I attended a reunion of the founders of SPY Magazine, the publishing phenom of the 80s and early 90s that revolutionized satirical humor in this country and paved the way for many [lesser imitators] to come. The panel discussion with Kurt Andersen, Graydon Carter and editor George Kalogerakis was hosted by New York Times culture editor David Carr. The sold-out event was held in the ornate Celeste Bartos Forum in the main branch of the New York Public Library and was timed to coincide with the release a new book, [SPY: The Funny Years], an anthology of annotated greatest hits from the magazine’s salad days.
I’ve rarely seen a room so filled with sleek, attractive and thin people (the Upper East Side dame who sat in front of me couldn’t have weighed more than 90 pounds and balanced on the middle of her seat like a couture pipe cleaner). The SPY reunion brought out the NY media A-list, most of whom I knew not — though they all seemed to know each other. One person I did recognize was Gawker’s Nick Denton, who sailed in after many had taken their seats and made a circle of the room looking to get as close as possible to the front, where the machers clustered. He sidled up to a clutch of black-clad schmoozers and waited for them to acknowledge him as he made motions to claim a seat. They made way without breaking chatter for a moment, apparently not knowing who the hell he was. Well, at least I wasn’t alone in my anonymity.
Carr began his lengthy introduction of the panelists by recounting some of the comedic touchstones that began at SPY and have since become fixtures of a satirical sensibility: Separated at Birth, Logrolling in Our Time, and the detailed and ingenious charts that gave a newsy gravity to the most absurd topics imaginable (such as a graphical plot of cheesy pick up lines that film director James Toback was using on hapless women all over Manhattan). The panel warmed up by commenting on a number of memorable SPY covers, including the image of Hillary above that adorned their best-selling issue, one of a pregnant Bruce Willis that riffed on the Vanity Fair cover of his wife at the time Demi Moore, and the first example of cut and paste snark: A model with Ted Kennedy’s face spliced on getting doused with a bucket of water (suggesting Chappaquidick, for all you under-40 readers…).
Referring to the Kennedy photo, Graydon Carter pointed out that they worked in a pre-Photoshop era — all of their cut and paste work required hunting through hundreds of photos by hand for one that could be matched against new material that sometimes had to be created with real models and sets. He remarked that a lot of their creativity and distinctive look came from the limitations of their resources. Little things, like using inexpensive classic typefaces in tiny type gave the magazine a polished minimalist look, “things look more intelligent when type is really small,” joked Carter.
When asked why their little magazine with only a 25K circulation in their first year had such an impact, Andersen noted that they had the virtue of being in the right place (Manhattan) at the right time (the sudden rush of Wall Street-minted boorish millionaires and a burgeoning celebutante culture). They were the first mainstream magazine to skewer people who had, to that time, been worshipped for their fame — most notably, the “short-fingered vulgarian” himself, Donald Trump. Carr asked if they accepted any responsibility (blame) for the glut of snarky celebrity-obsessed media that followed in their wake and they demurred, saying (accurately) that unlike current offerings from Gawker and its ilk, they had not simply commented on other people’s work but also done real reporting and bona-fide journalism of their own.
After a chilly start up to the proceedings Carter, Anderson and the rarely referred to Kalogerakis warmed to the reunion vibe — especially Carter — and seemed to enjoy recounting their adventures with The Donald and others they had flayed. It was a bit poignant, knowing the complicated relationship these guys had after Carter jumped ship from SPY, leaving Andersen to pilot the project alone, when financial difficulties began during the recession of the early 90s. As a [long piece] in Andersen’s next venture New York magazine catalogued, Carter — a man of no small ambition — tried to distance himself from SPY, and the people he had worked with, as he set his sights on loftier perches like Vanity Fair. It was only after a midlife crisis in his early fifties that led to an affair and left his family life in ruins that he softened and returned to old friendships.
One had the impression listening to them that they have all undergone some reassessment of what they did 20 years ago. If not quite the Road to Damascus conversion away from all things superficial and ironic that Andersen has written about (and that got this rat’s tail [in a bunch] a few months ago…), then some awareness at how their magnum opus influenced others. Despite their protestations about paternity, sarcastic obsession with celebrity is offered up in unhealthy doses by current editors who cut their fangs on SPY. Chalk it up to the Law of Unintended Consequences, regression to the mean or just plain old entropy, but I suppose we cannot expect what comes after to be nearly as good as what came before.