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In Vanity Fair

There are two must-read pieces in the current issue of Vanity Fair. After years of condescending dismissal, I've broken down and subscribed. As a devoted reader of Spy and a longtime (but no longer) subscriber to the New York Observer, I can tell myself that I'm just following editor Graydon Carter's star. As it happens, I'm in the middle of Spy: The Funny Years, by George Kalogerakis, with assists from Mr Carter and co-editor Kurt Anderson (Miramax/Melcher Media). Reading this handsome production is more than funny: it's a trip across time. The magazine's trademark was a wicked but attentively proofread mischievousness, and month after month it made me howl with laughter. I find from the newly published retrospective that it still can. Here's the weather squib from the top of a New York Times parody dating from 1992:

New York. Today, Sunny. High 85. Tonight, mostly dark, low 72. Tomorrow, canicular heat burns through early diaphanous clouds; aestival breezes expected. High 80. Yesterday, Tuesday. Details, page B14.

Observe that the piece is not immediately funny in any way, and doesn't have to be, because the seasoned reader of Spy loves to be lulled into thinking that there aren't any creatures under the bed, only to be transported into ecstasies by the sudden attack of a tickle-monster. The blend of fine writing, banality, and sheer irrelevance is sublime.

And before Spy, there was Esquire. Frank DiGiacomo's piece in the current Vanity Fair, "The Esquire Decade," sketches the steps that Harold T P Hayes took, once he became managing editor in 1960, to make Esquire the edgiest magazine going. I didn't come to that particularly party until it was half-over, but I remember the excitement with which the "Dubious Achievements" issue was greeted every year. Who could forget something that went like this:

oh, we thought it was at six oaks for the thousandth time.  Mickey Rooney got married for the sixth time at his home in Thousand Oaks, California.

The simple genius of the "Dubes" was to print the comic reaction to a story before the story. Talk about pre-emption! Mr DiGiacomo writes,

As Nora Ephron says, Esquire and the 60s were "the perfect moment of a magazine and a period coming together - not trying to say the period was something other than what it was, but telling us everything about it." And though the decade climaxed in violence and hysteria that no monthly magazine could stay ahead of, Harold Hayes and his troops at Esquire not only cracked the code of the new culture but also engineered the genome for the modern magazine. Traces of its DNA can still be found in today's magazines, including this one.

I have the October 2006 issue of Esquire before me. Beneath a not-very-flattering picture of Brad Pitt (but that's the point, of course), there's a lot of print about "The Esquire 100." This is what George W S Trow might call "the format of no format." It permits a jumble of items and photographs on every level of importance (and unimportance), presented in apparently random order. "No 038: Omega-3's: The New Fluoride." "No 039: Misguided Expert of the Year: The Dog Whisperer Should Just Shut Up." It's hip, sort of, I suppose. But it isn't funny. There's an earnestness the writing that is almost desperate. Just as the writers of the old Esquire and Spy behaved like ace eight year-old cutups, today's young journalists aspire to the gravitas of greybeards. (And don't go blaming boomers. Esquire may have shaped the intelligent boomer's sensibility, but it was not at all shaped by it.) Esquire and Spy both demonstrated, moreover, that high humor lies not in particular subjects but in the way even the most ordinary subjects are handled. Spy, for example, specialized in insulting but not inaccurate Homeric epithets. If Homer's sea was invariably wine-dark, Spy's Shirley Lord was always a "bosomy dirty-book writer." It didn't stop there. Here's a gem from 1988: "... all across town there was voiced astonishment at just how dirty a dirty-book writer the bosomy dirty-book writer is."

As you can imagine, I hope it won't be long before someone with half a brain realizes that there's money to be made in DVD packages along the lines of the (amazing!) Complete New Yorker. I've spent a lot of my lifetime laughing at funny magazines, and I that nothing else makes me half so nostalgic.

The other must-read is "Ruthless with Scissors," Buzz Bissinger's report on reasons why writer Augusten Burroughs (né Chris Robinson - did you know that? I didn't) might be worried about landing in deepish doo-doo. A looming court case may Frey the memoirist alive. Members of the Turcotte family - the original's of the Finches of Running With Scissors - feel humiliated by the book, as well as grossly misrepresented. The author's claim that it is they themselves who have outed themselves is severely undercut by one little detail:

It was so easy to figure out who the Finches were that Burroughs himself, in a 2003 interview with the online publication Bookslut, essentially told reporters how to do it. "The doctor was notorious in that area, absolutely notorious, so I always felt it was laziness on the part of reporters to question [the veracity]," he was quoted as saying. "All you have to do is search western Massachusetts doctors in the '70s, in North Hampton [sic] - how many psychiatrists were there - and you can access a lot of stories, lots and lots of stories. In September of 2002, the real name of the family was used in a People magazine profile of Burroughs. When I interviewed Burroughs, he said that he had not given People the name and has never revealed it publicly.

Hmm. Mind you, I'm not going to get very worked up about that "veracity" issue. While I can't say that I'm indifferent to the truthfulness of a self-proclaimed memoir, I'm going to take the wilder and more entertaining ones with a grain of salt and wait for the inevitable fallout that sooner or later blankets frauds. At the heart of Running With Scissors there is an abandoned child, or a child who felt abandoned. The antics of the people around him, which may or may not be true, help us get the depressing story down. If Mr Burroughs projected his own misbehavior onto the Turcottes, as their complaint appears to suggest, that wouldn't be the strangest thing that I've ever heard of about a dysfunctional childhood.

If you want to watch a decrepit old dinosaur rattle off a squeak instead of a roar while grimacing with a mouthful of missing teeth, don't miss Christopher Hitchens's profoundly witless column, "Why Women Aren't Funny." For shame, Mr Carter; this is the sort of trash that Spy would never have published.


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