Thursday, June 04, 2015


I just read Spy: The Funny Years, chronicling the rise and fall of the great Spy magazine. The book came out in 2006, and the magazine ended in 1998, but it's still worth remembering.  It's written by the two original editors and creators, Kurt Anderson and Graydon Carter, as well as original deputy editor George Kalogreakis (whom I get the feeling did the heavy lifting).  Much of the book is reprinted material from the magazine itself--I was surprised how much of it I remembered.

In the early 80s two young journalists, Anderson and Carter, came up with the idea of a smart, fearless, satirical magazine mostly about New York.  With publisher Tom Phillips, they were able to raise enough money to get out their first issue by 1986.  Early on they barely had any money and weren't sure the project would continue, but almost from the start, they struck a tone that readers across the nation recognized as something special--good reporting mixed with good writing mixed with an attitude.

They took on big figures--mostly New Yorkers, but more national figures as the magazine went along, exposing the soft white underbelly of the rich and famous in ways that were rare to see then (but are common now).  And not just sleazy celebrities, who are easy enough to mock, but socialites and captains of industry and top journalists from other papers and magazines.

They also had a stunning visual presentation, playing with fonts, photos, drawings and much else--in an era when to cut and paste meant to literally cut and paste.  Once again, it's become common today, but no one else was doing it then--at least, not like Spy.  Anderson and Carter had a vision, and there was perhaps no magazine so closely edited. After a few issues, some of the staff and even freelancers got it, and learned to write in the Spy style, but the editors were there to make sure the whole thing was consistent.

Not that it was all of a piece. They had long articles, short bits, letters to the editors with smart replies, cartoons, profiles, everything but poems.  Some of their concepts became famous on their own. For instance, "Separated At Birth," where the magazine pointed out the similar looks of two otherwise dissimilar people. And then there was the "Spy List"--what appeared to be a random list of names, and it was up to the reader to figure out what held them together.  It could be, say, people who liked to be tied up during sex.  The great thing about this feature is they could imply anything they wanted about the people involved and couldn't be sued, since it was simply an unadorned collection of names. And some one-offs were copied and put up in office doors across the nation, such as how much Elvis would weigh on different planets, or a scientific explanation to children of how Santa Claus could not exist.  Spy also expanded into other media, producing bestselling collections of "Separated At Birth" and putting on a 1990 TV special hosted by relative unknown Jerry Seinfeld.

Certain people became favorite targets, such as New York Times editor Abe "I'm writing as bad as I can" Rosenthal, "freelance racist" Ed Koch and, above all, "short-fingered vulgarian" Donald Trump (Spy loved ritual epithets as much as Homer did).  And soon they set their sights beyond New York, taking on George H. W. Bush--listing literally 1000 reasons not to vote for him--and CAA super-agent Mike Ovitz. In fact, Spy became a must in Hollywood, with "Celia Brady" (no one knows who he/she is to this day) reporting on what's happening out here.

They would tail people, such as Carl Bernstein, to see the many clubs the erstwhile journalist was attending.  Or they'd go through celebrities' garbage to see what their lives were like. Or they'd get someone to infiltrate the Bohemian Grove retreat to see what the mucky-mucks were doing in their free time (mostly telling dirty jokes and peeing outdoors).

Every issue had something new and delightful, and the readership kept increasing, along with ad revenue. Within a few years the magazine was showing a slight profit.  The creators considered cashing in, selling the magazine while still running it, but then the 1990 recession hit and ads were cut in half. The magazine was able to find some buyers, but they were, unfortunately, much more hands-on.  After fighting the new regime for a while, Carter left.  Anderson stuck around a bit longer, but by 1993 he left as well.  Hence the subtitle of the book--the 71 issues these two men put out were "the funny years."

Tony Hendra, a talented guy who'd worked at National Lampoon, took over as editor, but he wasn't a good fit, and in any case, much of the Spy staff deserted when the original editors quit.  Mind you, the magazine could still be funny, but the magic wasn't quite there.  After several Hendra issue the magazine ran out of money, but then found a new buyer with a new editor, and after sputtering on for a few more years with bi-monthly issues, was put out of its misery in 1998.  It probably couldn't have kept going on as it had anyway--it's doubtful Carter or Anderson could have kept up the pace, or the anger, as they moved into middle age. And with the internet age encroaching, such a magazine, even one so cutting, would have seemed too slow and dated.

So maybe we should see Spy as something that flowered brightly, mostly in the 1980s, and be happy we got what we got.  Many of its writers moved on to other magazines, or to TV and movies.  And that may be Spy's ultimate success--what was so different then has become part of the media world.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great recap. The disclaimers after complaints were great too- wonderfully cruel.

From memory-"dwarf billionaire" Laurence Tisch was referred to and "medically, technically not a dwarf" and "criminal owner" George Steinbrenner became "fully-pardoned ex-felon" George Steinbrenner.

And then fooling John Sununu into fake job interview and getting him to describe himself as a ""people person"...

3:21 AM, June 04, 2015  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also equal opportunity bashers. I remember Top 100 Lies of Bill Clinton and I think #6 was "Don't Hillary and Chelsea look great tonight?" from the first inaugural.

I think Hillary had multiple covers, the one of her as a dominatrix is the one I remember the most.

There was a disturbing investigative piece about Chuck Berry's peculiar fetish

4:13 AM, June 04, 2015  
Blogger LAGuy said...

I remember it all, and much of what you discuss is referenced in the book.

While the editors and writers tended to be Democrats, they were more than willing to go after their own kind.

8:43 AM, June 04, 2015  
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