Read The Onion's guide to procrastination from 20 years ago today
We've also got science fixing the disasters it causes, nostalgia for beer commercials, and Jenna Jameson lobbying for things I can't write in an email. There's also a talking dog.
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 May 9, 2001.
Publishing note: No email next week, as The Onion skipped a week in 2001. This email will return May 23.
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What issue is this?
I can’t link to the Internet Archive’s scrape of the 2001 website because it redirects to a spam page — yes, there was a redirect hack of either The Onion in May 2001 or the Internet Archive’s scraping tool.
The front-page headline “Best Friends Make Eye Contact While Singing Along To 'Summer Lovin’” is no longer online.
The 2001 issue apparently featured something called “A Glimpse Into Yesteryear With Old Victorian Greeting Cards!” but I can’t find evidence of this online.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
The top story for May 9, 2001, was “Nation's Porn Stars Demand To Be Fucked Harder,” and I’m sure I’ve already set off a bunch of spam alarms!
Obviously, it’s NSFW. It’s even more explicit than I expected.
What’s the point of this story? Well, it’s yet another Onion tale of a fictional national lobbying group gathering in Washington, D.C., much like “National Machete Association Speaks Out Against Machete-Control Legislation” and “Raccoon Leaders Call For Loosening Of Garbage-Can Lids.”
The adult film stars and the movies mentioned are real (yup, I Googled them), and so is Sen. Trent Lott, who is quoted.
Moving on, this issue of The Onion has two great stories that are not so dirty — one that still feels relevant to the workplace in 2021 and the other that feels like a lightning rod for science conspiracies.
The first one is “Work Avoided Through Extensive List-Making,” which I shared with a person close to this newsletter who loves making lists. I suspect my source was not thrilled to be compared to this Onion story.
This is beautifully written, and it’s a great guide to being productive without actually getting all that much done.
I’m not the most organized person. At least, not in the sense of looking organized. So it’s exhausting for me to read about the lists, sublists and notations that Julie Smalley comes up with:
"I have my own little notation system to help me make sense of everything," Smalley continued. "I add an exclamation point next to especially important items, a question mark next to things I'm only considering doing, and a star next to things I should do as soon as possible. Next to some of the starred items, I also write ASAP. Or, if it's a phone call I need to make, I sometimes draw a little phone. But, if there are too many phone calls, I make a separate 'Phone calls to make' list."
Check out the image above — even more tasks and subtasks that aren’t mentioned in the article.
“New Technological Breakthrough To Fix Problems Of Previous Breakthrough” is another early 2000s Luddite story from The Onion, which had a natural skepticism about new technologies. Sometimes this was warranted, and sometimes we get some “This Internet is a fad” stories.
This one, however, has bigger stakes. The story feels like almost a compliment, highlighting the American tradition of barreling forward with progress and cleaning up messes afterward. It also feels like a story designed to fuel conspiracies — “See! They invented this technology so we’d need them for the cure!”
The article headline does hint at something we all acknowledge — that for every problem we solve, we seem to create a new one. This dilemma dates back to Socrates.
The scientists in this article are unafraid to confront this paradox. Even nuclear weapons have silver linings, says Dr. Nathan Oberst, who designed a deadly fungus and its cure:
"Just think about the hydrogen bomb," Oberst said. "Not only was it a tremendous breakthrough in physics, it broadened our knowledge of everything from radiation containment to bomb-shelter construction to hair loss. Science has been coming up with breakthrough after breakthrough to fix the problems that the H-bomb has created. Without the H-bomb, we would know significantly less about the potential problems associated with the H-bomb."
Talking dog alert!
I used to have a feature for when The Onion had a talking animal. But it almost never happened — like, 2 or 3 times in all of 2020. So I dropped it. But finally, my long wait is over. “New Dog Sick Of Being Compared To Old One” is a short article, but we get to hear from disgruntled Patches the dog.
"I go for a walk, I hear about the way Sneakers went for walks. I chew on the rug, I hear about the way Sneakers chewed on rugs. They need to realize that I can't be Sneakers."
Let Patches be Patches!
Area People doing Area Things
“Site Of Fatal Auto Accident Tritely Commemorated” is pretty callous, but it’s also the exact sort of commentary for which The Onion was created.
Dark humor is often purposefully focused on the “wrong” thing, and this one hits the jackpot: The 5 deaths are not nearly as important as criticizing the fake flowers, crudely made signs, Icehouse Beer labels and other “crappy mementos.” As sheriff’s deputy Scott Tierney says:
"I'm a family man like [James Drabeck], and it's sobering to think that everything can disappear like that in the wink of an eye," Tierney said. "He must have been quite a guy to warrant that purple horse piñata."
Certainly, if you have some personal ties to a deadly car crash (as friends of mine did when this article published in 2001), this might not work for you. That’s fine.
The important thing here, I think, is that this is not talking about a real deadly car crash. That would redirect the joke onto the victims.
Other highlights (or lowlights?) from this issue:
“Guy On Racetrack P.A. Sounds A Little Depressed Today” is correctly set in racetrack haven Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and I like the focus on a depressed announcer rather than the depressed gambler trope.
“Health-Food-Store Worker Dies Of Vitamin Lung” is very dumb, but I laughed at the headline anyways.
“Man Nods Knowingly At Mechanic” is basically me with a mechanic, except I haven’t even driven a car for more than 5 years. I like this passage:
Snell said his risky bluff almost backfired when Kreuter asked him how he gaps his plugs, to which Snell responded, "About the usual amount."
“Child Lies For Parents' Own Good” is another good twist on a trope, although it’s slightly alarming that this 9-year-old is setting off fireworks at a quarry.
Were the infographics good?
“Rejected Euphemisms For The Disabled” is a tricky one. Probably not something The Onion would publish now for no reason, but I could imagine something based off real news about language or legislation affecting people with disabilities.
This mix of jokes? Not terrible, I guess? You can sense that The Onion wanted a balance of euphemisms from unkind people and overly enthusiastic advocates, as well as a couple silly ones like “Cincinnati Bengals,” which is timeless.
TiVo is still around, and yet dedicating an entire feature to “TiVo Fever” seems so old-fashioned.
I appreciate the effort not to make these jokes all sound the same. But I didn’t laugh much, either. The only one that really got me was that last item about “Yes, Dear.”1 Good God.
I also want to briefly mention “Televised Sporting Event Completely Obscured By On-Screen Graphics,” which is not an infographic but a blurry front-page photo of infographics.
Let me be an old man for a moment — I remember when sports didn’t have any graphics on the screen! This joke made a lot more sense in 2001, which was only a handful of years after Fox, mostly, started jazzing up sports broadcasts.
What columnists ran?
“Beer Commercials Aren't What They Used To Be” is one of those.
Remember that this was during the “Whassup?” era of Budweiser commercials, as well as the Bud commercials with frogs. Our columnist, however, thinks that the real heyday of beer commercials was during the 1980s. He walks us through a Rodney Dangerfield ad for Miller Light set at a bowling alley — just one of many 1980s beer ads with celebrities.2
This column has many layers. Sure, our columnist dislikes modern beer marketing — what he calls the “Wazzup” slogan and the reliance on animals instead of people. But what’s his biggest problem? Reptiles and amphibians can’t talk:
It is common knowledge that lizards and frogs can't talk, so this freakish defiance of nature's laws provokes a confused reaction. Where did these lizards learn the English language? Where did they pick up the regional dialect? And since when do amphibians of any sort consume beer?
To be fair, he’s also upset that beer commercials aren’t sufficiently aspirational:
Sadly, an entire generation of boys is now growing up unaware that there exist harsh deserts that, at the twist of a bottle cap, turn into snow-covered party paradises, complete with bikini-clad sex kittens and caravans of 18-wheelers fully stocked with ice-cold Bud.
Our columnist’s suggestions, sadly, are lackluster — the U.S. women’s soccer team mobbing frat boys and “Pete Sampras or Norm Macdonald spouting a few zingers.”
We also have the 8th “Ask A …” advice column of the 2000s, this time with “Ask The Minutes From A Heated Kiwanis Club Meeting.”
I don’t know anything about the Kiwanis Club, but we do get some feisty meeting minutes. Basically, there’s a push to remove Treasurer Bill Jarvis because of his many absences, “bad attitude” and other shortcomings. The whole thing eventually devolves into a fistfight.
Most “Hey, it’s 2001!” reference
An obvious candidate is the front-page photo labeled “After Careful Consideration, Bush Recommends Oil Drilling.”
Let’s also note the Cancer horoscope, which requires today’s reader to comprehend newpaper-based dating ads:
Cancer | June 21 to July 22
You will meet dozens of people as cold and unfeeling as yourself after taking out an ad in the impersonals section of your newspaper.
What was the best horoscope?
I don’t know why this one got me, but yeah.
Sagittarius | Nov. 22 to Dec. 21
Sometimes, you think that becoming a corporate lawyer stained your soul and destroyed your faith in humanity. However, there is the money.
What holds up best?
“Work Avoided Through Extensive List-Making” is only more relevant today, with our society’s massive investment in always-on productivity and life hacks — something which I probably contribute to slightly with my professional newsletter.
The appearance of looking busy doesn’t go away. It’s just more phone-based in 2021.
What holds up worst?
I think you’d probably have to say “Rejected Euphemisms For The Disabled.” This probably doesn’t publish in 2021, at least not as a random infographic.
What would be done differently today?
There continues to be a relative lack of politics. The biggest political item addressed is in the American Voices feature, “Kerrey's Secret Shame,” which reacts to former Sen. Bob Kerrey admitting his unit in Vietnam had killed civilians.3
That said, The Onion’s unflinching tone feels very 2021:
"There are many good reasons to kill: money, revenge, that satisfying 'thwump' sound… but not to advance one's political career."
Ike Brophy • File Clerk
What real-life people were mentioned?
George W. Bush. Bob Kerrey. John McCain. William Janklow. Cole Porter. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. Patrick Nagel. The Thompson Twins. Rodney Dangerfield. Bob Uecker, Bubba Smith, Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Joe Piscopo. Steve Mizerak. Pete Seeger. Eric Clapton. Pete Sampras. Norm Macdonald. Jenna Jameson. Christy Canyon. Tiffany Mynx. Trent Lott. Asia Carrera.
The artist Nagel, musicians Thompson Twins, Seeger and Clapton, pool player Mizerak, as well as Uecker, Smith, Jones and Piscopo, are all in “Beer Commercials Aren't What They Used To Be.”
Canyon, Mynx and Carrera are other adult film stars mentioned.
What was happening in the real world?
Here’s the real-life news from April 30-May 6, 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:
Websites largely end free services in exchange for viewing ads. Unemployment rate rises to 4.5%. Hollywood writers and studios agree to avoid strike. Pope John Paul II begins Middle East tour. White House and Congress near budget deal. FBI Director Louis Freeh to resign. Klansman convicted in 1963 Alabama bombing. Cincinnati police chief quits. NYT notes reality show to use product placement. NYT notes Central Asia’s worry about Islamic rebels. Lawsuits highlight schools still paddling children. Florida to revise election system after 2000 controversies. U.S. voted off UN human rights committee. NYT profiles nearly 100% white town.
Top movie (weekend of May 4-6): “The Mummy Returns”
Top TV show (April 30-May 6): “Survivor”
Billboard top single (May 5): “All For You,” Janet
Billboard top album (May 5): “Now 6” compilation
Sadly, this column does not mention the 1980s Bruce Willis commercials for Seagram’s Golden Wine Coolers, which might be some of Bruce’s best/worst work. This includes him “crooning” in a dog’s ear, as well as being inexplicably dressed like a mob hit man and breaking the fourth wall to ask for a wingman.
Kerrey earned the Medal of Honor for a different mission. He didn’t suffer for this revelation, serving as a university president for the entire 2000s and even running again for Senate in 2012.