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SPY magazine, founded by Kurt Andersen and
E. Graydon Carter in 1986, filled a void left by the demise of the
underground press of the ‘60s and the aging of The New Yorker, New York Magazine, and Esquire. SPY was
part journalism, part humor, and all sophisticated irony. Through its
ironic stance, it was the zeitgeist magazine covering themes and issues
important to many urban baby-boomers. It parodied the increasing fawning
over celebrities while uncovering dirt on those who influenced the
culture. It even jabbed away at the New York Times in a column that had so much hush hush inside information it was impossible to believe an insider wasn’t writing it.
This month SPY: The Funny Years
by Kurt Andersen, Graydon Carter and George Kalogerakis (Miramax Books)
was published. In this interview, Andersen discusses the rise, fall and
resurrection of this paradigm of wickedly intelligent publishing.
Steven Heller: Before SPY there was The New Yorker, Esquire (particularly its parodies), The Harvard Lampoon, the National Lampoon, elements of New York Magazine, even MAD
magazine, but a print version of something like "That Was the Week That
Was," did not exist. I'm talking about something sophisticated yet
humorous, journalistic yet critical, something that understood New York,
yet could appeal to the rest of the country–at least the more savvy
citizens in the provinces. It was the baby boomer's and thinking man's
New Yorker. You've been asked this many times, I'm sure: what was the
impetus for starting SPY?
Kurt Andersen: Both Graydon [Carter, co-editor, now editor of Vanity Fair] and I, as we were growing up, had magazines that thrilled us to get–MAD when we were little kids, and in the early ‘70s, Rolling Stone and New York and National Lampoon. And when we started looking back at older magazines–Harper's and Esquire in the ‘60s, The New Yorker
in the ‘20s and ‘30s–we were retroactively inspired. But we found that
in our 30s (I was 30, and Graydon was 35 when we started talking about
the hypothetical magazine that would become SPY), that we
didn't have that thrilling, most-favoritest magazine at the time in the
mid-‘80s. We didn't see our generational sensibility reflected in print
like we did on TV, in shows like Saturday Night Live and [David] Letterman.
We'd both been in New York just long enough to have a strong sense that
the stories our journalist friends told us were a lot more entertaining
than the stories that made print, and that there ought to be a place
that would publish those stories. The new celebrity-worship media
culture was just ginning up big-time, and New York was just regaining
its swagger a decade after the near-bankruptcy and a very few years into
the long Wall Street bull market. All those things together were the
Heller: At first, SPY seemed like a humor magazine, but the mix was as much about muckraking as YUKraking. Had you edited a magazine before?
Andersen: We always wanted it to be not a "humor magazine," but
rather a reported and researched magazine that was funny. I had never
edited anything at all. In the ‘70s, Graydon had started and run a small
New-Republic-like magazine in Canada called The Canadian Review.
Heller: How long into actually conceiving the magazine did you settle on its form? How would you describe the components that gave SPY its distinct character?
Andersen: The magazine was conceived pretty larkishly over
about a year's time. In 1985, when we teamed up with our
publisher-to-be, Tom Phillips, we focused and shaped the idea seriously
over a few months. And then of course actually doing it
decisively shaped it further in a very few more months in mid-1986. Its
distinct character came from the instinct to make mischief in as many
ways as possible ("Smart, fun, funny, fearless" was our founding motto),
and to do that mostly by means of:
Then, after we had a little more money, the character came from our
desire to play with the form as much as we could, and bind in gatefolds
and stick-on tattoos and collectible cards and watercolor kits and board
games and so on; the really vast labor-intensiveness of everything we
did; the fact that there was no web; and the fact that we were
completely independent, without a 2,000-pound gorilla of a corporate or
individual owner—controlled by the three founders.
Heller: I well remember the first issue had all the SPY pieces, but was not quite SPY
in the signature sense. How did you come to hire Stephen Doyle as your
first design director? And did you buy into his design concepts from the
Andersen: Actually, we had a couple of barely-English-speaking
Italian designers who designed our early direct mail test before we got
to Drenttel Doyle. I don't remember how we got to them, but we met,
described what we were doing, looked at what Stephen had done at
M&Co. and elsewhere, felt a connection, and hired them. I'm pretty
sure we didn't talk to any other designers.
Stephen designed the prototype we showed investors before we started,
and the first two or three issues, and then found us Alex Isley. We did
buy into his and their design concepts from the get-go. Both were
matches made in heaven, I think, because Stephen and Alex are both so
smart and enthusiastically literate, and because Graydon and I have
strong design preferences, but relatively little inclination to
prescribe particular solutions. We were collaborators.
Heller: SPY's covers were Esquire-esque–often
manipulated pictures of famous folk. Why did you feel it necessary to
focus on the celebry-aty (or whatever you call it)?
Andersen: As you'll see in the book, at the beginning, we
really focused on recruiting hip-ish or otherwise interesting (and
mostly not all that celebrated) celebrities to pose for the covers. It
gave this strange scary little new magazine some cultural cred,
analogous to (as Graydon says) the way Saturday Night Live used
celebrity guest hosts. We didn't do stories about our cover subjects,
just used them to illustrate the cover story. In fact, we didn't do many
big stories on celebrities in general. (The first digitally concocted
cover we did was not until the 12th (Ted Kennedy) more than a year after
we started. And most of the covers through 1991 featured real
Heller: Every so often a magazine captures the design zeitgiest and everyone copies it. This was true with New York Magazine's impact on regional magazines, and even Bob Priest's Esquire magazine on magazine typography. SPY
had a similar impact. Likewise, the silhouetted headshots, the
functional but "ironic" charts and graphs, and the famous maps of New
York themes (i.e., crime and literary locales) were imitated elsewhere.
Did you feel that once these traits caught on you had to stay ahead of
Andersen: Absolutely. And not just in terms of graphic
devices. One part of our "success" was that the sensibility and approach
started being absorbed by other media.
Heller: One of the most enjoyable features were the short
factoids that ran in the margins of many front pages. How did that come
Andersen: We realized there were lots of raw facts that
could be, in this satirical context, but with almost no gilding of the
lily, fascinating and pointed and funny. One of our editors, Jamie
Malanowski, was in charge of digging them up (through public records and
otherwise). We called it “The Fine Print.”
Heller: Speaking of enjoyable, “Separated At Birth” was a must-see (indeed you spun it off into a book). Who thought of that?
Andersen: Graydon and I were having a drink at the Blue Bar of
the Algonquin when we were dreaming up the magazine, and I happened to
mention that the bartender looked exactly like the Shah of Iran. That
was the eureka moment. (We didn't know and/or had forgotten that Private Eye and Esquire had done similar pairings; our theft was unwitting.) The books were bestsellers.
Heller: Where you surprised at how quickly SPY took
off? And did it change you in any way? I mean did it make your head
swell? Or did you feel you had to "watch out" what you did in the
magazine, lest you loose your base?
Andersen: It was pretty shocking, yeah. It didn't make our
heads swell because along with the intense fun it was always so
stressful–so much work, making so many powerful enemies, being close to
the edge financially so much of the time. We never thought about
"watching out" or "losing our base," except that beginning two years in,
as more and more of our readers were outside New York, we did more
things about national figures and phenomena. But overwhelmingly we just
tried to keep ourselves entertained and challenged, and do things that
hadn't been done.
Heller: Everyone who avidly followed SPY—and the audience among my peers was virtually 100 percent—had a favorite spy feature (at the New York Times, for example, we were addicted to J.J. Hunsecker's New York Times gossip column). What is your nominee for SPY's piece de resistance and why?
Andersen: It's really like having a favorite child among one's
offspring. That is, I don't. The thing that gave me pleasure was having
all these cool, disparate things jammed together in issue after issue. I
loved the whole, wild circus, not any one acrobat or lion tamer.
Heller: In addition to your favorite feature, what was the most controversial?
Andersen: A profile we did of Eric Breindel, a former heroin
addict who was then the editorial page editor and right-wing columnist
for the New York Post, was the one in the early years that seriously
upset a lot of people outside the magazine for being "too mean."
Heller: SPY set the stage for John Stewart 's The Daily Show and The Colbert Report,
but it ultimately ran out of steam. At what point did you feel it
wasn't working, and why? And do you believe after you left the magazine
that it should have been put to sleep?
Andersen: When we were forced to sell the magazine in 1991 it
became harder and less fun to do—no more independence—but I thought it
was full of steam and working pretty well (and circulation continued to
rise) up until the time I left, at the and of 1992. I barely read it
during its final five years.
Heller: I mentioned Stewart and Colbert, and other than The Onion, which also owes its life to SPY, is there anything comparable today? Can there be?
Andersen: I think those are pretty much it in terms of comparability in this country. (Though The Onion,
which is brilliant, certainly doesn't owe much to SPY—it's a pure humor
publication, without the underlying journalism and research.) There are
web things–Suck.com in its day, SmokingGun.com, Gawker–that were and
are nephews and nieces of SPY, but they each did or do only one small part of what we did.
I think it would be very, very hard to do a comparable text publication
today (online or print) with the impact we were able to have, because
there are now so many channels competing for everyone's attention. Back
in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, we more or less had the field to
ourselves. And we were lucky enough to be doing what we did near the
beginning of the ironic/satiric/skeptical sensibility wave that the baby
boomers created, so we had the benefit of being there early. Once a
particular piece of ground is broken, those who come after may be
excellent, but they're going to be plowing and planting that
SPY was very much a creature of the end of the pre-internet magazine era.
Sylvia Harris is recognized with a 2014 AIGA Medal for an unerring commitment to using design to improve the civic experience and for influencing a generation of designers as a teacher and mentor.
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