The Onion wrote about the Senate mine disaster, Catholicism and MTV's 20th anniversary 20 years ago
Plus important updates about the Pillsbury Doughboy, girlfriends, real estate agents and igloos — the hot topics of 2001!
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 March 28, 2001.
This is a very silly issue, even for The Onion. I hope you enjoy the journey.
As always, I’m grateful you want to read far too many words about a little newspaper from 2 decades ago. If you think someone else would enjoy this, please let them know!
What issue is this?
“Bicycle-Safety Tips” is still online but not on the Issue 11 page, while “Student Secretly Giving The Finger In Yearbook Photo” is sadly not online anymore.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
This issue 20 years ago was anchored by two stories that mix American politics with something nonpolitical in an absurd way.
First up is “Cardinals Blasted For Negative Campaign Tactics In Papal Race,” which has real-life overtones because Pope John Paul II was old and frail, and he had appointed scores of new cardinals — i.e. the group from which his successor would be named.
The Onion highlights many real-life Catholic leaders running smear campaigns and making promises about how they’ll change the Church.
This story is of personal interest to me, as I grew up Catholic, attended Catholic grade school and went to a Jesuit college. My hometown bishop was future New York City Archbishop Edward Egan, who prominently features in this Onion article. In the real world, Egan was nearly unmatched in covering up sexual abuse and refusing to apologize for it.
In the world of satire, Egan runs an attack ad against Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico City, who responds with his own diatribe:
"This is absurd," Carrera said. "I never opposed the canonization of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I merely noted that several others were at least as deserving. I'd also like to note that it's more than a little ironic that Cardinal Egan, a known consort of moneylenders and fraternizer with sodomites, should take the moral high ground against a man with a proven track record of piety like myself."
Egan also hired former Bill Clinton aide Dick Morris, which is a very 1990s-2000s political joke to make.
The other big, silly politics story is “57 Lawmakers Feared Dead In Senate Mine Disaster,” which to me is a quintessential Onion politics story. Yes, The Onion has a purpose in satirizing hard truths, but another unique ability is taking real situations and twisting them into absurdity — and doing so with exquisite writing.
This disaster is a bipartisan moment for the survivors despite longstanding disagreements about coal-mining regulation. Sen. Trent Lott is majority foreman, while Senate Pro Tempore Strom Thurmond is “Boss Thurmond,” according to Sen. Russell "Rusty" Feingold.
This paragraph cracks me up for being so straightforward, yet ridiculous:
At 7 a.m. Monday, as they do every week, the nation's 100 senators donned their lantern helmets, took up shovels, and descended the main shaft by rope elevator to excavate the rich seam of coal recently discovered in the mine's Great Southern Drift.
To be fair, in this world, it’s not just the Senate who is performing manual labor in additional to governmental duties:
Stephney noted that Supreme Court & Southern Railroad brakemen, statistically the second most dangerous job in American government, had a 17 percent better chance of seeing retirement without injury.
And, frankly, this quote still sounds like the folksy image Sen. Mitch McConnell wants to project:
"Every year, we say we're going to pass laws that make our jobs safer," said senator and rock hog Mitch "Mule" McConnell (R-KY), who has the distinction of surviving both Monday's collapse and the infamous Library of Congress Foundry Explosion of 1999. "But when a man gets down to voting, he remembers how much he owes to the Capitol store, and that's usually the end of that. I mean, times being what they are, a senator can't really afford to just cash out and risk starving his family."
Anyways, I know I just quoted large passages. I just love this parody — it has the structure of real-life news coverage with The Onion’s deft tone that makes you chuckle despite all the tragedy.
Other goofiness in this issue
Love goes awry in “Girlfriend Changes Man Into Someone She's Not Interested In,” which is a classic tale of always thinking the grass is greener on the other side.
This story is pretty standard relationship satire, but the level of detail helps.
In just 2.5 years, Brendan Eiler gets a regular day job, moves into a bigger apartment, quits his rock band, cuts his hair, stops eating meat, sells his leather jacket, buys a Toyota Camry and has become a homebody. Shockingly, according to girlfriend Jill Nickles, this means Eiler has lost his “mystique, this air of danger about him.”
Nickles also has a crush on Eiler’s former bandmate, while Eiler is “thinking of marriage, a house with a picket fence, and kids.”
Other highlights from 20 years ago today:
“Pillsbury Doughboy Killed By Skittish, Broom-Wielding Housewife”: RIP, Kenneth Fresh, 34, son of original Pillsbury doughboy Marv "Poppin" Fresh. I love this quote:
Rescue workers frantically poked Fresh for nearly 20 minutes in an effort to revive the doughboy, but were unsuccessful.
“As Real-Estate Agent, Area Man's Appearance Crucial” is a long article, probably too long. It’s amusing enough as a tale of a real estate agent who realizes success isn’t about good grades or understanding the housing market, but about looking good all the time.
“Giant Blood Clot Dislodges From Your Femoral Artery” has the dateline of “CIRCULATORY SYSTEM” instead of a city.
“Man Won't Stop Coming Up With New Sniglets” made me look up “sniglets,” which are designed to be funny descriptors for things not listed in the dictionary. The protagonist here wonders whether comedian Rich Hall is even alive, and thankfully he still is alive in 2021.
That Onion writer who loves Alan Greenspan strikes again with “Fifth-Grader Writes 'Mrs. Alan Greenspan' All Over Her Notebook.” It’s kind of weird!
There are two great headlines that only have a photo. Both could have used a full story, in my opinion:
Were the infographics good?
It’s entirely logical but still shocking to me that MTV is 40 years old. These jokes are all based on nostalgia, but they mostly hold up another 20 years later.
I also enjoy the “Weird Al” joke about his movie “UHF,” but I’m not sure how I feel about the Michael Jackson joke. Credit, too, to The Buggles joke: “Adolescent-Targeted Prime-Time Programming” precisely describes today’s MTV, in which “Ridiculousness” airs about 18 hours each day.
“New Celestial Seasonings Flavors” is not nearly as timeless. It’s kind of a random collection of jokes, which is fine but not memorable. “Vice-President of Product Development’s Choice” is the most immortal and accurate joke.
Our final infographic, “Bicycle-Safety Tips,” has many, many jokes, and it’s not as anti-bicycle as I expected to be. Highlights include:
“Leaving your bike out in the ice and cold all winter may cause serious damage. But it makes a nice subject for the cover illustration of a short-fiction quarterly.”
“If rich, spoiled Francis Buxton steals your bike, go on a hilarious and heartwarming journey through the American Southwest to get it back.”
The former makes it clear that The Onion staff went to Midwest universities with literary journals, and the latter is a “Pee-Wee Herman’s Big Adventure” reference.
What columnists ran?
I can’t emphasize enough how absurd this issue is with story concepts. “Oh, I'm No Good With Soap” is about a guy lamenting that he just doesn’t do soap, much like some people are bad with names or math or cars.
It’s worth the full read, but I especially love this paragraph, where Roger Ayala emphasizes all the things he doesn’t do badly:
Is it really the end of the world that I'm a lousy soaper? I mean, can't we focus on my positives? I don't chew with my mouth open. I speak clearly. I get my work done in a timely, efficient manner. I just have this mental block when it comes to soap. It's not like I urinate in the sink or talk about abortions while everybody's eating. Gee whiz.
We also have the classic American sitcom tale of coveting your neighbors’ possessions, except “Why Can't We Have A Nice Igloo Like The Meekitjuks Next Door?” is about igloos in the Arctic.
I’m going to assume The Onion does not correctly describe Indigenous culture. But I love the premise. The closing paragraph is pretty much “The Honeymooners,” but in an igloo:
Do you think I enjoy sitting home, staring at the same one wall day after day? Of course not! Then, when I offer to accompany you on the hunt, you say I talk too much and prevent the seals from coming to the surface! Well, maybe if I had more otter to skin, I'd have less time to talk. Hmmph.”
Most “Hey, it’s 2001!” reference
Let’s go with “Phalanx Of Lawyers Stares Hungrily From Back Cover Of Phone Book” because it mentions phone books.
What was the best horoscope?
Capricorn made laugh. I’m not sure it’s that funny, but still.
Capricorn | Dec. 22 to Jan. 19
You've always thought that kicking the tires on used cars was smart, but next week you'll encounter a dealer who fills them with nitroglycerine.
Honorable mention to Libra, which anticipated side-hustle culture, I guess?
Libra | Sept. 23 to Oct. 22
When the girl you picked up at the bar said she could "peel a banana with it," she was actually talking about the Peelerator, a handy, labor-saving device she sells out of her bedroom.
What holds up best?
No story this week is as timeless as “Hamster Thrown From Remote-Control Monster Truck,” but I kind of love “Oh, I'm No Good With Soap.” The writer is so earnest about being bad with soap as if it’s a perfectly normal thing.
What holds up worst?
I applaud The Onion for trying to push the envelope with “Repressed Molestation Memory Not What It Was Built Up To Be,” but a one-paragraph story about a disappointed therapist isn’t daring enough if you’re going to try this tactic.
What would be done differently today?
I think a decent amount of this material — the themes, if not the exact words — could find a home in 2021. Today’s Onion would cover more of the real-life political news that was ignored in 2001.
I do wonder how The Onion would tackle “Hispanic U.S.A.,” which was about the real-life Census finding that more people identified as Hispanic than Black. One of those items where The Onion walks a line between “We’re showing Americans’ racial attitudes” and “We’re just saying racist or otherwise questionable things.”
What real-life people were mentioned?
Judd Gregg. Trent Lott. Mitch McConnell. Strom Thurmond. Russ Feingold. George W. Bush. Rich Hall. Alan Greenspan. Donald Westlake. Jack Lemmon. Dexys Midnight Runners. Power Station. Downtown Julie Brown. Sting. Ken Ober. Neil Young. “Weird Al” Yankovic. Shannon Hoon. The Buggles. Pope John Paul II. Norberto Rivera Carrera. Edward Egan. Dick Morris. Antonio Innocenti. Giovanni Canestri. Joachim Meisner. Julius Darmaatmadja. Thomas Joseph Winning. Pope Paul VI. Albino Luciani. Desmond Connell.
Gregg and Bush are mentioned in the Senate mining disaster story, with Bush thanking the dead senators “for toiling to provide our nation with badly needed laws and coal.”
Author Westlake is mentioned in the horoscopes, as is actor Lemmon, who died about 3 months after this issue published.
The MTV infographic mentions musicians Dexys Midnight Runners, Power Station, Hoon and Young, as well as game-show host Ken Ober and former MTV VJ Brown.
Not every priest mentioned in “Cardinals Blasted For Negative Campaign Tactics In Papal Race” is real, but many are, including Luciani, who was Pope John Paul I.
What was happening in the real world?
Here’s the real-life news from March 19-25, 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:
California suffers from rolling blackouts. Mir space station descends from orbit, breaks up in atmosphere. Employee ratings systems spark lawsuits. Senate debates campaign-finance reform. Congress moves toward larger tax cuts. Bush administration ends American Bar Association’s role in judiciary appointments. Bush meets with Ariel Sharon of Israel. NYT explores India-based customer service trend. EPA to pull back Clinton-era arsenic rule. Farmers, states oppose bioengineered crops. Estrogen supplements linked to ovarian cancer. Captain, sailor admit degrees of blame for Navy sub’s crash into fishing vessel. Animal cloning includes defects. Suburbs look to limit size of McMansions. U.S. expels some Russians after Robert Hanssen arrest. Supreme Court says workplaces can mandate arbitration for disputes. Schools struggle to counter shooting threats.