Spy Magazine and Today’s Brutal Political Satire: An Origin Story?

A remarkable feature of today’s political satire is what appears to be its “snark and insult” character. By most accounts, it wasn’t always this rough and mean.

Perhaps the most persuasive theory on how we started down this brutal path is that the now defunct Spy magazine from the 1980s and 1990s put us on it.  Paul O’Donnell, a writer at Mediabistro.com, reportedly declared that “We’re all Spy now.”

The obvious question that arises is whether there is anything to this legacy theory?

For starters, when Spy debuted a generation ago, during the excesses and glamor of the swaggering ‘80s, it made no secret of its ambition: to take the baton to the noggins of the rich, famous and/or powerful and of course to try to take them down a peg or two. Indeed, as if to serve clear notice (to anyone listening) about the magazine’s intended brand of journalism, its maiden edition in 1986 was captioned JERKS.  In it, the magazine proceeded to ridicule individuals that it considered the “Ten Most Embarrassing New Yorkers.” Quite interestingly, this list included Donald Trump, who the magazine would, in due course, famously describe as “a short-fingered vulgarian’. Not one to be outdone in the insult department, Trump in turn dismissed the magazine as “a piece of garbage.”

For sure, any casual observer at the time could have easily noticed the magazine’s signature style and tone in dealing with its famous subjects, with its unabashed snark and insult bent. A piece that ran in its March 1988 edition could perhaps give those unfamiliar with its work a good sense of the magazine’s modus operandi. The said piece dealt with the subject of people who doubled as managers/boyfriends to their clients and it ran under the (appropriately) provocative headline “Behind Every Great Woman is a Drunk Man (With a Wispy Mustache).” The piece was accompanied by photos of three separate couples, with matching captions to boot. The first photo was captioned “Yesteryears’ Cyndi Lauper and husband manager Dave Wolf”; the second photo’s caption was “Tina Turner and Ike, In Between Spectacular Beatings”; and the third caption read “Twiggy and Nigel “Justin de Villenueve” Davies”.

In that same piece, the writer also wondered in a separate passage why a [then] 24-year-old beauty like Jenny McCarthy would be dating her manager Ray Manzella who the writer claimed resembled “a mangled Ted Danson”.  McCarthy herself was not spared the writer’s vicious ribbing and was described as a “breast-augmented and armpit sniffing former Playboy model”

So, anyhow, that’s the sort of stuff Spy was doing back then. Now what are the political satirists doing today? Well, first, it is not hard to notice that the current practice of satire has steadily become a “no-holds-barred take no-prisoners” business that often carries with it a clear point of view reflecting an ideological slant to the debate on social issues. For instance, shows like The Daily Show with Trevor Noah (previously Jon Stewart), Last Week Tonight with John Oliver or The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, which are arguably the dominant actors on the scene, make no secret of their left-leaning point of view. From the right flank of the ideological field, Greg Gutfeld’s eponymous new show Gutfeld!  (on the Fox network) is joining the party and his stock in this regard is rising steadily. To be sure, these are all news-based shows that hit pretty hard on the events of the day and the people involved in them.

Concerning the legacy question, what can barely escape notice is the obvious parallels that exist between Spy and today’s political satire, not least the shared attitude of critical or even snarky take on their respective subjects.  In fact, anyone who follows contemporary political satire probably won’t have much trouble recognizing the strong presence of Spy’s signature snark and insult in the work of the satirists. And for that matter, this phenomenon seems so infectious that even non-satirists are playing the game, too.

For instance, Trump himself, a favorite target both of then Spy magazine and today’s satirists, deploys this shared tactic of snark and insult in dealing with his opponents both in and outside the political arena, whether he is mocking handicapped people; belittling political opponents based on their physical stature or denigrating female enemies as fat pigs or ugly. Indeed, during the 2016 election, as James Poniewozik of the New York Times rightly observed, he habitually treated political campaigning “like a roast, “

Yet there are those who don’t exactly feel comfortable with the notion that a legacy exists between what Spy did in its day and what today’s satirists are doing: Daniel Radosh, for one.  Having worked as a reporter for Spy then and is now working as a senior writer on The Daily Show, Radosh is someone who can perhaps be described as a rare common link between the two worlds at issue.  As Radosh sees it, what Spy did and what, for instance, The Daily Show does, are different things in the sense that the former is journalism, albeit humorous journalism, whereas the latter is comedy, news-based though it may be. Perhaps a distinction without a difference?

Apparently not in the opinion of Radosh. He explains that what Spy did was genuinely based on the principles of journalism, where professionals would actually dig up facts and do a reporting of the news, albeit with an “attitude of playfulness, rebellion and irresponsibility which was what made it fun.” Thus, at all times they, as journalists, had to be responsible with the facts. On the other hand, he notes that The Daily Show as a news-based comedy show often relies on the facts already dug up and reported by the journalists and tries to make a joke from them. (Radosh, however, acknowledges the long form storytelling and reporting on John Oliver’s news-based comedy show as an exception to this journalism versus comedy dynamic.)

So, given the above, what does one make of the link between Spy and today’s satire?  Well, it’s obvious that Spy’s signature snark-and-insult tactic is practiced on both the left and the right in their work, not only against their targets but also in their ideological feuds with each other. In a perverse way, therefore, Spy can claim credit for starting us down this road in our political satire. Whether or not one chooses to use the term “legacy” to describe this phenomenon may well be a matter of perspective. Yet it is perhaps fair to say, though, that anyone looking to place the viciousness of our current political satire in its proper context might do well to take a look at what Spy magazine did in its day. Well, so there you have it!

***Editor’s Note: At the moment the author is seriously working hard to finish writing a new book on a rather tight deadline. So please bear with us if upcoming posts do not appear as regularly as they should during this, hopefully, quite short period. However, in the meantime, please do dig into the many other posts contained in the archives, which are readily available for your reading pleasure. Please keep reading!

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