Twenty-five years ago today, University of Wisconsin-Madison juniors Tim Keck and Christopher Johnson published the first-ever issue of The Onion — America's self-proclaimed "finest news source," and a brilliant, incredibly consistent home for some of the sharpest satire in modern discourse. Though the first headline ("Mendota Monster Mauls Madison") isn't exactly a classic, it set the stage for a publication that has since become a national treasure and the core component of a far-reaching media empire.
How did The Onion grow from its low-rent local roots to such heights? Here, track the growth of the publication with 10 of our favorite stories from The Onion's 25-year history:
1."Clinton Deploys Vowels to Bosnia; Cities of Sjlbvdnzv, Grzny to Be First Recipients" (December 1995)
The Onion's online archives only extend back to 1996, but the publication's decision to publish on the web came, in part, when a faithful transcription of this print-only article became a viral hit online.
Before an emergency joint session of Congress yesterday, President Clinton announced US plans to deploy over 75,000 vowels to the war-torn region of Bosnia. The deployment, the largest of its kind in American history, will provide the region with the critically needed letters A, E, I, O and U, and is hoped to render countless Bosnian names more pronounceable.
"For six years, we have stood by while names like Ygrjvslhv and Tzlynhr and Glrm have been horribly butchered by millions around the world," Clinton said. "Today, the United States must finally stand up and say 'Enough.' It is time the people of Bosnia finally had some vowels in their incomprehensible words. The US is proud to lead the crusade in this noble endeavour."
2. "Supreme Court Rules Supreme Court Rules" (Jan. 27, 1997)
Sometimes an Onion headline says it all. This is one of those times.
In a landmark decision Monday, the United States Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that it rules.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing on behalf of the majority, noted that "while the U.S. Constitution guarantees equality of power among the executive, legislative and judicial branches, it most definitely does not guarantee equality of coolness, and in this regard, the judicial branch kicks that which can be construed as total and complete ass."
3. "'98 Homosexual-Recruitment Drive Nearing Goal" (July 29, 1998)
The Onion is famous for tricking a certain percentage of gullible readers into thinking its stories are real. (There's even a blog devoted to collecting the responses of such readers.) One early and noteworthy example: The Westboro Baptist Church's Fred Phelps, who angrily blogged about this blatantly satirical "homosexual recruitment drive" as if it were real.
Spokespersons for the National Gay & Lesbian Recruitment Task Force announced Monday that more than 288,000 straights have been converted to homosexuality since Jan. 1, 1998, putting the group well on pace to reach its goal of 350,000 conversions by the end of the year.
"Thanks to the tireless efforts of our missionaries nationwide, in the first seven months of 1998, nearly 300,000 heterosexuals were ensnared in the Pink Triangle," said NGLRTF co-director Patricia Emmonds. "Clearly, the activist homosexual lobby is winning."
Emmonds credited much of the recruiting success to the gay lobby's infiltration of America's public schools, where programs promoting the homosexual lifestyle are regularly presented to children as young as 5.
4. "God Answers Prayer of Paralyzed Little Boy; 'No, Says God'" (Dec. 9, 1998)
As The Onion's writers continued to develop the paper's distinctive editorial voice, its stories took on an increasingly edgier tone. This ruthless story is one such example.
For as long as he can remember, 7-year-old Timmy Yu has had one precious dream: From the bottom of his heart, he has hoped against hope that God would someday hear his prayer to walk again. Though many thought Timmy's heavenly plea would never be answered, his dream finally came true Monday, when the Lord personally responded to the wheelchair-bound boy's prayer with a resounding no.
"I knew that if I just prayed hard enough, God would hear me," said the joyful Timmy, surrounded by stuffed animals sent by well-wishing Christians from around the globe, as he sat in the wheelchair to which he will be confined for the rest of his life. "And now my prayer has been answered. I haven't been this happy since before the accident, when I could walk and play with the other children like a normal boy."
5. "Bush: 'Our Long National Nightmare Of Peace and Prosperity Is Finally Over'" (Jan. 17, 2001)
As President Bush took office in 2001, The Onion set the tone for its Bush-era political coverage with a darkly prescient piece of satire predicting massive debt and a "250 percent boost in military spending."
Mere days from assuming the presidency and closing the door on eight years of Bill Clinton, president-elect George W. Bush assured the nation in a televised address Tuesday that "our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity is finally over."
"My fellow Americans," Bush said, "at long last, we have reached the end of the dark period in American history that will come to be known as the Clinton Era, eight long years characterized by unprecedented economic expansion, a sharp decrease in crime, and sustained peace overseas. The time has come to put all of that behind us."
6. "Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake" (Sept. 26, 2001)
The Onion's now-legendary post-9/11 issue was the first issue published in New York City — and more than a decade later, it's still the publication's finest hour. Though it's hard to choose just one article from an issue that includes gems like "American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie" and "Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves In Hell," it's this poignant, genuinely heartbreaking article that perfectly captured the national feeling of wanting to do something without knowing what to do.
Feeling helpless in the wake of the horrible Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed thousands, Christine Pearson baked a cake and decorated it like an American flag Monday.
"I had to do something to force myself away from the TV," said Pearson, 33, carefully laying rows of strawberry slices on the white-fudge-frosting-covered cake. "All of those people. Those poor people. I don't know what else to do."
Pearson, who had never before expressed feelings of patriotism in cake form, attributed the baking project to a loss of direction. 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.
7. "Fuck Everything, We're Doing Five Blades" (Feb. 18, 2004)
In a 2004 "op-ed," The Onion gleefully skewered the shaving industry's bizarre obsession with adding more blades to its razors. Once again, the paper was ahead of the curve; less than two years later, Gillette released a real five-blade razor.
Would someone tell me how this happened? We were the fucking vanguard of shaving in this country. The Gillette Mach3 was the razor to own. Then the other guy came out with a three-blade razor. Were we scared? Hell, no. Because we hit back with a little thing called the Mach3Turbo. That's three blades and an aloe strip. For moisture. But you know what happened next? Shut up, I'm telling you what happened —the bastards went to four blades. Now we're standing around with our cocks in our hands, selling three blades and a strip. Moisture or no, suddenly we're the chumps. Well, fuck it. We're going to five blades.
8. "Black Guy Asks Nation For Change" (March 19, 2008)
The Onion successfully transitioned into the Obama presidency with a series of articles skewering American attitudes about race and the media's coverage of Obama, including this can't-miss article that turned a familiar campaign slogan on its head.
According to witnesses, a loud black man approached a crowd of some 4,000 strangers in downtown Chicago Tuesday and made repeated demands for change.
"The time for change is now," said the black guy, yelling at everyone within earshot for 20 straight minutes, practically begging America for change. "The need for change is stronger and more urgent than ever before. And only you — the people standing here today, and indeed all the people of this great nation — only you can deliver this change."
It is estimated that, to date, the black man has asked every single person in the United States for change.
9. "Shirtless Biden Washes Trans Am In White House Driveway" (April 20, 2010)
The Onion's greatest recent triumph is the way it has single-handedly managed to invent a bizarro version of Joe Biden — a sleazy, beer-chugging, proudly redneck, self-proclaimed folk hero. The paper's hilarious string of articles — from "Biden Receives Lifetime Ban From Dave & Buster's" to "Biden To Cool His Heels In Mexico For A While" — were so widely disseminated that The New York Times eventually published a story about them.
Taking advantage of the warm spring weather Monday, Vice President Joe Biden parked his 1981 Trans Am in the White House driveway, removed his undershirt, and spent a leisurely afternoon washing the muscle car and drinking beer.
"This baby just needs a little scrub down," said Biden, addressing a tour group as he tucked the sweat-covered top into the belt loop of his cutoff jean shorts. "Gotta get her looking good so I can impress the chicks when I'm cruising down Pennsylvania [Avenue]."
White House aides said that Biden pulled into the driveway shortly before noon, the chorus of Night Ranger's "(You Can Still) Rock In America" blaring from his car's stereo. According to witnesses, Biden spent several minutes maneuvering the Trans Am into the perfect spot, and was observed drumming his fingers on the steering wheel until the song came to a close.
10. "Roger Ebert Hails Human Existence As 'A Triumph'" (April 4, 2013)
As biting as The Onion's satire tends to be, its writers are equally adept at finding amusing, unexpectedly heartfelt ways to cover difficult subjects. Case in point: This beautiful tribute to Roger Ebert, which summed up his career and life philosophy better than any obituary.
Calling the overall human experience "poignant," "thought-provoking," and a "complete tour de force," film critic Roger Ebert praised existence Thursday as "an audacious and thrilling triumph." "While not without its flaws, life, from birth to death, is a masterwork, and an uplifting journey that both touches the heart and challenges the mind," said Ebert, adding that while the totality of all humankind is sometimes "a mess in places," it strives to be a magnum opus and, according to Ebert, largely succeeds at this goal.