Wide Angle

The Secret of Spy Magazine’s Success

It was all in the timing, says co-founder Kurt Andersen.

A middle-aged white man with small glasses and curly hair.
Kurt Andersen. Marco Lau.

On this week’s episode of Working, June Thomas spoke with writer Kurt Andersen, whose new book, Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America, was published on Aug. 11. They discussed his career path, how he came to write Evil Geniuses, and whether Spy magazine, which he co-founded and edited in the 1980s, could exist in the age of social media. This partial transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

June Thomas: If a stranger asked what do you do for a living, what would you say?

Kurt Andersen: I would say I’m a writer. Even when I was the host of a radio show and podcast for 20 years, I’ve had writer on my passport. It’s always seemed the correct thing and the thing that nobody could fire me from.

You’re definitely a writer, but you’ve done a ton of other stuff too. You’ve been a journalist. You’ve written nonfiction books. You’ve written novels. You edited New York magazine. You co-launched one of the great magazines of the late 20th century, Spy. You started the website Inside during the dot-com boom. You were the host of Studio 360 for 20 years. Have you always been conscious of wanting to mix things up, to not stay in your lane?

I certainly have not stayed in a lane. I’ve also worked in TV and written screenplays and done little stage things. It wasn’t like I started out saying, “I want to do so many things. I am a multidisciplinary person,” but as things came up, and opportunities arose, and people I knew said, “Hey, do you want to do this?” Or, “Have you ever thought about doing this?” I said, “Sure.” They were always adjacent things to what I thought I knew how to do or had done. I didn’t start writing novels until I was 44 years old. That, however, was something that, even as a child, I thought would be the brass ring. But I never thought of myself as somebody who would leap from this to this and try to do lots of different things.

You have a new book out, Evil Geniuses, which you were writing while you were hosting Studio 360. When you were editing Spy, you were still writing your monthly Time magazine column about architecture. Are you a workaholic?

I certainly don’t think of myself as a workaholic. I am ambitious. I really liked writing about design and being the architecture critic of Time magazine. It was a piece every few weeks, so why quit that while I was doing Spy? Also, Spy magazine was such an all-consuming, exhausting, scary, high-stakes, crazy adventure. It was nice to have this other thing that wasn’t. It was a dependable thing I liked doing, and it was a nice paycheck. I could just write about buildings and things that I liked and why I liked them rather than Spy, which was, essentially, overseeing a staff of people finding out things they hate and figuring out why they should be hated.

I am hugely nostalgic about Spy magazine. One of my happiest memories of that era is of sitting with my roommate, reading Spy, and laughing hysterically. What did you learn from that experience?

So much. I didn’t think of myself as much of a risk taker before I did that. Saying, By God, we’re just going to do it, roll the dice and start this weird, eccentric magazine that lots of powerful people will hate. Screw it, we’ll do it. And it worked. It worked the first time, so I learned to keep taking risks. When I was 44, and I’d never finished and published a novel, I thought, let me try it.

I was looking through Spy: The Funny Years, which is a more recent book that looks back at the magazine, and I saw that in your 1985 prelaunch vision of the magazine, you wrote the following sentence: “The magazine will be almost thoroughly irreverent, often funny, and studded with inside information.” That’s a very good description of how it turned out, but it made me wonder, could Spy have been launched or even have existed in 2020? Can you have a “thoroughly irreverent” magazine when some people or groups or positions are out of bounds, or in the age of social media?

One of the strokes of luck of Spy was our timing. We started just a generation after the late ‘60s, so irreverence had seeped through the culture and become part of the establishment take. That was good for us. And the fact that we did it just before there was an internet was crucial. Our 200,000 then 300,000 subscribers really loved us. Most of them. The reason that was possible is because there was no internet. There were just a few channels—and by channels, I mean, magazines, book publishers, newspapers, TV networks, and so on. Doing this thing that none of them were doing, this month after month of funny journalism, got attention. If we did it well, we would be successful, and we were. We were the only game in town for a certain kind of manic, gleeful, connecting the dots, irony thing that just wasn’t available anywhere else. Now it’s available in every third tweet. That enabled us to be successful then, and now, well, Gawker, a kind of a descendant of Spy, was put out of business because it pissed off powerful people, as we did, but they couldn’t put us out of business the way they could Gawker.

But social media is the big thing. Satire is always going to step toward and occasionally over the lines of appropriateness or offensiveness or whatever, it’s just going to, that’s the nature of satire and comedy. Spy was a monthly magazine. If somebody thought, that’s in poor taste, or that’s too mean, what were they going to do about it? It wasn’t possible to rile up a mob of offended people to take us down back in 1991.

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