“America Stronger Than Ever Says Quadragon Officials.”
June 29, 2020 10:10 AM   Subscribe

'Doing any sort of comedy so soon after 9/11 was exceptionally complicated and the stakes were no less high for The Onion. Not only was this their first issue back, but again, it was their first “New York City Edition” as well, meaning it was the first time The Onion would be available on newsstands throughout the city'. An Oral History of The Onion’s 9/11 Issue.
posted by figurant (47 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's a work of genius from top to bottom. I was only 12 at the time and had no idea how to react, and I think the first time I read the article about the woman frantically baking an American flag cake was the first time I cried.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:22 AM on June 29 [21 favorites]


That Quadragon headline remains the best work ever done by the Onion, and damn them for backing off of it.
posted by Etrigan at 10:35 AM on June 29 [24 favorites]


Agreed, Etrigan.
“America Stronger Than Ever Says Quadragon Officials.”
posted by doctornemo at 10:50 AM on June 29 [4 favorites]


Well I just did an experiment where I read the cake article again and, yep, it still makes me weep 20 years later
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:51 AM on June 29 [8 favorites]


I maintain that "God Angrily Clarifies 'Don't Kill' Rule" is among the finest comedy writing ever.

"I guess I figured I'd left no real room for confusion after putting it in a four-word sentence with one-syllable words, on the tablets I gave to Moses. How much more clear can I get?"
posted by vibrotronica at 10:56 AM on June 29 [35 favorites]


I thought of the "bake a cake with a flag on it" a lot when people were panic-buying flour, rice, and beans at the start of the pandemic.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 10:58 AM on June 29 [6 favorites]


Whoah, I didn't realize the Onion originated in Wisconsin. Neat.

Thanks for posting this. I'm one of those millennials who doesn't remember 9/11, so pieces like this are really eye-opening to me.
posted by brook horse at 11:06 AM on June 29 [4 favorites]


I was in high school during 9/11 and I remember this Onion so well. At the time the internet was just an unimaginably smaller place and I think basically everyone I knew looked at the Onion every week. We all just respected the hell out of the Onion for doing jokes because at the time everyone was in "guess we'll never laugh again, jokes are over" mode. As teens it was like, ok, is the world actually just ending? Is everything changed forever, is this it? And for the Onion to show up this way was so brave and just such a relief. And as someone who really regarded myself as like, a citizen of the internet, it felt like while "old media" was floundering and freaking out, one of the internet's flagship publications really rose to the occasion with a truly pitch-perfect response (+1 that the "God Angrily Clarifies" piece was incredible, then as now - at the time it seemed like the American national pastime was putting words in His mouth). Definitely a major victory for Team Internet.

It was a great issue and clearly took such courage and I'm glad the accolades poured in. They deserved it. And damn, should they have gotten that Pulitzer!
posted by potrzebie at 11:19 AM on June 29 [11 favorites]


My favorite follow-up, on the same subject:

Cheney Waits Until Last Minute Again To Buy Sept. 11 Gifts
posted by gimonca at 11:21 AM on June 29 [5 favorites]


Yeah, I remember pundits in all seriousness saying that "irony is over" and everything was somber and wrapped in a goddamn flag. (We went to England for a long-scheduled trip right after the whole thing and when we got back after a week, we were surprised how many flags sprouted up everywhere. They remained in tatters and faded on cars for a decade after. It was unreal.)

Then we watched W and Cheney invade a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 and realized that irony was just now so big we had no word for it.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 11:34 AM on June 29 [20 favorites]


I miss the “columnists” of the Onion that they jettisoned in recent years. Jean Teasdale’s response to the attacks stands out in my mind as being so true to the character: she pretends 9/11 never happened, to the horror of those around her.
posted by dr_dank at 11:43 AM on June 29 [16 favorites]


And, as always, it's quite a thing to see the Onion predict the future, as in 'Our Long National Nightmare Of Peace And Prosperity Is Finally Over' when they have Bush say:
"You better believe we're going to mix it up with somebody at some point during my administration," said Bush, who plans a 250 percent boost in military spending. "Unlike my predecessor, I am fully committed to putting soldiers in battle situations. Otherwise, what is the point of even having a military?"
Although I suspect it didn't quite happen how they meant it.
posted by DreamerFi at 11:46 AM on June 29 [18 favorites]


I got together with my closest friends on that Friday night (9/14) and we all showed up with either extremely random snacks ("I wandered around the store for half an hour, here's a giant summer sausage") or elaborate spent-all-day contributions (I think someone made a trifle?), and when this issue came out we laughed so hard at Flag Cake.

Everybody was Flag Caking in some way or another, because there was just nothing you could DO. You couldn't fix it, there was nobody to give blood to, nobody to save, you could donate some money but you weren't sure what for exactly, you had to direct that energy and that weird surge of confusing Americanness into something.

Every single article exquisitely captured the slideshow of emotions everyone was rapidly clicking through that first two weeks. I had always assumed that there was a mountain of work put into pulling that off, and I'm kind of relieved to hear that yes, that's true, this wasn't some accidental fluke of comedy.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:58 AM on June 29 [10 favorites]


> That Quadragon headline remains the best work ever done by the Onion, and damn them for backing off of it.

They did go with "Massive Attack on Pentagon Page 14 News", which is if anything even more pointed albeit considerably more subtle.
posted by ardgedee at 11:59 AM on June 29 [14 favorites]


I go back and re-read "God Angrily Clarifies 'Don't Kill' Rule" on a regular basis. It's beautiful writing, and I say that as an atheist.
posted by ChrisR at 11:59 AM on June 29 [2 favorites]


Whoah, I didn't realize the Onion originated in Wisconsin. Neat

In the fall of '88 I spent a weekend at UWM visiting a high school classmate and I remember he had a few copies of The Onion lying around. IIRC the original paper was more like an alt-weekly (the straight-laced student rag was called "The Union"). The humor was a significant part of it but there were also record reviews and all that jazz.

My favorite part was the page where the Onion editors got the local police report, titled "Who's Busted?" I could have sworn they also sauced up the descriptions a little bit to tweak the students that got caught by campus police. There was a "Drunk of the Week" title to be earned.
posted by JoeZydeco at 12:54 PM on June 29 [6 favorites]


Another inspired reaction, IMHO. One of a kind tv moment. (in spite of future insane giuliani)
posted by j_curiouser at 2:25 PM on June 29 [1 favorite]


Oddly enough, I actually had an Ask about the Letterman transcript. It meant a lot to me.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:31 PM on June 29 [1 favorite]


Eleven years ago.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:33 PM on June 29 [1 favorite]


I just reread "not knowing what else to do" and cried again at that earnest, unmoored grief.

Everybody was Flag Caking in some way or another

Lyn Never, YES. And of course we do, right? Because it's a gesture and sometimes that's all we have.
posted by brainwane at 2:34 PM on June 29 [4 favorites]


It was a great issue, although I'm not surprised that they did it because they also did a pretty great one on the 2000 election mess.
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:45 PM on June 29


That was because, at the time, every network had these dramatic logos with the twin towers burning saying “Crisis” or “Terror in America,” or whatever; so we just said, “Holy Fucking Shit” because that’s what most people were actually thinking.

QFT
posted by chavenet at 3:15 PM on June 29 [7 favorites]


“America Stronger Than Ever Says Quadragon Officials.”

*Tetragon, surely?
posted by The Tensor at 4:01 PM on June 29 [2 favorites]


*Tetragon, surely?

Remember, this is only eighteen months or so before the four Alien moves were released in the "Quadrilogy." I figured it was something like "freedom fries," where for whatever reason Greek ordinal numerical prefixes were on the Clear Channel Do Not Play list.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:32 PM on June 29 [1 favorite]


Great post, thank you. I remember every one of those headlines verbatim -- but somehow I don't remember ever seeing the TV Guide section. Just amazing.
Yo! MTV Extends Its Condolences
posted by churl at 4:37 PM on June 29 [12 favorites]


The cake article is so perfect. I think about it often.

Also, I loved that they included that Lifetime was just basically showing The Golden Girls 24/7 in the aftermath of 9/11. It was a joke, except ... it was really not a joke. I remember noticing that and appreciating that someone else did too.
posted by darksong at 4:41 PM on June 29 [5 favorites]


"God Angrily Clarifies 'Don't Kill' Rule" was written by Todd Hanson. It was very good after 9/11, it is very good now, and it will remain very good for a very long time. So much humor writing has a such short shelf life. Humanity should consider itself lucky if that the shelf life of that piece is any shorter than that of our species.

I think there's a few people on Metafilter who work in entertainment. It sounds like Hanson could take on some work right now. Take a minute to read this and see what you can do, especially if you know anyone in need of a voiceover actor.

Maybe that is a strange thing for me to signal boost here. I don't know him or have any personal connection to him. But he has spoken pretty openly about his depression on a couple occasions, and hearing his stories was an important thing for me at an important time.
posted by compartment at 4:53 PM on June 29 [10 favorites]


The Quadragon headline is the best satire headline ever written, and also yeah, probably would have been a "too soon" flop, like Gottfried's joke.
posted by ctmf at 5:19 PM on June 29 [1 favorite]


I admire the maturity it must have taken to lay a masterpiece like that down and walk away.
posted by ctmf at 5:20 PM on June 29 [9 favorites]


I just remember feeling like something had fundamentally broken in the world, and that from that point on, things were just going to keep getting worse, and honestly, very little since 9/11 has shown that feeling to be wrong.

The thing is, as deeply afraid of how bad things would get as I was, the world and the people in it have continually shown me how shallow and insufficient my idea of "things getting worse" actually was, and my conception of "worse" has had to continually be adjusted. How fucked is it that, on the scale of things that have happened just this year, 9/11 seems, I don't know.

I don't have the words to describe how dwarfed by the last six months 9/11 seems to me, and I remember nearly everything about 9/11, watching it live on TV here in Japan, and trying to figure out how to keep going forward the next day. I could still talk about it, the whole day leading up to coming home and finding it happening live on TV, but it's one of those things we just don't talk about anymore, right? It's never been diminished in my mind, it's still there, still just as awful as ever, but I guess my idea of awful has just expanded since then, and now I look back on myself, and my reaction to what happened, and my feeling of oncoming doom with more than a little contempt for just how naive I was going to end up being.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:54 PM on June 29 [17 favorites]


potrzebie I was in high school too and your comment really expresses how I felt too, there was such an overwhelming atmosphere of dread & uncertainty in those first few days & this issue was such a mental relief.

I think about the flag cake one a lot lately too and also every time I go into the grocery store something makes me think about "Nation longs to care about stupid bullshit again" with the image of Britney and her snake.
posted by bleep at 7:02 PM on June 29 [7 favorites]


I introduced my mother to The Onion with that issue. I'd had it all through college in the late 80s/early 90s (hard copies at Northwestern, just a quick 90 mins from UWMadison). I mailed her a copy. She liked "Hijackers Surprised to Find Selves in Hell." My favorite was the TV section--it was all over the place, but then, so was I.

The whole thing is a work of genius and yes they deserved the Pulitzer for it. It was not nearly the first time I cried since the 11th, but it was the first time I smiled.
posted by tzikeh at 7:14 PM on June 29 [1 favorite]


...the world and the people in it have continually shown me how shallow and insufficient my idea of "things getting worse" actually was, and my conception of "worse" has had to continually be adjusted.

“No matter how cynical you get, it is impossible to keep up.” -- Lily Tomlin
posted by Greg_Ace at 7:22 PM on June 29 [9 favorites]


I don't remember how I got introduced to The Onion but I'd been reading it online for a while when 911 happened. I remember going back to the site repeatedly, figuring their response would be epic, and indeed it was. They got it all so perfect. It was cathartic. There wasn't much work going on at work at that point, and we all gathered around and read it. And re-read it. It was comedy but it was also deadly serious.
posted by DrumsIntheDeep at 10:57 PM on June 29 [2 favorites]


The hugging up 76,000% percent gets me, because I remember we went to class that day, and I remember hugging people. I don't even remember who I hugged now, presumably people I knew, but I remember going outside into the quad of my school and there were hugs and tears.

Incidentally, this was the SNL piece with Paul Simon and Giuliani they referenced
.
posted by gryftir at 11:01 PM on June 29 [1 favorite]


My favorite was the TV section--it was all over the place, but then, so was I.

Mine too. I remember coming to work and reading it online when I worked in D.C. and lived a mile away from the Pentagon. It was the first thing that made me laugh. "Dan Rather Seriously Loses His Shit" and Animal Planet's entire line up.
posted by gladly at 5:55 AM on June 30


The Quadragon headline is the best satire headline ever written

At the risk of criticizing The Onion, I'm going to double down on "Tetragon"—it's empirically superior:

1. Greek-Greek >> Latin-Greek.
2. In an isolated headline, "Quadragon" looks like some kind of four-headed dragon.
3. ...because it should be Quadrigon.
posted by The Tensor at 10:51 AM on June 30


"Tetragon" does not have a K sound.
posted by Etrigan at 10:57 AM on June 30 [1 favorite]


Neither does "Quadragon" when it's in a printed headline.
posted by The Tensor at 11:04 AM on June 30


People hear quad and think 4 and that's the whole joke. No one knows what tetra means except maybe it's some kind of plastic packaging.
posted by bleep at 11:11 AM on June 30 [3 favorites]


Also Quadragon is evocative of the wild fantastical absurdity of the headquarters of the military being called The Pentagon.
posted by bleep at 11:12 AM on June 30 [2 favorites]


1. Greek-Greek >> Latin-Greek.

In related moral news, polyamory is wrong.

It's either multiamory or polyphilia.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 11:43 AM on June 30 [6 favorites]


I watched the towers burn from the rooftop of my apartment on East 34th Street. To this day, few reminders of that day move me to tears like the perfect final paragraph of God Angrily Clarifies 'Don't Kill' Rule.

Upon completing His outburst, God fell silent, standing quietly at the podium for several moments. Then, witnesses reported, God's shoulders began to shake, and He wept.
posted by bassomatic at 2:14 PM on June 30 [7 favorites]


Nothing made any sense in the days and weeks after 9/11. Particularly all the American flags that appeared suddenly, the media coverage, the drumbeat for war. All I could feel was sorrow. My wife and I were in medical residency and still had our 24 hour shifts and taking care of others while the rest of the world stopped and everyone stayed home and grieved and got angry and bought their FDNY shirts. The only emotion I could process was how despite the heroism and dignity of ordinary people doing what they do to be social and helpful creatures, the awfulness of humans always wins out and shit was about to get a lot more awful in response. Seeing everyone else’s reaction around me just made me feel more lonely and sad, like I suddenly recognized everyone else had this “patriotism emotion” that I congenitally lacked. Why wasn’t anyone else profoundly concerned that the U.S. response was being led by the greatest dipshit and warmongers ever to inhabit to White House?

It was so, so important in those days to have things like the Onion poke occasionally through the dust and the chaos with truth, wisdom, and humanity. To this day, I firmly believe the world is almost certainly fucked, but there are these tiny reminders, the 0.01% of stuff that happens, of hope. If there’s any way to save ourselves we have to focus on those little bright sparks of light and amplify them. W’s “The people who did this hate our freedoms!” hasn’t aged nearly as well as this Onion issue.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 5:56 AM on July 1 [4 favorites]


Seeing everyone else’s reaction around me just made me feel more lonely and sad, like I suddenly recognized everyone else had this “patriotism emotion” that I congenitally lacked. Why wasn’t anyone else profoundly concerned that the U.S. response was being led by the greatest dipshit and warmongers ever to inhabit to White House?
Yeah, this. I was 30, so about the same age. The march to war, and the immediate call for absurd additional police powers, was just nauseating to me. ISTR some comments predicting both on the blue, too.

So much absurd bullshit followed that led to now, like the TSA generally, or (more darkly) the FBI's cottage industry of literally recruiting disturbed young men -- mostly brown -- into fictional terrorism plots, and then arresting them and claiming they were making us safer.

But the Onion that week was a perfect thing. I remember it in a trinity, really, co-equal in importance with the returning monologues from Jon Stewart and David Letterman. All three still bring tears to my eyes.
posted by uberchet at 1:04 PM on July 1


They had just fully moved the staff offices from Madison to NYC and many of the writers were also adjusting to being New York residents at the time. A friend of mine was a Onion writer newly moved to NYC and I remember desperately calling him on 9/11. He had changed his voicemail (maybe it was even an answering machine?) to say, “roommate and I remain free from harm of terrorist attack.” I’m sure every friend and family who called and heard that message laughed and cried, as I did.
posted by areaperson at 6:52 PM on July 1


That Quadragon headline is making me twitch for a different reason—the subject-verb agreement is wrong and it annoys me. It should be either Says Quadragon Official or Say Quadragon Officials.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 3:37 PM on July 4 [2 favorites]


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