Interview: Kurt Andersen, former co-editor, Spy Magazine

Filed Under Humor Magazine, Interview

Kurt Andersen is a novelist and host of Public Radio International’s Studio 360. But prior to that, Kurt and current Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter were co-editors of the much-imitated humor magazine Spy. On the occasion of what would have been the magazine’s twentieth anniversary, a retrospective has been released entitled “Spy: The Funny Years.” The book gives a fascinating peek at the birth of Spy and contains many of the pieces that made it entertaining and vibrant. As someone whose collection of back issues is spread over two states, to have much of my favorites at my fingertips again is a real joy. In the interview, Kurt touches upon Spy’s links to Mad, the end of the Irony Epidemic and the so-called Harvard Lampoon mafia.

Exaggeration is one of the best tools a comedian can have, but it seems to me when you’re doing a more journalistic brand of humor like Spy that exaggeration is out. How was exaggeration a component of Spy and if it wasn’t, how did you compensate?

In terms of the journalism, the fact based stuff, which is, granted, most of the magazine, I guess we compensated by… until you said this, it never occurred to me, and I don’t think it occurred to anybody then, that “hmm, we’re lacking this important tool in the comic arsenal. What can we do to compensate?” I guess what was the de facto compensation is that you find real facts that are striking or, even better, astonishing in their truthfulness and that somehow is the surrogate for normal satirical comic exaggeration.

Also it seems like the decade that Spy was most associated with—the ‘80s—so much of it was exaggerated.

That’s true. And I think what began in the late ‘80s of a kind of living largeness and over-the-top exaggeration of life and lifestyle, I actually think, with small downticks along the way, that it looks to be like we’re still living in that era.

But I think that’s right. I think suddenly that’s what it seemed. That life itself was suddenly becoming cartoonish and clownish. And if you could just capture glimpses of it and when the lily didn’t need to be gilded, don’t gild it. That’s what we were doing instead of exaggeration.

So many people were so big themselves that you certainly didn’t have to worry about that.

When [exaggeration] could be done, with cover images and such, we certainly did that.

With this, one of the things you mention in the book is how Mad Magazine was a big influence on Spy. And Mad Magazine is very rooted in exaggeration. So where is Mad Magazine in Spy’s DNA?

In the close textual analysis of humor way, it probably isn’t much. Although that the density of the pages and in the marginalia-type things…

Sort of like Sergio Aragones cartoons…

Yeah, exactly. But I would say more than that, when I was a kid first reading Mad in 1962, it was pretty much the only comedy channel, venue, piece of media for kids. So that was the way in which it was influential.

And the other thing for me - and probably for Graydon living in Canada, but for me living in Omaha – it was this shot of what struck me as a quintessentially New York thing. So it was the New Yorkiness. And it’s various flavors of sarcasm, snideness, clued-in-ness, smart-aleckyness – all that stuff. I don’t want to sound like an old fogey but there was no Nickelodeon, there was none of this stuff. It was the only place in the mainstream media as an 8-year old or a 10-year old in Omaha, Nebraska, that this was a sensibility and a way at looking at the world.

To me, I grew up in the 70s, and I still found Mad dangerous enough to think that it would be difficult to get my parents to buy it for me. And I don’t think that’s an experience a kid has anymore.

No, that’s right. And there’s lots of analogous experiences like, not growing up in an age of easily accessible online pornography, which I’m sure changes the experience of being an adolescent boy. I think it’s a similar thing.

Absolutely. So in some ways, both Mad and Spy sharing that New Yorkiness – I was in college in Atlanta when I first tapped into Spy. I hadn’t been to New York. I wasn’t up on New York. So I didn’t know Donald Trump or Mike Ovitz or anything like that. I learned those from Spy.

But I never felt like I was spoon-fed. I had to catch up as I went along. How much did you have to set up these people to tell jokes? I mean, set up in the sense of set up/punch line.

Not so much. Again we had the virtue to make the choice at the beginning – we didn’t conceive of it as a national magazine. For the first couple of years, it said “The New York Monthly” under Spy. And so, we really thought we’re talking to the 25,000 people, the initial circulation more of less, who are gonna get all these jokes. They read about Donald Trump every day in the New York Post. And as we reached into movies and LA and Michael Ovitz and Eisner and all that, we never talked down to the audience, and assumed either you knew who these people are or that you’re smart enough to figure out and just come along with us.

And as it grew into a national thing more or less organically – it’s not like we gave it a big marketing push – that became a more conscious thing to resist explaining things. However again, a virtue we had was the psudeo-1950’s Time epithet thing – “the churlish, dwarf billionaire” or “Hollywood uber-agent.” In the way Time magazine used that in the 1950s and 1960s to precisely let their readers know who exactly who this guy was or who this woman was, we, parodying the form to some degree, did the same thing.

Right. I’ll draw a parallel to Mad here. I used to work at Cracked and I worked with one of the members of the Original Gang of Idiots, Lou Silverstone. And he told me that at Mad, many times when they were using a big word, they wouldn’t worry about it. Because they thought the kids would look it up or ask their parents.

I think that’s right. You do that repeatedly and as a matter of course, then your audience self-selects for people who aren’t going to be frightened away by little bits and pieces that they don’t get at first.

The funny thing about humor today – humor is becoming much more niche now no matter what. But I feel that in the 80’s and to some degree now that there was this desperation to make everybody come along and feel included.

Don’t you hate it when your date does this…

Exactly. Everybody in the room has the same commonalities. And the hardest thing about humor is—general terms everybody agrees about what’s sad and everybody agrees about what’s dramatic, but not everybody can agree on what’s funny.

It’s analogous to so much the rest of culture, which has become fractured and Balkanized. It’s true and we had the virtue of what we were doing that it was never going to be a million circulation thing, but the 200,000 people who bought it were intensely happy. So, it’s really ultimately the question of 200,000 people intensely happy or a million not as excited.

In your mind is it better to be a cult success than a broad success?

I would never make any statement that general. In this particular case…

It’s what worked for this.

Yeah. It’s an almost algorithmic tradeoff of how much pleasure the audience and you yourself get – essentially pleasing yourself. We did stuff that we enjoyed and we wanted to laugh at and wasn’t being done elsewhere. And how many of one’s self is out there somewhere?—probably, unless you’re Jerry Bruckheimer, fewer rather than more. I don’t have a snobby, alt belief that 200,000 is better than a million. It’s easier for me to not have to second-guess what a million people who aren’t me will find interesting or funny.

One of the things about mentioning making each other laugh, when reading the book, it brought back a lot of memories of my experiences with a dot com startup. It’s that sort of drink-the-Kool-Aid atmosphere that comes when you believe it and you’re putting on a show. You talk in the book about how Spy presaged the Internet but it’s funny how the organization itself reflect that as well.

It’s interesting. I hadn’t really thought of that, but you’re right. Having done my own dot com thing, it is very much like that. It also made me realize about business in general, things like Microsoft or Apple or whatever, that there’s a certain cult aspect to successful businesses. Not in the bad, insidious sense we usually talk about cults…

The drink the Kool Aid thing…

There’s Kool Aid drinking going on. There has to be. That sense of mission and four musketeers and all that.

One of the things mentioned in the book is that at the very beginning of the magazine’s conception you all talked about how you would do the magazine for five years and then be done.

I don’t know if that’s true. I know we said something like that. Graydon has also said that he thought it would be his job for the rest of his life. I’m not sure I believe that either.

I don’t think we had a clear sense of whether it would be five years or forever. It was really like let’s do this and see what happens.

But specifically with humor magazines, they seem very tied into a decade or a moment. Mad in the 60s, Lampoon in the 70s, Spy in the late 80s and early 90s and the Onion, you could argue, 90s and early 2000. Do you feel that Spy would have a limited life no matter what?

I don’t. I think anything that has humor as an important part of what it does – it’s difficult to do well. So that’s just another way in which the odds are long for it having to sustain itself. I think more than the zeitgeist of the decade thing. The National Lampoon got less good. I don’t think it was less relevant as it was in the 80s, I just think it wasn’t as good as the 80s.

You can’t deny some of the zeitgeist thing. What I really think is even if Spy in the mid and late 90s had been done excellently, the existence of the web would have been a huge challenge.

The nature of the business itself, not so much the content.

There was a moment that we talk about it slightly in the book. Whenever George Bush the elder started talking about it being a kindler, gentler time, it was bullshit and it was spin. But it was taken seriously enough at the time that reporters would call us up and say, “Is this the end of Spy because it’s a kindler, gentler time?” (laughs)

So whether or not those are real zeitgeist things, and I don’t think there was any real about that, perception can become the reality of that. I don’t know. I feel like we got 21 at the blackjack table seven times in a row and the 8th and 9th time we didn’t. Would it have been impossible to draw it again and again and again?  No. But you’re going to go through a lot of luck.

It’s interesting what you say about humor magazines. I think about Rolling Stone, if Rolling Stone had died in 1980, you would have said it was a magazine for the 60s and early 70s. But it didn’t. It morphed and evolved. I look at that – it doesn’t matter, who gives a fuck about Rolling Stone – but it managed to last. And similarly, … It’s hard. It’s a matter of counterfactual history here.

I know. I’m playing Marvel’s “What If…” with you here…

Yeah, but it’s interesting. Like the New Yorker, it was very much a magazine of the Jazz Age. And why did it last? There may be something to that. But if I were writing the analysis that wouldn’t be the main thing.

I’ll put forward one thought about sustaining comedic voice. I always describe comedy as the art of surprise. And I think you can only surprise somebody for so long and then they get used to your rhythms.

Like with Mad, one of the reasons why it’s still around, is that it has a constantly renewing audience of kids who aren’t up on Mad’s voice. And with the Lampoon, once you get used to slash and burn, you know it. Possibly, once you get used to snark with Spy…

That’s interesting. That may be true. There’s also a more general issue with all cultural things, certainly in my lifetime, which is that things can only be new for a while, beyond the necessity of surprise and humor, which might be a more specific and slightly more extreme example of the same thing. Maybe Spy’s still good in 1993, but yeah, I’ve seen it for seven years.

So I think it is a general problem that is probably more acute with anything requiring humor. Although there are people who wanted to hear Rodney Dangerfield say, ”I can’t get no respect” for the 50 millionth time.

Some of Spy’s pranks were elaborate. Can you describe the process that allowed some of the bigger pranks to go off without problem? How did you think of all the angles?

We didn’t. We were just kind careful about it. It’s that balance of having the free, larkish culture that has those ideas, and then switching into careful analysis and planning so they work out. We were lucky. We were lucky a lot. Probably some of them didn’t work out and we just erased them from our brains. I can’t tell you, “Oh there was the one where we were going to try…” I’m sure they existed. I just don’t remember them.

That was my next question actually.

Probably other people do. I don’t. But it wasn’t like CIA operations. You just needed a fake address and a fake phone number dedicated to that thing. There’s some science but it’s not rocket science.

Back in that day, before this and before that, people didn’t expect to get letters or phone calls from people who were fucking around with them. So when you call John Sununu and say you’re a headhunter, he believes you. Yes, there had been Candid Camera but that was the only thing like that.

But that was so soft and on the street and of the moment. The Spy pranks were more to a point. They were to prove a premise in some ways. Will these millionaires cash this check.

It’s more like a criminal sting done for relatively benign purposes.

Exactly. (laughs) You mention a lot that Spy was a product of being young. One of my favorite quotes on humor recently was from Ricky Gervais and Larry David where they assert that older people are funnier than younger people because they know what it is to be inadequate. Do you feel that you are funnier now than when you were younger?

I don’t know about that. And to parse out, Graydon talks more about being funnier when you’re younger. I don’t know about the inadequacy thing, certainly in those two guys’ cases, a lot of their humor derives from that.

I think there are certain kinds of things – anger, callowness, whatever – that can feed humor that are more natural and seemly in a 30-year-old than a 50-year-old. But I actually think that you can do different things – not by age necessarily – but by the craft knowledge that comes from doing this for twenty years than doing it for four years. I think it’s probably natural that the nature of what you’re doing changes.

But I look at people who are really practitioners like Sandy [Ian] Frazier and Jack Handy and to me they make me laugh as hard as now as whatever they are – 55-year-old men – as when they were 30. And I do think that the sense of impending death and life’s tragedy that older people are more sentient of, more aware than younger people who think they’re never going to die…if that can be transmuted into comedy, that can be huge. As opposed to a good crack or a snarky thing that a kid can say.

The humor is about the universal things.

A sense of the stakes. When you’re young, everything’s a joke in a certain sense. When you’re older and maybe everything isn’t such a joke and you have children, or people have died or your parents are dying. Alll that stuff. And yes, that can make you not have a sense of humor or be funny anymore. That’s one way to react to that. But I think that, in all kinds of ways that I wouldn’t attempt to parse out, can seed a deeper, better sense of belly-laughability. (laughs)

Belly-laughability. Very nice. You mention being younger and anger, was anger a core of Spy?

Again, I don’t think so. And this is where Graydon and I disagree. In retrospect, I wouldn’t say anger, I would say a certain recklessness and a certain willingness to regard human beings as cartoons and a kind of bordering on if not going over the line into cruelty. But it certainly didn’t feel like it was born of anger at the time. And our spirit and the spirit of the office and the spirit of the magazine wasn’t a particularly angry one.

What made the magazine good when it was good was a sense of joy actually. Even when you were fragging people, there was a sense of pleasure in life, rather than some kind of dark anger.

Often people will say that in order to do parody you have to have some sort of affection for your targets.

One had to be at least entertained by Donald Trump in order to want to spend a lot of time shitting on him.

Paul Rudnick and you wrote for Spy the “Irony Epidemic” which, to me, is one of the most defining pieces about humor culture. That article attached the ironic perspective to the ascendancy of David Letterman. But now, in the wake of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, where comedy seems to have more of a point to it and it’s less about goofiness, is the Irony Epidemic over to some degree?

I think that an ironic sensibility for its own sake ceased to be, to me, the most interesting way at looking at the world five or ten years ago. In different parts of the culture you see Dave Eggers or David Foster Wallace try and figure out a way to still have a sense of humor and an ironic sense of the world but still try and figure out how to be sincere and embody sentiment and all that. Which is very different from what Stewart and Colbert do obviously.

I think to relate it to something you said before—that something is interesting for a while. Kind of a new mode. I think that piece, in a certain way, may have marked the top of that being an exciting, attractive, interesting to a lot of people period.

It seems to me that so many people want to attach something more to it now, even if Stewart and Colbert insist that there isn’t. That they’re just monkeys doing a tap dance in some ways. There are people who want to attach something more meaningful and political to their humor, which is something that people seemed less likely to do in the 80s.

Yeah, that’s true partly because there was a certain amount of post-political feeling in 1986 or 1990. Politics and the political mode still coming off, frankly, the late 60s and the early 70s was still kind of passé in a certain way.

Why not have an actor be President?

Exactly. Isn’t that interesting? Isn’t that funny? Isn’t that ridiculous? And isn’t that the way life is?

And on the other hand you had completely earnest and unironic Act Up anti-AIDS activists who, God bless them, had not an ounce of humor in them. (laughs) So maybe it is just a way the dialectic river twists and turns and now we’re at a point where it’s back to Mort Sahl.

To me it seems that irony has become more the weapon rather the destination.

Could be. Certainly since those shows are the white-hot center and the ones I watch religiously.

So much of Spy has been co-opted. Do you feel that there is a part of Spy’s legacy that has not been co-opted into today? Is there some hole in the culture from Spy’s passing?

It was even co-opted as we were doing it, in the end especially.

What isn’t being done that we did? I would say the attempts to play with the form and to have things like watercolor sets bound into the magazine and Gorbachev [rub-on] tattoos…And the fold-out game boards. All that playing with the physical stuff of it.  One would wish for more of that stuff, even in normal magazines. Just the “Whoa, this is kinda awesome.” Just the awesomeness factor is low.

I would say there is less of the entirely serious investigative pieces that we did. Not as much of that. But I suppose people have been probably saying that for 20 years. I wish there were more of the “holy shit, did you see that story?” Graydon used to talk about the “holy shit” moment and I would say that’s rare.

But I would say all the bits of meat of the humor/comedy/irony little head-funny charts-ironic voices – that part of the carcass has been pretty cleaned.

“What’s been left rotting in the sun?” is the way I should have phrased the question.

Another thing that was good about Spy, or at least different from a lot of other magazines at the time, was the sheer man-hours per page devoted to it. And I look at New York magazine, which I have nothing to do with except the column I write in it, and I think, “Jeez, there’s a lot of man-hours devoted to that.” That’s done here and there. I always respond to that when I see it.

The density of information and the joke density. It’s something we talked about with Mad. Like the little thing hidden in some way. Like if you were looking at a splash page and the artist would add numerous background characters…

Kind of overdelivering. That’s not unique to Spy. But in general, giving people more than they bargained for and overdelivering, surprising them. “Whoa, there’s a game board folded in here!” or “There’s confetti that fell out.”

That seems like that is such a hard thing to now in an age where hype is first. Before you do something you have to make a big deal about doing it in order to get anybody to look at it.

It’s true. And I’ve said this before, but one of the fortunate conditions we had was how there was, by several orders of magnitude, so much less media. And therefore, if we went out and did this nutty thing, people noticed it. There’s so much now…

There’s so many nutty things.

It’s just hard to get noticed beyond your niche in a way. We were back when nobody was out screaming obscenities in the street, so when we went our screaming obscenities on the street, everybody noticed. Today everybody is screaming obscenities on the street, so no one would notice. Not that we literally screamed obscenities on the street.

In a way people appreciated it more because we were so eager to have fun. To please them and do something that they had never seen or rarely seen, or hadn’t quite been done before. You just wish that in their various ways that all kinds of magazines were trying to do that.

A couple of things not Spy-related here. You were at the Harvard Lampoon when the National Lampoon was in its heyday. Did you ever consider writing for them and if not, why?

That’s a good question. I don’t think I did. And I don’t know why. (laughs)

There wasn’t as there was subsequently after I got out of college, this path to Saturday Night Live led by Jim Downey. There was never a post-collegiate professional path. It wasn’t like people were trying to work at the National Lampoon. I don’t know why it didn’t exist, but it didn’t. And I never thought about it.

You’re one of the last members of the Lampoon where that path to comedy writing is not expected.

The great family tree to be done, Jim Downey leaving and going to Saturday Night Live, was kind of a beginning of a great flow of people to Saturday Night Live, to the Simpsons, to Letterman, to all those places. But that sense that is was a pre-professional humor/comedy thing was just sort of born then and became more self-conscious to the Andy Borowitz generation a couple of years later. I wanted to work at the New Yorker.

A much different aspiration. What do you think of the notion that there is some sort of Lampoon Mafia for comedy writing?

There aren’t many places where smart people can get together as 18-year-olds and 19-year-olds in an unpressurized way – it’s just people fucking around – but supported by this culture to do so. That’s a rare little crucible. So naturally, in this day and age, having that kind of collegiate training in a way that few people can, naturally they have a leg up. It’s as though there was professional sports but only one college team.

There’s also, if you’re in stand-up and you had a friend in stand-up who you thought was funny, if you got a writing job, you’d say, “Hey, you should hire my friend too. He’s funny.”  It’s this person you work with.

And that exists in everything. You can point to mafias of all sorts in every industry.

And to a degree there is and was a Spy mafia, frankly. You know these people, you know they’re good and so you take them with you to your next job. It’s just a community that carries on community bonds that can last for years.

It’s been said that you and Graydon Carter would be targets for Spy if it had stuck around until today.

Graydon would. I don’t know if I would. (laughs)

Can you give me a name for you in the vein of “short fingered vulgarian” or “bosomy dirty book writer”?

“Overpaid former satirists”

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