The Onion suggested alcohol, not drugs, 20 years ago today
We also have American icons like Popeye, Tom Brokaw and ... Richard Grieco. Plus, looking to switch careers? The Onion has you covered.
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 Aug. 8, 2001.
This issue has the latest attempt by The Onion to write a funny column about alcohol addiction, and it might be the best one.
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What issue is this?
No longer online is this front-page headline that sounds tragically accurate: “Mall Music Store Files All Black Artists Under 'Urban.’”
What was the top story, and other impressions?
There’s no online record of the front page or 2001 website, so I’m just going to talk about these stories in whatever order I like. Let’s start with “My Anti-Drug Is Alcohol.”
In April and November 2000, The Onion had written variations on this theme, as I discussed back then:
“I'm Like A Chocoholic, But For Booze” is a classic headline, and the column within is pretty good, too. This has long been an Onion favorite, including for Onion merchandise like T-shirts and magnets.
It’s also an improvement on April’s “I'm Not A Wino, I'm A 'Why-Yes'!” which lacked the balancing angle/delusion of a man equating his alcoholism to his wife’s enjoyment of chocolate.
My judgment is that “My Anti-Drug Is Alcohol” succeeds because it’s so clear our narrator can’t see the contradiction. Bobby Branch correctly notes many facts and/or stereotypes about addiction, yet fails to understand how they might apply to the drinking behaviors he advocates.
This delusion is actually pretty open-minded, as Branch understands not everyone wants to drink. In fact, he’s got lots of alternative activities for them.
Find a healthy substitute, something you can get really into, something that can be your anti-drug. It could be anything: Learn to play blackjack or the ponies. Explore kleptomania. Have sex with an endless parade of random strangers. Anything that makes you feel good, as long as it isn't drugs.
This is a brilliant parody of America — our cultural approval of alcohol but not other substances, the narrow focus of the War on Drugs — hidden within a young punk’s ill-informed life advice. And The Onion continues to make money off of this story.
My favorite “news” story this week is the all-too-relatable “Area Man Has No Idea Why He Wrote 'Gazebo Convo-Resolve/Tues (!?)' In Planner Six Weeks Ago.” So many of us have jotted down notes that we later can’t comprehend, right?
Gil Woller is stressed out about this note he can’t remember writing. He thinks he might have meant “convention” instead of “convo,” but that doesn’t explain the gazebo part. It doesn’t help that he also scribbled “a small doodle of a fish and a series of interconnected diamonds” next to the note.
"The fish leads me to believe that the gazebo could be near a lake or river. Or possibly a seafood restaurant," Woller said. "Or it could just be a random doodle. I don't know."
As is custom for The Onion, an expert is consulted. The therapist Dr. Eli Wasserbaum is sympathetic but leaves us all with this haunting reminder:
"We all need to feel like the things we do in life have a purpose and aren't merely a series of empty, forgettable exercises devoid of cause or effect. But how can a person feel a sense of purpose when he doesn't even know what he did?"
The only missed opportunity is that The Onion didn’t include an image of the cryptic note, a la “Work Avoided Through Extensive List-Making” in May 2001.
Here’s an Arby’s story
I guess I don’t really understand “Arby's Apologizes For New Beef 'N' Bacon Sandwich.”
Obviously, it’s making fun of Arby’s well-known, shameless bravado about its menu. Here, company officials are apathetic, even disappointed about this sandwich. And there is a lot of detail, with rich quotes and the mention of a planned TV commercial starring B.B. King, which is fun.
But I read this article and came away thinking, “OK, that was a thing.” Maybe that’s the point! To me, this felt like a great outline — “What if we wrote an article about Arby’s not being excited instead of their usual over-the-top enthusiasm?” — that wasn’t executed well-enough.
Or maybe I’m just being fussy — that fake advertisement above redeems the whole thing for me.
Other Area Person stories
We have such a good crop of “local” stories that mostly feel relatable, even 20 years later.
“Garage Band Actually Believes There Is A 'Terre Haute Sound’” hits a lot of strong notes about local bands, including the band photo above and the almost-believable names of the local Terra Haute bands: The Weebles, Cutie. Spongebob Fuxx, The Vagina Splits, The Larry Byrds, Introversion.
The Vagina Splits “may be girls, but they rock harder than most of the guy bands around,” notes Weebles bassist Gary Gaspart, who operates the local record label Terror Haute.
The Onion 20 years ago still had its Wisconsin roots, and thus no one was better at parodying meaningless Midwest rivalries for a national audience:
"Bottom line, we all just like to rock," Thompson said. "I think that's what sets Terre Haute apart from the Danvilles and West Lafayettes of the world. That and the fact that a lot of us have the same drummer."
Other Area People stories include:
“S&M Couple Won't Stop Droning On About Their Fetishes” is a classic in the Onion genre of people who “won’t stop” doing something. Here’s a literal Google search of that phrase. Like many good Onion articles, the subject matter might not seem relatable at first, but the underlying theme is actually a universal lesson in human nature::
"Last Friday, Gina was blathering on and on about domination, and I couldn't help but say, 'Well, you're certainly good at conversation domination,'" Engler said.
“Slain Cop Had Only 37 Years Until Retirement” is a simple parody of the “cop about to retire” trope, most memorably demonstrated by Danny Glover in the “Lethal Weapon” movies.
“Elementary Schooler Clearly Just Learned To Swear” is more profane than it needs to be — not in an offensive way, but more like, we get the joke! This could have been a headline and been just as funny.
“That Guy From That One Show Spotted With The Girl From The Shampoo Ad”: My mom will try sometimes to tell me about a funny commercial she saw, and besides the fact that I don’t have cable so I rarely know what she means, this is usually how these conversations go.
Famous and sort-of-famous people
I know, the front-page headline “Popeye Decries Mideast Bombings; 'Dese Bombinks Is Disgustipating,' Says Sailor Man” is really stupid. But as someone who watched Popeye as a kid, my God, this made me laugh.
The Onion 20 years ago also published a bonkers Tom Brokaw column attacking CNN — “CNN Should Be Named The Crappy News Not-Work” — and it ages poorly now for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s written like a 14-year-old insulting someone, with all the words and insults a 14-year-old might use in 2001 that are no longer publicly acceptable.
The other major problem, of course, is that such an all-out attack on CNN in 2021 wouldn’t come from a Brokaw-type rival, but from an entirely different part of the political spectrum.
Also, this isn’t written in anything resembling Brokaw’s voice. Maybe that’s the point, but it’s kind of lost on me 20 years later.
We also have:
“Senate Votes To Add Gratuity To All Bills Of Eight Provisions Or More,” which is a fun headline and essentially describes senators giving themselves kickbacks. The short article centers on then-Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas.
To understand “Richard Grieco's Star Power Inadvertently Donated To Goodwill.” it helps to know that Grieco was the guy who wasn’t Johnny Depp on the TV show “21 Jump Street” To be fair, the show had only been off the air 10 years in 2001. The 2021 equivalent might be an Onion story about “Smallville” or “Brothers & Sisters.”
Were the infographics good?
I really like “Lamest U.S. Excuses” for its timelessness. All of these excuses feel like real-life statements, and “I thought the schoolyard accident had rendered me infertile” raises so many additional questions. Credit to The Onion for being funny here without being too topical.
Of course, nothing in this Aug. 8, 2001, issue is more topical than “Clinton's First Week In Harlem,” and while these jokes are fine for what they are, this feels like a middling Jay Leno monologue.
That said, “Begrudgingly places framed photo of wife on desk” made me laugh, maybe because I don’t think it was a joke.
We also have “Making A Midlife Career Change,” which has lots of cynical, depressing advice for people in 2021 who are job-seekers or facing a midlife crisis. Here’s just one example:
Switching to a brand-new field is a great way to reexperience that lost, helpless, fish-out-of-water feeling that sickened you so in adolescence.
What columnists ran?
We’ve covered both columns. The “regular” Onion columnists have been infrequent in 2001 following a year where we had deranged Onion publisher emeritus T. Herman Zweibel nearly every single week.
Most “Hey, it’s 2001!” reference
Lots of choices, but I think this paragraph in the misguided Tom Brokaw column sums up how in 2001, Fox News was still on the rise (or was being incorrectly ignored):
CNN acts like they’re the network of record in Millennial America, just because of their award-winning Gulf War coverage. That was so 10 years ago, and people only watched because there was no MSNBC back then.
Also, using “Millennial America” to mean, I guess, the 21st century? That seems like a short-lived piece of jargon.
What was the best horoscope?
The Onion horoscopes were heavy on love and lust this week, and I will share these two without comment:
Aries | March 21 to April 19
You will be forced to admit that being up to your neck in pussy is not as sexy as it sounded.
Cancer | June 21 to July 22
Your love life will take a turn for the better when you begin to incorporate lessons gleaned from Clausewitz's On War.
What holds up best?
I rarely think an infographic holds up best, but “Lamest U.S. Excuses” could probably run today without any changes.
I pick this over things I probably enjoyed more but feel at least slightly dated, like Popeye or “My Anti-Drug Is Alcohol.”
What holds up worst?
That Brokaw column. I was so disappointed.
What would be done differently today?
No mention of President George W. Bush, although there was at least a little political news. Of course, in August 2021, there’s just more happening, with COVID-19 and the Olympics being the 2 biggest events.
Looking at The Onion’s homepage on Aug. 7, 2021, the most 2001-style article might be “Man’s Most Lasting Contribution To Society Uploading 5-Second ‘Nutty Professor’ Clip To YouTube.”
What real-life people were mentioned?
B.B. King. Richard Grieco. Sam Brownback. Carl von Clausewitz. Saul Bellow. Bill Clinton. Babyface Edmonds. Colin Powell. NOFX. Reverend Horton Heat. The Supersuckers. Operation Ivy. Cheap Trick. Bratmobile. Mr. Mister. Chandra Levy. Lou Waters. John King. Larry King. Pat Boone. Kenneth Copeland. Marlon Brando. Maria Shriver. Lou Dobbs. Robert Bazell. Roger Cossack. Greta Van Susteren. Jeff Greenfield. John Hockenberry. Ted Turner.
The late writer Bellow is in the horoscopes.
Babyface and Powell, who are rarely discussed together, are in the Bill Clinton infographic.
The many musical acts are all from the Terra Haute Sound article.
Brokaw’s column names many, many TV news personalities, along with other celebrities, then-missing intern Levy and CNN founder Turner.
What was happening in the real world?
Here’s the real-life news from July 30-Aug. 5, 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:
NFL player Korey Stringer dies from heatstroke in training camp. Former Bosnian Serb Gen. Radislav Krstic found guilty of war crimes. U.S. House passes bills to expand energy exploration, address patients’ rights and ban human cloning (editor’s note: 5 years after Dolly the sheep was cloned). AT&T Labs claims software can mimic human voices. Senate rejects Bush’s consumer safety nominee. NYPD struggling to fill higher-level jobs. NYT discovers New Yorkers watching movies outside. Rise in homeless families reported in major cities. Scientist suggests dinosaur nostrils are incorrectly placed. Russia frees American held on spying accusations. Rural communities embrace prisons for the economic boost.