Cry and you cry alone. Michael Gerber, the founder and publisher of The American Bystander, the last of the sophisticated American humor magazines, may be committed. In fact, he is committed to print. Once, the field was full of funny mags; now, trenchant humor has migrated to late-night television and the digital world as populated by laff-makers too. Has this hurt the following of Gerber’s magazine? Let’s see.
Mike, why did you start the Bystander as a print magazine in a world of digital hilarity?
For sure, it would be much easier using a digital model. Print is a huge pain in the ass, and there are lots of days when running Bystander feels like sailing a tall ship surrounded by aircraft carriers. But print is what I love, and there are some other reasons besides:
1) Digital, like any other platform, favors certain formats over others. It favors short things over longer ones, visual over written, pop culture over everything else. What you can say and how you can say it is being determined by the preferences of the platform, not the audience or creators. So from a cultural standpoint I felt it was important to try to preserve this specific environment, not least because there are a zillion wonderful people who wish to create in it. And there are certainly enough readers out there who adore it. Memes and Twitter snark are great, but they can’t be all of comedy,
2) Digital models are so problematic. First, they have not been shown to be financially viable, in comedy or anywhere else, and to some degree that die-off has been filled by other institutions much less transparent and more irresponsible than legacy media. Things were better when people got their news from their local newspaper rather than Bulgarian spoofing sites. Even The Onion, which has benefited tremendously from the growth of digital culture, makes 80% of its money not from the stories that zip around the internet which we all love, but from its in-house ad agency, Onion Labs. Second, every publisher is at the mercy of the platform it’s using to gather audience. If you’re putting stuff on Facebook, Facebook is both actively and passively determining your content. Not the readers, and not the creators. So there’s a lot of passive censorship, as well as some active, and that is just not practical for a satirical publication. In comedy today, print is freedom. And finally, there’s a moral dimension: Digital media has as its goal a kind of addiction, and I think this is unethical. I like my readers, I don’t want to addict them to anything. Jokes on Facebook are the nicotine in the cigarette, and whereas before the last Presidential election it was possible to ignore the negative impact of digital media culture, now it’s crystal clear. Social media in particular is a public health issue, and I’m not going to ignore that just so I can make more money. I wish I could. My parents totally wish I could.
How do you judge a story or artwork as funny, witty, humorous?
Most humor magazines are the product of four or five like-minded individuals coming together to make themselves laugh—and if you like it, too, great. MAD, National Lampoon, SPY. The scale of magazines created this way has been steadily declining as audience diversity has increased; MAD at its height was read by 2.5 million; NL by one million; and SPY by 250,000. So I don’t think that “closed” attitude works in the era of the internet. For one thing, there’s endless diversity available, and it’s free. For another, audiences are empowered today in a way that they weren’t in 1952 or 1970 or 1985. So my belief is to have a lot of different kinds of things in the magazine, and arrange it so that, whenever possible, the creator(s) are able to interact with the reader without a lot of editorial interposition. I’ve been editing these kinds of magazines for 30 years, and have studied them for even longer, so I have a good instinct as to how a given piece of material will impact a reader, so I ask: Is it clear? Is it ably done? Is there artistic merit? Is it a good example of this person’s work? It is a voice or technique that is rare or valuable? If it makes me laugh, I certainly note that—but I’m editing for my audience, not strictly for myself. Otherwise it would be a bunch of jokes about the Beatles, Weimar Germany and ancient Rome. I edit, to some degree, by whom I ask to contribute; and once they’re working for Bystander, I try to stay out of their way. Editing Bystander is like managing the All-Star Game.
What are you trying to accomplish with wit in this somewhat unfunny moment in history?
When we do touch on politics, I’m trying to give people some perspective that maybe they’re not getting from other sources; and I’m always trying to reinforce their sense of morality—to give them some steel in their spine—so that they can act in the world. I do not want Bystander to become a substitute for political action, as I think programs like The Daily Show might sometimes have been. On the other hand I don’t want my audience to become overwhelmed, so often I’m trying to refresh them with something that is not timely. I am always thinking, “What is our role in this time? What was needed in Germany in 1928?” Clarity and resolve, and also a sense that the goodness of the world continues on, and you should enjoy it. One resists because the world is delightful and funny. That people are worth it.
As far as I’m concerned you’ve got the cream of the wits, parodists and satirists. How’s the magazine doing? Do you laugh or cry?
Editorially, I think it’s doing gangbusters. Every issue we get more people. Currently we’re a quarterly, but I could easily go 6x/year if I had the help. Financially, it’s very hard. It’s really tough to get the word out, I have no marketing budget, and Facebook’s algorithm changes have been just awful for us. The moment Trump was elected, it became nearly impossible to get people’s attention on social media, which is how we build word of mouth. He is a daily catastrophe, and people are very frightened. Hard times—say the mid-70s—are good for humor magazines. Terrifying times are, apparently, more difficult. But our model is so lean that I am sure we will be able to make it through; at 3,000 subscribers, we are practically unkillable. We will get there. Everybody please go subscribe, I’m 48 and even the smell of ramen makes me nauseous.
Speaking of ramen, shouldn’t the public be hungry for this material?
They are! Everybody who sees this thing, wants one. Even at $25. Bystander readers are like Beatles fans in 1962 (see, what did I tell you?).
What’s in the future for humor? And for you?
Wow, what a question. I can predict my own future with some clarity: I will be sitting in front of my ancient iMac, designing pages, with occasional trips to New York to get my wonderful staff tipsy. As far as humor is concerned—professional humor—I think we may be reaching a time where the era that started with Del Close and Lenny Bruce may be ending, to be replaced by a gentler, less harsh—yet still honest—type of material. I say this because contemporary life is so terrifying; people increasingly need a respite as well as a laugh. Swearing and violence and sexual content is no longer the battleground; now it is much more difficult stuff, like how do we live? How do we connect with each other? And as with the comedy of the ’60s, the current generation is going to look at this new comedy and say, “That’s not funny!” But the world is changing, and comedy inevitably will help to create it; I just want Bystander to be on the right side of that.
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