The Onion 20 years ago talked about Hello Kitty, 'N Sync and Matthew Perry
Go back to the olden days with AOL discs in the mail, Delta's in-flight magazine and Bob Hope
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 July 31, 2002.
This week, we are reminded that a lot can change in 20 years. AOL was still a powerhouse, Bob Hope was alive, the national debt was only $6.14 trillion, and “Friends” was the biggest show around.
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What issue is this?
The front-page headline “German 4-Year-Old Demands His 'Schlaumfi’” is no longer online. Googling just that word yields zero results. Maybe this is a derivative of “schlaum,” which means “slime”? I’m not a linguist, that’s for sure.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
“Substance-Abusing Star's Publicist Has Been To Hell And Back” is a curious story 20 years later. It’s a clever premise — being a publicist for troubled stars sounds stressful! I’d read a non-satirical article about such publicists!
I was skeptical about this story making sense in 2022. Being a celebrity is very different now with social media. And no one on TV is as famous as Matthew Perry was 20 years ago — “Friends” averaged 24.5 million viewers per episode in the 2001-02 season.1
But then I realized that Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck were tabloid fodder in 2002 and 2022 — for the same reason, no less! So, this story does make sense for publicists then and now.
Anyways, this article is basically a gossip recap of Perry’s problems except as if publicist Sara Baumann was suffering from addiction by osmosis.
"Everything was so out of control," Baumann said. "I didn't have time to go to the manicurist, much less my power-yoga class at Reebok [Sports Club]. I put on eight pounds. I looked like shit."
Baumann had a good friend who sent her to the desert for a 48-hour spa visit that included a full-body seaweed wrap. After that stint, she buckled down and got Perry a ton of good press. She even says she’s thankful for Perry’s struggles making her a better publicist!
Today, with the media focusing on Perry's recovery and his recent slim-down, Baumann said she's "mellower and definitely happier." This calmer version of Baumann stands in stark contrast to the harried, perpetually angry person she used to be—someone who would scream at talk-show bookers on her cellphone or bully young personal assistants.
I like how proud Baumann is of the stories she’s planted, like the lie that Jennifer Aniston’s wedding prompted Perry to stop partying.
“Sanrio Introduces New Divorced Character” really tested me, as I’ve spent zero minutes of my life paying attention to Hello Kitty. This is really silly, and I’m assuming it’s harmless fun.
This dolphin character is named Batsu-Ichi, which is Japanese slang for having been divorced, and he’s a father of two who enjoys tennis and tacos. I can’t believe I’m typing this. More from Batsu-Ichi’s bio:
His job is raking the ocean waves flat so the sun can shine through. He loves his job but may have to take another one to make his monthly child-support payments. Batsu-Ichi is an outgoing and highly eligible little dolphin, but he has yet to work up the courage to ask out his cute coworker, Misako The Cuttlefish. Always a game little fellow, Batsu-Ichi's motto is 'Take It One Day At A Time!'"
Dolphins are a predator of cuttlefish, so Batsu-Ichi is being especially shy.
Also, the microwave talks and is named Yummy.
“U.S. Takes Out Debt-Consolidation Loan” is technically the top story, but I was far more interested in the Hello Kitty and Matthew Perry stories.
President George W. Bush is back for a 2nd straight week, apparently done with his hunger strike and now being lured in by debt consolidators. This is an amusing send-up of late-night TV commercials from debt companies — Bush first learned of E-Z Debt watching a “M*A*S*H” rerun at 3 a.m.
"He was holding all these unpaid bills, and tons more were piled high on his desk, including a three-month-old bill from Lockheed-Martin for $5.3 billion worth of jet fighters," said [Ari] Fleischer, who was in the Oval Office working late at the time. "He raised the handfuls of bills above his head and shouted, 'I can't take it anymore!' That's when the ad came on."
The House and Senate passed a bill allowing the U.S. to cancel all debt — only $6.14 trillion back then! — in lieu of one monthly payment. Such a deal requires collateral, and the U.S. has put up Yellowstone National Park, NASA and all of Alaska, among other assets.
Informercials are a good topic to satirize, and The Onion does a good job writing a standard debt collector story but making it about the U.S.
It’s been 20 years since Southwest Airlines infamously announced it would charge very large people for 2 seats.2 The Onion asked people about “Charging Obese Flyers Double,” and it’s mostly generic fat jokes. I do like this “both sides” argument:
"As a man who once lost 100 pounds, I say to hell with them—it's their fault they're fat. As a man who gained the 100 pounds back, I say have a heart, Southwest Airlines."
Robert Russell • Cashier
The other is a delightfully titled column “It's Good, Hutchins, But Is It Delta In-Flight Magazine Good?” written by James Montcrief, editor-in-chief of
Delta Sky Magazine. (Sadly, the pandemic led Delta and most other U.S. airlines to discontinue their in-flight magazines.)
I love how this guy acts as if he’s editing a literary journal, not a magazine that goes into seatback pockets:
It's a sign of your talent, Hutchins, that you've already made it this far in the in-flight game. I've had many a greenhorn come to me with some barely coherent "America's Most Romantic Getaways" piece. And each time, I pointed him or her toward United Airlines, where they eat that shit with mustard.
Montcrief has tough questions about Hutchins’ article on St. Louis, but he loves Hutchins’ earlier work on "Remembering The '57 Chevy" and "San Francisco's Best Seafood Restaurants.” Montcrief also notes that Hammacher-Schlemmer is ready to advertise in the SkyMall section.
As a longtime editor, I obviously enjoyed Montcrief’s observations on editing:
Editing's a harsh mistress, kiddo: Sometimes, I don't know whether the magazine is killing me or if it's the only thing keeping me alive. But when you put that issue to bed, and you know it's the best goddamn in-flight magazine anyone will read that month, you feel like the proverbial warrior lying on the field of battle, exhausted and victorious. There is no better feeling.
Area People doing Area Things
“Gym Teacher Secretly Hates Nerds” is about gym teacher Brad Malanga, a jock/bully who grew up to be basically the same thing, only in teacher form.
It’s possible I’m just not getting the ironic flavor of this story. But I think The Onion takes way too long to explain that Malanga went into education to help all kids, especially nerds, only to decide that such welfare was wasted on them:
Maybe the headline is the problem? I read it like the gym teacher is playing both sides, but he’s not. He was genuinely trying to help, then gave up:
Yet Malanga became disillusioned when he discovered that the unathletic students he wanted to help were often "unwilling to help themselves."
"I had to discontinue the after-school classes because nobody came," Malanga said. "I heard it was because the kids who needed them didn't want to be branded as dorks. Well, I was trying to prevent them from becoming dorks in the first place, but they just didn't get it."
We also learn that Malanga in high school gave a swirlie to Westinghouse Prize winner Howie Krumholtz, which is a leading prize for mechanical engineers.
Malanga also delivers a timeless line that every generation apparently says about the younger generations, whether it’s true or not:
“Absolutely no sense of commitment among these kids."
Other Area People stories include:
“Man As Surprised As Anyone That He Knows All The Members Of 'N Sync”: I’d be more impressed if this happened in 2022. The bonus joke: “Bulone remains unaware that he knows all the words to Chad Kroeger's ‘Hero.’” (That song from “Spider-Man”)
“World's Last Bob Hope Fan Dies Of Old Age”: Bob Hope was still alive, so this is a burn on 2 levels. The Onion also says the fans of Katharine Hepburn, Mickey Rooney and Red Buttons (all alive in 2002) are extinct.
“Court Summons Comes With 1,025 Free Hours Of AOL”: This is really silly, but it was probably the last chance to make fun of AOL CDs. This very week 20 years ago, the New York Times wondered whether AOL’s competitive edge was slipping because of broadband.
“Panhandler Demands Explanation For Failure To Provide Quarter”: This is a reasonable premise for a city-dweller joke, although I didn’t expect it to focus so much on the panhandler. Giving him the nickname “Jolly Jack” feels like overkill.
“Cocktail Party Gets As Wild As It's Going To Get”: Another simple but effective joke based on an easily understood situation.
“Ex-Girlfriend Flashback Leaves Man Paralyzed In Produce Aisle”: Silly but fun. I like the unnamed shopper who’s trying to get Alex Borland to stop blocking the kiwis.
“Orphanage Director Pushing Asian Orphans”: One of those stories that might be revealing a truth about our society but is more depressing than funny. The parents wanted a Russian girl and left (for the 5th time) to “think it over.”
“Boss' Dick Not Going To Suck Itself”: This front-page headline is another of those unpleasant statements on society.
Were the infographics good?
“The Snakehead Menace” was apparently a much-publicized invasive species of 2002, much like the Asian carp, lionfish, zebra mussels and others. The snakehead is still lurking about, including a 2018 report in Georgia.
There are a lot of good one-liners here! The idea of a land-traveling predator fish is scary enough, and now it’s signing movie deals, yelling insults in 9 languages, heckling the Sierra Club and so much more.
“What Would We Name Our Spaceship?” is absurd, but it’s more of an “A for effort” than actually hilarious. That said, I can imagine someone saying the cat name in that voice pet owners use.
What columnists ran?
“Zing! I Just Got You With Another One Of My Trademark 'Complete Lies’” might not be as powerful in 2022 because so many people lie, all the time, about things big and small! But I love this guy’s energy and ambition:
You know how Fonzie had that thing where he started the jukebox by banging on it? Or Mother Teresa's thing was being really nice to poor people and helping them? Well, my "thing" is making up a bunch of stuff that's untrue and then insisting, with the utmost sincerity and conviction, that it is!
Phillip Wynegar calls himself “King of the Untruth” and says his victims have been “Philliped.” And he’s been doing these lies/pranks since he was a small child. Big psychopath vibes!
This guy is terrifying, but his glee is entertaining, and we all know people who seem to relish lies (and maybe y’all do, too!).
I will say that statements that include more personal details tend to work better, such as, "I have to miss work because my mother is sick," or "I'm infertile." People are also more likely to believe you if your statement includes an offer of help, like, "Sure, I'll watch your bag," or "I know CPR!"
“I know CPR!” seems hardest to pull off, but I guess why he’s King of the Untruth.
What was the best horoscope?
My favorite horoscope this week was Leo. There were many worthy candidates (and a joke about actor Robert Culp that made me Google who that was):
Leo | July 23 to Aug. 22
What most people don't seem to understand is that normal dentures lack the air of excitement and danger of your prosthetic badger jaw.
What holds up best?
I really, really like the Delta story, but I’m also an editor. Let’s instead praise “Man As Surprised As Anyone That He Knows All The Members Of 'N Sync” because that feels like a conversation still happening in 2022.
What holds up worst?
“What Would We Name Our Spaceship?” isn’t that funny, and considering how many rich people are actually building spaceships today, this could certainly be redone in a funnier way.
What would be done differently today?
Like I said earlier, somehow Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez’s love life is the big tabloid story then and now, so the publicist story could work for them.
The orphanage story would be very different because of the Russian part and the current abortion battles. Would it be funnier? Who knows?
The debt story might be about China forcing the U.S. to pay back its debts? After all, The Onion was briefly owned by China.
Finally, July 2002 was a really busy month of news. Look at InfoPlease’s recap — only a handful of these stories were covered by The Onion.
Grateful to have y’all with me, and please share the word with folks who like The Onion and like going down rabbit holes.
Next week, we talk about … Lou Dobbs? Huh. Also, columnist Jean Teasdale returns, and more of Michael Jackson’s feud with Tommy Mottola.
No TV show averaged 20 million viewers in 2021, and “Yellowstone” was the top scripted show at 11+ million per episode. Netflix reports minutes watched, not people, but even “Stranger Things” doesn’t seem to approach “Friends” territory. Yes, I did some math.