What, we worry? Spies like us? Two boys Spy out New York City's phonies and follies

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THESE guys are funny. Bob and Ray kind of funny. Abbott and Costello meet the yuppie. Ten times a year, Kurt Anderson and E.Graydon Carter, co-editors of one of the country's most admired humor magazines, serve up a tangled, convoluted, brilliantly imagined compilation of biting satire that has caught the attention of New York City glitterati and funny people all over.

Their mutual brainchild, which they spawned a little over a year ago, is called Spy magazine.

Jay Leno has called Spy twice to ask about using material from the magazine on the ``Tonight Show.'' Syndicated columnist Nat Hentoff says he cadges his son's copies, because his own subscription request hasn't been processed yet. Atlantic Monthly Press editor Gary Fisketjon, who was skewered in a recent issue, says that ``it takes a peculiar kind of mind'' to come up with the mix of humor in that magazine, and he is glad that kind of mind is around.

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What that kind of mind has accomplished is to come up with a formula for a magazine that fits somewhere between the vulgar sophomorics of a National Lampoon and the understated wit of The New Yorker. Spy engages in its own share of sophomorics; and it frequently misses. But the thing that has made it so talked about is the remarkable degree to which its borrowings from other magazines past and present get stirred into a palatable, even tasty editorial mix.

Mr. Carter and Mr. Anderson say they styled the magazine to some degree after The New Yorker of the '20s and '30s - irreverent, willing to take risks, unpredictable. In doing so, they hit at a void in current magazines. There just isn't anybody around doing everything they do.

They do their thing, appropriately, in the Puck Building. Lolling in the studied d'eclass'e of their offices, with crumpled-copper lampshades and comme il faut SoHo trappings, Carter and Anderson have the look of prosperous young men. Carter wears socks with yellow and blue stripes. His collar is open, his hair flips up in back, he looks as though he is taking a walk on the Wilde side. Anderson has a more intense, narrow face. But he wears broad striped shirts, glasses with outspoken frames, and the frequent traces of an amused smile. He sets forth the magazine's basic credo: ``We're very careful about the reputations we savage.''

How careful are they?

Not so careful that they don't run an article entitled ``How to tell the difference between the Museum of Modern Art and a hair ball.'' Or an ``annual census of the most annoying, alarming, and appalling people places and things in New York and the nation.'' Or that they don't regularly enrage the management of the New York Times by getting a Times insider to write a monthly bash at the paper's peccadilloes and bureaucratic machinations.

``People ask why we're so `negative,''' Anderson says. ``That's a little like going to a Mexican restaurant and asking why the food is so spicy. It's just sort of the thing we serve here.''

Mr. Fisketjon especially likes the monthly chart showing a box score of the New York Post's pages with small symbols - like an eye with a tear (for senseless tragedies) and a black tombstone (for dead celebrities) - plotted out on a grid to show what kind of stories ran where in the sensational tabloid.

Hard by this feature in the current issue, you could find a calendar of coming events with the following item: ``January 7-12 American Group Psychotherapy Association Convention; at the Waldorf-Astoria. The featured speaker - what a coup - is the reclusive Dr. Ruth Westheimer. We just felt we should share this information with you openly and honestly, without embarrassment.''

The magazine blends reportage and satire with charts like the one on the New York Post and a running count on the number of times Elizabeth Taylor and Norman Mailer were mentioned in Liz Smith's celebrity column each month (five each, by the way). The material occasionally runs to the risqu'e, although Spy is surprisingly tame for a contemporary humor magazine. A story written by a woman reporter who temporarily increased her bust size and wrote about the changes this caused in her life (``Busty Like Me'') wound up being less sensational than simply intriguing and funny.

The line between fact and fantasy at Spy is more scrupulously adhered to than at your average supermarket tabloid, but not by much. ``The pieces have to be nonfiction,'' Anderson says. ``With humor you can sometimes push the edges of the envelope, but the pieces start with a basis in fact. Sometimes they treat those facts in a playful way, or kind of willfully misinterpret things, but it's fact-based.'' Most of the media outlets that Spy regularly trashes hold to a slightly more rigorous standard of truth; but the case can certainly be made that anyone who enters the pages of the magazine knows, going in, that sanity and order should be checked at the door.

Having deposited these predispositions at the hat-check counter, a reader can go on to ``Imagine the nightmare of our once interesting nation enervated by THE CANADIANS,'' a tightly reasoned thesis arguing that such Canadians as public broadcaster Robert MacNeil and magician Doug Henning are spreading a pernicious boredom through the land.

``It's sort of a cross between Mad magazine and The New York Review of Books,'' Carter says, describing the 10-times-a-year publication.

The cross-fertilization for this hybrid began three years ago, when the two editors, then working at Time Inc., sat down at lunch and cooked up an idea for a magazine. They came up with a concept. They made up 100 story ideas. They called all their rich friends for backing.

Three million dollars later (with help from people like Washington Post heir Stephen Graham and media mini-mogul Carl Navarre), they have enough money in the bank to keep going a long time, a magazine that sells 60,000 copies an issue, and 68 pages of advertising. The magazine's publisher, Thomas L. Phillips Jr., says they will start writing their checks with black ink by the end of this year. This goal seems feasible: The magazine lost only $50,000 on its January-February issue and a little over $40,000 on March - a more than acceptable loss for a toddler just entering its second year.

By all counts, they have made it. Made it enough, for instance, to hire a managing editor, and to negotiate a deal with Doubleday for three books.

The road to their kind of success, they say, is paved with the usual amounts of self-sacrifice and business savvy.

The founders sharply defined Spy from the beginning as a New York kind of thing, targeted to the city's peculiar metabolism and cynicism (still, the magazine's circulation outside the city has steadily grown to 30 percent and climbing); and they laid out the skeleton and anatomy of the publication in ``a very long and detailed business plan'' with that list of 100 story ideas and features. Neither of the co-editors is New York City born and bred (Anderson is from Nebraska; Carter is Canadian), but they had sloshed around the city's gene pool long enough to know where the funny ideas get born. So they set out with some confidence to focus on New York with a sort of ``urban sensibility.''

The rest, as they say, is history.

Spy got attention in New York Magazine, Newsday, and other big-city media. It also got talked about in all the right trendy places. Quickly, it became almost as famous as the famous people it poked fun at. More tangible evidence can be found in the list of companies that chose to advertise in a recent issue: Guess clothing, People magazine, Continental Airlines, J&B Scotch, Interview Magazine - and that's just the first 10 pages.

With this kind of clientele, the two Puckish gentlemen with the lively humor magazine can laugh all the way to their uptown condos.

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