The Onion invented "quantum slacks" and mourned loan sharks 20 years ago
We also get drinking stories, a longing for titanium and a new column from accounts receivable legend Herbert Kornfeld.
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 6, 2001.
Apologies for the late delivery! I traveled this week to see family and friends for the first time since March 2020, and today included several hours with my 92-year-old grandmother. So today’s column is a little shorter! Maybe you’ll like that better!
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What issue is this?
“Diversity Celebrated With Compulsory Luncheon” is on the 2001 website but was originally from March 22, 2000.
No longer online is the front-page headline “Cliffs Notes Skimmed.”
What was the top story, and other impressions?
The top story 20 years ago today was the truly silly “Haggar Physicists Develop 'Quantum Slacks,’” in which the world’s first “non-Newtonian” pants were announced.
The idea of a pants maker, not even a high-end fashion house, having physicists is delightful to me. And “quantum slacks”? Heck, quantum technology is still more promise than reality in 2021!
The pants offer more than just comfort or new materials, however:
"Scientific law holds that any given piece of clothing becomes less fashionable over time," Kohl said. "However, at the quantum level, we have found that certain styles of Haggar slacks actually grow more fashionable, suggesting the existence of 'slachyons,' theoretical pants that travel backward in time."
Also discussed are the concept of “anti-pants” and discovering the “smart cotton-twill weave” fabric of the universe.
I also love this photo collage, which combines the limitations of The Onion’s scientific knowledge with the limits of 2001 Photoshop.
You never want The Onion to lose this element of its humor: A silly, silly story that the writers first thought of because it was amusing — and then got way into the details.
The Onion also demonstrated some additional comfort with covering President George W. Bush, as he again appears in the short story “Bush Picks Up 20 Copies Of Washington Post He's In.” It’s a simple parody both of people getting excited to see themselves in print and of Bush’s perceived intelligence. It’s also a reminder that people used to read newspapers.
Area People doing Area Things
“Mom-And-Pop Loan Sharks Being Driven Out By Big Credit-Card Companies” is a wonderful excuse for The Onion to think up stereotypical loan shark/mob names and voices. And the opening 2-plus paragraphs are also a great satire of the way reporters prefer to write — the facts, sure, but let’s build some atmosphere and create a sympathetic figure.
PHILADELPHIA–Frankie "The Gorilla" Pistone leans wistfully on his bat. Then, without warning, he picks it up, swinging it furiously toward his deadbeat client's leg. Just before the Louisville Slugger makes contact with the man's kneecap, he pulls back, as only a real pro can, leaving the $250-in-the-hole man gasping in fear and relief. "Just get it to me by tomorrow, because next time, I ain't gonna let up," Pistone says.
As the thankful man scurries off, Pistone pulls the cigarette out of his mouth and drops it to the ground. "I'm going to miss this," he says.
Frank Pistone is part of the dying breed known as the American Loan Shark.
There’s probably some truth to this idea that people are still being extorted and financially tortured, just that the perpetrators have changed. I don’t know that The Onion was thinking that deeply here, but it’s not like credit-card companies are the most beloved businesses.
Like any good reporting about small businesses, you must end the article with some lament about the little guy. And so, we have:
"We were going by word of mouth, and we did pretty good around the neighborhood," Pistone said. "But these credit cards? With direct mail and the Internet, they reach a customer base we can only dream about. In this business climate, how can a small, independent goon possibly compete?"
Other Area People stories from this week:
“Area Man Wants Something Made Of Titanium”: Who doesn’t? Titanium is strong and durable.
“Author Wishes She Hadn't Blown Personal Tragedy On First Book”: This feels mostly true, although when you increasingly see “memoirs” from people in their 20s and 30s whose biggest hurdle was handling the Ivy League, it’s hard to relate. This story also succeeds because, as it unravels, you realize Jessica Kingley has no ability to write fiction, only to retell real-life stories that happened to her.
“Church Member Not The Same Since Unsuccessful Choir Tryout”: The clear answer here is to fool Mary Raines into singing almost inaudibly and get an off-stage singer to trick her, like they did on that “Andy Griffith Show” episode with Barney.
“Every Brand Of Alcohol Reminds Man Of A Different Story” rings somewhat true, in that I feel I’ve heard many people talk about alcohol they don’t drink anymore “after that time in [blank].” They usually don’t have the flair and vigor of storytelling like this guy. That Randy Streeter is also a sales associate at Guitar Center is an extra small pleasure.
“Heroic Cancer Sufferer Inspires Others To Get Cancer” seems like The Onion didn’t quite think this through beyond the joke logic of “What if we took X and made it Y?” Maybe there’s a COVID version of this? Perhaps it’s best if not.
“Woman Wonders Whatever Happened To Those Rainforests She Gave $5 To Save That One Time” is a pretty good description of charity — and, in 2021, of a lot of GoFundMe efforts. Not that the recipients’ causes aren’t legit or important, but that people mostly congratulate themselves for donating and then move on with their lives.
Finally, I should note these two front-page headlines. The first, “Ben Stiller Peels Banana With Own Feet,” also has a photo that vaguely looks like bananas are next to Ben Stiller’s face? Good job by The Onion staff.
The second is a headline that begs for a full story, but we don’t get anything: “Foul Play Suspected In Destruction Of World's Second-Largest Ball Of Twine.”
Were the infographics good?
I don’t get most of the references in “Least Used Kitsch References,” which might mean that it’s done the job. I do enjoy the reference to Balki from “Perfect Strangers,” a “Family Matters” spinoff that I’m sure has aged terribly.
“Yoga Nation” is buried somewhere on today’s Onion site, and it’s a good reminder that yoga was nowhere near as ubiquitous and banal (mostly) 20 years ago. I’m sure these jokes were hilarious in 2001, but they seem bland now.
Atal Behari Vajpayee really was prime minister of India, although I am sure no one was referring to him as “dishy.”
What columnists ran?
No one loves regular Onion columnist Herbert Kornfeld more than me — I’m 100% sure — but man, “Guard Yo' Grill Against Them Computa Bitchez” is a lot to muddle through.
First of all, the deliberately, exaggerated slang is literally difficult for me to read. And it’s not that novel a premise to have Kornfeld mad at the mother of his child for dating other men, even though he wants nothing to do with her.
What did I like about this?
Kornfeld’s son is named Tanner, not what Kornfeld calls him: “Baby Prince H Tha Stone Col' Dopest Bizook-kizeepin' Muthafukkin' Badass Supastar Kornfeld II.”
This wonderfully dated paragraph: “I wuz plannin' on takin' him to mah crib to show him mah computa wit' all tha def Microsoft Office 98 software an' shit. Uh-huh. I even got Minesweeper on mah hard drive. I got it goin' ON.”
Kornfeld explains the moral philosophy of how accountants view numbers versus how programmers do: “Ever see what them computa bitchez do to numbas? It ain't natural. Numbas ain't supposed to be code, they supposed to quantify shit.”
Kornfeld gets philosophical about computer algorithms putting him out of a job, just as his late mentor CPA-ONE (great KRS-One reference) showed him an old accounting pro getting fired because he couldn’t use computers.
There are some great comedic moments, but wow is this piece a tricky read in 2021.
I’m not an expert on industrial safety practices, but I imagine there is a lot of research that says having highly visible warnings and signage helps keep awareness up — and makes the lawyers and regulators happy.
But safety signs can sometimes feel ridiculous, and the excellent, incisive column “Actually, On-The-Job Safety Is A Laughing Matter” gets to the heart of it. Factory metalworker Garry Krumenacher has seen horrific workplace injuries, and he knows the risks of working in a dangerous industrial environment. So it makes him laugh that all the signage imagines he has no idea where he works.
Have you seen the signs? They're pretty funny, really. "WARNING! MOLTEN STEEL!" "DANGER! HIGH-SPEED BLADES!" "ATTENTION! HIGH-TEMPERATURE, HIGH-VOLTAGE WELDING TIP IN USE!" As if we weren't aware. Excuse me, but I'd been working here three seconds when I noticed the searing wall of heat coming off the vat of liquid steel, the insane shriek of the diamond-toothed bar-stock saw, and the eyelid-piercing white glare of the arc welder.
This isn’t even satire. It’s pure vicious mocking:
When Jorge lost his arm in the snipper, it wasn't for lack of a huge, day-glo sign reminding him to "Take Care!!!" There's a kind of callous, premeditated malice to those signs that's just plain laughable. If you're laughing in a high-pitched, sanity-eroding kind of way, that is.
Now, there’s that tricky aspect of whether workplaces would say, “Sure, let’s remove signs, and we’ll accept no liability.” But I think there’s a truth to this piece about how we communicate as humans — we struggle with nuance, so we just cover our asses with loud, obvious, even obnoxious shouting.
Most “Hey, it’s 2001!” reference
What was the best horoscope?
This week’s favorite horoscope for me is Aries, with its advice for budding entrepreneurs:
Aries | March 21 to April 19
You will realize that just because an idea comes to you in a dream doesn't make it any good after spending millions establishing a projectile-flooring business.
What holds up best?
It’s not the most relevant story 20 years later, but “Haggar Physicists Develop 'Quantum Slacks’” retains all its sharp humor, ludicrous mix of science and retail, and unabashed disregard for reality.
What holds up worst?
“Heroic Cancer Sufferer Inspires Others To Get Cancer” just doesn’t land for me, especially as it’s too short to really build up the premise beyond a couple quick jokes.
What would be done differently today?
No Herbert Kornfeld column, that’s for sure. More politics, and the Haggar article might not exist simply because of the length and effort. When you’re running a daily website rather than a weekly print newspaper, those types of stories might not be worth the effort.
Also, more references to real people.
What real-life people were mentioned?
George W. Bush. Ben Stiller. Atal Behari Vajpayee.