The Onion said goodbye to Timothy McVeigh 20 years ago today
We also have paintings of Jesus, an ode to Dolly Parton, a man too generous with gum and a man sad he was hit with a shovel. These are all real things.
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 13, 2001.
I’m back on schedule after last week’s trip to see family for the first time since 2020. Thanks for being here no matter what time I send.
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What issue is this?
The excellent front-page headline “Married Paramedics Bickering Over Best Way To Restart Heart” is no longer online. How is this not a TV show?
“Area Man Gets New Phone, Cardboard Box, Bubble Wrap, Polystyrene Blocks, Plastic Bag, Twist Ties” appears on the 2001 website but originally ran in 1998. Love the headline.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
Two things society talked about a lot in the late 1990s and early 2000s were deliberately antagonistic depictions of Jesus Christ — and Timothy McVeigh.
Both get a farewell of sorts in this issue. The top story brings the whole “Piss Christ” saga to a close with “Non-Controversial Christ Painting Under Fire From Art Community.”
This is what I call paint-by-numbers satire, in that it’s formulaic — essentially taking a real-life event and flip-flopping who’s involved in what. But that’s not an insult. You have to be very good to take such a basic joke and do it well.
People are mad about a painting of Jesus Christ that’s, well, pretty much a painting of Jesus we’ve seen for hundreds of years. The Onion captures anger and bewilderment among the protestors, and you can make your own judgment about whether this quote by curator Diana Bloom-Mutter feels like 2021’s culture wars:
"When I look at a painting of Christ, it's supposed to make me say to the person standing next to me, 'Yes, this is obscene, but do you know what's really obscene? Two thousand years of white, male oppression in the name of God.'"
Here’s the painting:
Honestly, it’s a boring painting, and this is another nice touch by The Onion. Whatever the writers’ views, they aren’t sparing anyone here.
As with every cultural debate, there’s a centrist willing to broker compromise. Here’s the museum director, who just wants the protests to stop:
“We might be able to scare up a pint or two of rhino vomit to splash on the canvas. And I know candied yams can be mashed into a nice, viscous paste and spread pretty easily. Personally, I like the painting as it is, but if a little shock is all it takes to calm everybody down, I'm all for it."
The Onion had two items marking the real-life execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. The photo above had a small spot on the front page with the headline “Federal Prison System Retires McVeigh's Number.”
There’s also the short article “Everything Better Now In Oklahoma City,” which is some of the driest humor you’ll find, even for The Onion. Why was The Onion being almost cavalier about this event?
To find the answer, jump ahead about 15 years to an interview with Editor-in-Chief Scott Dikkers, where he talks about The Onion’s mindset after its “Our Dumb Century” book — basically, the years I’ve been reviewing in this newsletter.
“We learned that the real rule is comedy equals tragedy, period. The best jokes come from tragedy, and humor is a great coping mechanism when there’s tragedy in the world. People need to laugh. Everybody is going to be able to laugh after a certain period after a tragedy, but even right away it can serve as a great release valve and a first step toward healing. It’s a really powerful thing. They used that 9/11 issue to do just that.”
And so you get the June 13 issue, where McVeigh is honored like he’s the Michael Jordan of domestic terrorists and where a blinded Oklahoma City teacher’s vision is restored because McVeigh was executed.
The final passage is not meant to be a cruel tease of the post-9/11 world, but it sure reads that way now:
Moments after McVeigh was pronounced dead, 168 white doves were seen soaring over the city, racing toward a suddenly cloudless horizon that beckoned the dawn of a glorious new day.
Area People doing Area Things
The U.S. distracted itself from Timothy McVeigh by developing a crush, as we see in “Nation In Love With Girl From Record Store.” Sadly, the record store is surely out of business in 2021.
Now, this story is less about crushes and more about middle-aged men perving out. I don’t know if this story has aged badly or if that’s exactly what The Onion intended. Danielle Metzler doesn’t seem phased by any of it, even a random reporter traveling to Athens, Ga., to ask her about this.
Informed of the nation's crush, Metzler shrugged her shoulders. "That's cool," she said, "but lately I've been more into British guys." She then returned to sorting CDs.
I’m someone who generally prefers the longer Onion stories, as there’s so much room to build on a joke, create vivid characters and so forth. But there are a few short items in the June 13, 2001, issue that are fantastic even at a short length.
“Vatican Declares Hours Between 3 A.M., 5:30 A.M. 'Ungodly’”: To be fair, this is probably accurate.
“Astronomers Admit They Made Neptune Up”: Conan O’Brien recently said on his podcast that he doesn’t believe in conspiracy theories (8:29) in large part because the logistics of secret-keeping are too difficult. That said, it’s wonderful here to imagine the Royal Astronomical Society keeping the ruse going for 7 generations.
“Woman Puts Cool Whip Containers To Every Conceivable Use” and “Partygoer Vows To Fix Keg” are self-explanatory, but they both feel real.
The front-page headline “Hammered Office Depot Manager Thrown Out Of Chili's” is a beautifully written sentence that lets the imagination run wild, with no need for a full story.
Were the infographics good?
I’m not sure “Energy-Drink Mania” ever really ended, so this is a particularly relevant infographic. The last joke, “Combines secrets of Eastern medicine and Western marketing,” is brilliant because the medicine part was nonsense but the marketing of said medicine was the goal.
This infographic does a good job of capturing how much people were talking about Red Bull and other energy drinks 20 years ago, all while knowing little to nothing about what the product was or whether it worked.
“How Big Are Our Bongs?” feels pretty evergreen, like The Onion had this kicking around for a slow week. “So big I’m just an atom in it” and “Oh, wow” made me laugh, for whatever reason.
Also, judging from the illustration, this bong is poison?
What columnists ran?
No recurring columnists this week, although we have two gems. “You Hurt Me Just Now When You Hit Me With That Shovel” is a good example of giving direct feedback. No “feedback sandwich” approach that leadership consultants advise against.
Such deep empathy from Louis Granger, who is almost certainly facing costly surgery, a long recovery and possible disfigurement:
Look, we're all wounded creatures in our own way. No one goes through life without enduring his share of hurt and pain. But we owe it to each other to try to minimize that trauma, be it heart or head. So, next time you feel the urge to lash out at me, be it with a cruel remark or a nine-pound spade, remember that I bleed, just like you.
This is your basic column about someone striking it rich and suddenly having friends and “friends” hitting him up, except instead of money, fame or riches, Barney has gum. And he doesn’t mind sharing. What he doesn’t like is being used:
“Why is it that no one has the temerity to pick up their own gum at the local shop? Is a man really a man who does not equip himself with his needs at the beginning of the day? Why, then, do those who often crave gum not procure themselves some, instead relying solely upon the generosity of those with the forethought to do so?
Barney is quick to note only a few bad apples are exploiting his gum generosity. And he enjoys his status too much to let his gum supply expire. So, in the end:
Yes, for now, I shall suffer the indignities of the few for the good of the many. As a true gum lover, this is my stick to bear.
I love this sort of satire, as his serious tone sounds like life-and-death circumstances are occurring, or that the betrayal demands a call for war. Instead, it’s people asking for a stick of gum a little too often without reciprocating.
Most “Hey, it’s 2001!” reference
This quote from fictional 1960s Andy Warhol-esque artist Martin Meyer, as part of “Non-Controversial Christ Painting Under Fire From Art Community.” The Onion seemingly can’t go 3 issues without mentioning PlayStation.
"Divinity and materialism are practically one and the same in today's world. Instead of Jesus on his throne, why not place him atop a pile of DVD players? Instead of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, why not three wise men bearing Cuisinarts, Nokia cell phones, and PlayStations?"
Honorable mention to The Onion asking people what they thought about a $3 billion smoking verdict against Phillip Morris.
What was the best horoscope?
This week’s horoscopes have multiple accounts of dogs and humans fighting to the death, but let’s skip that unpleasantness. Instead, we have Aries, which feels like an episode of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”
Aries | March 21 to April 19
Your decision to put on a show to save the old malt shop will result in your arrest for public nudity, indecent behavior, and violation of six health codes.
What holds up best?
I think there are a few possibilities, depending on what you enjoyed most. The energy-drink infographic is a smart portrayal of how most consumer products are (less than truthfully) marketed, while “Partygoer Vows To Fix Keg” is very simple but is literally happening across American campuses every week.
What holds up worst?
“Surgeon General: Americans Have Gigantic Fat Asses” is a story I haven’t mentioned so far. It’s yet another Onion story about a ridiculous, fictional government report where government officials say outlandish things.
However, that premise struggles here for a couple of reasons:
This article reads more like an attack on people for their weight
Government officials say absurd things constant and loudly.
If you want the world’s most inventive list of derogatory terms for being fat, however, this article is for you!
What would be done differently today?
I suspect there are many, many ways to write about the legions of Dolly Parton fans without leaning so much on the stereotypes of “Gay Man Really Respects Dolly Parton For All She's Been Through.”
What’s fascinating is that an article about Dolly Parton is possibly more relevant than it was 20 years ago. We don’t see that often with celebrities, although “No Jennifer Lopez News Today” in March 2001 was another example I recently wrote about.
The article’s not all that funny, either? I mean, it’s mostly paragraphs about Dolly’s greatness, and the reaction I had is, “Sure, but where’s the parody?” Like this paragraph:
"Instead of being all worried about fitting into some Hollywood-prescribed mold of what a star is supposed to be, she just said, 'I'm me, and if you don't like it, you can stick it where the sun don't shine!' And you know what? It worked! In 9 To 5 and Steel Magnolias, she was simply fabulous."
Also, click through for the picture of local gay man Rich Fontenot. He’s got that very 2001 bad blonde dye job that’s a cross between early Eminem and one of the “Home Improvement” kids.
What real-life people were mentioned?
Timothy McVeigh. Johann Galle. Pope John Paul II. James Joyce. Dolly Parton. Wynonna. Reba McEntire. Patsy Cline. Whitney Houston. Cher. David Satcher. Tommy Thompson. Stephin Merritt. New York Dolls. Toby Dammit. Tipsy. Jazzanova. U.N.K.L.E. Boredoms. DJ Krush. Le Tigre. Cheap Trick. Low. Dirty Three. Modern Lovers. Jonathan Richman. Michael Kimmelman. Maxwell Anderson.
The female singers/musicians from Wynonna to Cher are mentioned in the Dolly Parton story.
Satcher is the surgeon general issuing the report on obesity, and Thompson was secretary of health and human services.
Many, mostly obscure musicians were mentioned in “Nation In Love With Girl From Record Store.”
Kimmelman, quoted in the Christ painting story, is the latest real-life newspaper critic to be cited by The Onion in 2001, and he’s still a Times critic. Meanwhile, Anderson was the Whitney Museum director, resigning in 2003.
What was happening in the real world?
Here’s the real-life news from June 4-10, 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:
Democrats gain Senate control after GOP defection. George W. Bush signs tax cut into law, imposes restrictions on imported steel, will restart North Korea talks. Report warns of global warming, human link. NYT profiles AIDS’ effect on New York City. Smoker wins verdict of over $3 billion against Phillip Morris (editor’s note: appeals reduced this to $50 million by 2005; the plaintiff died in 2002). Iran reformist Mohammad Khatami wins re-election. NYT says “bikinis are back.” “The Producers” sets Tony Awards record with 12 wins. Actor Anthony Quinn dies at 86. Blockbuster settles lawsuit over late fees. Michael Bloomberg formalizes NYC mayoral run. NYT profiles national World War II memorial design.