Media Circus

Can the new Spy regain the smart nastiness that made the old one a magazine legend?

Published September 2, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

There are two questions any writer working on a story about the new Spy becomes quickly accustomed to hearing. The first is the genuinely quizzical: "You mean Spy still exists?" The second is the deathless query: "Do they still have all those pornography ads in the back?" Neither qualifies as the kind of inspiring response you want to get from strangers when you explain to them what you're working on.

Still, these are questions that make a certain amount of intuitive sense, given the fact that Spy -- once the country's most clever magazine and one that exerted a cultural influence out of all proportion to the size of its readership -- has gone through a rather fallow ... well, decade is probably the right word for it. And nothing seemed more emblematic of that than the two-page spread offering assorted pornographic catalogs and videotapes that has graced every issue in recent memory. A real magazine wouldn't need these ads.

It's good news all around, then, at least for those who believe that satire is still the best way of really annoying people. Spy does, in fact, still exist, and -- at least as of the last issue -- the porn is gone. This does mean that you'll have to go elsewhere to find "Nasstoys," "1997 Naked Men Calendars" and the legendary "Bloopers and Blunders" tape (which doesn't identify the porn stars committing the bloopers because they're too embarrassed to give their names, apparently since taking on three men at once is not embarrassing, but making a mistake while doing so is). But it might also be taken as a sign that, for the first time in a long time, Spy is being run by people who have a chance of resurrecting the magazine from the "What ever happened to ...?" graveyard.

It's a difficult project, of course, precisely because the Spy of the 1980s remains so vivid in people's minds. Founded by Thomas Phillips Jr., Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter, Spy combined uncanny social wit with an almost complete lack of remorse. Taking as its targets the corporate raiders, master builders and literary wunderkinds who dominated New York during the Decade of Greed, Spy fashioned its own kind of Veblenian theory of the leisure class, detailing the mechanisms by which private venality was put in the service of public status. In retrospect, the targets were obvious. Henry Kravis, Donald and Ivana Trump, Jay McInerney: These were villains you could have gotten from central casting. But the role Spy played in helping shape the way we see these people should not be underestimated. For many of us, at least, we saw the 1980s, in important ways, through Spy's eyes.

We did so not simply because Spy was often tremendously funny, but also because Andersen and Carter introduced stylistic innovations that broke apart the page-page-photo-page model. From "Separated at Birth" to the "Novel-o-Matic" to the endless array of charts and time lines, Spy altered the visual landscape of American magazines. Here, again, much of what Spy did now looks familiar -- almost painfully so -- but it looks familiar because Spy did it. It's safe to say that without Spy even staid magazines like Time and Newsweek would look dramatically different today. (Fans of the look of the old New Yorker are allowed, of course, to see this as further evidence of the impending arrival of the Antichrist.)

The burden this placed on those who followed Andersen and Carter was obviously enormous, and would have been even if the two of them had not gone on to become central figures in the New York magazine world. And for most of the 1990s, at least, that burden was not carried gracefully. There was the strange moment in the early part of the decade when Spy announced that it was going to become more earnest and political, since irony had lost its edge. That was followed by the magazine's casual descent into bimbo-land, with each issue's cover featuring yet another large-breasted woman (sometimes with a different person's head attached, to be sure). The editorial turmoil was reflected -- caused? -- by financial turmoil, and the magazine was eventually bought by John Colman, British owner of Sussex Publishers, which also puts out Psychology Today and Mother Earth News. Under the reins of Colman, who for some reason is known as Jo (perhaps after the character in "Little Women"?), Spy has seen three editorial changes in 18 months. And earlier this month, Sussex's editorial director, Owen Lipstein, left in what seems to have been a huff.

For all that, though, Spy does finally seem to have its house in order. The new editorial team, which features Britisher Bruno Maddox as editor and diminutive satirist Adam Lehner as deputy editor, has been in charge of the magazine for three issues, and each one has been stronger than the previous. (Caveat emptor: I had an article in the first issue Maddox and Lehner edited, but have since been unaccountably left out in the cold.) The August issue featured a stinging attack on Esquire magazine, a brilliant dissection of the unfunny jokes of basketball sportswriter Peter Vecsey and a lovely riff, titled "Chronicles of a Death Foretold -- Badly," on the Enquirer's habit of predicting deaths either long before or just after they occur. The October issue has a terrific old-school Spy reading of "the off-duty celebrity," which is to say the celebrity who does her best to gain attention for not wanting attention, and a pointed and well-observed parody of the New York Times Magazine. The parody, which captures perfectly the Magazine's puried style and ability to make even the most mundane matters seem ponderous, features an interview with a pizza maker in Springfield, Mass., and an article on "Getting By." It also has a short but dead-on reading of William Safire, who writes: "It is I alone, writing in The Magazine, who has a feel for those rare instances when it is appropriate to kickback and celebrate the organic evolution of language as it is actually spoken. Take a chill pill, yo, before you upload your hard drive."

The October issue is most notable because it gives a clear sign of what Maddox and Lehner think Spy should be. For them, evil has gone underground. "The Rich and Deplorable people have quietly put an end to the aping of B-movie Beelzebubs that was the vogue back in the '80s ... Modern Evil runs cold and pure as a mountain stream, or a bottle of Evian." Henry Kravis has been replaced by Bill Gates, Donald Trump by Andy Grove, Jay McInerney by Kathryn Harrison (OK, well, not everything is different). Cackling is out. Nodding pensively is in. But Maddox and Lehner remain convinced that the surface change does not describe deeper transformations.

"We don't have the obvious targets the old Spy did, so it's harder, but it's a lot more interesting, too," Maddox says. "There used to be any number of dwarfish men vomiting on the table. They were cheesy villains who anointed themselves as targets. But today everyone's making a lot more money than they did during the 1980s, but they've learned to express it much more subtly. The richer people get, the less offensive and more pure they become. Sin has moved underground, which means it's a lot more fun digging it out. America needs to pull out the big analytical guns if it's going to nail the bad people. We think it's the subtle things that make better targets."

Lehner, who actually is an American, speaks in similar terms about what he somewhat hesitantly calls the magazine's mandate. "If the sins of the '80s were those of public excess, the sins of the '90s are those of a private, quiet cultivation of a sense of purity. That's harder but also maybe more important to expose," he says. Like Maddox, Lehner is powerfully aware of what being an heir to the Spy legacy means. "Spy was the greatest magazine in a long, long time. It was really quite brilliant. So it's a challenge and an honor to edit it, but I wouldn't say it's a burden," he says. "People have suggested we drop the name and do something else, but we are reinterpreting Spy for the '90s. Its voice and attitude was a good one."

Making that reinterpretation more difficult, of course, is the fact that, as Maddox suggests, "All the formats Spy introduced were absorbed by the world." But the important differences between the new Spy and the Andersen-Carter version are more philosophical and demographic than stylistic. Where the old Spy was heavily New York-centric, Maddox wants Spy to be a national magazine, though it remains unclear exactly what that will mean. And where the cardinal sins for the old Spy were gluttony and greed, the cardinal sins for the new Spy seem to be hypocrisy and pretense.

At the same time, though, the basic mission of Spy appears to have been revived more than discarded. "You have to take any piece of information and do something more clever with it than anyone else. It's as meta a magazine as you'll find," Lehner says.

Maddox is even more confident. "We're going to oversexify everything," he says. "We're going to present material in such a way that you can't not read it, however boring the topic. No matter what, that quintessential Spy overkill has to remain."

The king is dead. Long live the king?

By James Surowiecki

James Surowiecki is a regular contributor to Salon.

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