Sometimes, The Onion misses. 20 years ago today was one of those times

Thank God for a manatee visiting Congress, a Realtor's "last big score" and a man impressed with how he's been insulted, because this was a rough issue.

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 Aug. 15, 2001.

When I scanned this issue, my first thought was, “Oh no, this looks terrible.” And it wasn’t great! But there are a few highlights worth checking out.

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What issue is this?

This was Vol. 37, Issue 28, the 71st Onion issue of the 2000s and the 70th issue of new content. Here’s what the website looked like in 2001, 2011 and today.

The strange bedtime story about Sen. Frank Murkowski, father of current Sen. Lisa Murkowski, is no longer online, but you can find it in the Internet Archive.

Also not online anymore are the front-page headlines “Donut Made With Real Kreme” and “Mississippi DNR To Ban Cockfishing.”

Finally, the feature “Keep-Cool Tips” from the 2001 print issue was a repeat from 1998 (and also ran in August 2000!).

What was the top story, and other impressions?

I increasingly find myself reaching back 15, 20, 25 years for references to pop culture. I’ve lost the zeitgeist, if I ever had it. And that’s OK. Even professional comedians will often default to referencing things from their childhood and early success rather than keep up with who Olivia Rodrigo is, for instance.

The trick, I guess, is self-awareness — acknowledge that you might be dating yourself. However, I don’t think The Onion did this with its top story from 20 years ago, Inexorable March Of Time Brings TV's Jerry Mathers One Step Closer To Death.”

Maybe I’m the one who’s out of touch, but while most Americans in 2001 probably were aware of “Leave It To Beaver,” did most of us know the actor’s name who played Beaver? Especially if you were younger than 45?

The story itself is OK, presented kind of as “Where are they now?” TV segment or informercial. It’s heavy on nostalgia, plus updates on Mathers’ health and later career.

Maybe this article should have been a TV sketch? Having a narrator speak over Ken Burns-style photo-panning could have been funnier. Regardless, it didn’t resonate with me, and I suspect most of you have not been binging “Leave It To Beaver,” either.

(Congrats to Jerry Mathers for still being alive 20 years later, by the way.)

Politicians in The Onion

Longtime readers know I love when The Onion has talking animals. In Endangered Manatee Struggles To Make Self Understood To Congress,” however, this manatee is not fully anthropomorphized and thus cannot communicate properly. It’s a tragic tale.

The manatee is protesting a House bill that would build an airport runway near its habitat. House Speaker and future felon Dennis Hastert tries to understand the manatee’s objections, but to no avail.

"When we were debating H.R. 512, someone, I think it was Karen, argued that this base would be harmful to aquatic life in the area," said Hastert, referring to an environmental report penned by Rep. Karen Thurman (D-FL) citing collisions with watercraft as a leading cause of manatee deaths. "I asked the manatee if this was what the ruckus was about, but, unfortunately, I was unable to ascertain an answer."

The manatee remained in the House chambers at the end of the article, with then-Congressman and future Sen. Ed Markey among its biggest supporters. The Onion does offer some fun facts about previous animal protests in Washington, D.C.:

In March 1999, nearly 100 St. Croix ground lizards appeared on the Senate floor during debates over regulation of timber operations in the Southeast. In February of this year, Chief Justice William Rehnquist suffered contusions when a small herd of bighorn sheep burst into the Supreme Court chambers during opening arguments of EPA v. Western Montana Mining Company.

The other big congressional story is the bizarre “Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-AK) in Sleepy Land,the entirety of which you can view above.

Now, Murkowski was a reasonably known senator, I guess, but he hadn’t done the things that really made him famous:

  1. Become governor in 2002 and appoint his daughter to replace him.

  2. Get primaried by Sarah Palin.

The 3rd story to feature politicians, real or fictional, is “Candidate Turns To Focus Group For Position On Rape,” which possibly emerges from Bill Clinton’s obsession with polling? Either way, it’s depressing to think that there’s almost no poll question you could ask that would garner “99.9 percent” agreement.

Area People doing Area Things

Finally, we have a truly promising Onion premise in Retired Realtor Drawn Back In For One Last Big Score.” It’s beautifully written like any movie or short story about a guy who’s left “The Life” but is dragged back in for one last job.

Everything in this quote is just normal things you’d do to sell a home, but it’s told in such a dramatic manner:

"It ain't gonna be easy," Parker said. "I must've cased the joint with Kelp a million times. I had two specialists drive down from Dayton with a truck full of fancy equipment to sweep the place for bugs. I got the best roofer in the business, Big Beef Manzo, checking the shingles. And, if things get down and dirty, I just call in Joe The Cleaner to have a little talk with the client. He'll clean the place up nice."

This Aug. 15, 2001, issue is very shaky, but this is a classic Onion story — and I’m curious how it lands for real estate agents and brokers.

Other Area People stories include:

  • Man Alienates Friends With Self-Constructive Behaviorfeels like a lot of the conversations we have to have as we become full-on grownups with careers, families or other responsibilities. The fun twist here is that his friends and family are alarmed by this change, even thinking of an intervention to “rehabilitate him with a keg of beer, a carton of cigarettes, and a crate of illegal fireworks.”
    Also, note the casual drunken-driving reference in this quote:

    "Jay used to be one of the greatest guys to hang with," longtime friend Sean McRoddy said. "He'd always be the first one out drinking at The Red Shed and the last one driving around looking for weed at 3 a.m. Now, all he wants to do is study for his LSATs so he can become an environmental lawyer. I don't mind that he wants to do something with his life, but ever since he's gotten his act together, it's just not the same."

  • “Director Going With Unknown For Third Marriage” is what you’d expect, but I very much want to know what the movies “Powerplay” and “Dead by Dawn” were like. Also, real actress Daryl Hannah was this fictional director’s 2nd wife.

  • ESL Textbook Concentrates On Food-Preparation Vocabularyis a subtle jab at stereotypes about Spanish-speaking immigrants.

  • Peeping Tom Tired Of Watching People Watch Televisionis notable mostly for its reference to “Big Brother 2.”

Finally, I should mention this silly front-page headline Yacht Name Conveys Owner's Easygoing Lifestyle,” which comes with this low-resolution photo.

Were the infographics good?

The media loves to talk about itself, and that extends to the satirical media, I suppose. CNN announced 20 years ago this month that it was revamping its Headline News channel.

These jokes are solid enough. I do like the idea of “NJs” for “news jockeys,” as stupid as that sounds. And I applaud whatever Onion who was obsessed with Alan Greenspan getting in one more reference. It’s been months since we last saw him in Fifth-Grader Writes 'Mrs. Alan Greenspan' All Over Her Notebook.”

Also, as gross as the popsicle joke is, even in 2001 there was already at least one nude news show (the link’s safe!).

I love the premise of What Does Someone Have To Do To Get A Drink Around Here?although I don’t know how clever these jokes are. “Wait until communion” did make me laugh as a one-time altar boy.

What columnists ran?

My favorite Midwestern burnout sad sack Jim Anchower is back! Up In Smokeis almost certainly a reference to the 1978 Cheech & Chong movie.

As always, we hear about Anchower’s latest job (overnight shift at the convenience store), his weed habits (5 weeks sober!), his latest hobby (growing marijuana) and the ineptitude of his best friends.

This quote, with or without context, just killed me:

That's the problem with being King Shit. The guys who follow you around can't think on their own, let alone score weed.

Anyways, Anchower successfully grows some marijuana plants, but then he burns them in the oven and is left with an apartment that smells like weed but without the high. Poor Jim, always struggling onward.

Our other columnist this week is also a pragmatist: I've Never Been So Accurately Insulted In All My Life.”

Leon Denkinger is angry but admiring about how he’s been viciously insulted. Yes, he is a liar, overweight, a hypocrite about other people’s appearances and immature. No, he doesn’t like that pointed out, but he respects the precision:

Again, drawing on what you have actually observed rather than ad hominem attacks, you used my patterns of behavior to draw a cohesive portrait of a needy, self-centered man forever wallowing in his own tiny universe of grudges and misplaced blame. You have destroyed — and impressed — me with your masterful insight into my psyche.

If only Twitter and Facebook fights went this well.

Most “Hey, it’s 2001!” reference

Probably the tone ofCelebrity Meltdowns,” which is the weekly feature where The Onion asks fictional people on the street what they think about a real-life event. This one focuses on rehab stints by Mariah Carey, Ben Affleck and A.J. McLean.

Please don’t click! This feature contains one of the most misogynistic and rude things I’ve seen from The Onion in my 18 months recapping it.

Yes, our society was vicious about celebrities in the way The Onion’s “man on the street” describes Carey. But The Onion doesn’t do much to satirize this — it’s repeating the bile.

It’s this sort of atmosphere that Craig Ferguson rejected in his famous Britney Spears monologue in 2007.

What was the best horoscope?

My favorite horoscope this week is extremely 2001 (I just graduated high school, I remember the fashion) but also such a goofy satire of older generations getting pissy at the younger set:

Leo | July 23 to Aug. 22

Today's youth sickens you. You didn't fight a secret war against the nuclear mole people at Earth's core so they could wear baggy pants and swear.

What holds up best?

I kind of downplayed it earlier, but Man Alienates Friends With Self-Constructive Behavioroffers rich details of this guy cleaning up his act, and it’s a delight to see how angry this makes all of his friends and family.

What holds up worst?

The Celebrity Meltdownsfeature — again, The Onion’s biggest fault here is uncritically mirroring American society.

I should note that, the exception in that feature, the one I enjoyed, was this:

"I feel for them. They suffer so much. What? 'Celebrities'? I'm sorry, I thought you said 'victims of ethnic brutality in Macedonia.'"

Felicia Johnston • Bank Teller

Also, the front-page headline Laura Bush Noisily Devours Infant is pretty lazy.

What would be done differently today?

This was a rough issue that felt like summer leftovers. That happens — it’s hard publishing 12 funny satirical newspapers in a year, much less the 45-48 that The Onion was doing back then. But nothing from this issue, not even the funniest material I’ve cited, would make a “Best Of The Onion” collection.

What real-life people were mentioned?

Alvaro Perez Morales. Daryl Hannah. Laura Bush. Mariah Carey. Ben Affleck. A.J. McLean. Kenny Loggins. Martin Lawrence. Angelina Jolie. Jennifer Lopez. Jim Carrey. P. Diddy. Nicole Kidman. Jerry Mathers. Jimi Hendrix. Dennis Hastert. Ed Markey. Karen Thurman. Richard Gephardt. Joe Barton. William Rehnquist. George W. Bush. Halle Berry. Alan Greenspan.

What was happening in the real world?

Here’s the real-life news from Aug. 6-12, 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. living standards improved in the 1990s, along with mortgages and commutes. Bush delivers speech on allowing limited stem cell research. Bill Clinton gets over $10 million for his memoir. Bayer recalls anti-cholesterol drug after 31 deaths. Hepatitis C plaguing prison populations. U.S., U.K. bomb Iraqi air defense locations. Mohammad Khatami takes office in Iran. Suicide bomber kills 14 in Jerusalem. Dave Winfield, Kirby Puckett among Baseball Hall of Fame honorees. Appalachian town will dig into mountain to avoid floods. Rumsfeld, military leaders debate funding priorities. Macedonia nears peace agreement. Heat wave strikes New York City area. Federal judges reject computer-monitoring software in their offices.