The Onion ended war and invented advertising 20 years ago
Also, learn about summer 2001's hot movies and songs, the World War II memorial, doomed weddings and much more.
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 June 20, 2001.
Today, we look at an Onion issue that was feisty and unrepentant. While some of the jokes and premises don’t hold up or are too reliant on stereotypes, The Onion doesn’t shy away from anything this week.
As always, if you enjoy, please share this newsletter. We all need something to read on a weekend afternoon, you know. And if you’re new, sign up below.
What issue is this?
The front-page headline “Keebler Elves Multiracial All Of A Sudden” is no longer online. I assume this reflects something from real life but wasn’t able to confirm that.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
Pardon the tortured metaphor, but sometimes satire is about starting with a stereotype, then building on it, higher and higher, until you reach an astounding height of absurdity or the structure collapses on top of itself.
I’m not sure which is the best way to describe “Northern Irish, Serbs, Hutus Granted Homeland In West Bank” in 2021. For sure, it’s a delightful parody of the way the United Nations tries to solve problems — “Let’s just group all the troublesome peoples in one location. Problem solved!” — but it also feels inconsiderate of the real-life tragedies occurring.
20 years ago was also a time where Israeli-Palestinian relations were especially poor, kind of like now. So, naturally, The Onion decides the West Bank is the perfect place to send 10-15 different groups of people to live in harmony.
What would you think would happen if powerful nations forcibly relocated many different peoples, simultaneously, and crammed them into one small part of a distant land? Well, conflict immediately erupts despite the optimism of luminaries such as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Secretary of State Colin Powell, former President Jimmy Carter.
In response, bigger nations send military force to “observe” and safeguard the region. This is all according to plan, President George W. Bush says:
"There is always a period of transition and upheaval in the founding of a new government," President Bush said. "That is why an international humanitarian consortium of nations, including the U.S., France, Russia, Iraq, and North Korea, has pledged $2 trillion in military aid to the new nation. This way, all Ethniklashistanis, regardless of race, color, creed, or economic background, will have equal access to the state-of-the-art ordnance they need to defend themselves and their families during this initial period of instability."
The Onion is clever, even in hindsight, of headlining this story as a mockery of troublesome, rebellious peoples when it’s really a takedown of the international system and the paternalism of peacekeeping.
If that’s more heaviness than you wanted, there are some wild battlefield alliances to ponder over, like the Palestinians and the Papuans of New Guinea battling Irish Protestants and Zapatistas.
The other story that is real-sounding but fictional is the delightfully sly “Product Awareness Increased With 'Advertisement,'” which imagines the “advertisement” being invented in 2001.
I love the naive, effusive tone The Onion takes, noting that the advertisement is “provided free of charge to consumers” and quoting GlaxoSmithKline CEO J.P. Garnier explaining to readers why an “ad” is different from a public-service announcement.
Companies and brands are ecstatic at this invention. From a Pepsi executive:
"We're currently developing an advertisement that would compare the attributes of Pepsi to those of Coke, so that a cola drinker could decide which beverage is the best choice for them. I must admit that, given all the facts, I am confident consumers will choose Pepsi."
As I talk about often here, The Onion loves to invent D.C. lobbyists and associations, and here we have comments from the fictional Consumers Helping Others with Informed Choices Everywhere (CHOICE).
Elsewhere in the news …
The real world is prominent in this issue. For instance, the Bush family has multiple mentions. There’s the easy joke of “Bush Trying To Decide How To Spend His Tax Refund,” where the president is flipping through a Sharper Image catalog.
There’s also the too-easy joke of the front-page headline “Jenna Bush's Federally Protected Wetlands Now Open For Public Drilling,” which is clever joke construction but also unpleasant to read now.
I mean, the joke is literally that people are free to fuck Jenna Bush. We can do better.
Speaking of women treated poorly by the media, The Onion also highlighted a biography of the late Princess Diana.
I’ve never heard of this biography. This is a good reminder that no one will remember most things that feel extremely important in the moment.
But is this infographic funny? The British royal family is not my expertise, but I think there are decent jokes about the Irish commoner and Diana not picked to play herself in a TV movie. The William joke seems cruel to Diana, though. And that sex toy joke — wow. If you like a good alliteration joke, I don’t think you’ll find a more deliberate one in all of The Onion.
My favorite is the Queen Mother joke, if only because The Onion loved any excuse to mention the 100-year-old mother of Queen Elizabeth.
We also have the lottery parody “Nobel Fever Grips Research Community As Prize Swells To $190 Million,” based on the premise that the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was not awarded (not true) and that scientists are clamoring to win an ever-expanding jackpot.
There are the requisite quotes from scientists and medical journals, but most of this is lottery strategy:
"I'm working on a study of the efficacy of prescription medications in smoking cessation and whether said medications can be utilized for other chemical addictions," said Dr. Laurie Colangelo, a medical researcher at Northwestern University. "Also in my pool are doctors working on lymphatic cancer, organ cloning, and spinal-cord regeneration. We're steering clear of doing any AIDS research, because that's what won last time. What are the odds of the same subject winning twice in a row?"
The Onion notes this award is more than 3 times the largest previous award, which they say went to Nobel Prize in Economics winner Trygve Haavelmo in 1987. Haavelmo did win an economics Nobel, but it was in 1989.
Finally, we have The Onion asking people about “The World War II Memorial,” which is far from my favorite memorial in downtown D.C. The Onion is surprisingly caustic toward World War II veterans, with multiple people essentially saying, “Let’s wait out these old geezers.”
The early 2000s were also a heyday for video games based on WWII, and this quote sums that up perfectly:
"I'm not convinced what they did was so great. I made it to the end of Castle Wolfenstein in, like, two hours."
David Andujar • Auto Mechanic
There’s also a reference to Tom Brokaw sexually pleasuring every WWII veteran.
Area People doing Area Things
I’ve lived in D.C. for nearly 12 years, and I’ve seen a lot of neighborhood upheaval and signs of gentrification. So, I can relate to the short-but-sweet “Resident Of Three Years Decries Neighborhood's Recent Gentrification,” which is about Chicago.
Says Accenture employee Bruce Smales:
"This whole place is turning into Yuppieville. You can't throw a rock without hitting a couple in matching Ralph Lauren baseball caps walking a black lab." Smales then took his golden lab for a walk.
Other fun “local” stories include;
“Guests Forced To Pretend Wedding A Good Thing”: I’ve been to one or two such weddings. This story has complaints from many, many people. Mother of the bride responded to the announcement “by throwing a porcelain cookie jar at [Jerome] Sykes' head.”
“Robbie Krieger Goes 51 Minutes Without Mentioning Jim Morrison” is a good joke about the Doors guitarist, but the joke is pretty much in the headline.
“Nepotism Passed Off As Synergy” is every company that hires someone’s relative and claims that person is actually the best candidate for the job.
“Video Store's 'Favorites' Shelf Offers Telling Glimpse Into Manager's Psyche”: Remember video stores? This short article involves psychiatric analysis of this video store manager.
Finally, the front-page headline and photo “Opening Soda Bottle Inadvertently Makes Man Loser” is worth a chuckle.
Were the infographics good?
The only infographic I haven’t mentioned is “Pet-Care Tips,” which is really more of a list of bullet points. Like most Onion joke lists, there are good and bad jokes here. I especially enjoy this one:
If your dog or cat starts wearing pointy, '50s-era women's eyeglasses, contact cartoonist Gary Larson immediately.
The worst joke is almost certainly the one about how owning a particular species of bird makes you gay. I’m not sure the joke even made sense in 2001.
I also want to mention this bit for everyone who calls themselves a “dog parent”:
Many people consider their pets just as important a part of the family as its human members. This is psycho. Don't do this.
What columnists ran?
Jackie Harvey is one of the best regular Onion columnists, with his wonderful combination of enthusiasm and slightly mistaken pop-culture commentary. He doesn’t disappoint with “Sony Brings Shame To My Profession!,” in which he is angry about a real-life scandal where Sony paid for fake, flattering reviews.
Harvey gets so many details almost right, such as Heath Ledger’s film “Tales Of The Knights,” the hit animated movie “Max Shreck” and the Angelina Jolie action flick “Tomb Robber.”
Harvey covers a surprising amount of real-life news, like Steve Buscemi getting stabbed and nearly killed in a bar fight, which I had never heard of. (“Vince Vaughn, the more important of the two, was thankfully uninjured,” Harvey notes.)
He also briefly mentions that “tough-guy actor and Little Rascal Robert Blake was involved in a fracas regarding his wife. Well, more of a cold-blooded killing than a fracas.”
I also love this paragraph:
Item! Everyone's "heiling" The Producers! Even me, and I haven't seen it yet! I guess it's easy to get caught up in the mad rush, particularly when the rush is about a musical comedy with Ethan Lane and Ferris Bueller! Rumor has it, none other than Rosie O'Donnell saw it on opening night and gave it rave reviews. Now, that's saying something.
Unfortunately, there’s a great Harvey joke about Sisqo and “Song About Thongs” that’s sullied by The Onion’s casual use of “gay” as a pejorative, as we saw a lot 20 years ago. And the opening paragraph’s stereotypes of Japan haven’t aged well either, even if relatively harmless.
The other column this week is “Though Fire, Flood, And Earthquake Beset My Path, Still Will I Get Home In Time For The Joker's Wild,” which is an ode to the Game Show Network’s airing of “The Joker’s Wild.”
This is a fire-and-brimstone speech, denouncing pretender game shows and any other distractions. Bennett Vance is clearly well-versed in the show, as this paragraph shows:
Let rains three men deep flood these lands. I care not. I swear I shall be home as the closing credits of the preceding program roll, and by the time the Joker theme fills my living room, I shall be safe and dry in my Barcalounger, sipping a Fresca, awash in every nuance of early-'70s game-show zeitgeist, from horn-driven theme music to sponsorship by Z-Brick and Jules Jurgensen, to the show-capping announcement that this has been a Jack Barry and Dan Enright production.
“Let rains three men deep flood these lands” is poetry.
Most “Hey, it’s 2001!” reference
Many to choose from, but this Jackie Harvey line seems as good as any:
I'm still waiting for the year's summer song to touch down. Will it come from The Backstreet Boys? Destiny's Child? Eden's Crush? Matchbox 20? The suspense is killing me!
What was the best horoscope?
My favorite horoscope this week is Libra, just one of several provocative options.
Libra | Sept. 23 to Oct. 22
Nailing the parrot to your shoulder may keep it secure while you're climbing the rigging or sailing rough seas, but it'll also make it harder to replace.
What holds up best?
I didn’t go in depth on “Guests Forced To Pretend Wedding A Good Thing,” but it feels timeless. People like to gossip and bad-mouth in almost any circumstance, and weddings are prime territory.
What holds up worst?
The Jenna Bush headline, for me. Maybe you feel presidential children are fair game, especially once they turn 18, which I can understand. The headline still reads a little too predatory for me.
What would be done differently today?
The gay jokes would be gone, for sure. I’m not sure “Northern Irish, Serbs, Hutus Granted Homeland In West Bank” would run. In 2021, the perspective might feel wrong, or The Onion’s staff might fear the article being read approvingly rather than as satire.
That’s just a hunch. Maybe I’m wrong.
What real-life people were mentioned?
Kofi Annan. Slobodan Milosevic. Colin Powell. George W. Bush. Jimmy Carter. King Carl XVI Gustaf. Trygve Haavelmo. Robbie Krieger. Jim Morrison. Jenna Bush. Heath Ledger. Mike Myers. Cameron Diaz. Halle Berry. Matt Damon. Kate Beckinsdale. Angelina Jolie. Billy Bob Thornton. The Backstreet Boys. Destiny's Child. Eden's Crush. Matchbox 20. Tamara Mello. Sara Rue. Nathan Lane. Matthew Broderick. Rosie O’Donnell. Steve Buscemi. Vince Vaughn. Robert Blake. Sharon Stone. Perry Como. Jeffrey Lyons. Tom Brokaw. Jack Barry. Dan Enright. Bill Cullen. Jim Peck. J.P. Garnier. G. Richard Wagoner. Princess Diana. Catherine Oxenberg. Prince William. Queen Mother. Gary Larson. Julie Strain.
Annan and Milosevic are among world leaders mentioned in “Northern Irish, Serbs, Hutus Granted Homeland In West Bank.”
The actors, singers and film critic Lyons are mentioned in Jackie Harvey’s column.
Barry, Cullen and Peck were hosts of “The Joker’s Wild.”
Strain was in Penthouse, as “Pet-Care Tips” notes, and she was also an actress. Strain died this past January.
What was happening in the real world?
Here’s the real-life news from June 11-17, 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:
Timothy McVeigh is executed. Bush visits Europe, calls for Kyoto to include China and India, seeks NATO extension to Russian border. Israelis, Palestinians agree on cease-fire deal. Tropical Storm Allison kills 16. Supreme Court says warrants needed for high-tech scanning of homes; also rules that after-school religious activities be allowed at public schools. Study looks at Lyme disease’s pervasiveness. Life sentence for Kenya embassy bombing perpetrator. “Microsoft Is Ready to Supply A Phone in Every Computer.” Bozo the Clown tapes last show after 4 decades. Los Angeles Lakers win NBA title. NYT profiles increase in single fathers.