The Onion went for easy jokes 20 years ago today
And only some of them worked! Let's catch up on bitter fathers, Secretary's Day, the importance of networking and a haunted tape dispenser.
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 Feb. 6, 2002.
This issue definitely feels 20 years old. It’s not my favorite, but there are still some good laughs. New here? Sign up for the weekly email!
What issue is this?
Standard disclaimer: The old photos/images are mostly gone. I reproduce as many as I can each week.
The headline “Man Accidentally Rents Delta Force 4 Instead Of 3” is no longer online. Apparently both of these direct-to-video films came out in 1999.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
I’m not in love with this issue. Why? I don’t think many of the headlines meet the usual Onion standard. They’re easy jokes, sometimes shallow or cheap. The articles themselves are usually smarter and funnier, but that’s not always enough. And headlines like “Kurt Warner Cheered On By Wire-Haired Man-Goblin” are just needlessly cruel.1
This week’s top story, “Indo-Pakistani Tensions Mount At Local Amoco,” is about convenience-store tensions between Amoco owner Rajesh Srinivasan and in-store Subway mini-franchise manager Majid Ashraf.
I’ve watched surprisingly little of “The Simpsons,” but this story feels influenced, if not inspired by, the Apu character. Like Hank Azaria’s portrayal, I think this article reads differently than it did in 2002.
Either way, the story relies on stereotypes and tropes, most notably of Indians running convenience stores and of Indians and Pakistanis constantly being on the verge of war.
There’s a British colonial aspect to it, even if it’s unintentional. Amoco in 2002 was owned by BP, the UK oil company, and it was Britain that partitioned India and Pakistan. And look at these maps!
Overall, the story does a nice job describing day-to-day life at a convenience store/gas station. And the insults from both men are vicious. But it’s also goofy, as this passage illustrates:
In the wake of the breakdown in negotiations, many observers are fearful that the Indian family will "drop the bomb" and refuse Ashraf access to the Dumpster behind the station, effectively forcing him to pay for a separate commercial garbage service and increase his costs beyond profitability. This move would leave Ashraf with little choice but to retaliate with a strike against the candy aisle.
Separately, a recurring theme in this newsletter is The Onion writing stories that are half-reporting, half-anthropology. This is another of those. Whatever the article topic, The Onion eventually turns to a scholar for analysis:
"What Majid doesn't recognize is that there are significant differences between his Islamic culture and Rajesh's Hindu culture regarding gender roles," said Dr. James Sasser, a Harvard professor of Middle Eastern studies. "But, to be fair, Rajesh didn't help matters when he came after Majid with that squeegee."
The Onion remembered that President George W. Bush existed this week, although it’s unusual that “Bush Earmarks 1.5 Billion Gold Stars For Education” talks about a 2003 budget proposal and not No Child Left Behind, which became law in January 2002.
I like how Bush wants to expand the program to other kinds of stickers, like cartoon animals shouting “Super Job!” But not everyone loves the idea. The Onion quotes Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C.:
"What kind of president would think that distributing gold stars would improve the country's education system?" Hollings said. "Kids don't even care about gold stars anymore. At the very least, we're going to need Pokémon stickers and lick-'n'-stick Hello Kitty stamps. And what about candy? The president is talking about rewarding good behavior, and he doesn't even mention candy?"
Other items in the news include:
“The Al-Qaeda Captives” is about what to do with early War on Terror prisoners. The Onion asked people on the street about it, and they were angry! Here’s a representative quote:
"This is a totally different situation. Those Geneva Convention laws were written back when we were fighting white people."
Bruce Nowell • Systems Analyst
“Report: Recently Laid-Off Workers Not Doing Enough To Help Economy”: This is a headline that’s funny because we can imagine laid-off people being blamed. As the Labor Department says: "Until these laid-off workers start pitching in and buying things, America's economy will continue to stagnate."
“Film Critic Belatedly Comes Up With Swordfish Zinger”: I saw “Swordfish” in the theater and enjoyed it, but it’s really stupid. Hugh Jackman’s finest work is pretending that hacking is about aimless typing, shouting and many computer monitors.
“Philip Morris CEO Forces Senator To Dance For His Amusement”: This joke is fine, although making fun of cigarette companies is low stakes. The great irony is John Edwards being corrupted by Big Tobacco and not his own appetites.
Area People doing Area Things
“Deaf Man's Deaf Friends Way Too Into Deaf Culture” tells a classic Onion tale of friendship gone wrong, a la “Teen Who Just Discovered Led Zeppelin Starting To Piss Off Friends” from October 2001.
The difference here is that the annoyed party is Jonathan Deeds because the group is being jerks by only caring about deaf things — comedians, email domains, museums, dating deaf women, disliking the “silence-impaired.”
The big caveat: I suspect this article is not 100% accurate in its portrayal of this community, and some readers might feel like deafness is being made fun of. Also, the Marlee Matlin mention feels like some Onion staffer shouted, “Who’s that deaf actress from ‘West Wing’?”2
But we can universally emphasize with Deeds, as no one wants to be controlled by their friends.
“Father Bitter That Son Has Everything He Never Had” is a good switcheroo from the classic tale of the proud father. Credit to Ed Raschi — he knows he’s a hypocrite.
This paragraph is a mini time capsule from 2002:
"Brandon is a great kid, and he gets good grades, but when I see him fritter away his allowance on Big Macs and rap CDs, I get a little upset," Raschi said. "When I was his age, every dollar I earned went toward food for my brothers and sisters, or paying the electric bill. I didn't get to spend it on a Game Cube. I mean, those games look pretty fun, but damn if I ever get to play them."
Other “Area People” stories in this issue include:
“Showers With Girlfriend Increasingly Cleansing-Focused” is a short article but funny enough.
“Jerry Always Willing To Pick Up Overtime”: The Onion in 2000 seemed to have a manufacturing or warehouse setting every week. Less of those recently, but this is a good return to form.
Finally, “Haunted Tape Dispenser Unsure How To Demonstrate Hauntedness” is one of my favorite Onion one-liners in a while. This absolutely ordinary photo only makes it funnier to me.
Were the infographics good?
“Who Needs A Good Cock-Punching?” is what I’m talking about with this issue! Such a brute-force, unsubtle headline. That’s OK, but it’s also something unfunny websites can do.
This infographic accidentally ages better than anything we’ve read so far in 2022. Jared the Subway guy and Kevin Spacey really are villains, no one likes Chris Matthews or Bono more than they did 20 years ago, and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is maybe more famous than ever! Poor Freddie Prinze Jr., though.
I don’t think most of us in 2002 thought Mike Tyson would become a beloved mascot of sorts (thanks again, “The Hangover”). These jokes are not subtle, but it’s the very least he deserves.
What columnists ran?
“Secretary's Day Has Become So Commercialized” made me laugh right away because it’s now called Administrative Professionals Day, which might be correct language but is a horribly corporate way to describe it.
Our author is unhappy with modern secretaries who only want big gifts and unhappy with bosses who buy pre-made bouquets instead of personalizing their gifts.
There is also some … interesting fantasizing here:
I'd spend most of Secretary's Eve lying awake in bed, wondering if the Secre-Fairy was going to bring me a coffee mug filled with Hershey's Kisses. Or maybe, if I'd been an extra-good secretary that year, a gift certificate for a free manicure or facial.
This is a smartly written column even if feels like it should be from 1972, not 2002.
Our other column is “Every Social Gathering Is A Chance To Hustle For Contacts,” which is just an uncomfortable truth for a lot of professions, or if you live in New York, Los Angeles or D.C.
More specifically, this column is meant for freelancers everywhere who feel they’re never off the clock:
As a computer consultant who makes nearly 40 percent of his income doing freelance web design on the side, I have to be networking 24/7. If I relax at a cocktail party, picnic, or memorial church service, I might as well forget about making my career dreams a reality. Every minute I'm not hustling for contacts is money down the drain.
The author also offers advice on how to narrow down a crowd for the great contacts, how to get out of a bad conversation and how to network even when you’re wearing a Spider-Man costume.
Also, this line made me laugh out loud because I’m in a weird mood this week:
Why waste time with folks who can't offer me anything when there are plenty of perfectly nice people who can?
What was the best horoscope?
My favorite horoscope this week is Capricorn, which also reminds us that professional wrestling is always popular:
Capricorn | Dec. 22 to Jan. 19
You should have more folding chairs around. If wrestlers come over and can't find one, they'll use something else.
What holds up best?
“Report: Recently Laid-Off Workers Not Doing Enough To Help Economy” reads like many columns you’ll find at Forbes or other financial sites, so I’d have to go with that.
What holds up worst?
This is my least favorite issue so far of 2002, but the first 3 were really funny, to be fair. I highlight these 2 horoscopes because I don’t think The Onion would take these approaches to sexuality and harassment today:
Libra | Sept. 23 to Oct. 22
Even if you live to be 100, you'll never understand homosexuality. But don't let that stop you from having sex with all those guys.
Scorpio | Oct. 23 to Nov. 21
Telling the waitress that you could make a better cup of coffee from the sweat on your balls won't do her any good. Show her how.
What would be done differently today?
I’ve talked about the things that don’t quite work (to me, at least) in 2022, whether it’s the tone, the topics or the approach.
But the structure of this issue is not the problem. We have a nice mix of “local” stories and real-life news, including celebrities and an update on the president.
Next week, we have a minor classic involving Willie Nelson, a debate about Green Lantern and the return of columnist Jean Teasdale. See you then!