Commentary: Spy magazine's visionary set the bar high
Once again I'm reprinting the piece in full from MarketWatch because it's a damned good look at the phenomenon of snark. Check out the site for the Question of the Day. Part 3 will appear on Friday
NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- Kurt Andersen is the reluctant Godfather of Snark.
Not long after we'd sat down to talk about the State of Snark, he frowned slightly at my observation and muttered, "I know I'm going to come off sounding like an old fogy."
Gimme a break. Every writer should have such worries. (And every old fogy should have Andersen's resume!) He writes the Imperial City column for New York magazine and was its editor in the mid-1990s. He founded the late, lamented Inside.com (whose only sin was being ahead of its time). He authored the best-selling and acclaimed "Turn of the Century." He has a radio show. And he hosted an interview program with media hotshots on the Trio cable channel. He's the media business's Mr. Multimedia.
Oh yeah, two decades ago he co-founded Spy -- the much-loved magazine that raised snark to a whole other level -- with Graydon Carter, who's now the editor of Vanity Fair.
Spy tweaked the political, media and business establishments in the spirit of the magazine's wry British predecessor. That Spy also managed to jump-start the media's snark movement is one of life's happy accidents. Although the magazine is long defunct, its influence can be measured anywhere that you can read smart, funny, finger-pointing humor.
In America, Spy followed the examples of National Lampoon and Mad magazines by offering uncompromising humor that delighted in taking shots at the pompous.
Spy, of course, came along more than a decade before the Internet took hold. Words like "blog" hadn't been invented, and "snark" hadn't seeped into the daily vernacular.
As for Andersen, today he regards his legacy uneasily.
"When I talk to college students about Spy, it's like I'm describing something that happened in the 19th century," Andersen, 51, mused over breakfast in lower Manhattan last week.
"We were very lucky," he said. "We started Spy at a time when our generation had arrived at full adulthood and wanted to connect to its anti-establishment youth."
Andersen and Carter wanted to present a magazine that re-created the atmosphere of smart, edgy people "talking over drinks" about "stuff that wasn't being reported" in the media at the time.
Later this year, Miramax Books will be publishing a best-of-Spy volume titled, naturally, "Spy: The Funny Years."
Andersen, a native of Omaha, has high praise for Jon Stewart, humor writer Dave Barry, David Owen of the New Yorker, and David Carr and Maureen Dowd of the New York Times.
If Andersen is indeed the Godfather of Snark, then, he said, "Maureen is the Godmother."
Taking the easy way out
Andersen, rightfully, frets that many young journalists today take the easy way out when they try to be funny and hip, he said. He cautions writers to avoid the trap of declaring, "I'm 26, and I look at everything, good or bad, snarkily."
Or as Leslie Savan, author of "Slam Dunks and No-Brainers," put it, journalism has shifted "from dogged reporting to catty retorting."
It's a valid point. Plenty of Web writers, in particular, seem to think that entertainment passes for good journalism, that meanness alone has value. When rock bands run out of ideas, they raise the volume on their music for effect. When bloggers run out of ideas or are too lazy or uninformed to offer analysis, they simply resort to raising the snark level.
It's second-rate writing -- but what the hey? It enables bloggers to delude themselves into feeling important or, at least, self-important. And that's what matters.
The Web logs even get a kick out of eating their own. No one, even another blogger, is safe from mindless criticism. "Believe it or not," blogger Tish Grier wrote to me from Chicopee, Mass., "I recently got challenged on the title of my blog because I'm not all snark all the time. There are a number of bloggers who can't get with the idea of irony and metaphor." (bloggers note: yes, y'all know what I'm talking about here: the comments on my being "nice." nope, don't think so. smart maybe, but not necessarily nice. besides, why be snarky all the time? that's like playing one note on a piano over and over. pretty soon you get sick of it. snarking should be done judiciously and with necessity.)
For his part, Andersen likes to read "sly, wry and bemused journalism, as opposed to debasement."
It seems that a lot of bloggers, in their desperation to demonstrate that they're funny, are chiefly interested in showcasing their work as a way to get a job writing for "Weekend Update" or "The Colbert Report." They're not trying to land at the New York Times or Newsweek.
Andersen is also curious why so many bloggers seem to get their jollies by gratuitously blasting their subjects, he said. When it comes to "humanity," he said, bloggers "have to draw a line in the sand. The trick is to try to tell the truth."
Thanks for the mention Jon!