The Onion discussed Drew Carey, oil and staycations 20 years ago today
Bet you've never thought of those words all in a row. Welcome back from The Onion's 2001 summer vacation!
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 18, 2001.
The Onion used to take a few weeks off in early summer, and I also took a break. We’re now less than 2 months away from 9/11 in our timeline, although it’s good to remember that The Onion’s famed 9/11 issue didn’t appear until Sept. 26, 2001.
As always, if you enjoy, please share this newsletter. And if you’re new, sign up below.
What issue is this?
These two ridiculous headlines are no longer online, sadly:
“Sweat Dribbling Into Stew”
“French Routed With Longbows”
“Dental-Hygiene Tips” was printed in this issue but originally appeared in 2000.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
“Bush Vows To Remove Toxic Petroleum From National Parks” is a current-events story for The Onion in 2001, although the premise is somewhat ripping off the “Our Dumb Century” entry “Bush Decries Exxon Valdez Spillage of ‘Precious, Precious Oil.’”
Bush wants to be an environmentalist, he really does! He’s been informed of “giant pockets of petroleum, coal, and other ‘fossil poisons’ beneath an alarming 38 percent of our national parks’ surface area,” which of course pose a great danger to the Earth, so they must be removed without delay.
He does let down his guard in a later statement, however:
“The costs of this project pale in comparison to the importance of safeguarding our planet’s ecosystem. Our primary mission must be to protect and foster our nation’s most precious natural resource: oil. I mean, the environment.”
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.
Bush is also part of “U.S. To Slow Down Relationship With Uruguay,” which is a decent, if simplistic, overlaying of international diplomacy onto new relationships.
Literal Onion versus Silly Onion
Someone recently shared an Onion headline with me that I thought was well-constructed but didn’t make me laugh: “Dream Crushed Over Trivial Bullshit Represents Nation Better Than Gold Medal Ever Could.”
That type of satire is fine, and very Onion-like. (And The Onion calling out Olympics nonsense is an honorable tradition.) But it’s distinct from the Onion satire that touches on real life but builds a separate, often-absurdist universe. Regular readers might already sense my bias toward the sillier satire. I grew up on Mad magazine and Conan O’Brien alongside The Onion, so this is what shaped me.
I also like when I can repeat stories or one-liners years later and they don’t confuse people. Headlines like “Kitten Thinks Of Nothing But Murder All Day” are memorable, universal and timeless, whereas something like “Joey Ramone Passes Away A-Hey A-Hey” from April 2001 is funny for a few days, at most.
Anyways, I say this because a great example of The Onion twisting reality into absurdity is the 20-year-old story “Department Of Libel: Drew Carey Killed A Guy And Paid To Cover It Up.”
Look at this murderer:
Just consider the concept: The U.S. for 85 years has funded a federal Department of Libel that exists despite losing more than 4,600 court cases.
The premise here is simple: A young, struggling comic named Drew Carey kills a guy but covers it up before making it big in Hollywood. But the Department of Libel goes further:
"Plus, he was really unhappy because he'd been kicked out of the American Nazi Party, and his relationship with [mass murderer] Richard Speck was on the rocks, and his ongoing horse-tranquilizer addiction had placed him in a pretty bizarre state of mind, to say the least. So, when you consider all of that, it's not too surprising that he snapped and lashed out violently the way he did."
Added Roderick: "They never did find the guy's arms."
There’s a provocative list of other famous Libel Department losses, including falsely saying Rosie O’Donnell “fatally stabbed a developmentally disabled six-year-old and a swan.”
“Dodgers' Playoff Hopes Dashed Following Acquisition Of Belly Itcher” is a deep cut — the “belly itcher” baseball taunt dates back to at least 1971, and probably comes out of similar rhyming taunts.
For what it’s worth, the Dodgers did not make the 2001 playoffs, and Shane Lesko was not a real player. The Onion also claims the New York Mets traded John Franco to the Houston Astros on June 10, 2001. Weirdly enough, Franco did play for the Astros, but not until 2005.
You might also enjoy:
“300 Naked Women Feared Lost In Computer Crash” is a very AOL-era Internet joke. The mention of the Power Mac G4 computer is a nice touch. Also, remember Shannon Elizabeth from “American Pie”? No? She’s mentioned here, a very 1999-2002 sort of reference.
“Street-Smart Teen Dies In Library” is an easy joke that feels a little too flippant today. This also showcases The Onion’s tendency to feature Chicago in crime or police stories. We’lll see another example in next week’s “Police Use Exact Right Amount Of Force To Subdue Suspect.”
“New Ronco Food Exposer Spoils Food Overnight” is a front-page headline that requires remembering the out-of-business food product maker Ronco. I feel like this is what a MySpace headline will sound like in 15-20 years to people.
Area People doing Area Things
The Onion captures the angst of looking too smart in school with “Teen Mortified After Winning Academic-Achievement Award,” in which Jamie Ganser’s efforts at middling academic performance are foiled by being honored as the top eighth-grader.
Doing well in school is good! But you can see why Ganser might not appreciate the teachers committee’s efforts:
"Besides earning straight A's, Jamie participated in band and Spanish Club, and had an excellent attendance record," Auletta said. "Jamie is a top student, but her teachers say she's not much of a leader. The committee felt this award would be exactly the confidence boost she needs to get out there and really shine."
I like the small note of Ganser enjoying authors like John Steinbeck and Ray Bradbury but only publicly reading Teen People. Sadly, in the 20 years since, both Teen People and Bradbury have passed.
I recently took a vacation and got out of my city for a full week. This is far better than a staycation, which always ends up with me doing nothing — the dream! — but feeling bad about it. In that sense, I empathize deeply with “Plan To Straighten Out Entire Life During Weeklong Vacation Yields Mixed Results” even if I think I’m not nearly as hapless as our protagonist.
The theme of this story is timeless, even if many of the details aren’t. For instance, Derek Olson is a data-entry operator, which is likely a job that’s been partly or fully automated. He also talks about such losing the envelope for the gas bill, reorganizing his CDs, unsuccessfully picking up a layaway item at Staples.
These stories are fascinating to me because the overall idea describes the human condition perfectly, but the details usually age poorly. It’s not like you can’t pay your bills through the mail or pick up something on layaway at a retail outlet, but it’s more unusual in 2021. You might even be some sort of deliberate Luddite for doing so.
Anyways, Olson fails miserably, day after day, to get anything done other than get drunk, and The Onion brings in a business consultant to explain why:
"You have to make a conscious effort every day," Hatcher said. "You can't spend years letting things fall apart and then fix it all in seven days. It's just not possible.”
It’s true! Good luck on your next staycation.
Other “Area Man” items in The Onion 20 years ago you might enjoy are:
“Friends Of Band Regret Going To Show” — just a front-page headline and blurry photo.
Were the infographics good?
I talk a lot about how quickly culture can change over 20 years, but I’m not sure if “Top Skateboarding Moves” is passé or retro. Skateboarding’s kind of always around, right? I like these jokes well enough, as they have the right attitude.
That said, “720° Belushi to Farley Nosedrop” was already out of date 20 years ago — not to mention morbid, considering they both died young.
I forgot that Tim Burton first tried to make “The New Planet Of The Apes” before the modern reboots of recent years. This film features Danny Elfman music and, of course, Helena Bonham Carter. Unbelievable. I am thrilled to report that Matt Damon got “Ocean’s Eleven” because Mark Wahlberg dropped out to be the lead in this movie.
Anyways, I’m not sure what to think about these jokes, really? The only one I truly laughed at was “Accurately portrays timeless problems facing time-traveling astronauts of all eras.”
What columnists ran?
The Onion exists for many reasons, and one of which is to occasionally test the waters, to see how much it can get away with. “My Lady Has A Beautiful Anus” surely is one of those attempts.
And unlike certain Onion attempts in this genre, there are actual jokes within the lines. For instance, John Kluivert rhetorically asks if you, the reader, have seen his lady in this way. But then he answers the question with the obvious:
“Unless you are an ex-boyfriend, her proctologist, or an art student in that class she modeled for, you probably have not have glimpsed the fairest orifice on God's green Earth.”
He also has a curious Top 5 list: “Helen of Troy, Joan of Arc, Marie Curie, Eleanor Roosevelt” and Cleopatra. Apparently, that part of women’s bodies really suffered between ancient times and the 20th century.
I’ll warn you: The rest of this article, yes, is more detail than any of us ever needed.
Our other column today also involves the human body, but it’s safer to read at work: “I Am The Anonymous Hero Who Donated All Those Old Legwarmers To Goodwill.”
I’m not sure whether our writer, Marjorie Reidel, is ashamed of the large number of legwarmers she had, or whether she’s truly someone who likes to brag by pretending not to brag. This paragraph represents that paradox fairly well:
I sought no credit, no accolades, no monetary reward when I drove over to the Riverside Drive Goodwill on that April day. So that I might remain unrecognized, I stole up to the 24-hour Donation Station in the parking lot under the veil of night and stuffed the bulging JCPenney's bag full of legwarmers into the after-hours drop box. Then I drove off quickly, all the while wondering whose lives those brightly colored half-stockings would touch.
Reidel also notes that she didn’t get a receipt for a tax deduction.
The ending is appropriately cheesy:
Yes, thanks to my selfless act, a few more people in this world will go to sleep tonight with warm calves… and hearts.
Most “Hey, it’s 2001!” reference
The Onion notes the ongoing investigation into the disappearance of Chandra Levy, the D.C. political intern that Americans were very interested in until 9/11 and then never thought about again.
The fake people interviewed in “The Missing Intern” give vastly different responses, although we do get two oblique insults of Bill Clinton, a quote from a missing woman unhappy no one’s searching for her, and someone curious about the sex between Levy and Rep. Gary Condit.
This feature is pretty forgettable, but I do like this answer:
"While the police are at it, they should find out where my intern is. I asked for those copies 20 minutes ago!"
Richard Sakata • Attorney
What was the best horoscope?
I like a weird horoscope, and this edition has them. Let’s go with Capricorn.
Capricorn | Dec. 22 to Jan. 19
The tragic events of next Thursday will finally teach you that there aren't any good pranks you can pull using a kidney-dialysis machine.
What holds up best?
To me, it’s obviously “Plan To Straighten Out Entire Life During Weeklong Vacation Yields Mixed Results,” and not just because it’s one of the only stories that doesn’t have out-of-date references. It’s just good satire of the human experience.
What holds up worst?
“Street-Smart Teen Dies In Library” doesn’t try hard to justify its premise. Usually, I criticize weak Onion stories for not being long enough, but here, I think a headline and no story would have been better.
What would be done differently today?
The Onion covered the president, other big, breaking news and pop culture, and had some “Area Man”-style stories. This is a fairly modern issue, putting aside that today’s website would never shut down for 3-4 weeks of a summer vacation!
What real-life people were mentioned?
John Franco. John Belushi. Chris Farley. John Keats. John Milton. John Steinbeck, Ray Bradbury. Chandra Levy. Gary Condit. Helen of Troy. Joan of Arc. Marie Curie. Eleanor Roosevelt. Cleopatra. William Shakespeare. Ludwig von Beethoven. Raphael. Drew Carey. Richard Speck. Douglas Fairbanks. Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Charles Lindbergh. Barbara Hutton. Rosie O'Donnell. Julia Roberts. Tim Burton. Mark Wahlberg. George W. Bush. Christine Todd Whitman. Gale A. Norton. Bob Smith. Curtis Mayfield. The Damned. Pamela Anderson. Shannon Elizabeth. Angelina Jolie. Anna Kournikova.
Actors Fairbanks and Roberts, famous world-war igniter Ferdinand and heiress and socialite Hutton (maybe best known today for Cary Grant being one of her 7 husbands) are all in the Drew Carey story.
EPA chief Whitman, Interior Secretary Norton and then-New Hampshire senator Smith are mentioned in “Bush Vows To Remove Toxic Petroleum From National Parks.”
Musicians Mayfield and The Damned are mentioned in the vacation story.
Actresses Anderson and Jolie, and tennis player Kournikova, are in “300 Naked Women Feared Lost In Computer Crash.”
What was happening in the real world?
We missed a lot! Here’s the real-life news from June 18-July 15, 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:
Vice President Dick Cheney given pacemaker. Court overturns Microsoft antitrust verdict, while Microsoft agrees to concessions for computer makers. NYT article reveals doubts on fiber optic. U.S. military to end “2-wars” policy. China wins 2008 Summer Olympics bid. Campaign-finance legislation falls short, for now. NYT profiles Bush’s success with overseas absentee votes in Florida. Reparations issued to victims of Nazi slave labor. NYC settles Abner Louima lawsuit. New York state bans driving while using cellphones. Organ donations by healthy people stir debate. Slobodan Milosevic sent to U.N. for trial. Supreme Court gives more rights to immigration detainees, while NYT profiles INS’ holding of minors. Navy again begins bombing runs at Vieques island. Jack Lemmon dies at 76. NYT profiles eco-terrorism. Roger Federer defeats Pete Sampras at Wimbledon. Study of car loans reveals racial bias. NYT profiles anger-management classes. People are using the Web for gambling, buying plane tickets. Tampa, Fla., police track people using digital cameras. Bush nominates Robert Mueller as FBI director. Houston struggles with mosquitoes. Ex-spy Robert Hanssen pleads guilty. Baseball might date back to 1823, historians say. Internet grocery service Webvan declares bankruptcy, folds. Research, debate continue on embryonic stem cells. NYT profiles fear of digital “actors” replacing humans.Top movie (weekend of July 13-15): “Legally Blonde”