How Kurt Andersen Succeeds in So Many Creative Fields

Listen to this episode

S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.

S2: But what always appealed to me about journalism is that sheer curiosity, not or at least the kind I did, which is not like I know everything there is to know about this one narrow piece and thank God those people exist. I was never one of them. Rather, it was I knew something about this. When you find out more, let me find out more sort of that kind of there’s some good faith involved.

Advertisement

S3: Welcome back to Working, I’m your host, Isaac Butler, and I’m your other host, June Thomas June. Hello to you. I love that voice we just heard was the great polymath Kurt Anderson.

S4: I know in your interview with him, he simply calls himself a writer. But how would you or could you sum up his body of work?

S1: I think Polymath is right on the money. He is definitely a writer. I’m not going to argue with his own self definition, but he has never restricted his way with words purely to the page. He was the host, most recently of a public radio show and later podcast Studio 360 for 20 years. I mean, that’s a pretty big job. And he was awesome at it, in part because he brought, like a great writers precision and wit and originality to his intros and his interviews and all the other parts of being a host.

Advertisement

S5: The critics hate the new Netflix reboot of the sitcom Full House. It’s called Fuller House. But B.J. Novak disagrees. It fits into the original narrative in a way that is just like the shot of sitcom dopamine that everyone wanted from full house. The great comedy writer and actor sticks up for a sitcom that gets no respect. That’s next.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: And I remember back in 1999 when his first novel, Turn of the Century came out, it was set in part at Microsoft, where I worked at the time, and I was just wowed. I guess that a complete outsider could display such insight into this really peculiar culture. Like he got some things really, really wrong. But the overall gestalt was absolutely right. So, yes, he’s a writer, but he is also the male equivalent of the character created by the cartoonist Nicole Hollander, who which was the woman who can do everything more beautifully than you like. He can do it all. And you kind of want to hate people like that. But he’s a really nice guy, so I don’t even resent him for it.

Advertisement

S4: You don’t even resent him a little bit. Well, it’s just a little OK. And also for our listeners who might not be familiar or might be too young, like our producer Cameron Drus, one of Anderson’s great achievements is co launching and co editing Spy magazine, which he calls the James Dean of magazines. But unlike James Dean, Spy magazine was actually really great. What was it?

S1: Well, is it before we get to Spy magazine, I thought you connoisseurs of the method revered James Dean.

S4: No, no, no. In fact, there’s a lot of pushback to the reverence around James Dean. Elia Kazan writes very negatively about him in his memoir. Marlon Brando disliked him greatly. He’s actually a controversial figure.

Advertisement

S1: Well, I cannot wait to read your book to find out more about that. No Spy magazine I was I’m very old and I was a huge fan of Spy magazine. I loved it. As I mentioned in the interview, one of my strongest, happiest memories of the 1980s is of sitting with my housemate reading Spy and the two of us just absolutely laughing like crazy people. The magazine slogan was Smart, fun, funny, fearless. I still have a T-shirt that says that actually. And, you know, that’s irresistible combo. It was a satirical magazine, irreverent and poking fun at everything and everybody, but especially the rich and pretentious of New York City. And it was really flattering to the reader at the time. I was a relatively new arrival in the States and I really had no idea who these vulgar, misbehaving plutocrats that they kept talking about were. But they kind of became like soap opera characters. It was interesting to see what they got up to, even if I didn’t really understand who they were. Were you a spy reader or are you too young?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S4: Oh, to be called too young again, Junior. It was still in print when I graduated college in 01. It was still around in the 90s. You know, if you were if you were hip, you wanted to be reading Spy magazine or if you wanted to pretend you were hip and I was somewhere in that nexus. So, yes, I absolutely read it. We should also note that Spy magazine is the origin of the descriptor short fingered vulgarian for Donald Trump. Right. If you want to go back and read people who had Donald Trump’s number from the get go, you should really look at the Spy magazine archives, many of which you can just actually Google Spy magazine in a subject no come up. There’s even an article from the magazine that’s very important to my book because there’s a period where there’s a big scandal among acting teachers in New York City that the magazine reported on and its spirit lived on in the late, great departed Gawker and I think lives on today in The Baffler. So it’s a very influential and important magazine, even though it doesn’t get talked about that much. But as much as I wish this were a podcast dedicated to the history of defunct periodicals, it’s actually about the artistic process and the creative process and one of. The reasons why Kurt joined us this week was to talk about his new book, Evil Geniuses. So what evil geniuses?

Advertisement

S1: Well, it’s a really great book. It’s slightly depressing because it’s essentially about the many, many ways in which the American social contract got smashed into tiny pieces. How the balance between the super rich and the middle class, employers and workers, businesses and customers was sent completely out of whack. And he traces that process, which started with like fringe ideas expressed in obscure journals or memos distributed to very small groups, how those ideas eventually became incredibly influential. And it’s a really convincing explanation for why American political ideas are so much more extreme and individualistic than those of other developed countries.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S4: Great. Well, I can’t wait to listen to this conversation, but we should also mention that this week there’s a little bonus for our slate plus listeners who get to hear you and Kurt talk about some formative works of art that helped shape his sensibility. If you don’t subscribe to Slate plus, you can get two weeks for free right now by going to Slate dotcom slash working plus.

Advertisement

S6: OK, now I’m with the show.

S1: If a stranger asked, what do you do for a living, what would you say?

S7: I would say I’m a writer. Even when I was the host of a radio show and podcast for 20 years and I’ve had writer on my passport, even when I was an editor of magazines and things, it’s always seemed the correct thing and the thing that nobody could fire me from and I would keep doing, you know. So that’s what I am.

S1: I mean, I’m not going to argue with you because you’re definitely a writer. But as you just mentioned, you’ve done a ton of other stuff, too. You’ve been a writer for a magazine. You’ve written non-fiction books, you’ve written novels, you edited New York magazine. You call launched one of the kind of the great magazines, you know, in terms of its reputation. Spy magazine, you started the Web magazine inside during the dotcom boom. You were the host of Studio 360 for 20 years. You launched a newsletter before launching a newsletter was something everyone did. Have you always been kind of conscious of wanting to mix things up to not stay in your lane?

Advertisement

S7: I certainly have not stayed in the lane. And I’ve also, you know, worked in TV and written screenplays and stage things. So, yeah, I have done a lot of stuff. And it wasn’t like I started out saying, I want to do so many things. I am a multidisciplinary person at all. But as things came up and opportunities arose and people I knew said, hey, you want to do this or have you ever thought about doing this? Or I said, sure. I mean, they were always adjacent things to what I thought I knew how to do or had done. And I kind of knew how to do, like doing the radio show. They came to me out of the blue and said, hey, you know, we think we have this new show in mind, this cultural show, and we think you’d be a good host. And I said, well, you’re the experts here, the professionals maybe as far as when I didn’t start writing novels until well, I didn’t start writing novels for publication until I was in my 40s. Forty four years old. And now that, however, was something that even as a child, I thought. That would be the brass ring, you know, but I never I never thought of myself as somebody who would leap from this to this and try to do lots of different things.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: You have a new book, Evil Geniuses, which we will talk about very soon. So you were writing that while you were posting Studio 360? As I was researching, I was reminded that when you were editing editing Spy, you were still writing your Time magazine column about architecture. Are you a workaholic? Like is it just that you don’t say no? Do you like being busy? Why do you do so much?

S7: I certainly don’t think of myself as a workaholic. I do work, however, and it’s like and it was always certainly when I was starting out like, oh, I can do both of these things. Won’t let me do both. I mean, I am ambitious. I you know, I really like writing about design and being the architecture critic of Time magazine. So and it wasn’t it was a piece every few weeks. So why quit that while I was doing Spy also Spy magazine with such an all consuming, exhausting, scary, high stakes, crazy adventure. It was nice to have this other thing that wasn’t that that was just this dependable thing I liked doing and was a nice paycheck and and about where I could just say basically write about buildings and things that I liked and why I liked them, rather than what spy was essentially overseeing a staff of people finding out things they hate and figure out why they should be hated. So there was that.

Advertisement

S1: So you have a new book is called Evil Geniuses The Unmaking of America. I lived it, by the way. Thank you. I have several questions about it. But I would love for you to begin by describing the book. How do you see it?

S7: It began as my attempt to make up for lost time for all of the attention I didn’t pay to the transformation of the American economic system during the 1980s and 90s as I was doing fine in that economic system. So, you know, I wasn’t it wasn’t I wasn’t a Republican. I wasn’t a right winger. I was a good, you know, Gary Hart, Bill Clinton liberal then in this century as the obvious dysfunction, inequality, insecurity, other people not doing fine, tens of millions. Most Americans are doing fine. I had never I had my hunches and I knew the headlines, but I’ve never really gone into it deeply to know what happened, how did this happen? And then I wrote this other book, Fantasy Land, which was about how America, the subtitle of it is How America Went Haywire in terms of magical thinking and delusion and crazy conspiracy theories and all of this stuff leading up to and embodied by Donald Trump. But what I realized is that there was this other thing, this about politics and economics and technology that wasn’t just in the American character or in the American bloodstream. That weirdly changed when I was twenty five years old. So it is about how a confederacy of the rich and the ideological right, economically right and big business set about changing the American social compact and contract, rewriting it, ending the New Deal, which which with all of its sort of social democratic ideas and regulations and norms, had been the way America was for forty five years. And they decided to change it and very in short order did through incredible strategic brilliance and never let go. And that’s still the system we live in. And that’s that’s what it’s about. It’s also about various cultural changes that happened at the same time that aided and abetted that political economic shift of of celebrating the good old days. And then this theory of mine that I stuck into this unified theory of everything, of how how little so many parts of the culture have changed over the last 20 or 30 years. And how that has sort of reinforced the sense among many, many Americans that is useful to these right wing hegemons that nothing can really ever change. Big change doesn’t really happen. Stuff looks like it always has people dressed more or less the way they always have. Everything is the same and what they’re going to do about it. Yeah, technology is new, but otherwise it’s all the same. So don’t worry about it. Keep listening to your old music and keep going into YouTube and watching old shows and just it’ll be fine. Pay no attention.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: I mean this in a very positive way. But there were many times during the book where I could kind of picture you, you know, with the pins in the string or, you know, like. Connecting these things, and there’s always Milton Friedman or Ronald Reagan often at the center of it all. Yeah, like a scene from a homeland where Kerry exactly right. You would totally carry. But I was curious, how did you bring it all together? I mean, did you because this is an incredible work of research and synthesis, which, again, can seem like a bad word, but not when you do it very well. How did you bring your pins and string together to make this book?

S7: There was no, by the way, literal pins or string or Post-it notes or names or photos or all those things. I mean, I had been noodling, thinking, not thinking, oh, I’m going to write a book about this someday. But but I quote some pieces I’d written 15 years ago and 10 years ago at the beginning of the book, just proving that I you know, I wasn’t a complicit, neo liberal, useful idiot forever. I’ve been making this transition for a while. So I basically I spent twenty eighteen just immersed in research in the sort of self guided amay program, essentially in all of these different subjects I knew very little about and then said to myself, OK, and then you have this year, calendar year to do it and then you better write it in twenty eighteen, turn at the beginning to end 20 so it can come out after the, the Democratic primaries but before the election. And here we are. I mean it was, it was a crazy kind of, you know, pool shot thing that had to happen just right. But happily it all worked out. And so I did intense research. Not I it wasn’t like here’s the book I’m going to write, here are the characters and I have to find out stuff about them. I didn’t know. I just plunged in. And as one does or as I do anyway, like, oh, I read this book and then that raises all these other questions and brought up all these other theories and people and stuff I didn’t know about. So that’s I mean, the more books and and that’s what I did for a year. It was great. It really was like some kind of I never went to graduate school. So it was like a year or two in graduate school. And then when I was writing it, you know, I wouldn’t just type away every day and be done the other days and long and weeks of research would intervene as I came across something I didn’t really understand well enough. So but but truly, I had never written a big nonfiction book before finishing. And this one had been novels and other things. So I feel like, OK, I had done it once with anything that worked out OK. So I thought, oh, I can do it in a more deliberative way now. And it worked out.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: You know, I, I’m sorry to say I haven’t yet read fantasy land, but one of the things that struck me with evil geniuses was you’re kind of acknowledging that you weren’t an expert on everything that you were talking about, at least going into it. You know, there was a humility about your, you know, expressing surprise that some of the things that you learned over the course of your research, was that different in this particular book? Did that feel different?

S7: If you get on a rainy day fund, you’ll see I did a similar thing and talked about my own experience with or lack of it with religion and cults and belief in the rule in my own life, but not as much. This has more memoir ish aspects, partly because I really wasn’t guilty of too much magical thinking or crazy delusional thinking or anything that I had to sort of apologize for. Whereas this, again, I didn’t begin this book. Evil geniuses were thinking like, oh my God, Mayakoba, why wasn’t I lufti earlier? But as I saw what had happened and and, you know, saw oh this happened in nineteen eighty two. What was I doing in 1982. This happened in 1988. What was I doing in 1988. How oblivious or was I to to how other people weren’t doing so well. All that. So that appears in the book more. But also I feel I guess because I’m not young and because I have you know, I was on the radio for twenty years pretending all kinds of expertise in authoritativeness, about a million things that I do almost nothing about. I felt willing and free to admit that, you know, half of my life for the last thirty years has been being a journalist and half has been writing fiction and TV and stuff. What always appealed to me about journalism is that sheer curiosity, not Earley’s the kind I did, which is not like I know everything there is to know about this one narrow piece and thank God those people exist. I was never one of them. Rather, it was I knew something about this. Let me find out more. Let me find out more sort of that kind of general curiosity. And so, you know, I think admitting that to the degree it’s true is good because candor is good. But I also think maybe it has the secondary effect of allowing people, readers to think like that. I came about my understandings of. These things in a way that they can relate to because maybe because I don’t expect everybody who reads this book to begin or to or to finish agreeing with everything I say or everything I’ve discovered. But if they have a sense and I deliver the sense in the course of the prose of of my own, I hate to use the word journey toward where where I came out, then they’ll they’ll understand that there’s some good faith involved, that I’m not just one more idealogue with my point of view that I began with typed up and delivered to them. Yeah. Yeah.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S4: We’ll be back with more of John Thomas’s conversation with Kurt Andersen after this. One of the things we’d love to do with this show is help solve your creative problems, whether it’s a specific challenge about your work or a big question about inspiration and discipline. Send them to us working at Slate Dotcom if and when we can. We’ll put those questions to our guests. Welcome back to working. Now let’s return to John’s conversation with Kurt Andersen.

S1: One of the themes of the book, as you’ve mentioned, is that America is addicted to nostalgia, which can be actually quite harmful. And one of the things that I personally am most nostalgic about is Spy magazine. I have a very clear memory, like one of the one of my happiest memories of that era is of being in the house that I lived in, in D.C., sitting with my roommate and reading Spy. We loved it so much that we had to subscription. So I sit like side by side and read it together and laugh hysterically. The Spy is one of those magazines that’s like if it was still publishing, like it would be like the New Republic, like it would be a kind of a zombie. And we would. But the fact that it kind of died young, admittedly, after you had left it, it kind of has this glorious reputation, you know, left us just with happy memories. The James Dean of magazines. Exactly. Exactly. What did you learn from your experience at Spy? Big question.

S7: Oh, gosh, so much. I was never or didn’t think of myself as much of a risk taker before I did that. I took risks, but I was always careful enough not to, you know, take too many drugs or whatever risks they took, you know, and got into a good college and all that. So so like saying, oh, my God, we’re just going to do it and roll the dice and start this weird, eccentric magazine that lots of people would hate and lots of powerful people would hate and screw it. We’ll do it. And it worked. So I learned that. Well, it worked the first time. Let’s keep taking risks and back to your earlier question. Well, I’m middle aged now. I’m forty four. I never written a novel, but I never finished and published a novel, but not let me try it. So so I would say in addition to just the oh risk can work out, I learned that if we create something and this has been important for my own professional life, if we want to read or watch or listen or make something that doesn’t exist for ourselves, that’s kind of step one. I always thought after a spot like, yeah, it might be interesting to be like a television network, but not really because most of the stuff you’re making is not for you. And and, you know, maybe you can get away with doing that and be successful. And people are. But like, yeah, I just I feel like my creative life, my professional life is is that is making stuff that I want that I would want that doesn’t really exist. Let me see if I can do it.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Yeah, I was just paging through Spy the Funny Years, which is a more recent book that kind of looks back at the magazine. And I saw that in your 1985, I think prelaunch vision of the magazine. You wrote the following sentence. Oh, the magazine will be almost thoroughly irreverent, often funny and studded with inside information, which that’s a very good description of how it turned out. But it made me wonder, like, could spy have been launched or even have existed in 20/20? I mean, again, just flipping through just randomly. One of the things I saw was like some very light mocking of Andrea Dworkin. And that I think would be out of bounds today. Like, there are more things now that are out of bounds. 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?

S7: You know, one of the strokes of luck of spy was our timing. You know, we started again just a generation after the late sixties. So that had sort of seeped through the culture, the irreverence, anti-establishment and become kind of part of the establishment take. So, yeah, that was good for us. The fact that we did it just before there was an Internet crucial and the people liked it and cared about an hour. Two hundred and three hundred thousand subscribers really loved us. Most of them, though the reason that was possible is because there was no Internet, because there were just a few channels. And by channels I mean magazines, book publishers, newspapers, television network and so on. So suddenly doing this thing that none of them were doing this. This month after month of funny journalism, our motto was smart, fun, funny, fearless. It got attention and if we did it well, we would be successful. And we were so this was we were kind of the only game in town for a certain kind of manic, gleeful, connecting the dots irony thing that that just wasn’t available. And now it’s available, you know, in every third tweet. Right. So that enabled us to be successful then and now, as you say. Well, Gawker, a kind of a descendant, I suppose a spy was put out of business because it just pissed off powerful people, as we did back then, who couldn’t put us out of business the way they could Gawker. But the social media thing and being satirical, which is always going to stay. Toward and occasionally over lines of appropriateness or offensiveness or whatever, it’s just gonna that’s the nature of satire and comedy would be trickier and harder today because it’s a monthly magazine. If somebody thinks, oh, that’s in poor taste or that’s to mean, what are you going to do about it? You know, I mean, you’re not going to be able to to rile up a mob of offended people to take us down. Back in 1991, you know.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Well, after spy, you launched an online magazine inside during the dotcom bubble. You were a boss and an entrepreneur. Like, I confess, I don’t remember like I remember when it happened. But I don’t really like unlike spyware, I have this picture of myself reading it. I don’t have that equivalent for inside. But why did you even want to do that?

S7: I mean, it’s funny how my various things, all of these things I do kind of intersect and feed each other. In my first novel, Turn of the Century, I had actually written about a thing like inside which covered the media and journalism and show business and stuff. But on the Internet, which which, you know, kids in nineteen ninety nine, that was a new thing. And so I had kind of created the fictional version of it. And then my friend Michael Hirschorn, who had worked with me at New York magazine, came and said, hey, why don’t we why don’t we do this. Oh, that’s interesting. And and it was nineteen ninety nine and and there was lots of people who were willing to give the two of us and our other associates plenty of money to do this thing. And so why not. I’d publish a novel. I figured I would return to that which I did. But like let’s let’s do this. The other thing that here, as I’m telling you this story, I remember exactly why I did it. The band metaphor I felt like before rock and roll goes away, the dotcom web, internet being rock and roll, you know, and it wasn’t obviously going to go away, but I thought nineteen ninety nine, it seemed like, wow, this has been happening for five years. It was like nineteen sixty nine and we should let’s get in on it. That’s why I felt like oh this is, this is our last chance. Let’s, let’s have a go at this. So that was a big part of it, just like oh wow, this is a big cool or interesting culturally transformative thing. Oh let me in for a while. So that’s that’s why we did it.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: You have interviewed a lot of writers over the years for Studio 360. Has that affected the way you prepare to be interviewed?

S7: I’m sure it’s affected how I do, but not consciously. OK, now I’m going to go talk to June and here’s the attitude I need to put on. I mean, I’ve never really done interviews, particularly before. I did the radio show and I realized that so much of it, in addition to being curious, which is journalism and, you know, shutting out some of the time and all that, I realize creating a rapport is crucially important if you’re the interviewer. And I realized that I later thought, oh, it’s like a first date where, you know, there’s only going to be one day’s. Yes, right. And that’s kind of great, frankly. And more dates should be like that. Probably, but they can’t be. But but so how are you going to make this person like and get me and understand me and and more importantly, convey to the interviewee that there’s that rapport? So I suppose that’s part of the unconscious thing I do with interviews now is play ball in that rapport creating way. The other thing, I guess, as an interviewer of hundreds of people and movie stars and directors and authors and musicians and the rest is whenever you get because you’ve done your research like the same thing like. Oh, yes. She said that eight times in the last three weeks. Let’s cut that out when in post-production. So I guess I am willing to say the same thing because of course, I’m here selling a book and you got to say certain things to sell the book, but I guess I can’t. Semin consciously make a habit of trying to give you something new that hasn’t been before, you know, and not do the same, not just go through the motions. Yes, June, you know, and not just give the boilerplate. So, so that and which is also frankly makes it fun for one. Right.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S8: Because it’s an actual conversation rather than, you know, a performative version of, you know, your publicist talking points. Yeah, totally.

S4: June, what a wonderful and forthcoming conversation, I was so interested in it and in particularly, OK, maybe this is autobiographical or something, but because it struck me as in line with my own experience. But Kurt, thinking of his book is a kind of self guided masters degree on a subject he’s curious about. What did you make of that?

S1: I so related to that too, when he said that I almost kind of had to interrupt and to say, oh, I know just what you mean, even though I have never written a book, but I love researching much more than writing, I have to say. And I was reminded of a conversation I had with a friend who’s a very successful and very content person, but she told me that she had never been happier than when she was doing the research for a Ph.D.. And I mean, yeah, of course. What else would you expect that feeling of like following ideas down a series of very deep rabbit holes? Like that’s the most exciting thing ever. And it’s very addictive. I have to say to it’s really clear that Kurt really did follow the ideas rather than taking a path that he mapped out beforehand. I’ve read of the books, you know, about these ideas. It’s supposed to bring all the kind of concepts of the 20th century together. But evil geniuses really does bring things together in a fresh way. And I think it’s because he didn’t come in with a preconceived notion. And it really comes through.

S4: Right. And it seems to me that that’s one of the advantages of being, as he says, a generalist, not a specialist. You know, a bunch of different things. You can begin to sort of synthesize them, draw the connections between them, and you can enter some subject matters anyway with with maybe fewer preconceived notions. Yeah, I, I’m a generalist. I’m going to guess that you define yourself as a generalist as well. And I have to admit, as wonderful as it is being me, sometimes I am just incredibly envious of specialists. I think of someone like Chris Melaniphy who hosts Hit Parade and knows everything about popular music, you know, the business of it, the artists, their careers where things charted, why something is a hit, what made it famous, you know, and he brings all of that together when he writes or does his podcast. And every time I just think, oh, my God, what would it be like to have such command over a subject? Not pop music necessarily. Just anything, really, but it’s just not who I am. Do you have a similar movie is the grass is always greener.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: I think the grass is always greener. Is the key there? Because absolutely. I love just having that feeling of wondering and like anything could be my next focus. And there are a couple of areas where I feel like I do have a deep command and I, I could pass myself off as a specialist. The American dental system is one and I will take every possible opportunity to bore people about that topic. And sometimes I have to say, be careful. Now, if you ask me one more question, you will never get out of this alive. But Chris Melaniphy is a great example of that really rare breed, which is someone who is a true expert, knows everything, has unrivalled ponds of knowledge, but he’s never, ever a bore about it. It’s just someone who’s super into something and just wants to tell you about it. But failing that particular way of being generalist all the way.

S4: And also, you know, because we’re both fans of Spy, I have to circle back to it for a second. You asked Kurt if he felt that magazine could exist today, and he mentioned that they were very lucky to have made that magazine when they did. But one of the constraints you talked about today is that, you know, we’ve renegotiated a bunch of norms about what is and is not acceptable, what’s considered to mean, who you can be mean about. Could you be mean about Andrea Dworkin in America today, et cetera and so forth. And I was wondering what you think in answer to your own question. Could it exist today? What what would it look like? Where is the space for funny and mean in the way that spy did it?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: You know, it’s funny when I ask that question, I kind of thought it couldn’t, but his answer actually made me reconsider. You know, as he said, it was very specifically of its time. There was so much less competition for eyeballs, for attention. I don’t think that today one media institution could be as influential were in an atomized world now where we think about articles rather than magazines. But I definitely think that the tone of spy is still with us. There is a lot of it on Twitter and in Slate and in other places on the Internet. And, you know, the establishment institutions like The New York Times have a lot more of that tone nowadays than possibly could have existed in the late 1980s. And yes, some of the people that spy used to make fun of would now be off limits. And it would definitely not be acceptable for a bunch of upper middle class white guys to poke fun at anyone they wanted to. But there’s. No shortage of rich, powerful jerks to laugh at. Am I being too much of a Pollyanna, do you think?

S4: No, I don’t think so at all. I mean, I think part of what you’re pointing out there is that the tone of that magazine did actually have a pretty outsized influence and that we see it all over the place. You know, I mentioned earlier, you see it in Gawker, you see it in The Baffler, you see it in the Deadspin, which now doesn’t really exist anymore in that sense of humor, I think also permeated the all and, you know, the writers from there, some of whom have become writers for Slate or the Times or other places, you know, have carried that on. At the same time, there is this idea of are you punching up or punching down, which isn’t a rule because there aren’t it’s not like there’s a Congress for comedy that decides what you can and can’t do. But there’s a lot more attention paid to like what is the relative social status of the person making the joke and the target of the joke. And if those are out of balance, are they out of balance in the correct or the incorrect way? Yeah. So I do think that would be a more difficult thing to negotiate. You know, I just don’t think that cancel cultures run amuck and now we can’t say things so much as just the norms are being renegotiated as they always are. But it’s happening in this extremely public way instead of in editorial meetings.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Yes, absolutely. I fully agree.

S3: Well, on that note of agreement, that’s our show for this week. Listeners, if you’ve enjoyed this show, please consider signing up for Slate plus Slate. Plus, members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence, extra content on this and other episodes of working. And you’ll be supporting the work that we do right here. It’s only 35 dollars for the first year and you can get a free two week trial now at Slate Dotcom working plus. Thank you, Anderson, for being our guest this week. Huge thanks as always to our producer, Cameron Drewes. We’ll be back next week for a conversation between the monologue and art curator and writer Kimberly Drew. Until then, get back at work. Sorry, I don’t know. I just jumped on your line then. Sorry. So you can jump on my lines. It’s.

S1: For Sleepless, I’d love to know if there’s a work of art or commerce, for that matter, a book or a magazine or a piece of music or a painting or a photograph or something completely different that was particularly influential on your work, but also on you, on your life.

S7: Now, these are such hard questions for me. And I spent way too much time thinking about it because it’s always hard for me to do one for most. I mean, there are certain things I have epiphanies about. And if you’d asked me, I don’t know the state you went to that made you think differently about America. I can answer that. But in terms of this, I had I had six and then I had cut it down to three. And then I said, OK, I’ll say this, because you warned me that you were going to ask me this. And first I was thinking Mad magazine because, you know, I started reading that magazine when I was whatever I was six, seven, eight years old. And and and it obviously shaped my little kid early 60s, you know, Cold War sensibility. And maybe I had a predisposition to do humor or satire comedy before that. But certainly Mad magazine really honed it, stoked it, and it was great. That’s not what I’m going to tell you. But then there was 2001. And as you know, for Studio 360, we ended up doing two hour, two hour long documentary about it. It was a huge thing for me, which I really realized when we did those those documentary hours, because I saw it when I was 13, 14 years old, which is pretty much, in my view, the most close to the most impressionable age in these ways. You’re talking about possible you know, you’re sentient but not fixed and you’re who you are. So like adolescents in these impact of culture ways is the moment. And it was the first time I ever had a glimmer of appreciation for art like this doesn’t really make sense. But, my God, I don’t know. I feel these crazy things and it’s beautiful and wow, I’ve never seen anything like that. I it was really the first time I felt like and I didn’t I didn’t say that to myself, like, yes. No, I really have had this sense of the sublime in art. No, but in retrospect it was that however, the thing that was amazing and influential on me was when I was 14 years old, I guess less than a year after I saw 2001, was I checked out from the local library, the electrical and acid test, Tom Wolfe’s book about Ken Kesey and his bus and these Proteau hippies riding around America a few years, merry pranksters, merry pranksters. And it was it was amazing on at least two different big counts for me. It was amazing. It was nineteen sixty nine when I read it, I just, you know, I was fourteen going on fifteen. I was starting to think of myself as a member of the movement and some kind of hippie ish person and whoa look at this. This was just a fantastic depiction of a piece of that world in a kind of foundational, you know, stem cell version of what was then scaling in terms of turning into the counterculture. So it was like. Great to read it in that sense, but it was also even at the time it was I read the newspaper, you know, I and I didn’t read much non-fiction. I read mostly fictional books, but I read the newspaper a lot. And here was a different kind of non-fiction. This was non-fiction. Mm hmm. But it was it was like no nonfiction, no like no newspaper, no TIME magazine article. Not my father’s National Review. It was the new journalism. Kurt. Well, it was a new journalism, and I’m not even sure I knew that term yet. But but, my God, it was I it was a gob smacking, amazing thing at 14, 15 to to read this to to read this story. And it probably nudged me more in the direction of of my profession. I was already writing for the school newspaper and stuff, but it was it was amazing to me. And, you know, so I guess I guess that’s it. Have you revisited it recent hours since I have you? I have. And to me it holds up. And I mean, he was like Joan Didion was so great writing about the 60s and they were about the same age, which is to say, just old enough to like have a bit of arm’s length. And their sensibilities were gimlet eyed as well, but that they could get into the 60s thing without kind of going without. Yeah, without losing their sense of rigor and and intelligence about what was going on and, you know, all that. So, yeah, no, it was it does definitely hold up. What a fantastic answer. Thank you so much. Well, thank you for asking.