Spy: The Funny Years
Now that Spy magazine is so long gone and deeply buried that it’s the subject of a new book, Spy: The Funny Years, I can finally, 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 no apologies. As Tina Brown took Vanity Fair to heights of celebrity ass-kissing, Spy had the balls to knock those same stars down to the mud, including Brown herself. (Yes, Spy co-creator Graydon Carter poetically went on to replace Tina in her ritualized Brown-nosing—but we’ll get to that later.)
Of course at the time, the mouthy monthly was the devil, and I could only be grateful for it because it made my acidic Village Voice column look positively adorable by comparison. (It also gave me the chance to gleefully approach party-thrower Carmen D’Alessio at an event and tell her she was in the mag’s “Separated at Birth?” column of look-alikes that month. “Really? With who?” she said, excitedly. “Dr. Zaius from Planet of the Apes,” I replied, without remorse.)
We all lived in abject fear of Spy, mainly because the magazine itself didn’t know from such quivering emotion. Why should it? The more people despised it, the bigger it got, because everyone religiously picked up a copy to devour the thing and snicker about everyone else. It made spitting at famous people a spectator sport, and did so with academic humor that elevated it from tabloid-trashy sniping into the realm of sophisticated spite.
Sometimes, anyway. When the target was some remote boldface name, you cheered the mag’s punk perspicacity. But when it was yourself, you hid, 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 ever since. Another time, Spy wrote a piece about me and fellow downtown writers Stephen Saban and Cynthia Heimel, calling us lame, obvious, and pseudo-hip. Nothing I’ve achieved since then has resonated in my mind, since all I can ever think of is, “You moron, you’re so lame, obvious, and pseudo-hip!”
As the magazine became more popular, though, I started to resent it when I wasn’t mentioned at all. I’d comb every last arch column and caption to see if I was important enough to get crapped on at least a little. “Jesus,” I would think, “didn’t I even rate one tiny, stinking reference, even in the ‘Spy List’ of 100 assholes?”
For a publication to generate so many conflicting feelings required a very delicate sort of genius, and the book addresses that, noting how even 20 years after its launch, Spy’s influence turns up all over TV, publishing, and the web. From The Daily Show to irony-laden features in Entertainment Weekly and Time, a lot of today’s jabbing of the rich and famous can be traced to Spy’s acerbic Spying. It’s especially evident in the internet’s Wild West-style free-for-all of personal punditry, perfected by all those witheringly bitter blogs and the cleverly caustic Gawker, which is basically an all-day version of Spy for free.
So, all hail Spy—and its 20th anniversary book, which is an exhaustive look at its conception, rise, and fall. Designed by onetime Spy art director Alexander Isley, it’s every bit as visually busy as the magazine itself. After introductory essays by founders Tom Phillips, Kurt Andersen, and Carter, the mag’s history is told by ex-Spy editor George Kalogerakis, with lots of pull quotes, excerpts, and editors’ asides punctuating the pages like literary Post-its. Like Spy itself, this book is clearly for smart people with ADD.
A board game posing as a magazine, Spy was always packed more tightly than Joan Rivers’s face. It overflowed with charts, lists, floating photos, and maps, all cramming minutiae into your brain while at the same time challenging you to absorb every column inch. As Steven Heller writes in the chapter on the magazine’s look, “Spy’s design prefigured the Web in terms of the multiple entry points and levels of information.” And it was classy—mainly because, as the magazine’s first art director, Stephen Doyle, explains, “The serif type, the letter spacing, all this 20th-century publishing history that went into it gave it the authority it needed to be as sarcastic as it was.”
The adult-looking typefaces gave the bratty points of view more weight, but the covers generally went for sheer eye-grabbing, winky boldness. That was true whether they used Photoshopped images—like Hillary Clinton as a smiling dominatrix in February 1993, for a piece on “Power Playing in the Clinton White House”—or actual ones, like brave model Carol Alt with rats crawling up her legs, for the May 1988 “Welcome to Rat City!” cover. (The accompanying article was about Gotham’s infestation, 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.”)
After Spy’s creative team broke up and the magazine lost its momentum (ultimately folding in ’98), its editors went on to kiss a little ass and pretty much become the very mainstream people they’d mercilessly made fun of. But they admit it, and they still have some sharp critical faculties to invoke when given half a chance. Besides, you can’t overflow with young, reckless rage forever.
Their lacerating legacy lives on, and thanks to classic articles like “It’s Okay to Hate High Culture,” we long ago became aware that it’s okay to hate, period—as long as it’s done with self-mocking smarts and swashbuckling style.
But wait just a minute. I just found an old Spy chart in the book, delineating how readers can separate so-so schlock stars from truly awful ones. The lowest of the low, the chart claims, “dote on Michael Musto.” I’m quivering all over again. Die again, Spy!