An Oral History of the Onion's 9/11 IssueBreaking News
tags: satire, 9/11, humor
On September 27, 2001, the satirical newspaper The Onion published a new issue following a brief hiatus due to the September 11th terrorist attacks. It was a precarious time in comedy, with many humorists having yet to return and guys like Letterman and Jon Stewart deciding to play it straight instead of crack a joke. But in their first issue back, The Onion did what it always did — it told jokes. With headlines like “Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie” and “Not Knowing What Else to Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake,” The Onion found the pitch-perfect way to approach humor in a very sensitive time. Now, nearly 20 years later, the issue is widely considered to be an important part of comedy history — even an important part of the broader cultural history surrounding 9/11.
The Onion’s 9/11 issue would arrive on newsstands on September 27th. The first reply came via fax, and it didn’t exactly alleviate anyone’s fears that the issue might be their undoing.
Hanson: Everyone came to work that day, terrified of what was going to happen. In my mind, I was thinking that this may be the last issue that The Onion ever publishes. Our audience may turn against us. We may lose all of our advertisers and everybody would hate us and we’d go out of business. It really felt like everything was on the line.
Joe Garden, writer from 1993 to 2012: The day after the issue went up online, we came into the office — late, as usual — to a fax that just had the words “Not funny” written over and over on it. I thought that didn’t portend anything good.
Krewson: That top fax said, “not funny, not funny, not funny” in huge writing, but below that was a stack as thick as a phone book and just about 98 percent of it was all praise. We got stuff from U.S. military bases, stuff from police departments. We got stuff from families of people who were involved. It was nuts. Somewhere in my files, I have an article about a woman who came to our party the night before and was so hungover that she wasn’t able to get to work at the World Trade Center the next day.
Loew: Maybe we saw four or five emails that were like, “How dare you make light of this tragedy?” But then we got a phone book’s worth of emails praising us. We printed them all out and put them in a binder. The response was overwhelmingly positive. So many people said that this was the first time they’ve laughed in weeks, and people were emailing us who had lost coworkers and family members and they were thanking us for making them laugh again. We also got a few emails from people that had hung out with us the night before who told us that, because of The Onion, they were late to work the next day at the World Trade Center.
Karwowski: Usually we got around 50 or so emails from people for an issue, but for this issue we were getting thousands of emails and I’d say 95 percent of them were positive. Every once in a while you’d get someone who was like “too soon” or “inappropriate,” but most people were like, “Thank God, it’s been two weeks of everyone taking things so seriously.”