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Spy magazine remembers 'The Funny Years'

By Todd Leopold
CNN
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(CNN) -- Can you blame them?

In 1986, two escapees from Time magazine, Graydon Carter and Kurt Andersen, published the first issue of Spy. The magazine appeared, recalled Andersen, at a time "of unchallenged celebrity reverence," and it necessarily proceeded to deflate that veneration with the ardor of a teenager pricking balloons at a society wedding.

The magazine's timing was perfect. Its revelations about media, hipness, celebrity and history made it must-read material. Its circulation snowballed and offshoots -- books ("Separated at Birth," "Spy High" and "Spy Notes"), a TV special and assorted hijinks -- abounded. Then its founders moved on, the zeitgeist found something else, and what was left were memories. (Watch slideshow)

So, can you blame them?

Can you blame them for Gawker and Defamer? Can you blame them for VH1's "Best Week Ever" and David Spade? Can you blame them for all the easy mockery of celebrities and politicians, the ironic detachment of the Bush-Clinton-Bush era, that now-pervasive quantity called snarkiness (a sort of smug sarcasm) that has led to an assessment, in the words of Mediabistro.com's Paul O'Donnell, that "We're all Spy now"? (Gallery: Leading-edge comedy)

Andersen, for one, gives an emphatic "Yes!"

To most of it, anyway.

"When you do something that has influence, as a general thing, it's great -- better than having had no influence and obscure and being a homeless person ranting, 'I did it years ago!' I think it's all basically great," he says in a phone interview from New York.

Carter observes that Spy's voice had a harder edge than what's considered snarky nowadays -- "it's funny because the snarky voice you sort of sometimes get on the Internet, I think it's a watered-down version of what we did," he says -- but he, too, finds much to appreciate in Spy's influence.

"I think [it's] very flattering," he says in a cell-phone interview. "And some people do it better and some people do it worse. I think it all depends on whose hand it falls in."

13-cent checks and masters of the universe

The hands that created Spy, including Carter, Andersen, publisher Tom Phillips and an honor roll of writers and art directors, knew exactly what they were doing, as is illustrated in the new book, "Spy: The Funny Years" (Miramax).

The tome collects some of Spy's best-known articles, including the time the magazine mailed out absurdly cheap sums to a selection of wealthy names, culminating in 13-cent checks cashed by Donald Trump and Adnan Khashoggi; the footnoted correspondence between tough-guy screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and powerful agent Michael Ovitz; the expose of Bohemian Grove, where the "masters of the universe go to camp"; and (of course) samples of Celia Brady's Hollywood gossip, "Logrolling in Our Time" (writers exchanging blurbs), the "Liz Smith Tote Board," lists, fine print and various "o-matics."

And yes, there's also the detailed story of Spy's beginnings, success and fade-out, written largely by former managing editor George Kalogerakis, who kept a journal of his years at the publication.

"I thought it would be an interesting adventure," says Kalogerakis, now an editorial-page editor at The New York Times. He'd received a direct-mail charter subscription offer and wanted in. "It sounded like a funny magazine. I wanted to be a part of it, any way at all. ... I would have run the Xerox machine."

Its satire was nothing new, of course. Carter and Andersen credit such disparate sources as Mad magazine, Time's heavily descriptive '40s and '50s writing style, Hunter S. Thompson's Rolling Stone dispatches and the National Lampoonexternal link as influences. (Comparison: Mad vs. Spy)

But nobody else seemed to be doing it, even though Carter had been thinking about such a magazine for years.

"I had a rough idea for a magazine that would be about New York, that would be based on journalism, would be funny and look reasonably good," he recalls.

"The idea for this magazine grew out of conversations of dissatisfaction of what we didn't see in magazines [and] pleasure at the occasional thing we would see," says Andersen. "We were free to say, 'This is what we'd like in a magazine' and try to do it."

'We needed each other'

Despite its panache -- wryly elegant party invitations, graceful design, even Carter and Andersen's determination to wear suits ("it gave authority to what was essentially an underground magazine," Carter says), the magazine had a bumpy debut. Carter remembers half of the 6,000 charter subscribers canceling "because whatever they thought the magazine was going to be ... this wasn't that," he says. Quickly, though, readers caught on and circulation rose.

So did notoriety. New Yorkers of a certain class were ticked off; so were Hollywood insiders, who wondered where the magazine was getting its information (and why was it slagging Sylvester Stallone?). Donald Trump -- a "short-fingered vulgarian" in the magazine's argot -- was a particularly juicy target.

"He would send us these letters ... on this stationery you could kill a duck with," Andersen recalls. "It was amazing. He was perfect. [It] was like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty -- we needed each other."

But even at the best of times, Spy struggled to make a profit, despite cost-saving (and creative) devices such as the use of free public relations photographs (which became the source for the magazine's distinct silhouetted head shots) and tiny type.

When the recession hit in 1989-90, the grind started overtaking the original group. The magazine went national, which was "tricky," says Kalogerakis. The founders sold the magazine to a pair of Europeans in early 1991. One by one, people left: Carter in 1991, Kalogerakis a few months later, Andersen in 1993. "The Funny Years," for the most part, were over; Spy closed its doors in 1998.

But the Spy-ers go on. Some writers ended up at The New Yorker, others on "The Simpsons." Andersen, after a stint as editor of New York, now hosts public radio's "Studio 360."external link And Carter is the editor of Vanity Fairexternal link, at which he employs a number of his old contributors.

The founders may have mixed feelings about the world it made -- Carter, who famously declared that 9/11 marked "the end of the age of irony," now says "clearly that idiot was wrong" -- but many good thoughts for their creation.

"I remember when it started that I thought it would probably not last, but it would be worth it," says Kalogerakis, which, he adds, it was.

"I certainly don't look back at the whole experience with even an ounce of regret. It went so much righter than wronger," says Andersen.

And Carter remembers simply laughing.

"Basically, most of the time [Kurt and I] were each trying to make the other person laugh," he says. "If I made Kurt laugh, I thought that was the highest compliment."


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