The Onion discovered the suburbs 20 years ago today
There's also some great 2001 stories about Stephen Jay Gould, Bill O'Reilly and the Olsen twins, wordplay about anti-Semiotism and a cat joke that would be a video today
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. 22, 2001.
This issue had articles where the topics feel ancient 20 years later, but the material is still pretty funny. That’s OK! Sometimes a joke just has to work for the moment, and who can predict the future, anyways?
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What issue is this?
This was Vol. 37, Issue 29, the 72nd Onion issue of the 2000s and the 71st issue of new content. Here’s what the website looked like in 2011 and today. Sadly, the website from 2001 isn’t available, nor is the print cover.
There are 2 front-page headlines that are no longer online:
“Rat Race: Hoo, Boy, That Don't Look Too Good”
What was the top story, and other impressions?
The Onion's offices moved from Madison, Wis., to New York City in 2001, and there’s no better way to assert that you are a city person than to make fun of the suburbs.
“Family Of Five Found Alive In Suburbs” is a difficult joke to pull off. It’s not saying that it feels like this family disappeared; the article is literally saying that everyone thought this family was missing for 8 years.
The story starts like a search-and-rescue mission, with a helicopter pilot seeing a “signal fire” that turns out to be the family’s backyard grill — the first sighting since they’d left Chicago.
To protect themselves from the elements, the Holsapples fashioned a three-bedroom, ranch-style lean-to with brick facing and white aluminum siding. During their years on the acre-and-a-half lot, the Holsapples faced many hardships, including septic-tank backups, frequent ant infestation, and the threat of rezoning to erect an industrial park across the street.
This is a brilliant commitment to a bit, and The Onion is vicious in mocking the suburbs’ banality and lack of culture. Attempts to re-culture the Holsapple family with modern art and the movie “Being John Malkovich” utterly fail.
The Onion attempts to diagnose the problem of the suburbs through psychology and anthropology :
"Much like those stranded in remote islands, the Holsapple family looked to the indigenous population to learn techniques for adaptation and survival," Cox said. "Shocking as it is, one eventually becomes acclimated and then numbed to the theme restaurants, cinema multiplexes, and warehouse-sized grocery stores.
Thankfully, no one fights anymore about urban-versus-rural living, or whether cities or suburbs are better. We’ve moved past all that.
This is an old-school Onion issue, full of local tomfoolery and a couple stories about real-life people that are less about them and more about the magical, fake world The Onion has created.
“Stephen Jay Gould Speaks Out Against Science Paparazzi” is a beautiful example of the latter.
Sure, paparazzi were a problem in 2001, but The Onion’s not reacting to real-life news or making a social statement. This article’s aim is much simpler: “What if mildly famous scientists were treated by the media like Hollywood royalty?”
We’ve got it all: Tabloids focused on scientist sightings, celebrities complaining and counterarguments from people who say that’s the price of fame. And, of course, there’s the inevitable moment where celebrities strike back:
"The paparazzi are far more forceful and disruptive than they need to be," said Gould, who on Aug. 5 pleaded no-contest to a March incident in which he attacked an intrusive paparazzo with a broken graduated cylinder. "I realize they have a job to do, but there is such a thing as taking it too far."
The Onion names actual scientific concepts and areas of research, all in the context of real scientists like Stephen Hawking, Jane Goodall, Alan Heeger, Alan MacDiarmid — plus string theory expert Brian Greene, making his 1st Onion appearance since “Christian Right Lobbies To Overturn Second Law Of Thermodynamics” nearly a year earlier.
That said, some of the scientists are fictional, such as Greene’s girlfriend, Dr. Aileen Wang, and the Dr. Richard Kinder in this photo below (there’s a real-life billionaire named Richard Kinder, however).
As always, there’s another side. While Gould and Greene feel scientific fame isn’t an excuse to pry into their personal lives, some colleagues disagree — such as “Plastics Pals” Heeger and MacDiarmid.
And, as always, there’s a fanboy reaction:
"Oh, come on, Stephen," said Trace Leefold, webmaster of www.grantwatch.com, a site that prints rumors about soon-to-be-awarded research grants. "No one put a gun to your head and forced you to enter the field of evolutionary theory. You chose that life."
One sad side note; Gould was diagnosed with late-stage cancer about 6 months later and died less than a year after this article.
Other fun stories that feel very 2001
As we’ve seen from the 2 stories I’ve discussed, I think The Onion is at its best where it’s satirizing the human psyche rather than trying to follow the news. The suburbs story is probably timeless, and the Gould story works because people obsess about celebrity, even if in different ways than 20 years ago.
Here are a few other stories that are well-written despite being old-fashioned:
“I Wish I Were Happy Like The People In The Electronics-Store Flyer” is a column that feels 100 years old: Electronics stores? Paper advertising? Newspapers? DVDs and CDs and the Rio 800 MP3 player? Desktop computers? Scanners? Sega Dreamcast and Game Boys? Sprint PCS phones and Palm devices?
I name all of these things just to point out how quickly technology evolves. And yet, the “glorious Valhalla known as Best Buy” is still around, so that’s something.
This column is a wonderful bit of self-loathing journaling in which our writer is obsessed with people in ads — so much so that she feels like a killer on a “Criminal Minds” episode.
We also have:
“The Clone Wars”: I forgot that, in summer 2001, our political class was extremely worried about human cloning. The Onion asked people what they thought. A cashier makes a very good point:
"Cloning forces us to ask some hard questions. For example, which person, the original or the clone, gets to wear the goatee and be evil?"
Also, can’t forget the front-page photo “Cat Speed-Dials Ex-Girlfriend,” which would have made a great Onion video (or TikTok?) in a different era.
Area People doing Area Things
I haven’t had regular TV service in a few years, cable or otherwise. But I watch a lot of YouTube and other streaming, so even I notice when I see a longform commercial and then see a shorter version of it.
The shorter version really is a surprise, so I empathize with “Area Man Disappointed To See Short Version Of Commercial.” Paul Hobish is mostly concerned with his reputation, as he’s already bragged about a Nike ad:
Continued Hobish: "I've been telling all my friends how much the commercial rocks. But if they see the short version, they're going to think I don't know what I'm talking about."
Hobish is also sad about other commercials that were cut short, like the Blue Man Group ad for Intel’s Pentium 4 chip (actually Pentium 3), the Britney Spears-Bob Dole ad for Pepsi and the Doritos ad with Ali Landry.
Credit to The Onion: The Nike “Freestyle” commercial is truly a legendary ad that’s still being written about. And Britney’s Pepsi ads are similarly well-regarded. For all the references in this issue that feel very old, The Onion was dead-on with this one.
Other Area People news:
“Friend's Wife Encountered Twice A Year”: The joke is pretty much in the headline, but it feels real.
“Partygoers Drunkenly Recite 4-H Pledge”: I need a correspondent for this newsletter who’s lived somewhere other than the Acela corridor. Maybe they can explain this one 😉
“According To Nutritional Information, Local Man Just Had 16 Servings Of Fritos”: I like Fritos well enough, but an entire large bag? I can’t imagine. Kudos to The Onion for painting a picture rather than making a fat joke.
“Semiotics Department Accuses University Administration Of Anti-Semiotism”: A great example of wordplay that also reminds us that, no matter what, university professors are upset about something.
Were the infographics good?
I was talking to a Midwesterner about “What's Our Excuse For Not Visiting Historic St. Louis?” who said it sounds like an Onion staff writer grew up somewhat close to St. Louis but never went, and has been bugged about it many times. That’s as good a theory as any!
Some good deep cuts here, such as “Not Catholic” and the sandbags joke that’s a reference to the Great Floods of 1993. And, given that everyone on social media is a self-made legal expert today, I am pained by “Visit not mandatory, if we understand our constitutional rights.”
“The Teacher Shortage” has some solid jokes. "Promise of a movie on Friday if they teach well all week” feels like a couple high school classes of mine.
I was going to make fun of the “Brigadoon” reference, but apparently an Apple TV show playing off of the musical debuted in July 2021. So, it lives on!
What columnists ran?
“Mary-Kate Olsen Is Dragging Ashley Down” is a delightful window into the weird fandoms of our society, and it’s not even about whether Mary-Kate had anything to do with Heath Ledger’s death!
Our columnist Kathie Kelleher, who’s billed as a “Television Viewer,” has a long list of examples of Ashley being a better actress than Mary-Kate, even when they were infants on “Full House.”
Not only that, but Mary-Kate has bad diction, charisma, looks and weight, claims our columnist. The coup de grâce for me is the fake concern of our columnist. She doesn’t hate Mary-Kate! No, she’s just looking out for her:
I say these things not to humiliate Mary-Kate. It is altogether likely that the girl possesses talent—just not in an entertainment-industry capacity. Perhaps, after extensive training and a long probationary period, Mary-Kate could make a serviceable cashier, nursing-home orderly, or cafeteria worker. Or maybe she could serve as an assistant to Ashley—a star of her sister's magnitude surely needs someone to answer her fan mail, clean her trailer, and fetch her bottled water.
This is petty and stupid, and I’m kind of enjoying it. The only disturbing thing about this column might be that millions of people eat up this trash in real life, about real people.
I guess the silver lining is that Elizabeth Olsen is the most talented sister?
Most “Hey, it’s 2001!” reference
This week’s horoscopes were amazing — at least, I thought so — and this one, in particular, reminds us that video stores were still a big thing 20 years ago!
Pisces | Feb. 19 to March 20
What people don't understand is that the drinking, casual sex, and off-color jokes are the only way of coping with the pressures of video-store clerking.
What was the best horoscope?
OK, this was a tough choice, but I’m going with Cancer because this simple joke really lets you run wild with your imagination.
Cancer | June 21 to July 22
Quelling the unrest in the forest will severely limit the time you can spend with your prog-rock band this week.
What holds up best?
“Family Of Five Found Alive In Suburbs” is a great extended joke on multiple levels — city-suburban divides, Chicago-Chicagoland rivalries, the parody of the search-and-rescue news story, the cultural stereotypes. And this predates the explosion (and then implosion) of exurbs leading up to the 2000s housing crisis, not to mention today’s real estate madness.
What holds up worst?
“Bush Vows To Wipe Out Prescription-Drug Addiction Among Seniors” is fine for what it is, and it is very detailed with all of Bush’s worries about drug use. The problem is that it’s almost the exact storytelling structure from July 18, 2001’s “Bush Vows To Remove Toxic Petroleum From National Parks.”
As I wrote then:
This is a typical “Bush is dumb and/or evil” story, so its success depends on how much you still welcome those stories 20 years later.
What would be done differently today?
More politics, more pop culture. The Onion’s home page on Aug. 21, 2021, is talking about Lorde, Mike Richards, OnlyFans and, ironically, George W. Bush.
What real-life people were mentioned?
Blue Man Group. Britney Spears. Bob Dole. Bill O’Reilly. Kurt Cobain. Shi-Shyr Roan. Mary-Kate Olsen. Ashley Olsen. George Michael. Andrew Ridgeley. Daryl Hall. John Oates. Katharine Hepburn. Meryl Streep. Stephen Jay Gould. Brian Greene. Stephen Hawking. Jane Goodall. John D. MacArthur. Catherine T. MacArthur. George W. Bush. Tommy Thompson.
Minor legends Michael, Ridgeley, Hall and Oates, and actual legends Hepburn and Streep, are in the Olsen twins column.
What was happening in the real world?
Here’s the real-life news from Aug. 13-19, 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:
NYT previews upcoming Euro currency. Stem cell funding complicated by patent issues. Recalls of toys in giveaways by McDonald’s, other fast-food chains. Steve Fossett again fails to go around the globe in a balloon. Ford cuts deal on lawsuits over ignition problems, cuts 5,000 jobs. Hollywood wants to sell movie downloads online. Summer blockbusters falter in 2nd week. Procter & Gamble objections cause CBS to drop “Family Law” reruns. Tobacco ads in magazines continue despite settlement. Churchill biographer William Manchester says he’s too ill to finish 3rd book (editor’s note: A U.S. reporter eventually wrote it. It’s not nearly as good). NYT investigates: Is Cajun culture dead? Macedonia peace deal reached.