The Onion's 9/11 issue, 20 years later
The Onion was just trying to figure out how to acknowledge a tragedy. The result was a historical document that's also quite funny.
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 Sept. 26, 2001.
This is the 9/11 issue, The Onion’s first in 3 weeks and the first print issue ever distributed in New York City. That story’s been told by MEL Magazine in the past couple of years, by Yahoo 10 years ago, and countless other places.
What am I hoping to do today? Well, I’m not retelling how this issue was produced. Those articles have done a great job what it was like to be working at The Onion in 2001.
Today, I’ll simply try to discuss what each article’s lasting impact is, and also go beyond the famous front page and share the other stories you might have forgotten about.
What issue is this?
The front page: A reflection of America after 9/11
The Onion staffers put a lot of pressure on themselves with this issue. No regular Area Man silliness. No, this issue was about real life — specifically, the one topic on everyone’s minds.
As then-Editor In Chief Robert Siegel said:
“Everything in that issue either needed to make a point or express something people were feeling.”
Perhaps that's why, in 2021, this Onion issue doesn’t feel cringe, out of touch or irrelevant. The real-life news is mentioned enough to get the point across, and The Onion fills in the gaps with stories of humanity, which are relatively timeless.
And, as people keep telling me, “Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake” is the story they remember most fondly, or one that really hit them back in 2001. It’s not the most dazzling story, or the funniest, but it’s the most touching.
These stories are also not hateful or wallowing, but they do reflect what many Americans were feeling in those weeks. And if those sentiments still feel familiar today, that’s a testament to The Onion’s skill (and the endless War on Terror, probably).
In short, The Onion is trying to do a few things simultaneously in this 9/11 issue:
Catch up on real-life news while satirizing it in a gentle fashion.
Reflect people’s anger without being hateful, respect their mourning without wallowing in sadness and pity, allay their uncertainty without making promises.
Discover what’s funny in all of this, or at least what might make Americans laugh a little and start to feel better.
There are many ways to document this post-9/11 combination of mourning, revenge-seeking and resolve. You can take the ridiculously direct approach (“We Must Retaliate With Blind Rage vs. We Must Retaliate With Measured, Focused Rage”).
You can also take a newsy approach, satirizing through the structure of a regular journalistic article. Case in point is this issue’s top story: “U.S. Vows To Defeat Whoever It Is We're At War With.”
I believe this is a real photo. There’s no need for The Onion to Photoshop anything.
Yes, this story is a bit of a goof on President George W. Bush and his administration, but it was also a real discussion point early on — “Who did this? Bin Laden? Well, what next?” (Of course, Bush might have decided his wars already.)
The Onion’s satire here captures the confusion of 9/11 and 9/12 while trying to sum up 2.5 weeks of nonstop news. The focus falls on the White House and Congress, which had just authorized military action for Bush in a law that remains in effect.
But while The Onion is somewhat critical, it’s a teasing sort of rebuke that acknowledges the widespread realization that this was not a conventional war:
"We were lucky enough at Pearl Harbor to be the victim of a craven sneak attack from an aggressor with the decency to attack military targets, use their own damn planes, and clearly mark those planes with their national insignia so that we knew who they were," Rumsfeld said. "Since the 21st-century breed of coward is not affording us any such luxury, we are forced to fritter away time searching hither and yon for him in the manner of a global easter-egg hunt."
"America is up to that challenge," Rumsfeld added.
The Onion continues on this “The world is so confusing now!” kick with the graphic below. It’s funny, but 20 years later also feels prescient about the open-ended “forever war” the U.S. chose.
Anti-war protestors are also mentioned, although this is generic mockery — literally so:
During the president's speech Tuesday, two dozen demonstrators gathered outside the White House, chanting and waving placards bearing such slogans as "U.S. Out Of Somewhere" and "No Blood For Whatever These Murderous Animals Hope To Acquire."
When the producer of “Pearl Harbor” was who we needed
If you’re too young to really remember 9/11, “American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie” is probably the best cultural entry point.
Bruckheimer’s mix of action, testosterone and explosions was the template for action movies (and he had also launched “CSI” in 2000). Remember, there wasn’t even a Tobey Maguire “Spider-Man” movie in 2001, much less the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The Onion’s process traditionally begins with headlines, with the stories written later. For the Sept. 26, 2001, issue, this was the first headline that hit gold — acknowledging the tragedy, deploying gallows humor and somehow describing horrific events without being morbid or objectifying the dead. The headline remains a classic, 20 years later.
The cultural references within the article are a mixed bag. For every “Independence Day” reference, there’s a movie I barely remember existing:
"I read that the plane that crashed near Pittsburgh didn't hit its target because the passengers fought back," said Modesto, CA, dental receptionist Sandra Barkum through tears. "I just kept thinking, that's what Wesley Snipes did in Passenger 57. Except, in the end, Wesley Snipes lived."
Even still, that’s a great paragraph. Many people really do filter everything through pop culture. Imagine someone saying that with tears in their eyes? It’s poignant and funny.
The last line of the story is deadly serious, hitting harder because it’s a departure from the goofiness preceding it:
Shocked and speechless, we are all still waiting for the end credits to roll. They aren't going to.
The American-Flag Cake
“Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake” is based off a real-life visit by Onion writer Carol Kolb to someone’s house.
Why is this simple story so powerful? It’s relatable, and it’s empathetic. Yes, The Onion’s having some fun with this woman, but it’s not cruel, nor is it laughing at the woman. It’s more like, “This sucks. What else can we do?”
As writer John Krewson said in 2011:
"It was poignant. It captured how stunned and confused everyone was at that time."
And it’s not like Christine Pearson immediately went to baked goods:
Having already donated blood, mailed a check to the Red Cross, and sent a letter of thanks to the New York Fire Department, Pearson was aimlessly wandering from room to room in her apartment when the idea of creating the confectionery stars and stripes came to her.
This last paragraph would normally be suburbia snark, but here, it’s the type of awkward grace people tried to show each other in those days after 9/11.
Pearson and the Overstreets stared at the cake in silence for nearly a minute, until Cassie hugged Pearson.
"It's beautiful," Cassie said. "The cake is beautiful."
My only disappointment 20 years later is there’s no photo of the cake.
Other highlights from the front page
“Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves In Hell” is a sure-fire, easy joke to write after 9/11. It’s "just brutal, brutal, physical comedy," to quote writer John Krewson again. Also, it’s a mockery of specific religious beliefs rather than of religion itself. What I especially enjoyed in 2021 is The Onion interviewing so many Underworld demons, and yet Satan isn’t even around.
“Rest Of Country Temporarily Feels Deep Affection For New York” is the flip side of that.
As I said on Twitter, “Hugging Up 76,000 Percent” was my least favorite joke then and now. It’s an irrational dislike of “76,000” as a humorous number.
“Jerry Falwell: Is That Guy A Dick Or What?”: You might have forgotten what prompted this burn. In short, he blamed 9/11 on “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America.”
Finally, we have this front-page infographic. This is another way The Onion tried to capture the national mood: Just simply saying what the hell is going on.
(Cheez Doodles have only appeared one other time in The Onion, in 2010.)
Beyond the front page: The best of the rest
Editor’s note: I forgot about “God Angrily Clarifies 'Don't Kill' Rule,” which is somehow missing from today’s website version of the 9/11 issue. Still, that’s my fault.
It’s an iconic story that deserves the praise it gets, but it also feels a little naive to me today. But I won’t dissuade you from reading it again — it’s raw, powerful and a great example of The Onion’s depiction of God.
Plus, this wonderful photo they always use:
That iconic front page would have been enough — and maybe if The Onion were online-only in 2001, that would have been it. But there was an entire print issue to fill so that advertisements could run and employees could be paid.
Like any Onion issue, there was a mix of full articles, short blurbs, infographics and columnists. There was also the once-common TV listings feature, which are almost impossible to find online today.
Luckily, The Onion’s 9/11 TV listings are preserved on Internet Archive.
The TV listings were one of my favorite features 15-20 years ago when I was in college, but after they disappeared off the Internet, I forgot about them — until I began writing this column.
There are too many jokes to encapsulate here. I’ll say this, broadly:
The Onion captures the flair of each channel well — even BET, which sometimes The Onion depicted as white people’s idea of rap stereotypes.
“SpongeJohn SquareAshcroft” is a good joke even in normal times.
I cannot stop laughing at “Golden Girls” running on an interminable loop.
The Onion shares people’s opinions
The Onion’s “What Do You Think?” feature this week was titled “What Now?” It’s the sort of post-9/11 reactions you’d expect.
This is a notable quote, as I don’t know whether it’s a political statement or whether it’s just a joke and I’m overthinking it!
"I used to think Reagan was a simplistic, vengeful, jingoistic cowboy. Now, I'm starting to think he was just ahead of his time."
Allen Williams • Bank Teller
There’s also something for parents in a feature “Talking To Your Child About The WTC Attack.” This is simply a straightforward discussion of modern Islamic fundamentalism and Osama Bin Laden’s career.
I’m reminded here of Norm Macdonald’s roast of Bob Saget — sometimes the humor is found in not doing your usual humor.
Finally, the famous Point/Counterpoint “We Must Retaliate With Blind Rage vs. We Must Retaliate With Measured, Focused Rage,” which for better or worse captures the mainstream American political spectrum in late September 2001.
I think 2004’s “Killing Wheelchair-Bound People With Missiles Is Justifiable If They're Terrorists vs. Killing Wheelchair-Bound People With Missiles Is Awesome” is a funnier, sillier version of this template, but that Point/Counterpoint is about people “over there,” whereas this 9/11 piece is very close to home.
It’s hard to recall what the mood was like then. I’ve been trying to recall whatever pondering I was squeezing in between being a first-semester college student, working and running cross country.
But if you want a sense of that mood, this is The Onion satirizing what passed for a pro-peace position:
We must remember that impulsively lashing out is never the best course of action. True justice can only be achieved through cool, calm, levelheaded armageddon.
Welcome, security theater!
We’ve lived with TSA airport security for so long that it’s easy to forget how new some of these measures felt. (Of course, The Onion just 3 weeks earlier had complained about pre-9/11 airport security.)
The jokes are a little silly, but they are a good distraction. I love any mention of a video store, as that’s such a stark reminder of what’s different about daily life in 2021 versus 2001. “U.S. maps re-drawn with thicker, bolder border” is a wonderfully dumb joke, too.
What else was inside The Onion:
We have a handful of short pieces in this issue:
“Arab-American Third-Grader Returns From Recess Crying, Saying He Didn't Kill Anyone” feels true and also sad. That fictional child is also almost 30 years old now.
“President Urges Calm, Restraint Among Nation's Ballad Singers”: I’m not sure anyone heeded Bush on this, except for Clear Channel banning 164 songs.
“Report: Gen X Irony, Cynicism May Be Permanently Obsolete”: People really walked around saying irony was dead. Good Lord. (Tough 20 years for Gen X since this, too)
“Dinty Moore Breaks Long Silence On Terrorism With Full-Page Ad” is a classically silly Onion bit, and I’m glad this exists to break the tension. I love the closer: “Dinty Moore joins Knoche Heating & Cooling and Tri-State Jacuzzi in condemning terrorism.”
What does it all mean?
As Chad Nackers of The Onion told MEL, 2000 and 2001 marked a sea change in American society — and also in how The Onion did its job.
I think starting with the 2000 election, where the Supreme Court chose the president, we started to go into a harder form of satire, which led very naturally into what we did in the 9/11 issue. After that point too, people were just consuming more news, and from there, you go into the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. So it’s a darker time for our country. There are other factors too, though. Now you have an entire generation growing up who didn’t get print newspapers — we stopped doing print in 2013 — and that changes things as well. Also, we don’t have “issues” like we did. Now if something happens, we have a story up about it an hour and a half later. Now there are less silly headlines and more of us just ridiculing the problems of society.
This period is a big reason why I started this newsletter. I lived through this time, too — graduating high school, starting college. I was figuring out what childhood beliefs I was going to sustain, which I was going to question, and what I was going to explore next. And The Onion was a constant touchpoint for how and why I laughed through those times.
The Onion did some of its finest work in this 9/11 issue, and it’s funny, too. The most impressive part, to me, is not the staff rallying to produce this issue. It’s that the staff turned around the next week, and the week after that, and continued making The Onion at a high level despite everything that had changed.
Looking forward to reviewing those issues with you, too. Thanks for being here.