Diving Into the Archives of Spy, The Funniest Magazine Ever

Maybe you’ve heard of Spy Magazine, the satirical magazine that was one of the funniest things ever in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but never read it. Now that Google Books has put much of the Spy archive online, you can see what the fuss was about. For me, it was the magazine that redeemed American culture while everything else sucked.

In 1987 I was a junior in high school and nothing was funny. SNL had not recovered from its Gary Kroeger years, Johnny Carson was getting old. National Lampoon was in one of its stupid phases. There was no Onion, Simpsons, Seinfeld or even Kids in the Hall yet. David Letterman could not do it all himself. Worse, my friends and I were full-blown high school snobs. We were above it all, dismissing everything as not good enough except maybe for the obscure Animals LPs we dug up in used record stores.

Around then I got an offer in the mail from the editors of something called Spy Magazine, which I had never heard of. They claimed they were sick of things not being funny. That they were raised on the original SNL and Monty Python and National Lampoon and wanted things to be good, and that they were good, and that I should subscribe. It was the most arrogant self-description I had ever heard. I subscribed immediately.

In a few weeks I received the “Special Los Angeles Issue – Lifestyle Hell!” with Tracy Ullman on the cover. Headlines included “Joan Collins is A Contagious Disease” and “Ronald Reagan in Retirement: How To Tell The Difference.” Therein began my worship of Spy.

Put simply, Spy Magazine (1986–1998) made fun of famous people. But that’s like saying Pixar likes to draw. Spy’s issues were symphonies of attacks. They mocked pop stars, politicians, authors and Kato Kaelin with equal enthusiasm. They had a ruthless disrespect for celebrity that you usually only see in British tabloids.

It mixed lowbrow silliness with highbrow investigation, but editors definitely preferred the smart stuff. Frankly, Spy could be annoyingly difficult to read: pages were unapologetically dense, and stories seemed careful to show off how brainy the staff was. But for fans like me and my snobby high school friends, Spy was a club for funny people too smart to be scared off by small type. And with every snarky inside obscure reference, I loved Spy more. I wanted to be those people, who seemed as they described themselves “smart, funny, fearless.” Yeah, and coolly above it all.

Before we get further into it, here’s six very funny things Spy Magazine did that you can see right now:

Unfortunately for Spy, its legacy is slash-and-burn bitchfests like Gawker or Perez Hilton, which have the same enthusiasm for tearing down the beautiful people, but none of the precision or creativity. To make fun of rich people, Spy would anonymously send checks for twenty-five cents to billionaires just to see if someone like Rupert Murdoch would cash it (he did, personally). Perez Hilton finds an unflattering photo of Charlie Sheen and draws a dick on his face.

Spy was better. And here’s why:

SPY WAS RUN BY ACTUAL JOURNALISTS. Founded in 1986 by two for-real established New York journalists – Graydon Carter and Kurt Andersen – Spy recruited incisive, experienced reporters for its stories. Their staff could tackle something as simple as “Find out how much Gerald Ford makes just to show up somewhere” to a more elusive and subtle topic like “Describe how irony is ruining comedy” (awesome Chevy Chase cover here). When they chose to tackle something more newsworthy – like George Bush maintaining a mistress while championing family values – they had sources, they had documentation.

Simply having good writing set Spy apart. Joe Queenan’s essay on misplaced reverence for Bob Dylan (“in a poly-syllabic interview!”) is still my favorite articulation of the frustration of lingering 60s icons.

SPY WAS BORN IN A CULTURAL DESERT, THE ’80S. Comedically, almost everything sucked in the ’80s. The only cool things in any medium were holdovers from the suddenly oppressive ’60s. But Spy was a voice of its own time. It presented a “novel-o-matic” formula for writing your own “young urban ’80s novel” in the style of Jay McInerny or Bret Easton Ellis. Their covers featured the (then) newly hip Winona Ryder, Bart Simpson, Sharon Stone. A special Wall Street suicide issue ridiculed the jerks behind the Savings and Loan/junk bond scandals. It was all very NOW.

SPY WAS BEAUTIFUL TO LOOK AT. The magazine’s strongest legacy might be its slick visual style. Classic serif typefaces evoked an art deco feel – retro modern. Images and copy were densely packed, assaulting the reader with ideas. Jokes ran in fine print around the borders of the pages. There are a million jokes in here, each issue seemed to say.

For example, May 1991’s opening editorial, “It’s really spring,” (unsigned but presumedly written by Andersen) was a typical visual stew. The copy itself talked about the end of Desert Storm, the banning of Steinbrenner from baseball and the weird emergence of racist politicians like David Duke. But the accompanying images were inexplicable: a humpback whale, Elvis surrounded by a harem, a plump-looking Brooke Shields, a tulip field, a still from a silent film of prisoners and, nestled along the side, a quote from Harold Pinter. No paragraph breaks, just a muted image of bats and balls to let you know where you could take a short breath.

For years and years, I saw Spy everywhere. When the internet emerged in the early 90s and e-zines started popping up, they all seemed direct children of Spy, in tone and look: suck.com, slate.com, salon.com. For a while, Yahoo! (when it was still a search engine) had a page of links devoted to “S Magazines.”

Spy’s charts were an entity all their own, and are still copied. This Anti-Social Register of recluses like JD Salinger and Greta Garbo from November 1989 looks a lot (in terms of visual style) like New York Magazine’s Approval Matrix from March of 2011.

Spy discovered that just the cropped image of a celebrity’s head was somehow undermining:

And Spy’s covers were stylishly garish and brutal:

SPY WAS NEW YORK. Spy, especially in its early years, was filled with references to blueblood New York. I went to UConn, a college so rural we didn’t have a movie theater. But with each issue of Spy, I felt immersed in a rareified Big Apple, glamorized even as its editors made fun of it. They made inside jokes about novelists Jay McInerny and Tama Janowitz staying out too late at some TriBeCa club I’d never heard of. I’d never heard of TriBeCa. They mocked up an issue of Vanity Fair as if it were edited by Norman Mailer. They had so many unflattering photos of Donald Trump I’d assumed he’d once evicted them. They had a tiny drawing of The Puck Building in their masthead. Spy was so proud of its New York pedigree that it made The New Yorker look like Guns & Ammo. But somehow it translated to readers far from Manhattan as Something Cool.

And finally, SPY WAS FUNNY. Just like Jon Stewart doesn’t interview the Secretary of Commerce until after he’s made 40 jokes about the day’s headlines, Spy made sure you laughed. The front pages of Spy’s issue were especially silly. A small selection:

Spy’s founders left circa 1992. Although the magazine had many funny moments after that until it folded in 1998 – Spy’s grip started to feel more tentative. Without its creators, smugness outweighed true wit too often. The Onion showed up and was funnier, without being as pretentious. The Daily Show was more relevant. Even its creators admitted that Spy ended weakly when they titled a greatest hits anthology Spy: The Funny Years (favoring their own stuff, still shameless and arrogant and funny).

But when Spy worked, it was very good. It redeemed two separate half-decades. And for all its aloof, withering imitators, there isn’t anything as cool and smart and fun out there right now.

Except Kurt Andersen’s twitter feed, which sometimes reads like a possible pitch list of stories for Spy. So there’s that.

Will Hines is an actor and writer at the UCB Theatre in New York.

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