The Daily Heller: Not an Innocent Bystander
I can hear the voice of the masses now: "Does the world need a humor magazine?" The answer is obvious: "Maybe!" If there are enough people seeking a good laugh, a controversial thought or a satisfying snark, then a humor mag is just what the doctor ordered. On the other hand, it can be argued that during the Trump Epoch we dipped into all our reserves to stay sane, so perhaps a humor magazine is today simply an indulgence.
In October 2015, when Trump was just an annoying little gnat, how did Michael Gerber know that humor would be a saving grace in a demonic moment of history? He just wanted to rekindle the old traditions for their own sakes. So, a bunch of genial weirdos unveiled The American Bystander, the first new national humor magazine in 30 years. (The magazine was originally conceived in the early 1980s by Brian McConnachie, but never produced.) Gerber and his witmates wanted to create a place for print humor in the 21st century; in a dumbness-forward era, they sought to present, if not an antidote, at least an alternative.
It's time to look back on how it did, and is doing. I asked Gerber a few serious questions about humor in the 21st century. This bit of quiet is a good moment to get some interesting responses.
You started The American Bystander with limited funds and a whole lot of passion. I see the passion is still there, but how did you manage to produce 18 issues?
The short answer is, "The contributors." Everything good comes down to the 300+ amazing people who have contributed their stuff in exchange for agonizingly small checks. (I agonize. They are great about it.)
I've been practicing this magic trick since I was 18, so at 51 I am extremely wily. I use ancient versions of InDesign and Photoshop that do exactly what I want them to (and very little else); I have a typography-driven, pre-Photoshop design that allows me to generate pages quickly and easily; I have a stable of people who write in certain ways, which I can predict; I have a carefully calibrated format that builds in a lot of flexibility and diversity, just by my filling it. Plus, I work on this thing incessantly. I just went to the eye doctor and she gave me a stern talking-to.
The whole Bystander package, from design to content to production/fulfillment, is the result of many years of trial and error. We are breaking new ground in the field of one guy sitting in his living room, opening emails from the funniest writers and cartoonists in the world. I am weary but grateful!
Has the humor landscape changed much since you restarted the Bystander? I think I know the answer.
Surely it has. Today's political situation not only demands an answer incessantly, it's also a threat to the magazine itself, as well as the individual contributors. A right-wing takeover of the government—the cultural repeal of everything since 1960—would make Bystander impossible. Even now, [U.S. Postmaster General Louis] DeJoy's monkey business has made fulfillment a nightmare.
So not only do we have to talk about Trump—and now Trump: The Next Generation—because that's what people are thinking (and creating) about, we have to alert our readers. As a disabled person, I have no illusions about what would happen to me in a Fascist U.S. Ditto as a satirist, a magazine publisher, a liberal living in California, and on and on.
Creatively, I would really prefer if we didn't have to comment on it, because how many times can you caricature Trump? And there's an Olympian pose in tune with a certain kind of smart satire—"They're all crooks" or "This too shall pass." But as someone obsessed with history (specifically the Roman Civil War period, and Weimar Germany), I can't really ignore our current political environment, as much as I wish I could. And as much money as I think I could make by marketing us as "Tired of all that political stuff? Relax with The American Bystander!" Someone else wants to do that, be my guest; you'll make $20 million when you sell your magazine to Facebook … or you'll end up in a gulag with the rest of "Antifa." Place your bet.
How have the Trump years impacted your sense of humor?
Last fall, I was so worried I was breaking out in hives. So there's that. Additionally, I believed—like most of us did—that American society was basically stable and competent. I mean, we might disagree, but when a natural disaster hits, we wouldn't just let citizens die, because … I'm still trying to figure out why we let our fellow citizens die? And it seems some of us are glad or proud about that?
I guess my answer is that I'm still recalibrating to a world that is fundamentally darker, and crueler, and closer to the edge, than I thought it was. And also, trying to figure out what is the most humane, helpful response. Sardonic humor is too close to despair. In a lot of the sardonic comedy I love most from the 1970s and 1980s, there's an implicit "giving up"—which seems to have opened the door to open corruption on the one hand, and a weird passivity on the other.
Satire is useless if there's no just authority to appeal to, or that authority refuses to wield power. It's like the end of Three Days of the Condor, but Hal Holbrook says to Redford, "Go ahead, go to The New York Times. We'll call it 'fake news' and 30% of the country will send you death threats. I'm sure John Oliver will do a great segment."
I think there's a whole new kind of comedy emerging, a post–Lenny Bruce kind of satire that is directly tied to political power. The right is doing it with stand-ups and The Babylon Bee; the center is doing it via the MSM; the left does it via Twitter. Because people are looking to comedy for moral instruction, rather than the church, or mom and dad. Comedy can no longer just say, "Hey, anybody notice that President Trump talks like a mobster?" It now has to answer questions like, "What do I DO when the president is a mobster? And 30% of the country likes that?"
So I'm having to work an entirely different part of my brain—the civic-minded, historian part, not just the joke-maker.
And how is this new approach to comedy coming out in your practice?
I find myself going more and more towards personal essays, to try to give some relief to myself and the readers, and to get some distance. I have gotten a lot more direct, less sardonic/mordant, and a lot gentler in my work.
As an editor, I'm skewing more and more towards art—I want Bystander to be beautiful, or at least visually interesting—and am trying to get more diverse viewpoints into the book. I want to balance the Boomer/Lampoon/Letterman/"SNL"/"Simpsons" styles of comedy with other stuff, by younger people, or older people with interesting outlooks. Not for PC reasons, but because juxtaposition makes both types "pop" more. So I'm always on the hunt; today I'm waiting on a piece from a friend on Twitter who is a sex worker. I'll put that in between a guy who wrote for Letterman for 25 years, and a woman who writes lifestyle humor for The New Yorker. :-)
Who are the stalwarts in your comedy stable? And why do they hold up so well?
Cartoonists and illustrators are the glue that holds Bystander together, and they create their own world. M.K. Brown; Sam Gross; John Cuneo; Roz Chast; Ron Barrett—there are so many, each fantastic. Our one-panel people are amazing—there are too many to list, and it's a diverse crowd; men and women, young and old.
Our writers fall into one of two buckets: the absurdist type, and the personal type. For the absurdists, we have Brian McConnachie, of course, who founded Bystander back in 1982. And Jack Handey—there's practically a whole "School of Handey" among writers under 40. There's Steve Young. P.S. Mueller. Lars Kenseth. And so forth. We launched a whole website specializing in this absurdist type, which is run by two great young writers, Adam Chase and Ben Doyle.
For the memoirist style, there's Merrill Markoe, Mike Reiss, Emily Flake, Roz Chast and myself.
A few can pull off more typical political satire—consummate pros like Barry Blitt, Steve Brodner, Rick Meyerowitz and Larry Doyle. Their stylistic control is so precise they can survive in a world where the narrative changes every three hours.
Who are the promising newcomers? And why?
This is an impossible question—so many!—but I think Marques Duggans and T.Q. Chen are two particularly good young illustrators that you will see around. Armando Veve, you already do see around! Cerise Zelenetz, Tyson Cole, Nathan Place, Matthew Thompson are all great one-panel people that haven't already been in The New Yorker a million times, like so many of our other folks. As to writers, I
think Riane Konc, Meg Favreau, Sarah Hutto and Jennifer Kim are all fabulous. There are just tons that I'm forgetting because it's well past lunch and my head is spinning with hunger and unanswered emails.
Be honest: Even if it's laughable, how do you keep your enthusiasm level so high?
Maybe this is what I'm supposed to do with my life? It gives me a great deal of satisfaction, and does seem like no one else is dying to do it. I know there must be others out there, people who would do a much better job than I can, but hard work and a lot of luck has put me in the position of being able to champion this kind of culture, and I am determined to do it, at least until my eyes give out. I'm actively seeking ways to bring in new blood; now that I've demonstrated what I think the mag should be, I want to assemble a group of younger editors to take it over.
Do you feel you are reaching the people for whom Bystander was intended? Or are those people not buying magazines anymore?
Those whom we reach I think are exactly the people intended; but I only think we reach 5–10% of them. I think there are many, many people who would like this magazine if they ever saw it, or even knew about it. That's one of the biggest hurdles Trump created for us; everybody was so distracted and scared, it was tough to get attention for something as seemingly frivolous as The American Bystander.
You have some plans for the future. Care to share?
In addition to Bystander appearing four to five times a year, and our daily website twofiftyone.net, I'm developing a MAD-like print magazine with MAD's ex–editor-in-chief, Bill Morrison; we're also planning a Bystander podcast, produced/engineered by Bob Tischler from The National Lampoon Radio Hour. I just got off the phone with Bob! I'm really excited.
It's clear you're not just a bystander, are you?
Some happy day, Steve. But I suspect I will never be innocent.