The Onion addressed cake bakers, cops and reparations 20 years ago
Also, remember when Al Gore was sad about losing the presidency? And when Michael Jordan wanted to unretire (again)? We've got that, too.
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 July 25, 2001.
I liked this issue because it had some stories that feel relevant even 20 years later (police use of force, bakers’ 1st Amendment rights) and some stories that could have only existed in 2001 (Al Gore, state quarters, the stem cell debate).
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What issue is this?
The front-page headline “Car Wreck Turns Frown Upside Down” is no longer online, and that makes me frown.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
Al Gore and Bill Clinton were not the best of friends by the end of Clinton’s presidency, and The Onion played on this a few times, notably “Gore Already Regretting Promise To Help Clinton Move Out” in March 2000.
In “Gore Upset That Clinton Doesn't Call Anymore,” this one-sided relationship continues, as Gore and Clinton have had no contact since January. Gore’s been teaching college classes, but his post-White House life has been dull and bitter compared with Clinton’s lavish traveling and celebrity sightings.
"I've called him a bunch of times since then, but I've never heard back from him," said Gore, eating a Chipwich while watching TV on his living-room couch. "I guess he's been too busy traveling the world and attending $10,000-a-plate dinners in his honor."
Clinton also forgot Gore’s birthday.
The article continues, in a classic “both-sides” manner, to cite political columnists and confidantes who either take Clinton or Gore’s side. This is good, solid Onion political satire, even if you haven’t thought about this article since 2001.
I also want to mention this wild front-page photo. It’s simply captioned, “Anne Geddes Starting To Lose It.” Look, good for The Onion for running it, but it feels more like a joke for them rather than us.
Old is new again
“Police Use Exact Right Amount Of Force To Subdue Suspect” feels like a story written in the past handful of years, but it’s from 2001. I’m guessing the Chicago setting is partly a stereotype and partly a natural reference from when The Onion was based in (relatively) nearby Madison, Wis.
Was this story inspired by real life? Probably. The Abner Louima lawsuit had just been settled, the Miami police were under investigation, and it had only been a few months since unrest in Cincinnati over police shooting a black man.
“Four Generations Of Americans Demand Sitcom Reparations” feels like a relatively risky story for The Onion. You get it wrong, and you’re being disrespectful for no reason. Even if you get the tone right, will it actually be funny?
This was also a reaction to real life — notably, discussions of restitution and reparations, as well as companies such as Aetna and The Hartford Courant apologizing for their role in slavery policies and advertisements, respectively.
Does this work? Yes, if only because it’s so absurd that you can recognize the historical parallels without taking this universe seriously. And that’s good, because there are a lot of analogies to the Holocaust and the Nuremberg trials:
Bishop said the AFSR is also calling for the establishment of a special air-crimes tribunal to bring "every last network executive" to justice. At last year's Burbank Trials, many major TV producers were tried and convicted, including Garry Marshall, who was executed by firing squad after 20 million witnesses identified his programs from a mid-'70s Tuesday-night lineup.
That said, The Onion didn’t need to call them “Telecaust victims.”
Other 2001 stories that feel relevant in 2021:
“Judge Rolls Eyes, Upholds Naughty Baker's First-Amendment Rights” is about a baker displaying obscene cakes in his shop window.
The headline tells the story in “Man Realizes He Shouldn't Have Told Girl On Phone He Was Taking Dump,” although he’d probably be texting today.
“Area Man An Expert On What Women Hate” is a very good Onion character study, in which Gerald Doelpe shares roughly a dozen things women, including air guitaring, tennis shoes on a date, making pizza for dinner and “and nicknaming women you meet at bars ‘Little Miss Sassy Pants.’”
Things that feel exactly 20 years ago
“Collecting All 50 State Quarters Senior's Only Reason To Remain Alive” is actually pretty sad, as half-blind, one-legged, widowed and lonely 91-year-old Raymond Pfaff is genuinely pleased with his pursuit of the state quarters, which were a big deal back then (one of Conan O’Brien’s less memorable recurring bits is about state quarters).
But even this enjoyment seems short-lived, as the nursing home’s director says Pfaff is running low on money to stay there, while no one thinks he’ll live long enough to see all 50 state quarters. Even his friends are dying:
"Ray and I are best friends," fellow resident Lyle Potterman said. "Some nights, we'll stay up way past 8 talking about what we think will be on upcoming states' coins. Like, for South Dakota, Ray thinks it will be Mount Rushmore, but I think it'll be the Corn Palace. I guess we'll see who's right in 2006."
The day after he was interviewed, Potterman died of an aneurysm. He was 89.
We also have:
“The Backstreet Boys Or 'N Sync Release New Album” is a quintessential 2000-2001 story, not just because that’s the moment when boy bands were peaking, but also because this story takes place at the Times Square Virgin Megastore in New York City.
“The Stem-Cell Debate” raged during the early Bush years, and my philosophy classes in college discussed it. What little I remember is that, while it seemed inevitable that the research would continue, it was also worthwhile to have discussions about the ethics before, not after (unlike, say, faking Anthony Bourdain’s voice).
From that feature is a pretty clever Onion joke:
"You try looking into the eyes of a human embryo and saying, 'We need you to die for science.' You can't do it, can you? What do you mean, which side am I arguing?"
Irwin Santana • Customs Officer
Were the infographics good?
I am underwhelmed by “Jordan Ponders A Comeback,” but it’s probably because we’ve already lived through the underwhelming 2 years with the Washington Wizards.
I liked “Starring role in full-length feature MCI commercial” mostly because MCI is a great marker of how old you are — the company’s commercials are ubiquitous for many of us, while younger people are like, “What is MCI?”
“What Are Our Loved Ones Throwing At Us?” is much more my speed. I love imagining all of these objects flying through the air, and “Half-empty bottles of fortified wine” especially made me laugh.
What columnists ran?
The regular Onion columnists were pretty quiet in summer 2001, but we do have a recurring feature in “Ask A Latina Talk-Show Host,” the title of which extremely worried me in 2021 when I first saw it.
This is the 9th “Ask A …” column of the 2000s. The questions are always generic advice-column fare, and every answer completely ignores the question while continuing a long narrative indicated by the title. The twist in this one? It’s entirely in Spanish.
I guess that’s a joke? Anyways, while I don’t know Spanish, I did put this article through Google Translate. Each answer appears to be the host introducing the show and/or the next guest.
The better, but also potentially triggering, column this week is “You Call This A Doomsday Cult?” where elderly man Will Arlen is upset with the cult he joined — not because he’s learning it’s a cult but because it’s poorly led.
Arlen might actually be the psychologically damaged cult leader here, as he goes on a harangue about the lack of child brides and … yeah, be forewarned, it gets worse.
This cult’s leader, Simon, has other faults. He’s nothing like Jim Jones as a motivational presence, he doesn’t have a weapons cache, and he’s too lenient in granting leisure and food to cult members.
Maybe worst, Simon has failed to develop a sufficient mythology — and also picked a lousy name:
Even our name sucks. Look at some of the greats: The Family. Heaven's Gate. Supreme Truth. Now, those are some cult names with pizazz. They're mysterious, sexy, hinting at knowledge beyond the realm of man. And you, O Great One, what do you go and name us? The Guiding Light. Christ. Didn't it ever dawn on you that Guiding Light is a friggin' soap opera? I'm amazed you didn't name us The Bold And The Beautiful. We're the laughing stock of the entire cult world. Even the Scientologists make fun of us.
“Guiding Light,” for what it’s worth, went off the air in 2009.
Most “Hey, it’s 2001!” reference
The confusing, forgettable “Hair Weave Shaved Off” does have this line:
"I figured, hey, chicks like bald guys like Bruce Willis," Elroy told reporters following the four-minute weave removal.
Remember when Bruce Willis was the top bald action star? Such a long time ago.
Honorable mention to the front-page headline “Someone's Job Riding On Success Of Antacid Gum.”
What was the best horoscope?
I’m not sure this is the best horoscope, but it’s the most imaginative.
Taurus | April 20 to May 20
The spider you befriend while in prison will amaze you by spinning a web reading "SOME MURDERER" above your bunk before your parole hearing.
What holds up best?
I struggled with this. This is a reasonably funny issue, but not memorable. I chose “What Are Our Loved Ones Throwing At Us?” because I think it’ll always make me laugh, but feel free to disagree.
What holds up worst?
This horoscope is weirdly making fun of Leon Spinks, the boxer most famous for defeating Muhammad Ali in 1978 but who had relatively little success afterward. Spinks, who died this year, was not in the news in 2001, so this is just strange.
Aquarius | Jan. 20 to Feb. 18
You will receive a letter from ex-boxer Leon Spinks, who threatens to reveal himself as your long-lost son unless he receives $9 in unmarked bills.
What would be done differently today?
Well, The Onion isn’t writing sympathetic articles about Donald Trump’s post-election life, so the Gore story feels out of place from that standpoint.
The Onion, since the 2020 election, seems to be writing more old-style, “Area Man” stories. While I doubt I influenced that choice, it’s good to see! Something like “Nation Agrees That Despite Our Differences Americans Still Make Some Good-Lookin’ Corn” could have run 20 years ago.
What real-life people were mentioned?
John Robinson. Geoffrey Godbey. AC/DC. The Backstreet Boys. 'N Sync. Bruce Willis. Al Gore. Bill Clinton. Elizabeth Hurley. Chelsea Clinton. Tony Blair. U2. Monica Lewinsky. George Will. Eleanor Clift. George Stephanopoulos. Tipper Gore. Garry Marshall. Jim Jones. Noah Webster. Anne Geddes. Michael Jordan.
Dictionary maven Noah Webster is mentioned in the cult column.
The Clintons, Gores, Hurley, Blair, U2, Lewinsky, Will, Clift and Stephanopoulos are all in the Gore story.
What was happening in the real world?
Here’s the real-life news from July 16-July 22, 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:
US, Russia agree to reduce nuclear stockpiles. Bush wants to overhaul tax code; visits Britain; calls for grants, not loans, to poorer countries. Washington Post owner Katharine Graham dies. Baseball umpires allege being ordered to call more strikes. Russia-China deal brings two countries closer. NYT examines post-Napster search for music. Michael Bloomberg outspending all other NYC mayoral candidates. New Jersey tries alternative to mug shots. First self-contained artificial heart placed into patient. Congress debates stem-cell research; House backs funds for religious groups. Freight train fire shuts down Baltimore. Natural gas drilling is booming in the U.S.