Spy: The Funny Years

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Now that Spy magazine is so long gone and deeply buried thatit’s the subject of a new book, Spy: The Funny Years, I canfinally, safely say I adored it. A breath of fresh snark exhaust,Spy punctured holes in all the right gasbags, shaking up’80s complacence with searing gossip, juvenile pranks, and noapologies. As Tina Brown took Vanity Fair to heights of celebrityass-kissing, Spy had the balls to knock those same stars down tothe mud, including Brown herself. (Yes, Spy co-creator GraydonCarter poetically went on to replace Tina in her ritualizedBrown-nosing—but we’ll get to that later.)

Of course atthe time, the mouthy monthly was the devil, and I could only be gratefulfor it because it made my acidic Village Voice column lookpositively adorable by comparison. (It also gave me the chance togleefully approach party-thrower Carmen D’Alessio at an event andtell her she was in the mag’s “Separated at Birth?”column of look-alikes that month. “Really? With who?” shesaid, excitedly. “Dr. Zaius from Planet of the Apes,”I replied, without remorse.)

We all lived in abject fear of Spy, mainly because themagazine itself didn’t know from such quivering emotion. Whyshould it? The more people despised it, the bigger it got, becauseeveryone religiously picked up a copy to devour the thing and snickerabout everyone else. It made spitting at famous people a spectatorsport, and did so with academic humor that elevated it fromtabloid-trashy sniping into the realm of sophisticated spite.

Sometimes, anyway. When the target was some remote boldface name, youcheered the mag’s punk perspicacity. But when it was yourself, youhid, crying, then changed your entire lifestyle to suit its criticism.Once, in a caption, it dubbed a friend of mine“grizzled-looking.” She’s been having surgery eversince. Another time, Spy wrote a piece about me and fellowdowntown writers Stephen Saban and Cynthia Heimel, calling us lame,obvious, and pseudo-hip. Nothing I’ve achieved since then hasresonated in my mind, since all I can ever think of is, “Youmoron, you’re so lame, obvious, and pseudo-hip!”

As the magazine became more popular, though, I started to resent itwhen I wasn’t mentioned at all. I’d comb every last archcolumn and caption to see if I was important enough to get crapped on atleast a little. “Jesus,” I would think, “didn’tI even rate one tiny, stinking reference, even in the ‘SpyList’ of 100 assholes?”

For a publication to generate so many conflicting feelings required avery delicate sort of genius, and the book addresses that, noting howeven 20 years after its launch, Spy’s influence turns upall over TV, publishing, and the web. From The Daily Show toirony-laden features in Entertainment Weekly and Time, alot of today’s jabbing of the rich and famous can be traced toSpy’s acerbic Spying. It’s especially evidentin the internet’s Wild West-style free-for-all of personalpunditry, perfected by all those witheringly bitter blogs and thecleverly caustic Gawker, which is basically an all-day version ofSpy for free.

So, all hail Spy—and its 20th anniversary book, which isan exhaustive look at its conception, rise, and fall. Designed byonetime Spy art director Alexander Isley, it’s every bit asvisually busy as the magazine itself. After introductory essays byfounders Tom Phillips, Kurt Andersen, and Carter, the mag’shistory is told by ex-Spy editor George Kalogerakis, with lots ofpull quotes, excerpts, and editors’ asides punctuating the pageslike literary Post-its. Like Spy itself, this book is clearlyfor smart people with ADD.

A board game posing as a magazine,Spy was always packed more tightly than Joan Rivers’sface. It overflowed with charts, lists, floating photos, and maps, allcramming minutiae into your brain while at the same time challenging youto absorb every column inch. As Steven Heller writes in the chapter onthe magazine’s look, “Spy’s design prefiguredthe Web in terms of the multiple entry points and levels ofinformation.” And it was classy—mainly because, as themagazine’s first art director, Stephen Doyle, explains, “Theserif type, the letter spacing, all this 20th-century publishing historythat went into it gave it the authority it needed to be as sarcastic asit was.”

The adult-looking typefaces gave the bratty points ofview more weight, but the covers generally went for sheer eye-grabbing,winky boldness. That was true whether they used Photoshoppedimages—like Hillary Clinton as a smiling dominatrix in February1993, for a piece on “Power Playing in the Clinton WhiteHouse”—or actual ones, like brave model Carol Alt with ratscrawling up her legs, for the May 1988 “Welcome to RatCity!” cover. (The accompanying article was about Gotham’sinfestation, but naturally the editors included a sidebar on“America’s Rodent People,” citing notables like“smarmy talk show host-vulgarian Geraldo Rivera” and“pathologically libidinous actor James Woods.”)

AfterSpy’s creative team broke up and the magazine lost itsmomentum (ultimately folding in ’98), its editors went on to kissa little ass and pretty much become the very mainstream peoplethey’d mercilessly made fun of. But they admit it, and they stillhave some sharp critical faculties to invoke when given half a chance.Besides, you ca
n’t overflow with young, reckless rageforever.

Their lacerating legacy lives on, and thanks to classicarticles like “It’s Okay to Hate High Culture,” welong ago became aware that it’s okay to hate, period—as longas it’s done with self-mocking smarts and swashbuckling style.

But wait just a minute. I just found an old Spy chartin the book, delineating how readers can separate so-so schlock starsfrom truly awful ones. The lowest of the low, the chart claims,“dote on Michael Musto.” I’m quivering all over again.Die again, Spy!