The Onion realized reality TV's power 20 years ago today

The Onion also imagines a Black president, shows us what 37-year-old Karens looked like in 2001 and reminds us of Brad Pitt's fickle heart.

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 Feb. 21, 2001.

2001 usually feels like the recent past, but a lot of these stories made me feel old. So much has changed!

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What issue is this?

This was Vol. 37, Issue 06, the 50th published Onion issue of the 2000s and the 49th issue of new content. I couldn’t find the front page or 2001 website. Here’s the 2011 website (without images) and today’s website.

What was the top story, and other impressions?

In 2001, a Black man being elected U.S. president was so fanciful that The Onion could satirize the idea by setting it in Nigeria.

Nigeria Elects Black Presidentadds a twist — the entire article is written as if it were in the U.S. So, you have fictional President-elect Bilikisu Adewale decrying the lack of Black-focused cultural and educational offerings:

"Do you realize that in this nation of 123 million people, there is not a single black-history museum or black cultural center?" Adewale asked. "Did you know that at the University of Nigeria, there are no black fraternities and no black student union? This must change. And it will, starting today."

I wrote a few times in 2020 how The Onion of 2000 struggled to understand Africa as something other than a war-torn continent to make fun of. Here, The Onion compensates by relying on U.S.-based tropes of how we talk about communities and politics.

These tropes include the article’s opening line — “In a historic triumph for Nigeria's African-African community …” — and its closing, where Adewale pledges to appoint “a government that looks like Nigeria."

The U.S.-centric political coverage also includes Adewale courting Black voters and his focus on “issues of special concern” to Black voters in Nigeria, like “the economy, education, health care, and foreign policy.”

There’s also a math joke: “A shocking 50 percent of our nation's blacks earn an income below the national average.”

This story wouldn’t run today for the simple reason that real-life events have made it obsolete. But it remains an example of how The Onion surgically diagnoses and dissects its subject matter.

I love the humor of Human Tragedy Tops Nielsens,” in which The Onion recognizes the cultural juggernaut that is reality TV, and hate how accurate it feels. Anyone who knows me knows how much I despise the reality TV phenomenon and its core philosophy of “get your 15 minutes of fame, no matter what you have to do.”

This article is also very much of its time — the waning days of network dominance before social media — because there’s only a stray mention of the internet. Even cable news is ignored despite its established popularity and dubious programming.

But enough of that: What’s funny about this story?

This is the natural follow-up to March 2000’s “Fox Voluntarily Removes Reality From Programming.” I also think it’s fun — and accurate — that prime-time news programs would want to turn tragedy into compelling TV.

These are all the (imaginary) reality shows mentioned by name. I’ve ranked them by my favorite to least favorite:

  1. “Venereal Archipelago” (The Onion is assuredly parodying “Temptation Island”)

  2. “Tragic Event Sunday”

  3. “Crushed By An Enraged Bull Elephant” (five parts!)

  4. “My Son’s Eyes Are Mrs. Griffith’s Now”

  5. “They’re Going To Prom In Heaven—The Fitchburg High Disaster Remembered”

  6. “Widowed By War”

  7. “The Make-A-Wish Foundation Presents: Blow Out The Candle” (Would Mitch Albom narrate?)

  8. “Watching Grandma Fade”

  9. “Amanda: Gone Too Soon”

  10. “The Final Minutes Of Flight 283” (sounds like a real program on Smithsonian Channel)

What’s going on with President Bush?

The Onion paid attention to George W. Bush this week with two stories and the “What Do You Think?” feature:

Area People doing Area Things

Grueling Household Tasks Of 19th Century Enjoyed By Suburban Womanis a story I want The Onion to write a sequel to in 2021. Suburban California woman Ellen Brinkworth would be 57 now, and she must be Karen-ing all over the place.

I don’t know how to make candles at home, but it sure feels like someone at The Onion did their research. We learn the many ingredients and the many steps in this 10-hour process. We also learn that Martha Stewart is the inspiration for Brinkworth’s home activities.

Thankfully, The Onion also asks a historian to weigh in. Danielle Huson is not enthusiastic:

"Women used to do things like dye cloth, spin wool, and make candles as cost-saving measures, or because they lived too far from a major town to purchase these items," Huson said. "They certainly didn't do it for pleasure. In the 1800s, the average frontierswoman toiled all day long, and on the rare occasion that she had a moment of free time, she usually spent it letting her bloody calluses heal."

Other local stories in this week’s Onion include:

Were the infographics good?

The McVeigh Execution ended up being held June 11, or exactly 2 months before 9/11. There’s a lot here, and I most enjoy the references to a Ticketmaster surcharge and the star-studded musical lineup.

And, of course, The Onion continues to use Fox as its go-to for any reality TV joke.

The last item, about the “welcome back” party, was received with confusion when I shared it with someone. I think this The Onion inserting anti-death-penalty commentary, for better or worse.

Most of these Top Spin-Off Seriesreferences are nods to real-life shows, and nearly all of those shows are in the “St. Elsewhere” universe (painstakingly documented here). This infographic is also a reminder of how TV shows were always creating spin-offs. Doesn’t it feel today, however, that movies are doing more spin-offs?

I would have absolutely watched “Sipowicz’s Place.” And “Niles” later had a real-life counterpart — the person who wrote episode synopses for 107 seasons of “Frasier” spinoffs.

Finally, we have Stargazing Tips,” which has many, many jokes and fares best with obvious humor, like warning us about Galileo’s imprisonment, reminding us of the star we can see during the day and referencing “Glengarry Glen Ross”:

Remember the "ABCs" of learning about constellations: Always Be learning about Constellations.

What columnists ran?

You And Me And Baby Minus Me Makes Twois one of those Onion columns that’s so cleverly written that the only question is whether they picked the right subject matter. Abandoning your child and gaslighting the other parent are not good things, but they do make for a good Onion column!

I mean, this is some psychological dark arts:

A woman plus her child minus a man there to provide support; now that's what I call the perfect couple. And let's face it: The whole idea of couplehood is kind of ruined by a third person, isn't it? But I wouldn't want you to be the one who has to give up all that beautiful couple stuff. So I'll do the responsible thing and bow out. I'll be a man about it. Do you think you'd even want me around? I know I wouldn't. It just wouldn't be right.

We also have one of my favorite column formats, the “Ask A …” — this time Ask An Upscale Gift Catalog.”

This is the 5th such entry in the 2000s, and it delivers J. Peterman-like levels of smooth-talking storytelling about buying stuff you don’t really need. Like a pen with its own light source, an Italian bookcase in a cafe, or a $5,740 Persian rug.

I don’t even care what the advice-seekers are asking about. Just tell me about this pen!

Hand-crafted from a stunning mix of aluminum and mahogany and engraved with designs inspired by Aztec craftsmen, each pen is equipped with the patented Lexmore Ink-Flo distribution system and a lifetime guarantee.

Most “Hey, it’s 2001!” reference

“Stargazing Tips” has maybe the most dated reference I can recall, as the only things poor Kate Hudson has burned in the past 20 years are relationships with rock stars and studios’ profit margins.

“Do not gaze directly at white-hot star Kate Hudson. Instead, poke a pinhole in a sheet of paper, and look at Hudson's outline on another sheet of paper.”

I also liked this sentence from New Energy Secretary Guesses He Ought To Read Up On Energy.” Encyclopedias!

The former Michigan senator said he plans to go to the library Thursday to look up "Energy" in The World Book Encyclopedia.

What was the best horoscope?

I loved last week’s horoscopes. These aren’t as funny to me, but I did really enjoy Aquarius.

Aquarius | Jan. 20 to Feb. 18

The derisive laughter of others is silenced when your deed to the Brooklyn Bridge turns out to be legal and ironclad.

What holds up best?

Probably the headline-and-photo Brad Pitt Bored With Sight Of Jennifer Aniston's Naked Body,” if only because it was a few years ahead of their real-life breakup.

There are some funny stories here, but not many that are timeless. Even Grueling Household Tasks Of 19th Century Enjoyed By Suburban Woman feels more like Reductress material these days than The Onion.

What holds up worst?

Frequent readers know that I’ll criticize The Onion for stories that are well-written but don’t seem to understand who is being mocked.

The front-page headline (no story, mercifully) “Cub Scout Wishes They'd Taught Him How To Chew Through Ball Gag” is one of those jokes.

What would be done differently today?

Pre-Teen Moves From Giggling-At-Everything Phase To Never-Smiling Phase appeared in this issue 20 years ago. It’s fine — a one-paragraph chuckle. But how is The Onion covering pre-teens in 2021, you ask?

On Feb. 19, 2021, The Onion published the (obviously NSFW) “The Penis Is The Male Reproductive Organ,’ Says Teacher To 5th-Grade Class That Has Already Watched Hundreds Of Hours Of Hardcore Pornography.”

I don’t think 2 random articles is much evidence of anything, but good Lord, what a contrast.

What real-life people were mentioned?

Sandy Grushow. Kurt Andersen. Howard Rosenberg. Spencer Abraham. George W. Bush. Bill Clinton. Phyllis Diller. Penn and Teller. Timothy McVeigh. ‘N Sync. Faith Hill. Coolio. Marc Anthony. Chaka Khan. Stevie Ray Vaughan. Eric Clapton. Buddy Guy. Robert Cray. Jimmie Vaughan. Annette Funicello. Dick Dale. Jonny Lang. Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Kate Hudson. Galileo. Jack Horkheimer. Brad Pitt. Jennifer Aniston. Martha Stewart.

What was happening in the real world?

Here’s the real-life news from Feb. 12-18, 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:

Dale Earnhardt killed in Daytona 500 crash. Bush visits Mexico. International Space Station opens lab, while NASA lands spacecraft on the asteroid Eros. NYT looks at women in sports. Navy tightens submarine visitor rules after fatal accident. Europe passes rules on genetically modified foods. U.S., Britain launch air strikes on Iraqi sites. NYT writes about touchscreen voting. People call for laws against driving while on cellphones. NYT profiles doctor who battled Ebola. D.A.R.E. program says strategic shift needed. Calling card fees come under scrutiny. Giuliani wants “decency panel” for art at city-funded museums. University of California president wants to move past SATs. Chinese official claims Falun Gong are mentally ill. Internet stock options come with tax bills.