The Onion talked about Star Wars cereal, life jackets and the media 20 years ago
We also learn about Jackie Chan's ghost, Robert Mueller's post-9/11 FBI, the new Cola Sprite and Jean Teasdale's change in employment
Welcome back to The Onion: 20 Years Later, where we review the print issue from 20 years ago, find out what’s still funny and examine the cultural impact. Today, we revisit June 5, 2002.
Since our last issue, I came down COVID for the 1st time, and it was also my 1st full week of freelance after quitting my day job, so … it’s been a big start to June! My COVID has been mild but still tiring, and I’m still testing positive 6 days after getting symptoms. I’m just glad I’m able to get this written and published.
Thank you to the eagle-eyed readers who pointed out that The Onion’s story last week about Congress wanting a new Capitol actually fooled a Chinese newspaper in 2002.
This week, we’re looking closely at how real-life news influences The Onion’s stories, as well as when The Onion quotes real-life people instead of fictional characters.
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What issue is this?
Today’s website is missing 5-6 stories for some reason, but I’ve linked all of them below.
The front-page headline “Vivid Video Announces Plans To Lay 65 Percent Of Workforce” is no longer online.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
The Onion by 2002 had written many stories about apocalyptic events (such as the issue reacting to the 2000 presidential election or 1997’s “Clinton: 'Every Man For Himself’”) and about mysterious creatures injecting themselves into world affairs (1997’s “Clinton Holds Summit With Magic Turtle” being an early example).
This week’s top story, “Life Jackets Issued To All Americans For Some Reason” is a subgenre where The Onion hints at apocalyptic developments but reveals few details. The best examples we’ve covered are probably 2001’s “Starbucks To Begin Sinister 'Phase Two' Of Operations” or 2000’s “Dolphins Evolve Opposable Thumbs.”
In this article, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge urges all Americans to carry their life jacks and sea kits with them at all times, citing national security, even as he says, “You have nothing to worry about.”
Meanwhile, buses in Seattle are being driven by Coast Guard officers, the New York subway system is saying seats can be used as floatation devices, and the Department of Education says geography lessons are no longer needed.
Vice President Dick Cheney is only slightly more forthcoming, noting that "The U.S. has received no threats at any time in the past 22 hours, so you can all just relax."
President George W. Bush makes a relatively rare appearance in The Onion’s top story! I wish The Onion made a visual of that brass helmet:
"My fellow Americans, you may have noticed some small changes in the way we're asking you to go about your daily business," said Bush, his words muffled by a brass diving helmet. "The government is not trying to scare you. We just want you to be prepared for the very remote possibility that your lives will never be the same."
This isn’t an all-time classic, but it’s solid joke-writing that hints at the threat while letting your imagination fill in the blanks.
“Klan Rally 70 Percent Undercover Reporters” is the most anti-media story I can recall from the early 2000s Onion, but it’s not totally surprising. The Onion generally skewers any powerful entity — politicians, big businesses, celebrities, etc. And as a satirical newspaper, The Onion’s very existence is poking fun at the media.
I was surprised that The Onion named so many real journalists in this article instead of using fictional stand-ins. These include “Dateline NBC” correspondent John Larsen, the late Richard Carelton of “60 Minutes,” Jason Garcia of the Orlando Sentinel and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Brian O’Neill, who retired in 2020.
There are 3 notable things to me about this story:
Like many great Onion stories, the premise is simple, and it’s the many, many details that make the story succeed.
The Onion will still make fun of the media in 2022, but I wonder whether they’d take this aggressive of a tone. I could see a modern version having 70% be undercover reporters and undercover law enforcement, a la June 2022’s “Left-Wing Group Too Disorganized For FBI Agents To Infiltrate,” where undercover FBI agents complain of being the only attendees.
It’s not generally ethical for a reporter to speak at the rally they are covering, even when undercover, as fictional freelancer Debra Rafalski does.
The Onion’s last paragraph is especially damning — the journalists funded the rally!
Saturday's rally nearly had to be called off, but was saved from cancellation by the reporters. Less than an hour before the scheduled start time, the chapter realized it did not have the $1,500 "parade fee" required by the city. Fortunately, dozens of new Klansmen like Chicago Tribune reporter Stuart Zimmel volunteered to chip in an extra $50 each.
Here, The Onion uses a fictional Tribune reporter. Was that to avoid linking a real-life person to Klan funding? Or was it just coincidence?
“National Science Foundation: Science Hard” reminds me of many Onion stories where a D.C.-based national organization has a big meeting but is commenting on something in an absurd way. Oftentimes, The Onion invents an organization, like in 2000’s “Raccoon Leaders Call For Loosening Of Garbage-Can Lids,” but here, a real-life group is good enough.
(Again, The Onion mixes real-life and fictional people, including Nobel-winning chemist Ahmed Zewail. However, instead of quoting real-life NSF Director Dr. Rita R. Colwell, The Onion uses the fictional Louis Farian.)
This is a great headline, premise and illustration above, and really the only thing The Onion has to do is not screw it up.
Stephen Hawking is among the scientists working to study the problem of science being tough.
The science-is-hard theorem, first posited by a team of MIT professors in 1990, was slow to gain acceptance within the science community. It gathered momentum following the 1997 publication of physicist Stephen Hawking's breakthrough paper, "Lorentz Variation And Gravitation Is Just About The Hardest Friggin' Thing In The Known Universe."
I enjoy these physicists and chemists getting to complain about the work, especially the pre-”The Big Bang Theory” complaint about the uselessness of quantum physics. The closing paragraph made me laugh, too. It’s such a layperson sentiment coming from a quantum physicist:
"I guess there's cool stuff about science," Watanabe continued, "like space travel and bombs. But that stuff is so hard, it's honestly not even worth the effort."
In other news, The Onion takes a break from the War on Terror this week and Israel-Palestine, but it does ask people on the street what they think about “The India-Pakistan Conflict.” Mostly, these are jokes about Americans’ vague conceptions of India and Pakistan (Mahatma Gandhi is mentioned here and also in the horoscopes). The most timeless response is this one:
"India and Pakistan may be the next nations to use nukes in war, but no one had better forget who was first. USA! USA! USA!"
Rich Ketcham • Delivery Driver
Finally, I want to mention the front-page photo and headline “Sprite Introduces Cola-Flavored Sprite.” Honestly, I can’t believe there hasn’t been cola-flavored Sprite.
Area People doing Area Things
“Affair Broken Up By Other Affair” is barely parody, except maybe for the calm and deliberate way Ken Hubrin handles his very busy love life. The 2nd paragraph lays out his big 3 relationships:
"Don't get me wrong, Teri is a remarkable woman," said Hubrin, whose wife of nine years, Nancy Hubrin, is unaware of either affair. "We had some great times during our eight months together. But sometimes, the spark goes out of a relationship, and you don't even realize it until you meet someone who truly thrills you. For me, that person was Amanda."
This story takes the tropes of “oh, my marriage was stale” and applies them to the mistress. Ken is reveling in his new-new love, including his new mistress’s powers of observation:
I told her about my wife, but she'd already deduced that I was married from the ring mark on my finger. The first few months I was seeing Teri, she had no idea I was married. So, obviously, Amanda has a little more going on upstairs, which I always find attractive in a mistress."
Teri Belasco did not like being broken up with, and her reaction is … curious:
"When I told Teri about Amanda, she screamed, 'How could you do this to me and Nancy?'" Hubrin said.
I always think of the late newsman Charles Kuralt when I think about folks having 2 families and double lives. It sounds exhausting, even if you didn’t have ethical/moral issues with it.
Other Area People stories from 20 years ago included:
“White Person Waved Past Beeping Walgreens Security Barrier”: This story is ruefully funny, with the white person attempting to show their bag but being waved off. We also have a mention of Sam Goody, the long-closed music-store chain. In 2021-22, unsurprisingly Walgreens theft is yet one more political debate.
“Jackie Chan's Ancestors Shamed By Blooper Reel”: This is very questionable material 20 years later. Feels like The Onion thought “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was a documentary. But the idea of a ghost grimacing at Jackie Chan’s bloopers does make me laugh.
“Drought-Ravaged NYC Institutes Alternate-Side-Of-Street Firefighting”: There really was drought in the New York City area in late 2001/early 2002, with the New York Times noting worries about long-term water supply.
“New Ad Preys On People With 'Ideas'“ is a dig at the low-rent advertisements once common to almost every print magazine and newspaper. "‘Turn your idea into $$$!’" read the 1/16th-page ad, which ran this week in the classifieds section of Parade and Rolling Stone.”
“Hypnotist Looking For Gimmick To Set Him Apart From Other Hypnotists”: I like The Onion’s fake name for a trade magazine, Getting Sleepy.
“Area Woman Slams Down Phone, Waits For It To Ring”: Love this passive-aggressive strategy! "He'll call," Aston said. "He's too smart not to."
Were the infographics good?
Remember Robert Mueller? 20 years ago, he was less than a year into leading the FBI. “The FBI Overhaul” explores recent changes. The Onion is unusually deferential to the FBI here, with jokes like “Agents now authorized to arrest known terrorists” perhaps reflecting post-9/11 hawkishness.
That said, there are also jokes about surveillance of Americans and the FBI’s buck-passing tendencies. The best joke is probably the “X-Files” one, which appears only a few weeks after the show’s finale.
“Least-Wanted Gift Certificates” is … not my favorite? I do appreciate that The Onion tries to be weird with goofy names, like Ajar: The Door-Jamb Superstore.
Also, that 1st joke — it’s an obvious example of how language can change quickly.
What columnists ran?
I’ve only seen the 1st 3 “Star Wars” movies, but I know how big “Attack of the Clones” was, and I’m not surprised there was a cereal for it. The big challenge for an Onion column like “General Mills' Star Wars: Episode II Cereal Gets It All Wrong” is matching the real-life energy and obsession of the superfan.
Our columnist, Terry Sabol, says the very real C3PO-s cereal by Kellogg’s was a simple, perfect space-themed cereal — “no marshmallows or raisins or anything. None were necessary, as they would only get in the way of Lucas' vision.” Sabol correctly quotes the TV commercial’s exhortation: "Twin rings fused together for two crunches in every double O."
By 2002, however, Lucas has lost its way. The big problem is all the marshmallows and how poorly designed they are (and not at all the name “Slave I” for a spaceship!):
The Slave I marshmallows are, quite possibly, even worse. Not only is it shaped like some sort of bizarre, melted anvil, but its coloration does not even remotely resemble the blue-gray steel of Jango Fett's trusty ship. Instead, the marshmallow is neon-green with a wild swirl of electric blue. That's just lazy cerealmaking, plain and simple.
The only concession Sabol makes is that he’s too old to argue on the internet. Haha, he had no idea what was coming:
I'm 30 years old and am too busy to spend hours arguing with the fanboys on the General Mills message boards who automatically embrace this as the Second Coming of Cheerios.1
Our other column this week is regular columnist Jean Teasdale, whose career at Fashion Bug comes to an end in “Career Separates.” Jean is depicted — and depicts herself! — as naive and unaware, but this might be a new low.
Fashion Bug is being closed because there’s very little business at the store or at the strip mall. Jean, of course, thinks the meeting is a chance to one-up her co-workers in baking ability. She’s also confused as to why Fashion Bug would close because “It's not uncomfortably crammed with wall-to-wall shoppers like the mall is, and we have plenty of stock."
There’s a silver lining: Jean learns that her manager, Roz, is taking over a Lane Bryant and has an opening for a sales associate. But instead of saying, “I’d love to work there, Roz!” she listens to her husband, Rick:
Then he added: "It doesn't matter, though. That Roz broad will give the job to one of your coworkers. She's never liked you. How many times has she passed you over for a promotion?"
I won’t spoil the rest, but suffice it to say that Jean decides to tell Roz what she really thinks.
What was the best horoscope?
The Onion was fixated on people with multiple relationships this week, as the Gemini horoscope illustrates. There’s also a horoscope about “The Stripper Murderer.”
But my favorite is Cancer:
Cancer | June 21 to July 22
Your dream of operating your own karaoke bar is shattered when you discover, on opening night, that you need to let others sing, too.
What holds up best?
This is a good question! Almost everything this week feels a bit quaint, but there are a lot of well-written stories, so it’s probably about finding your personal favorite.
What holds up worst?
“Least-Wanted Gift Certificates” is forgettable at best, although at least it’s trying to be weird in most of the jokes.
What would be done differently today?
Structurally, this Onion story covers a mix of real-life news, “local” news and real-life people in absurdly fictional situations. The story topics would need updating in 2022, but that’s natural.
I like this issue — it’s solid if mostly forgotten. But that’s pretty good! Take a look at most topical writing from 20 years ago. Most of it is irrelevant, wrong-headed, laughably wrong or cringe.
To read this issue and think, “hey, that’s not bad, even if I haven’t thought about it in 20 years,” is a really, really good legacy.
Hopefully, I continue to feel better for next week’s issue! Only 2 more issues from June 2002 before The Onion took a monthlong summer break!