Why Falling in a Manhole Isn’t Funny
Michael Gerber is the publisher and editor of The American Bystander, one of the few, if the only, humor book/magazine left in the United States. At a time when we need all the humor we can muster, Gerber’s got one hell of a responsibility and a heck of a heavy load to shoulder. And in the age of YouTube, podcasts, cable TV and its satiric news shows, he’s got a lot of fantastic competition. I asked him to be serious for a moment about his courageous venture-slash-hilarious folly.
There is nothing more satisfying than getting a laugh at someone else’s expense. Would you agree? That’s not how I feel it. Scornful laughs leave a residue of anger, which eventually numbs me out and makes me very depressed. Now, a laugh can be better than the alternative—sarcasm is the shooting spree of the overeducated—but if this stance becomes habitual, I think it’s actually harmful. It’s why professional funny people are often unhappy; they’re suffering from addiction to comedy, a very strong painkiller.
To my ear, a lot of contemporary comedy consists of someone vomiting unprocessed rage and neurosis at a bunch of strangers, in a desperate attempt to get the same hit of relief they got from that first time they heard Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks. Comedy’s cruel in this way, and in the post-Bruce, post-Lampoon, post-Del era it attracts people who are particularly vulnerable to this addictive relationship to the relief of scorn.
So I don’t aim us towards scornful humor, one because I don’t want to hurt our contributors or readers, and because there’s already a LOT of that being done. Rapid-response, pop-cultural snark, frosted with rage in the comments below—that’s what Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the internet is for. I encourage our contributors to stretch themselves, to go for the new territory, and that seems to be giving us a slight bias towards the “understated and escapist,” in the words of the Times. At least after two issues; our contributors will take us all over, I’m sure.
Is there stuff in The Bystander that’s scornful? Sure. If Merrill Markoe or Jack Handey or Mallory Ortberg is pissed off, that’s what drives the piece. My job is to assemble as much comic talent as possible, give them a great venue, and let them speak to the audience without distortion. But institutionally Bystander isn’t angry—not like Lampoon was committed to violence-as-comedy, or SPY was institutionally obsessed with the fundamental fraudulence of politics, big media and showbiz. Bystander‘s attempting to be the first post-internet humor magazine: we assemble a Murderer’s Row of writers and artists, and use publishing and design to get out of their goddamn way. This seems to be making us more diverse than past humor magazines, and more human-scaled. We didn’t know whether people would like that, but they do. So far.
If humor is such a potent tonic—and we’ve seen a resurgence on TV of comedy and satire—why is Bystander so alone in the field? Humor magazines simply don’t fit with the way magazines are published in the United States. I’ve worked in the business since 1991, and people have always wanted print humor and cartoons; it’s just that the corporate, advertising-focused models utilized in the U.S. can’t comfortably give it to them. As comedy in every other medium has become more artistically free, more convenient to consume, and infinitely faster, publishing has remained tied to a model that makes all three pretty much impossible. But the demand is still there. Is it big enough to pay for a building on Sixth Avenue and 48th Street? Probably not. But America is a large country full of weirdos, and if we run lean—by which I mean, “out of my rent-controlled apartment”—Bystander can probably make it.
What do you say to your humorists to get them to give their best wit to your cause? It depends. For the heavy names, I just tell them who else is contributing, and their natural competitiveness takes over. For the younger people, I tell them, “Write the piece that you want to be remembered for.” And also, “All of your friends will read this—there’s no DRM on the PDF.”
Actually, what is your cause? This is a labor of love. I love readers, so I’m determined to present something that shows them the possibilities of the classic print humor magazine format—so it won’t die while we’re all waiting for flexible e-paper or content-push yarmulkes or whatever Mark Zuckerberg decides. And I love writers and artists, so I want to give old pros a place to play and collaborate, new talents a leg up, and to put money in the pockets of funny folks whenever and however we can.
This all sounds so serious—really it’s just an excuse to trade emails with people I really admire. I write “THANK YOU” a lot.
If we can get the print magazine to be stable—and we’re well on our way—I’d like to apply the same model to other media. We gather an overwhelming amount of talent, give it maximum freedom, and create a product that is designed to please the audience, not the advertisers or the middlemen. And we run lean—lean enough to make failure no big deal. And we offer the product direct to audience, using the power of the internet to gather like-minded people. Then, it either goes, or not.
What’s next for The Bystander? If we can gather a few more backers, I’d like to offer subscriptions—the numbers are devilishly hard, but readers are practically kicking my door down. In the next few weeks, I’m going to be planning issues 3, 4, and 5; we’ve got a ton of material already. And I’m going to go after a bunch of wonderful writers and artists that have eluded me so far. Yesterday, Drew Friedman sent in a sketch. I said, “Drew, please go sell this to someone who can actually pay you a reasonable amount,” and he said, “No, I want to do it for Bystander.”
Are there other reasons for why Bystander is so alone in the field? Because there’s no possible reason to do this unless you’re totally obsessed with humor magazines; and there’s no way to do it well unless you’ve spent several gloriously unpaid decades doing stuff like looking at copies of The Pushpin Graphic or reading a bunch of subheds from Harold Hayes’ Esquire just for fun. All of the other people who could be doing Bystander are much too sensible to try it.
How is that not great? Now do you see why I’m such a happy fellow?
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About Steven Heller
Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →