The Onion wrote about fonts, equal rights and Julia Roberts' breakup 20 years ago

Enjoy a great Onion issue that caters to pre-9/11 silliness.

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. 29, 2001.

This is the 2nd-to-last issue before 9/11, so enjoy these last bits of carefree Onion before the world changed forever. Also, I’m traveling this week, seeing family, and I should have written this ahead of time. Alas, I did not. But sometimes a tight deadline produces great work. I’ll let y’all be the judge.

New here? Welcome, and consider signing up for a weekly dose of The Onion’s history.

What issue is this?

This was Vol. 37, Issue 30, the 73rd Onion issue of the 2000s and the 72nd issue of new content. Here’s what the website looked like in 2011 and today. Sadly, the website from 2001 isn’t available.

Theses 2 front-page headlines are no longer online. I don’t know how memorable these jokes are, but they’re tightly written:

  • “Baby Bib Loves Grandpa”

  • “Diseased Pig Cured”

What was the top story, and other impressions?

Helvetica Bold Oblique Sweeps Fontysis a great Onion story — funny, silly, a topic that most people undertsand, and it gets funnier the more seriously The Onion treats the topic.

It’s the little jokes that make me laugh, like the Fontys somehow being in its 73rd year and the awards being so America-centric that there’s a “Best International Font (Fusaka Regular)” award. There’s also this brilliant quote from the Best Font winner, which ignores the real history of Helvetica and, like every award winner, somehow imagines himself as an underdog:

"A million thanks to all the wonderful folks in the font community who believed in Helvetica Bold Oblique," said an ecstatic Oliver Rudd, designer of the font, in his acceptance speech. "Without your faith in my vision, I would not be here before you tonight. I'd also like to thank Helvetica Regular designer James T. Helvetica, the giant upon whose shoulders I stand. And, of course, the designers of the Visa Card Terms & Conditions booklet, who brought my font to the forefront of the American typeface scene this year."

James. T. Helvetica is not a real person, although it’s kind of a James T. Kirk reference?

Like the Oscars or any other awards, there are critics who say the voters are out of touch. I like this quote for the stereotypical criticism and the idea of a fonts ‘zine:

William Perez, a lifelong font enthusiast and editor of the 'zine Lorem Ipsum Dolor, is one such critic, calling the Fontys "embarrassingly conservative and tradition-bound."

"They think they're being daring when they nominate a font like Techno or Comic," Perez said. "What about totally innovative fonts like Critter, with its cute, smiling animal faces rendered into letters, or Giddyup, in which each letter is styled out of a curling lasso? These fonts don't even exist to the high-and-mighty Academy."

I could skip the rest of this issue and just talk about this article being a beautiful representation of The Onion’s lasting appeal. The Onion is writing in 2001, but this is timeless territory: Awards shows and typefaces are perpetual, as is humanity’s endless capacity for debating those award choices.

In these disruptive times, Helvetica Bold Oblique Sweeps Fontysis a good reminder that humans are always up for trivial squabbles. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — The Onion itself would comment on this 5 weeks later with “A Shattered Nation Longs To Care About Stupid Bullshit Again.”

Businesses protested

In 2021, businesses are in a difficult situation, as they are being asked to enforce mask and vaccination rules (or being banned from such rules in some states). Meanwhile, consumers are either very happy or very angry about these rules.

The Onion wasn’t thinking about pandemics in 2001, but Nation's Shirtless, Shoeless March On Washington For Equal-Service Rights is a hell of a mood to introduce into our discourse now.

As I’ve discussed many times, this is another example of The Onion inventing fake associations and consumer groups as a hook for a story. See this quote, which pretends to be a news story while creating an absurdist reality:

"For decades, law-abiding Americans have been denied service in restaurants and stores, simply because of the exposedness of their skin," said Bud Hutchins, president of the National Association For The Advancement Of Shirtless People. "This is a direct attack on our civil rights, especially in the summer months when you really need to stay cool."

As always with these Onion stories, everyone gathers in Washington, D.C., and there’s a speech or press conference.

One thing that strikes me about the photos is how many more tattoos people today would have.

Sen. Larry Craig, who was quoted several times by The Onion before his real-life scandal, denounces these protestors, but NAASP leader Bud Hutchins uses the language of civil rights movements in response:

"I'm hardly surprised [Sen. Craig] ascribes to the repugnant and prejudicial notion that we have 'chosen' to be this way," Hutchins said. "Well, I've got news for you, senator: This is the way I am. I was born not wearing a shirt."

This story might feel like an allegory for COVID times, but it’s not. It’s just a fun story. If anything, it’s parodying the explosion of marches that followed 1995’s Million Man March.

Area People doing Area Things

Man Has Mixed Feelings About Having Disease Named After Himis funny enough, but the headline also feels like a very natural reaction!

The Onion sometimes mistakes shock value for humor, but I think they walk the line well here. Killing the guy off makes it a one-joke story — and maudlin. It’s much funnier (or meaner?) to talk about how this guy is suffering from the disease and for being known as “the guy with a disease named after him.”

And The Onion takes advantage of this — the fictional disease is gross and uncomfortable, and Dominic Quinn has needed 11 surgeries in 2 years.

Also this quote. My God:

Continued Quinn: "Sometimes, I wish I'd contracted a syndrome instead of a disease. Syndromes are often given descriptive names like Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. I begged the doctors to eclassify my disease as a syndrome and call it, say, 'Anal-Blockage Syndrome,' but he refused because, technically, a syndrome is defined as a group of various symptoms that culminate in an abnormality. Mine is not an abnormality: I just can't shit properly."

Here are other local highlights from The Onion exactly 20 years ago today, none of which involve anal blockages:

Speaking of Winnie The Pooh, there’s also this photo and headline, which …: John Ashcroft Frolics In Secret Vault Of Winnie-The-Pooh Toys.”

Were the infographics good?

The Onion mostly focuses on then-Sen. Jesse Helms’ political and personal beliefs, which speak for themselves, in Jesse Helms' Retirement Plans.” Those are stronger jokes (denunciations, really) than the Southern hick jokes that are also included.

Helms’ heyday was before my time, and it’s easy enough to forget how much of a national — and divisive — figure he was

The Onion hits another timeless topic — people-watching in public places — with What Is The Weird Guy In The Coffee Shop Sketching?I very much want to know what a “Klingon coffee shop” looks like.

What columnists ran?

I'm Not Afraid To Try Popular New Thingsis a perfectly fine parody of people who brag about how daring or cutting-edge they are.

Our writer judges everything on how popular it is, so he bought the Dido and Wings albums but not the Melissaa Etheridge one. He saw “American Pie 2” after it made a lot of money, and he’s doing yoga, bungee-jumping and rock-climbing only after millions have participated. I do enjoy the quote at the end:

“It's really true what they say: There's satiety in numbers.”

Speaking of a guy who follows the trends, my favorite columnist Jackie Harvey is back reporting on the sad breakup of Julia Roberts and Benjamin Bratt in Julia And Benjamin: Say Goodbye To The New Camelot!

I could write an entire email about Jackie Harvey columns, so I’ll try to be brief. His charm is his combination of: shallow enthusiasm; inability to get names and facts right; and an optimism tempered by random crankiness a la Larry King, whose USA Today columns are being parodied to some degree.

Harvey is always trying to be an advocate for big stars, but he’s also a dick about it without meaning to. For instance:

“Megastar Julia Roberts and ethnically ambiguous actor Benjamin Bratt …”

Harvey also reports on the pending nuptials of my comedy hero, Conan O’Brien! Harvey has no idea who his fiance is or how Irish people dress, but that’s not important. Instead, let’s talk about the other late-night hosts who will be there:

No word on who the lucky lady is or where the wedding is to be held, but I have it on good authority that the invite list is a veritable who's-who of late-night talk-show hosts, past and present. Dave, Jay, Arsenio, Magic, Chevy, Pat, Martin, Wil, Alan… they'll all be there, because Conan knows and respects his roots. Plus, it will be a full Irish wedding, complete with bagpipes and kilts! Conan in a kilt? It's true, readers!

I had to look up some of those names. “Wil” is Wil Shriner, who briefly had a show in 1987, while Martin is Martin Short and Alan is Alan Thicke’s “Thicke of the Night” show.

Harvey also gets some names and facts wrong:

  • Britney Spears’ “Backstreet Boyfriend, J.C. Timberlake.”

  • “Even though Tom Cruise is scandalously dating his sister Penelope, Nicole Kidman has been holding up quite nicely after her divorce from Mr. Top Gun.”

  • “Planet of the Apes” is described as “The new Richard Burton film, starring Mark Wahlberg and newcomer Helena Bonham Carter (any relation to Led Zeppelin bassist John Bonham Carter? I'm looking into it!)”

  • The new “Star Wars” movie is called “Attack Of The Clowns.”

I love Jackie Harvey, and he always makes me laugh.

Most “Hey, it’s 2001!” reference

The entirety of New Robert Altman Film Released Straight To Special-Edition Director's-Cut DVD,” as it references a Robert Altman film, a DVD and calls Variety “Daily Variety,” in reference to it being primarily a newspaper back then.

Honorable mention to Jackie Harvey mention “that new Red Bull drink” and having “chest constrictions.”

What was the best horoscope?

As someone who hasn’t read Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, let’s go with this horoscope:

Capricorn | Dec. 22 to Jan. 19

You attempt to reconstruct the proto-language that gave rise to Nostratic and, thus, all modern tongues, but just wind up reading The Lord Of The Rings again.

What holds up best?

I like Helvetica Bold Oblique Sweeps Fontysfor its deft satirizing of awards shows, and it’s funnier to me than Nation's Shirtless, Shoeless March On Washington For Equal-Service Rights,” which feels like a political land mine.

What holds up worst?

I don’t hate this joke, but The Onion running yet another airplane crash joke is an extremely pre-9/11 thing.

Scorpio | Oct. 23 to Nov. 21

Look on the bright side: If you'd done a better job designing the airliner's landing gear, Wednesday's newspaper sales would have been much lower.

What would be done differently today?

More politics and current events, as always. Something I don’t mention much is that The Onion basically didn’t cover sports for many years.

When looking back, there are probably sports issues from this time (Barry Bonds’ home run chase in 2001, the upcoming NFL season) that could have been satirized.

What real-life people were mentioned?

Lou Gehrig. Bruce Chizen. Larry Craig. Ahmad Rashad. Robert Altman. Anne Rapp. Julianne Moore. Tim Roth. Lili Taylor. Matthew Modine. Michael Murphy. Bob Balaban. Martin Mull. Henry Gibson. Teri Garr. Jeff Goldblum. Jennifer Jason Leigh. Danny Aiello. Robert Downey Jr.. Ned Beatty. Lyle Lovett. Julia Roberts. Benjamin Bratt. Cher. Madonna. Roseanne. Conan O’Brien. David Letterman. Jay Leno. Arsenio Hall. Magic Johnson. Chevy Chase. Pat Sajak. Martin Short. Wil Shriner. Alan Thicke. Katie Couric. Britney Spears. Justin Timberlake. Michael Jordan. Prince William. Brad Pitt. Courteney Cox. George Lucas. Regis Philbin. Kelly Ripa. David Crosby. Tom Cruise. Penelope Cruz. Nicole Kidman. Mariah Carey. Whitney Houston. Bobby Brown. John Cusack. Phil Collins. Billy Joel. Richard Burton. Mark Wahlberg. Helena Bonham Carter. Jesse Helms. John Ashcroft. Dido. Wings. Melissa Ethridge.

What was happening in the real world?

Here’s the real-life news from Aug. 20-26, 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:

America bored by the Internet, NYT reports. Americans grapple with public records going online. US projections show shrinking budget surplus. Young Boomers move to resorts. Bush plans to leave 1972 antiballistic treaty. Sen. Jesse Helms to retire. Rep. Gary Condit admits to relationship with Chandra Levy, denies involvement in disappearance. NYT profiles arrests of religious aid workers in Afghanistan. AIDS an epidemic in China. International Monetary Fund to provide $8 billion to Argentina. Old subway cars dumped into the ocean. NYC marshal serving eviction papers is set on fire, killed. 8 people accused of rigging McDonald’s promotional contests. Hungry bears descend on New Mexico town, with more bear shootings and car collisions. Judge named to decide Microsoft penalties in antitrust case. Bridgestone/Firestone to pay $7.5 million to settle family’s suit after rollover crash. Man parachutes onto Statue of Liberty.