The Onion sort of remembered JFK Jr.'s death 20 years ago

Remember when Russell Crowe was winning Oscars? We also have a yak, General Motors' new car and Disney's layoffs. All sorts of fun stuff.

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 April 4, 2001.

I barely remember John F. Kennedy Jr., so we’re going to discover him together this week.

I’m grateful every week to share this with you. If you think someone else would enjoy this, please let them know!


What issue is this?

This was Vol. 37, Issue 12, the 56th Onion issue of the 2000s and the 55th issue of new content. Here’s what the website looked like in 2001, 2011 and today.

For some reason, today’s website lists every story as being from March 4, 2001, instead of April 4. This error dates back to at least 2011, and there must have been a typing error during one of The Onion’s many website overhauls. We know this is April 4 because of the 2001 website archive, as well as the Oscars being held March 25, 2001.

Two articles are online but not on the Issue 12 page:

What was the top story, and other impressions?

John F. Kennedy Jr. would only be 60 years old if he were alive today. Maybe he’d be president! I can’t imagine him not running for president after seeing all the Clintons and Bushes run, not to mention Trump.

But that didn’t happen, and as tragic as his death was, I don’t remember it well. And that’s exactly the sort of forgetful sorrow that The Onion taps into with “The JFK Jr. Tragedy: A Year Or So Later.”

This article isn’t making fun of John-John, it’s mocking the grief-as-nostalgia around his death. And that’s important: It would cruel to simply mock JFK Jr., whose biggest moments in the spotlight were mostly because of his famous family or “Seinfeld.”

What makes this satire work is that the authors know this was a big event, but they don’t really recall the particulars. Did he die in the summer? Which Massachusetts island was he going to? How was his wife’s name spelled? Who was on board? Did we discover what caused the crash? Are we thinking of Princess Diana’s death?

Other important questions that we’ll tragically never know the answers to:

Would he have been photographed rollerblading shirtless in Central Park? Likely, though he hinted at a shift toward shirtless frisbee-throwing. Would he have gone on to make more allusions to the possibility of maybe one day running for public office? He showed signs. Tragically, we will never know for certain.

For what it’s worth, JFK Jr. died in July 1999, so this was nearly two years later.

The Onion satirizing real life

2021 has been a big year for car companies developing electric and hybrid vehicles. 20 years ago today, The Onion highlighted a different innovation:General Motors Reports Record Sales Of New Disposable Car.”

This was also powered by a battery, but not like Tesla’s. This was an $1,100 car with a 9-volt battery. There’s also a gasoline-powered upgrade, but it, too, is meant to be discarded after one use.

This is very silly, so maybe it’s not for everyone. I like that it pokes fun at car companies and Americans’ love of buying things, especially in an age before sustainability was a consumer buzzword. I also enjoy the stupid names given to GM’s competition:

Responding to the Whim's success, rival automakers are preparing to counter with their own lines of disposable cars, including the Ford Temporaire and the Chrysler Dumper. The 2002 Mitsubishi Ditch will be unveiled later this year, with a projected sticker price of $799.

There was also the news that Disney laid off 4,000 people! It’s hard to imagine Disney struggling today, but then again, it didn’t yet own Pixar, Marvel or Lucasfilm, much less Disney+, Hulu or all those Fox properties.

The Onion has some OK jokes about Disney's Cost Cutting Measures.” Any lawyers or media people reading this will appreciate the idea of Disney “Suing self for copyright violation.”

Other stories that satirize real-life events include:

  • Jenna Elfman Mentally Prepares Answer To Inevitable Question About Her Outfit”: Just a photo. Poor Elfman. You can tell it’s 2001 with the cavalier tone of this headline.

  • Citizens To Vote On Young Or Old Reagan For $15 Billis based off the wave of things being named for Ronald Reagan by Congress. We also have The Onion inventing the $15 bill and commissioning Playboy and sports artist LeRoy Neiman for a 1981-era Reagan portrait. Also, The Onion often used fake names for midlevel government officials, but John Mitchell actually was deputy director of the U.S. Mint.

  • Global Warming Heats Upis the person-on-the-street feature that follows President George W. Bush shunning the Kyoto Protocol. There are two key quotes. One is mocking Ralph Nader supporters and, I think, angry Democrats’ reactions to Nader. The other is just accurate reporting.

    • "As a Nader supporter, I'm thrilled to see the Green Party's master plan working so perfectly."

    • "I'm against global warming. I'm also against altering my lifestyle in any way whatsoever to reduce it."

  • Oscar Countdown 2002 Beginshas this great line: “Will Pearl Harbor be the night's big winner, assuming it's a film of artistic merit?" I usually forget trailers even before I leave the theater that day, but I still remember seeing the “Pearl Harbor” trailer 20 years ago and thinking, “Oh no.”

Area People doing Area Things

More than a year before the “West Wing” episode with a White House employee wearing a “Star Trek” pin, The Onion had Action Figures Set Cubicle Apart.”

Now, my workspace that I haven’t seen since early March 2020 has a couple trinkets, a Washington Nationals bobblehead or two, and a lot of needless papers and clutter. I get the idea of personalizing your cubicle.

The Onion does, too, which is why they have Ron Pelinka possess 57(!) action figures. Dragonball Z, Aquaman, Star Wars, Star Trek, Austin Powers and Tomb Raider are just some of the franchises represented.

It’s both completely understandable and also weird, right? Also, HR might want to hear about this:

Pointing to Battlefield Earth's Terl slow-dancing with Princess Leia atop his Zip drive, Pelinka said he sometimes likes to pose the figures in humorous positions. He is also fond of creating accessories for them, such as when he recently teased coworker Angela Rachert by fashioning a tiny sign for Austin Powers that read, "Angie is shaggadelic [sic], baby!"

Other local stories from this week include:

Were the infographics good?

Besides Disney, The Onion reminds us that it’s tax season with Least Common Tax-Deductions.” Topical infographics like this are sometimes funny, but sometimes read like the Onion’s leftover jokes that got cut from better items.

These jokes are mostly fine — “Lighter fluid for client” has just the right amount of mystery, for instance. I also appreciate a Lil’ Kim mention, although her name is misspelled here.

What columnists ran?

Let’s get this out of the way: Bereaved? Come Bathe In The Healing Light Of My Cockis a real Onion column in which a certain word is used 26 times. This is the 2nd of 3 columns from Lowell P. Thurber, with the final one in 2003. All are phallic-related.

I do appreciate the way that you could substitute “Jesus Christ” or other phrases here, and the article almost works. Like this paragraph, where I’ve already substituted the word “TikTok”:

TikTok will be there for you always, and TikTok does not judge. It just loves. Can you imagine being loved more than you ever thought possible? And more frequently? That is a joy you can know today, simply by inviting TikTok into your heart and various other parts of yourself.

A less NSFW column this week is one of my favorites, as longtime Onion Hollywood columnist Jackie Harvey returns with Russell Crowe Has Something To 'Crowe' About... An Oscar Win!

Unlike a year earlier, Harvey didn’t forget to watch the Oscars. He’s also incredibly excited to use the word “crowe.” You should understand that I love this sort of Onion humor, but I realize some people do not like this wordplay:

Russell Crowe has something to "crowe" about… an Oscar for Best Male Actor! The hunky star of American Gladiator, who was seated in the front "crowe" with an unnamed blonde, slayed the competition with his sword of talent and charisma. Another Crowe, whose first name I forget, also won an Oscar for writing or directing or something like that, so he had something to "crowe" about, as well.

“American Gladiator” is just one of the mistakes Harvey makes. He misspells Bjork’s name, thinks Dennis Leary is “O’Leary” and misidentifies Bob Dylan as Vincent Price.

I love Jackie Harvey. He’s enthusiastic, mostly clueless and throws in random Larry King-style ramblings like this one:

Say, does anyone ever wonder why every time you slip into a hot bath, some telemarketer calls trying to sell you something? And why is it usually something good?

Most “Hey, it’s 2001!” reference

As society reexamines Britney Spears’ time in the spotlight, this Jackie Harvey mention feels uncomfortable now but likely 100% accurate in terms of how millions of people felt. Also, people still like those Pepsi commercials.

And the Britney Spears Pepsi commercial? Ooh la la! It's okay to say that now that she's 18. A year ago, that sort of talk would have been inappropriate and perverted, but now, hubba-hubba!

What was the best horoscope?

While I enjoy the horoscope entries about the word “dope” and obscene open-casket funerals, I also love automation jokes, and Taurus has one this week.

Taurus | April 20 to May 20

Your replacement by more than 10,000 miles of super-efficient fiber-optic cable is scheduled to begin next week.

What holds up best?

The JFK Jr. story is a curio for any younger people, and for good reason, but it’s really well-written satire. That said, the headline “Yak Chews Thoughtfully” is so good. Like JFK Jr.’s future, we’ll never know what kind of full-length yak article The Onion could have created.

What holds up worst?

Another front-page headline is easily the cringiest thing in this issue. Thankfully, “Sean Combs Changes Name To P. Puff Diddly-Dang Doofus” is no longer online.

What would be done differently today?

There was not a single politician mentioned this week outside of the “What Do You Think?” feature. That seems unlikely nowadays.

The use of the R-word in Jackie Harvey’s column to describe Melissa Rivers wouldn’t be used today, although it’s worth noting that the New York Times was still using it (albeit in a different context) in front-page headlines in March 2001. Less seriously, I suspect The Onion would not single out a mid-level TV sitcom star like Jenna Elfman for a front-page headline like they did in 2001.

What real-life people were mentioned?

John F. Kennedy Jr. Princess Diana. G. Richard Wagoner. George Romero. Tom Hanks. Rebecca Ascher-Walsh. Ronald Reagan. LeRoy Neiman. John Mitchell. George W. Bush. Ralph Nader. Jenna Elfman. Lil Kim. Michael Eisner. Russell Crowe. Cameron Crowe. Joan Rivers. Melissa Rivers. Julia Roberts. Bjork. Jennifer Lopez. Britney Spears. Marcia Gay Harden. Steve Martin. Whoopi Goldberg. Billy Crystal. Sharon Stone. Vincent Price. Bette Midler. Dennis Leary. Kimmi Kappenberg. Madonna. Puff Daddy.

  • Then-CEO Wagoner is in the General Motors article, while movie director Romero is in the horoscopes.

  • Hanks and journalist Ascher-Walsh are in “Oscar Countdown 2002 Begins.”

  • Then-Disney CEO Eisner is in the Disney infographic.

  • The famous people listed after Eisner are in Jackie Harvey’s column, although Harden and Melissa Rivers are only implied. I’m not sure who Harvey means by the “unnamed blonde,” although a blonde woman was sitting next to Russell Crowe at the Oscars.

What was happening in the real world?

Here’s the real-life news from March 26-April 1, 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:

Academy Awards are held, with “Gladiator” winning Best Picture. Slobodan Milosevic arrested by Serbia. Women go from 10% to 49.4% of law students within 30 years. Senate continues work on campaign finance reform. Cattle rustlers reemerge as a threat. Scientists say stem cells helped repair heart tissue. NYT profiles Michael Bloomberg’s effect on NYC mayoral race. California says electricity rates must increase. UK considers vaccinations to battle foot-and-mouth disease. NYT profiles knee injuries in female athletes. Non-Hispanic whites become minority in California.