-Control Monster Truck” and have been looking forward to sharing it for months.
I also thought “Hilarious Love Letter Found In Street” had great details, and the enthusiastic mockery from the college students who find the letter helps us, the readers, go along with it.
What holds up worst?
Sagittarius | Nov. 22 to Dec. 21
Look on the bright side: After the next four years, they probably won't elect another Republican in your lifetime.
What would be done differently today?
Despite some real-life political stories, there wasn’t much about President George W. Bush or any follow-up on Vice President Dick Cheney’s surgery.
That said, The Onion’s front page on March 20, 2021, had nothing on Joe Biden or Donald Trump, at least not on the first screen or scrolling slightly further down. It’s nice to see some old-style “Area Man” stories on today’s Onion instead of endless political jokes.
What real-life people were mentioned?
Sophocles. Johann Sebastian Bach. Martha Graham. David Arquette. Leslie Bibb. Rep. George Gekas. Kimmi Kappenberg. Gail Pennington. Third Eye Blind. Randy Rhoads. Jimmy Page. Mickey Mantle. Todd McFarlane. Devo. Robert De Niro.
Sophocles, Bach and Graham (and Bibb) are mentioned in the “See Spot Run” article, which is certainly the only time they are associated with David Arquette.
Gekas is in the “All Your Base Are Belong To Us” article. The Pennsylvania Republican lost his re-election bid in 2002.
Kappenberg is the “Kimmi” mentioned in “How Real Is Reality TV?” and was on the 2nd “Survivor.” Pennington really was “TV critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch” as The Onion describes her.
Page and the late Rhoads are mentioned in Jim Anchower’s column, Mantle and McFarlane are in the collectibles story, and De Niro is in the photo-only headline “Robert De Niro To Turn 58 For Movie Role.”
What was happening in the real world?
Here’s the real-life news from March 12-18, 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:
U.S. bans European meat. Navy accident kills 5 in Kuwait. Senate passes bankruptcy bill. 7% of Americans select multiple races on Census form. NASDAQ falls 61.9% in just over 1 year. Internet stock buying booms, busts. President Bush backs off carbon dioxide regulations. Sean “Puffy” Combs is acquitted. Website ads start taking over screens. Drugmakers back off patents for AIDS drugs in Africa. OPEC to reduce oil production. 108 dead in China after 4 coordinated explosions. NATO struggling to manage the Balkans. NYT wonders what will happen in Syria under Assad. Larry Summers named Harvard president. New York City tops 8 million people. Bush sent farewell personal email before taking office.