Snark, the herald angels sing: ‘Spy’ is now online


Google (informal motto: “don’t be evil”) has just done something very good:  it has scanned and posted the entire archives of  Spy magazine.

If you’re not familiar with Spy (and far too many people weren’t, even in its 1986-1998 heyday), think People written and edited by the staff of National Lampoon. It skewered the celebrities, media and politics of its time in a tone of withering sarcasm and irony that’s instantly recognizable — and today, nearly inescapable.

That’s right: Before there was an Internet for Al Gore to invent, Spy took the initiative in creating the double-edged sword we call “snark,” without which the Web as we now know it would probably shut down.

Its high-profile pranks made news. In the most famous one, a Spy writer posed as a talk radio host and called first-year congressmen in 1993 to ask them “Do you approve of what we’re doing to stop what’s going on in Freedonia?” (Freedonia is a fictitious country best known to fans of the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup.) Being politicians, they all tried to answer the question as if they were jockeying for the chairmanship of the House Select Committee on Freedonian Affairs:

Representative Corrine Brown, Democrat of Florida, said she approved of what the United States was doing in Freedonia, and added, “I think all of those situations are very, very sad, and I just think we need to take action to assist the people.”

Another memorable stunt compared the star power of two fictitious celebrity brothers (“Michael Baldwin” and “Tito Wayans”) when it came to securing spots on the guest lists at big social events. A sample:

SPY: This is the personal assistant for Tito Wayans. I wanted to sneak Tito onto the list for the Mariah party

COSMO: The list is closed; the party has started. You’re quite late

SPY: I am. But Tito’s brother is Keenan Ivory Wayans.

COSMO: I know that.

SPY: Well, then maybe you also know that Mariah and Keenan are friends. He would be upset if his little brother couldn’t go to the party.

COSMO: I’m sorry. I apologize. Tito is on the list.

Spy could also do serious journalism, albeit with an edge. In 1996, Mark Ebner’s first-person expose of the secretive, manipulative world of the Church of Scientology caused a huge stir and inspired threats of legal action.

Whether it was being funny or serious, Spy was always  an enjoyable read, and I always felt smarter after finishing an issue. One of my Facebook friends, Bill Walsh, a copy editor at The Washington Post, put it succinctly in a posting on my wall:

Spy was to me in my early 20s what Mad was in my adolescence — funny but in many ways beyond me, and not talking down to me. An immersion teacher of pop culture.

Wonderfully said, Bill.

Check out Spy‘s archive. You can come back here later and leave a snarky comment.

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