Ten Years Ago in ‘Spy’
Reliving one’s formative years of logrolling, short-fingered vulgarians and Separations at Birth

We hereby cast our eye back on SPY, “The New York Monthly” – that exemplar of “irony,” memorably belligerent, bilious adjective chains, and thrillingly recherché typography, from which our entire writing style (and ironic, memorable, belligerent, bilious, and recherché personality) derived.

Where possible, we do actually attempt to stick to a precise ten-year retrospective, but we reserve the right to mix and match.


May 1990

I tried to be all conscientious and GET THIS PARTY STARTED... QUICKLY! by working on this month’s recap well ahead of time, only to discover I had chosen the most boring issue in the history of Spy.

“Hit & Run,” allegedly

The cover hedges its bets with multiple hard-to-unpack headline levels: HIT & RUN: Washington Road Trip! Our Special D.C. Issue.

But what, if anything, is special about it?

Start with the irony, which we should all have seen coming, that a magazine dedicated to a boring town will be as boring as the bores who live in the boring town. It’s generous to call Washington a “swamp.” Even the article on Washington sex scandals was of no interest whatsoever because who the hell cares whom pencil-necked geeks in Washington are fucking?

We soldier wearily on. These are our priority action items.

You may have heard of Comedy Central in the United States. Did you know it was such an unexpected concept circa 1990 that it had to be telegraphed in its official name, TV Comedy Network?

Actually, another set of Ukrainian nesting dolls of headlines: HA! TV Comedy Network™. TV Comedy That Works. (What the hell does that mean?)

Three frigging pages in this month’s Spy.

Starting April 1, 1990 [ha! indeed – Ed.], you can see TV Comedy the way it was meant to be. It’s HA! The TV Comedy Network. Surefire Comedy. TV Comedy that works.

I love the smell of superfluous advertising-copywriter capitalization in the morning. How many times have you schlepped home from work and exclaimed “Phew! I’m sure in the mood for some TV Comedy”?

Doesn’t it all have the scent of death, really? “Comedy.” You know full well that, to fill an all-day network, any program that isn’t as despair-inducing as They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? – my oft-cited most depressing movie ever – will receive an honourary conceptual upgrade to the category of Comedy and air TV, making it, in some bureaucratic literal sense, TV Comedy. But does it work? Do you laugh?

Seldom, I should think. At best you hope for intelligence, a bit of wit. Jon Stewart Silverman is our current apotheosis, and I rarely “LOL,” as the kids say.

TV Comedy is a marketing category, not broadcasting that makes you laugh. That’s why they have to Capitalize It. And they have to tell us “TV Comedy That Works.” They tried before and it didn’t?

HA! TV Comedy Network™’s double-truck advertisement is preceded by a full-pager meta-ironically reading “We bought this expensive third page just to make the ad on the next two pages seem more important.” A man launches horizontally out a window, his business suit and briefcase (but not his sensible shoes) brilliantly on fire, as though in an outtake from a Pink Floyd LP cover. SUREFIRE COMEDY reads the dead-obvious headline.

The lavish advertising outlay unwittingly expresses the grasping despair of a TV Comedy Network and, by extension, of comedy writers, the most depressive lot this side of the Steppes.

Rather giving it all away, I should think.

Three “expensive” pages with the stink of failure, and where there’s stink, there’s carrion (PDF):

Dec. 18[, 1990]: HBO and Viacom International agree to merge HBO’s the Comedy Channel and MTV Network[s’] HA! The TV Comedy Network.

The malformed spawn lasted all of nine months, about as long as I feel I’ve been slogging through one dispiriting detail after another.

And this issue doesn’t get any better from here.

Let me now live out a cherished dream and bellow to the four walls: Fuck you, Ryuichi Sakamoto!

He isn’t quite everything that’s wrong with the Japanese in one convenient, washed-up, démodé package, but close enough.

Here he’s got double facing 2/3-page adverts, with Sakamoto-“sensei” looking all feminine, transcendent, and artistique in the ads’ shirtless, eyes-closed, snooty-nosed beauty shots. A rice queen’s dream, really, perhaps indicating what is so very wrong with rice queens.

Quick test: Name three songs by Ryuichi Sakamoto. Or hum ten seconds of one. Or identify a song by Sakamoto you know you have enjoyed. (Pointing at its entry on a CD booklet is permissible.)

DQ yourself outright if all that comes to mind is the phrase “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.” For extra credit, name the director of that film and recount two scenes from it you enjoyed.



Awww. Another poseur milestone destroyed. (My pleasure.)

The one and only saving grace of Ryuichi Sakamoto (not by a longshot important enough to neutralize everything else, but of genuine note): He was note-perfect as the twee Orientalist director of a video-within-a-video in Mark Romanek’s mentholated music video for Madonna, “Rain.” Unmatched.

When he finally croaks, stop yourself from getting upset. You never knew anything about him; all you knew was his name, which you wore as a badge of your intellectual street cred, such as it is.

The news is not all bad on this spread, however: Spy’s hard-to-find-even-on-eBay series of Spy Notes is promoted, along with an impossible-to-find pamphlet entitled Spy Novel-o-Matic. YOU’RE NOT THE SORT OF PERSON WHO READS BOOKS LIKE THESE screams the headline, accurately. (You’re the sort of person who loves the way “Ryuichi Sakamoto” trips off the tongue. And you simply adore teriyaki.)

From the drug abuse, sexual convolutions and/or adolescent angst in the nightclubs of Bright Lights, Big City [roman type sic] to the drug abuse, sexual convolutions and/or adolescent angst in the dorm rooms of The Rules of Attraction, SPYNOTES [sic] puts these easy-to-read books into an even[-]easier-to-read format. The plots have been distilled into easily[-]digestible, non-time-consuming SUMMARIZATIONS. All metaphors, symbols[,] and stylistic devices are explained in easily comprehensible, intellectually unchallenging COMMENTS.

SPY NOTES [sic] will enlighten those in search of pop[-]cultural literacy, amuse the skeptical and astonish the naïve.

A strange four-page insert is printed on extra-stiff paper, ensuring the issue opens to that spread every single time. It’s for Bacardi Black. And the pages are inky, dense black on black, with barely-perceptible shadows of colour and text (save for the headline on page one).


And now I have just set myself up for rampant Googling of the phrase “black on black.”

Meanwhile, an incongruously lowbrow advert for Arrowwood [“A stunning blend of management meeting centre and luxury resort”: Washington-related Spy issues always get the meeting centres and luxury resorts they deserve) features some hapless man in a comb-over out for a swim. His rictus is suitable for a course in repairing other plastic surgeons’ mistakes.

Dead-giveaway alert

Malcolm Forbes was an homosexualist and a leather queen, as was revealed, finally, at long last, by Signorile a month after Forbes kicked off in February 1990. At that point, we had more of an inkling what was meant by the slogan “capitalist tool.”

And here we are in May 1990. (The timing is interesting, isn’t it?) An advertisement entitled “A breakthrough in free enterprise” trumpets Forbes as it “joins with Europe’s dynamic publisher, BURDA [sic], to produce a spectacular new German business and lifestyle magazine – Forbes von Burda.”

We’re already at the punchline, right? Forbes von Burda? Who’s that, the kind of fat dominatrixen who keep showing up in Rosa von Praunheim films? (Fags all just love fat women, whom we know prefer to be called “zaftig,” even if they are also German.)

Oh, but we’re not done yet. Not hardly!

The photo atop the advertisement? It’s Malcolm Forbes in cream-coloured leathers, a helmet, and a red jacket emblazoned CAPITALIST TOOL. His Honda Gold Wing riceburner (for Forbes was apparently also a rice queen) unidentified touring motorcycle leans on its manly kickstand and flies the American flag.

Where, exactly, were Forbes and his capitalist tool photographed?

Well, don’t bother with the investigative reporting. Check the photo caption: “Malcolm Forbes at the Berlin Wall.”

Just how many punchlines can you jam into a single advertisement?

Lighten up, K-C


Spy contributing editor Harry Shearer won’t be getting invited to any breakfasts Kimberly-Clark is throwing. “Dear Mr. Shearer,” wrote the company’s trademark counsel not long ago. “In early 1987, you may recall that Kimberly-Clark Corporation objected to your unauthorized use of audio portions of a Kimberly-Clark sales teleconference which you had intercepted using a satellite dish. You had played the audio on WLUP radio in Chicago and consequently caused extreme consternation to the corporation and its employees whose comments during the sales meeting you ridiculed.”

What else do you do to comments during sales meetings but ridicule them?

Shearer, it seems, has been at it again.

“In the September 1989 issue of Spy magazine,” wrote trademark counsel Nancy Lee Carter, there is a piece about your collection of tapes... which specifically names the ‘Kotex Sales Force Teleconference, 1987’ as being part of that collection. The tape is also referred to as the ‘Kotex pep-rally sales video.’ What you find so hilarious about efforts to sell products to consumers Kimberly-Clark takes seriously.... Kimberly-Clark will not hesitate to vigorously press our legal rights[...]

“You’ve got a lot of nerve calling here,
you asshole”

[W]hen a Spy staff member called [CAA agent Marty Baum] recently to get a phone number[,] Baum picked up the phone and said, “Listen, let me tell you something: I’m sick of Spy and all your shit, and your fucking with CAA.... You think you’re funny. You got a lot of nerve calling here, you asshole. You got a lot of nerve messing with CAA. You get no help from me. Just go fuck yourself. Understand?”

You’ll never get a phone number in this town again.

Cœlecanth technology foiled

Anyone remember the fax-o-gram?

I had a faxmodem for ages. I wrote a piece for the Voice about how said technology was a better “faxmodus operandi” than an actual fax machine. Later I got a freebie HP OfficeJet (I was an early adopter, hence an early realizer that they kill you on cartridges) that also fax-o-grammed. I could send and receive anything. My new faxing technique was unstoppable.

Until, that is, even Windows-using rejects got the fuck online. I now send about three fax-o-grams a year, but around 6,000 snatchmails.

“Letters to Spy”:

Good move putting those red letters on the fax you want us to send to the Chinese [“Play a Prank for Freedom! Spy Allies with Liberty-Loving Magazines Worldwide to Paralyze Communications in China,” January]. They ought to show up real well on their fax machines.

Uh... Dom? You sure you’re not thinking of type on a red background faxing badly?

I remember the prank. (I don’t have the issue, I don’t think.) You were sposta fax-flood the Chinese with this particular page you were expected to rip out of your precious magazine. The phone call wouldn’t cost you less than five bucks, and would leave a permanent telecom record with Echelon and other spy (not Spy) infrastructure.

And the type was red.

I think not.

Speaking of issues I remember but now cannot find:

Who reads the Globe and Mail [“All the Hockey and SkyDome and Acid[-]Rain News That’s Fit to Print”... January]? A lot of us in the States read and enjoy Toronto’s newspaper, for a variety of reasons. [...]

The writer of this letter to Spy – David W. Ritchie, Baltimore, Maryland – then predictably proceeds to list those reasons, too boring to be of interest 13 years (or minutes) later.

Spy responds: “Since when do actual Americans refer to their country as ‘the States’?”

Reassuringly unrelated to Washington

“The Usual Suspects”:

Dan Rather isn’t the only anchorman given to spooky, quasi–New Age behviour. Peter Jennings, his better at ABC News, was recently in the capital’s Dirksen Senate Office Buildeing to have his annually-renewable Capitol Hill press pass drawn up. When it came time for his identification photo to be taken, Jennings sat down and asked his portraitist to wait a moment. The photographer watched, befuddled, as the emotionless, omni-competent Canadian dropped his head in his lap, spent a few seconds in apparently rapt concentration, then suddenly whipped himself upright and screamed, “Now!

“What If the President of the United States Were a Playwright?”

Henry Alford:

President suggests testing strength of new MIRVed nuclear missile by trying it out first in New Haven.
President suggests livening up dreary Cabinet meetings with cabaret material and two-drink minimum.
President expresses dismay that none of his speeches are ever revived regionally.
President asks speechwriters for short, comic curtain-raiser; intended speech is “not quite a whole evening.”

Chronicle of SARS warning signs foretold?

“A Visit to New York’s IRS Headquarters” by Alfa-Betty Olsen (sic) and Marshall Efron jots down the contents of various warning signs in the building, which I now retype.


And: “In a special glass case there is a certificate that the Internal Revenue Service was awarded: IN RECOGNITION OF YOUR EFFORTS ON BEHALF OF INDIVIDUALS WITH IMPAIRED HEARING.

Then there’s this story where they ask panelists on Sunday-morning inside-the-Beltway talk shows, a genre in desperate need of extinction, how they’d react to fan clubs set up in their name, and if they sleep in the nude.

Included in this list is Michael Kinsley, who wouldn’t answer anything, maximizing his lack of interest.

“I have Mr. Stallone Oliver North on the phone”

Well, we covered this prank already: Spy calls important people and pretends to have someone arguably more important on the phone and times how long it takes to get a callback.

I’m bored already.

You are here: fawny.orgTen Years Ago in SPYArchives → May 1989

Updated: 2003.05.04


See also: Interview with Alex Isley, former SPY art director