The Onion's last great pre-9/11 Bush story was 20 years ago today
Also: Read about the angst of video game characters, Burger King transactions, Jean Teasdale's friends and the argument about poetry down at the loading dock.
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. 1, 2001.
This is a goofy issue, perhaps in hindsight being the last hurrah of the days before the War on Terror.
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What issue is this?
The Chandra Levy headline “The Missing Intern: Unfortunate And All, But What Does It Have To Do With Anything?” is no longer online. The Bush Fermilab story is not on today’s Issue 26 page, among other articles.
What was the top story, and other impressions?
“Video-Game Character Wondering Why Heartless God Always Chooses 'Continue’” comes nearly 1 year after The Onion’s last foray into treating video-game characters as real people.
(That story, “Video-Game Characters Denounce Randomly Placed Swinging Blades” is what I consider one of the best Onion parodies of industry trade groups lobbying in Washington, D.C., as I wrote about in August 2020.)
This story is more existential, as Solid Snake of “Metal Gear Solid” keeps being killed on a particular mission and can’t understand why he’s forced to relive it, again and again. He’s quite well-read for a mercenary:
“Why will the Lord not grant me my final rest?” asked a reincarnated Snake, crawling underneath a lifeboat on the ship’s weather deck. “Certainly there must be a greater purpose for me than to kill dozens and eventually be killed myself.”
Added Snake: “As Goethe said, ‘Man must strive, and in striving he must err.’”
Snake goes on to quote the Koran, ask whether God is punishing him for past crimes, and wonder what the afterlife is like. The Onion, meanwhile, interviews a Yale Divinity School minister and God himself:
God, also known as Orangeburg 11-year-old Brandon MacElwee, offered no comment on His greater plan for Snake, saying He was “too busy trying to get to the part with the knife-throwing Russian girl.”
This is a lovely mix of silly and serious, or as Conan O’Brien recently said, “the intersection of smart and stupid.”
Speaking of smart and stupid, “Bush Finds Error In Fermilab Calculations” is one of the last times The Onion was able to idly ruminate on President George W. Bush without having to consider real-life events. This is nobody’s fault, other than Osama Bin Laden’s, I guess. But it’s striking to see how light and breezy this material is.
Bush is brilliant, insightful and humble in pointing out errors that, when fixed, advance scientific research into the subatomic particle known as the tau lepton, and he has nothing but understanding for the physicists who made the error.
"I just happened to have some time on the plane coming back from the European G8 summit, decided to catch up on some reading, and spotted one rather small logarithmic branching-ratio misstep in an otherwise flawless piece of scientific scholarship. Anyone could have done the same."
Bush also says how he is less a scientist than someone with an “instinct for process and order.”
Even though this newsletter exists to examine the gulf of 20 years’ time and how it affects The Onion’s work (and how The Onion affects society), sometimes you just have to enjoy a good piece of writing. This is one of those times.
This issue overall is a collection of light, goofy articles. And that’s not a bad thing, especially when you need a break from the real world.
Here are a few other highlights:
“Out-Of-Work P.R. Exec Has Great Things To Say About Unemployment”: You can’t put Josh Wallace into a bad mood, as the laid-off Porter Novelli employee shares all the new, interesting things he’s doing since losing his job. He even downplays the layoff, saying:
"I wasn't fired so much as my job was one of the positions phased out through the outsourcing of certain activities and the restructured insourcing of others."
“Non-Alcoholic Beer Inventor Unveils New Non-Adhesive Glue” is a very good headline. And the short article builds on the premise, with Thomas O’Doul promising “a flame-retardant gasoline and the world's first gelatinous construction lumber.”
“Few Animals Harmed In Making Of Film” is set at the fictional Sony film “Genghis Khan.”
“Just A Stay-In-Bed Kind Of Day, Fire Department Declares” advises citizens to “call back tomorrow.” The story is set in Albany, N.Y., which has a paid department, not the volunteer firefighters seen in much of upstate N.Y.
“3822 Voted America's Favorite PIN Number”: See what I mean? The Onion’s writers had fun this week. “7135” came in 2nd, by the way.
Semi-serious cultural commentary
There were a couple of articles when The Onion tried to make a point about societal norms. “Area Love Knows Only Court-Ordered Bounds” is a naive look at a man who’s clearly troubled but also will obey a restraining order to the fullest. And while he’s obeying the text of the order, he’s still monitoring his victim in a creepy way.
Meanwhile, “Fast-Food Purchase Seething With Unspoken Class Conflict” shares the common struggle of the working class versus the upper-middle class through a simple Burger King transaction.
This conflict is not helped by cashier Duane Hesketh being so distracted that he struggles to input the order correctly. Of course, customer Robert Lalley doesn’t handle the situation well, either, although passive-aggressive is moderately better than aggro-aggressive:
"Christ, I've seen trained chimps respond to verbal cues better than you," the stone-faced Lalley did not say aloud. "If you were one-tenth as good at your job as you are at slouching around in baggy pants, you'd probably own the whole fucking Burger King corporation by now," he opted not to add, instead toying anxiously with his Citizen watch.
The Onion interviews an expert about these class conflicts that enrage everyone involved. Even that expert is not immune, complaining about his bagger at Safeway.
This is a well-written article, but I suspect how you feel about these issues will determine whether you find it funny.
Were the infographics good?
It’s wild to think that a tribute to Michael Jackson — very much alive, by the way — was held 20 years ago. As you might suspect, the jokes are mostly about Jackson’s plastic surgery, rumors about his sexuality and general weirdness. The joke-writing is decent but unsurprising, outside of perhaps the deeding of “Webster” star Emmanuel Lewis’ skeleton. Lewis remains alive in 2021, by the way.
The Onion doesn’t shy away from calling Jackson a pedophile, although this might be less a principled act than a desire for cheap jokes.
“Top-Selling Fragrances” is hit-or-miss, as you might expect from a format that rewards short, easy jokes and plays-on-words. “Eau De Ho” is particularly brain-dead.
My favorite is “Alpha Male,” which I imagine is what Axe believes itself to be.
What columnists ran?
Jean Teasdale is back with “With Friends Like These...,” and it’s been a few months since she wrote about her new friends who claimed to be huge fans, or “Jeanketeers.” Back then, I was worried it would all go wrong for Jean, and it has.
It starts with one friend, Sean, wanting to take pictures of Jean and asking her all about her life — and he just happens to publish a “zine.” Jean is flattered by this attention, until she finds out that another of the friends, Marnie, has had a falling out with Sean. She tells Jean that Sean was using her for his zine, full of embarrassing stories about Jean and her husband, Rick, not to mention an essay describing Jean’s vapid nature:
"Meeting Jean, one is reminded of a lower-middle-class Stepford Wife. Yet, despite her ravenous desire to conform, she is perennially on the outside, lonely and condescended to when not ignored."
I mean, Sean’s not wrong. But it’s cruel — and maybe libelous — to trick someone into sharing themselves and then publish about it!
The notable cultural aspect of this article in 2021 is how generations are always complaining about other generations. Here’s Jean’s theory on Sean and people like him:
Then I thought, well, maybe this is a "Generation X" thing. Generation X is known for being kind of weird and offbeat. Maybe, instead of just confronting a person with their personality flaws, or just quietly tolerating them, they secretly publish a magazine complaining about them.
Our other columnist this week is a man named Gord Hunsacker, who says “I Could Write A Better Rubaiyat Than That Khayyam Dipshit.” I had to look up a lot of terms for this one, like “rubaiyat” (basically a collection of quatrains).
Hunsacker shares how the guys down at the loading dock are in a heated debate about the greatest poetry of all time. You know, that classic stereotype about loading docks.
Hunsacker is very down on “The Rubaiyat Of Omar Khayyam,” even after reading multiple translations of it. He also learned Arabic to read the original!
And you know what? It still sucked! Jesus, I can't tell you how awful it was. It may actually have been worse in Arabic than in any of the English translations. They should call Omar Khayyam "Ozymandias Khayyam," because when I look on his works, I despair!
I didn’t expect much out of this column, but I loved it. The raw passion! The attempt at a quatrain that Hunsacker offers! The trash talk, followed by an excuse why he doesn’t write a full-length poem!
Most “Hey, it’s 2001!” reference
The front-page headline and photo “Steve Allen: Gone, Forgotten,” a reference to the early “Tonight Show” host who even in 2001 barely existed in pop culture. The real joke here might be that he had died nearly 10 months earlier.
What was the best horoscope?
Pisces | Feb. 19 to March 20
By strange coincidence, this week is the 60,000th anniversary of the invention of the hand ax, a device that figures heavily in your future.
What holds up best?
Probably “Fast-Food Purchase Seething With Unspoken Class Conflict,” if only because it captures so much of today’s society in terms of passive-aggressiveness and people being very aware of class status (whatever their actual views on the subject). And the barely repressed emotions expressed are pretty well-written, to boot.
What holds up worst?
I think “Area Love Knows Only Court-Ordered Bounds” doesn’t work well now, if only because it’s exclusively focused on the ingenuity of the stalker. Yes, that’s kind of the joke, but whether it’s technically funny is different than being enjoyable to read and share.
The front-page headline and photo “Gay Comptroller Tired Of Being Referred To As 'That Gay Comptroller’” is not exactly a shining star, either, but at least it feels like The Onion could be mocking the comptroller’s impolite co-workers.
What would be done differently today?
You can quibble, but there are a lot of stories here that could run today, or at least possess the same tone and tenor. One challenge when comparing the early 2000s with the early 2020s is the sheer volume of headlines and stories that today’s staff must generate. So there’ll always been things seemingly missing from the older issues.
What real-life people were mentioned?
Genghis Khan. Steve Allen. Pink Floyd. Erik Estrada. Britney Spears. Destiny’s Child. Michael Jackson. Emmanuel Lewis. Lisa Marie Presley. Michael Witherell. Thomas Becher. Matthias Neubert. George W. Bush. Bill Clinton. Kenny Rogers. Omar Khayyam. John Keats. Edward Fitzgerald. E.H. Whinfield. A.J. Arberry. Elizabeth Taylor. Rosie O’Donnell. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Pink Floyd and Estrada are mentioned in Jean Teasdale’s column.
Spears, Destiny’s Child and Presley are in the Michael Jackson infographic.
The Rubaiyat story includes Keats (for the 2nd time in 3 issues!), the poet-translator Fitzgerald and the translator-scholars Whinfield and Arberry.
Taylor and O’Donnell are in “Top-Selling Fragrances.”
What was happening in the real world?
Here’s the real-life news from July 23-29, 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:
Bush, Putin continue missile talks. China sentences 2 U.S.-based scholars for spying for Taiwan, later releases one. Ethanol movement gains momentum. Embryo research: Pope John Paul II tells Bush to reject it, while the NYT profiles state laws on embryo research. Bush visits troops in Kosovo. Congressional report warns of Internet porn. U.S. declines to be part of climate, germ-warfare treaties. NYT profiles $220 million campus of new California college. Indonesia’s ex-president briefly disputes succession. NYT profiles chocolate supply chain. Eudora Welty dies at 92. Scrutiny continues after death in Johns Hopkins research study. Head injuries increasing for bicyclists. “Hardy Boys” look to new fans as 75th birthday approaches. Universities worried about commercialization of college sports. Lance Armstrong nears Tour de France win.