Laughing gas

Modern Humorist wants to win our hearts by mocking the very things we hold dear.

Published February 22, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

At about the same time that Jim Romenesko's Media Gossip column was moving to the Poynter Institute's site as Media News, a parody of the site appeared on the Web, adding to the confusion.

Media News is one of those places people in the media start their day, looking for stories about the media (which Romenesko tirelessly culls from hundreds of sites and papers) as well as -- sorry, Poynter -- gossip. It's insidery in an unapologetic fashion, largely devoid of the snide attitude and innuendo that marks much media coverage.

Not so Media Gossip News, a spot-on parody of the site that had almost as many people in the media talking as Media News did. While frequent readers of Media News might note the number of defections from Brill's Content, the parody made a point of the trend with the news that Steven Brill was leaving his own magazine. ("I've enjoyed my time at Brill's Content. My departure is amicable; there is no truth to the rumor that I wasn't getting along with myself.") Ditto Michael Wolff's repeated assertion, "I have an idea for a new media company." Or the link to Salon's "Whores Who Think."

According to Michael Colton, one of the site's authors and co-founder of the nascent Modern Humorist, the parody was "really just a press release. We could have sent an e-mail to people like you saying, 'This is what we're going to do.' Instead we decided just to show you."

Savvy move, that. As most please-look-at-my-Web-site messages get buried in the bulk of the day's missives (and washed over by each issue's deadlines), a good laugh is oft sought yet rarely found -- especially on the Web. This was part of what motivated Colton (himself part of the Brill's diaspora) and his partner John Aboud to launch Modern Humorist.

"Humor on the Web is a pretty dismal lot," says Colton. "People who put up a site in their spare time and tell Star Trek jokes. The Onion is great but an editor there even said, 'It's not that we're the best humor thing on the Web -- we're the only humor thing on the Web.'"

And there's nothing particularly webby about the Onion (as the phenomenal success of the book pulled from its pages, "Our Dumb Century," will attest). You could say the same of McSweeney's, which in the realm of hype must be this year's Onion. (A link on Modern Humorist's Media News parody salutes McSweeney's founder with a faux link: "Dave Eggers -- No trouble getting laid these days.")

Modern Humorist, which will formally launch this spring, vows to be more multimedia. A parody of Talk magazine that Colton and Aboud put up weeks before Tina Brown's much touted launch party featured video (though the site itself was more a deft mimesis of Talk's marketing hype). That site, which Colton did at home in his spare time, was promoted via "guerrilla tactics" -- e-mail from a fictional ad agency contemplating buying space in the magazine.

A similar attempt to hype the millennium site 2000 Times Square backfired. Aboud "leaked" journalists an official NYC directive that read, in part, "In compliance with the safety plan authorized yesterday, anyone attempting to attend the Times Square New Year's Eve celebration, which will be held this year on December 31, must appear with a Jubilee Permit, authorized by this office."

"Too close to reality," Colton says now. "Giuliani could easily have done something like that."

Colton, who worked on the Washington Post's Style section before
moving to New York, began writing humor in college at the Harvard
Lampoon. His stint at Brill's Content (not exactly the first name
in comedy) was probably doomed, though he did convince the
magazine to add a back-of-the-book humor page as well as Chippy
the chimpanzee (whose prognostications about political matters
are measured against those of TV pundits like Eleanor Clift).

Using their parody sites as a calling card, Colton and Aboud
were able to raise enough venture capital ("in the low seven
figures") to rent office space in Brooklyn's DUMBO district and
hire a staff of writers and producers (contributors will include Brill's staffer Seth Mnookin and Daniel Radosh, creator of the Slate parody
Stale). Despite the hazing of Talk and Media News
(Romenesko had the good grace to link to the Media Humorist page
from his site), Colton does not want to focus on the media.

"If we were up now, we would do Oscars," he says. "If you have an
infrastructure, you can get something like that up real quickly."
One regular feature will be called First Draft. "You take a
speech by Giuliani and then click to see a first draft. Or Puff
Daddy's statement after being arrested. We'll show you the first
draft -- with written comments by Jennifer Lopez."

Sounds like fun, but what's up with the name? Since Colton claims
to emulate Spy and National Lampoon in their glory days you might
expect something a little zippier. "We tossed around 'Jest' and
some others," he says, "but there was no irony. Modern Humorist
had this industrial sound, like Popular Mechanics or Modern

So it's one of those ironic names. Like Powerful

A reader writes: Speaking of Brill's Content, the
March issue features one of the most succinct solicited responses
in memory. In a piece entitled "The Secret Plagiarists," Dorothy
Parker biographer Marion Meade claims she was insufficiently
credited for her work in the Alan Rudolph film "Mrs. Parker and
the Vicious Circle" as well as the Vanity Fair column by Christopher
Hitchens. The magazine sought a response from both men; Rudolph
declined, but Hitchens' reply is reprinted here in its entirety:

"Joke, right? You pester me with all this bullshit and it turns
out to be an ill-phrased article by someone who wants to moan
about the nuisance of fact-checking? Tell her for me that she
ought to be careful in her use of the word plagiarism and that if
she made the insinuation in a serious magazine, or a magazine
that anyone read, I would take it seriously in turn. As it is, do
your worst -- you seem to do it anyway. Fuck you, CH."

Guess they forgot to tell him he gets the swimsuit issue and the
calendar for free.

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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