Originally published April 14, 1997
In its youth, Spy magazine was the kind of publication that smacked you on the nose if you looked at it the wrong way. And those were the good months: it was so full of smarmy, holier-than-thou attitude and precious New York wit that you wanted each issue to go on forever.
But the party ended a few years ago with the magazine’s founders and co-conspirators off to greener pastures (Graydon Carter, for one, is now editor of Vanity Fair) and the magazine went into a financial tailspin. It ceased publishing briefly, eventually brought back to life by the publisher of Psychology Today, believe it or not.
Stepping into the sensible yet twisted shoes of the original editorial pranksters has proved painfully awkward for a series of editors unable to match the legacy they inherited. But a job’s a job and for anyone who believes they know funny when it squirts them in the face, there’s no more challenging testing ground than the Spy hot seat.
Bruno Maddox is, by his count, the fourth Spy editor since the magazine’s rebirth in 1994. He signed on as a senior editor nine months ago and was promoted to the top job in December.The British-born Maddox previously made his mark writing scathing book reviews for The Economist and New York Times, among others. That’s what landed him this position, in fact.
“My book reviewing style was pretty vicious,” he says. “I could be pretty brutal. I was a frustrated, twenty-something guy, sitting in his bedroom venting existential rage on these nasty academics.”
Maddox freely acknowledges he doesn’t think much of the magazine’s recent history but won’t tweak his three predecesors — much.
“Satire is a very hard thing to do,” he says, “and I think in the exuberance of the re-launch, the Spy dog snuffled up a few dubious trees before finding his current niche. I think there were definitely some shaky issues . . . ”
Although his impact will be more profound on its next issue, the June 1997 issue is the first to show some elements of Maddox’s influence, including the cover story, “Jailbait 1997: The Sudden, Thor-like Rise to Power of Sexy Little Girls.” But the most striking thing in the issue is actually more visual than editorial: a bold graphic redesign that brings a greater use of color to a magazine once packed with type.
“We are beginning to shake off some of our earlier stylistic conventions that perhaps we have been following too slavishly the last year or two,” he says.
Spy started life subtitled “The New York Monthly.” Back then it regularly aimed barbs at Big Apple characters such as “lisping demibillionaire” Mort Zuckerman, “doughy” gossip columnist Liz Smith, party animal Anthony Haden-Guest and “short-fingered vulgarian” Donald Trump. It gave us “Separated at Birth,” “The Usual Suspects,” “The Spy List,” Walter Monheit and his “Blurb-O-Mat,” movie and TV “script-o-matics,” “Logrolling in Our Time,” “Celestial Hindsight,” “The Spy 100” — the annual census of the “most aanoying, alarming and appalling people, places and things” — and the pseudonymous Celia Brady, who looked forward to seeing us Monday nights at Mortons.
Those were surely the magazine’s greatest moments. But as its fame spread and its editorial and graphic influence touched everything from regional weeklies to international newsweeklies, the focus on New York diminished, the subtitle disappeared and something was lost.
What is Spy‘s mission today?
“One of the challenges of my job is trying to shake off the memory of the past,” Maddox says, “and even more difficult is shaking off the memory of the recent past, where the magazine didn’t really know what it was about. The magazine knows now what it is about.
“We are considered a humor magazine,” Maddox complains. “There is no worse fate, and if I had to characterize the missteps of the last two years of Spy, it has been perhaps a misfit in humor. This isn’t about jokes, it is about aesthetics and the things about the world that we find so unappealing that they have to be brought down.”
Deflating the pompous?
“Yes,” he says, “deflating the pompous, but pomposity is taking a new direction. In the ’80s, it was very easy to deal with the pompous. Basically every feature was about some balding millionaire with a cigar and a girlfriend who was two feet taller than him, and you know, the targets were pretty obvious. I think it takes a keener sensibility in this post-modern world to work out who the real bad guys are. They could be anyone. They could be a bad guy one month and then a hero the next. Pretension is still the biggest sin.”
The same goes for some old elements of Spy.
“Everything may need a rest,” Maddox says. “Nothing is sacred; there is no part of the old Spy I feel particularly sentimental about.”
A staple of Spy over the years has been undercover, ambush journalism, not so unlike the kind of reporting which costs ABC News millions in a recent lawsuit by Food Lion. Maddox says the grocery store’s victory had a chilling effect on his magazine, although it has yet to affect a particular story.
“It made us very, very angry,” he says. “It was an awful decision, and while I am sure it will work itself out one way or another, it is something we will have to think about when we go on our next investigative assignment.”
Despite his disdain for the modern Spy being labeled a humor magazine, Maddox says he still expects its stories and columns to be funny.
“Absolutely!” he says. “We intend to be ‘laugh out loud’ funny. I guess the distinction I was trying to make was that the things that really make you laugh are the things that have always been laughed at, inflation, public figures and the truth. I guess that is our ultimate mission. We actually want to get it right. We want to encapsulate this culture correctly, and when we do so, we will know we have succeeded because people will be laughing.”
Is anything out-of-bounds for Spy?
“No, there’s nothing in principle that offends me; there are no ‘don’t do that’s.”
In its current condition, Spy typically leaves an impression not unlike the average episode of “Saturday Night Live”: some things work, drawing the big belly laugh, others fall flat and you’re left wondering “Who thought that was funny?”
“That’s a great comparison,” Maddux agrees. “It is an unpleasant feeling, one I hope to put behind me. Recent Spy editors thought that by executing the same old jokes, exactly the same way they were executed before, we could recapture that sort of excitement. I don’t think that is right. I think we need a new joke and ones that are actually meaningful and relevant.
“I don’t feel any pressure to recreate the old Spy. I feel completely unsentimental about it. We can’t keep any of the torches burning longer than they should be, and I am confident that we can surprise people anew with stuff that actually means something to them.”