Kurt B. Andersen ’76 is a novelist, essayist, and editor who co-founded the groundbreaking Spy Magazine in 1986. Since then, he’s written three novels and published several other books. His work has appeared in TIME, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and New York Magazine. He currently hosts the public radio program Studio 360.
Fifteen Minutes: In a Crimson column in 2001, you wrote, “When I got to the Lampoon in 1972, it was in no sense a pre-professional hatchery.” Can you elaborate on the comedy scene at Harvard at the time, and some of the people that you met while at Harvard?
Kurt Andersen: Yeah, I found out about the Lampoon as soon as I got there as a freshman. I arrived at Harvard assuming I would comp for The Crimson and be on The Crimson and then I met a couple of upperclassmen who were on the Lampoon, Jim Downey [’74] and Sandy Frazier [’73], and thought, “man, this looks like the thing for me.” And then I got on and that’s what I knew. I know Al Franken [’73] was kind of pursuing comedy at various times at Harvard. He was a few years older than I, but I think he was a senior when I was a freshman and he wasn’t on the Lampoon. I may have been oblivious to the scene that existed, but as far as I know there wasn’t much of one beyond the Lampoon.
FM: You founded Spy about 10 years after you graduated from college. Was it an idea that sprung up as you were working, writing in New York, or did it have any roots in your college years?
KA: It was an idea that sprung up. I met a guy when I was working at Time magazine, Graydon Carter, and we just became friends and started talking about the magazines of our youths, and we were fairly young then, but when we were kids and said, “well, why isn’t there a National Lampoon? Why isn’t there something like Mad, that we would love as much as we liked Mad Magazine as kids? Why isn’t there something like the old New York Magazine?” One of the reasons I did the Harvard Lampoon is because as a fifteen-year-old, the National Lampoon, started by Harvard Lampoon graduates, had been an important thing to me so there’s definitely a kind of family tree DNA operation going on between the Lampoon and doing Spy and you know, probably the sort of satirical look at the world that was honed and given flower at the Lampoon came back to life when we started Spy.
FM: So the list of writers for Spy Magazine is pretty amazing. Did you a play a role in writer recruitment, and what was the strategy to get this crop of talent?
KA: Since what we were trying to do was funny journalism and not just humor pieces of the Shouts and Murmurs of the New Yorker kind, we wanted writers who could do reporting, some essays, but mostly reported things that were funny. So we thought of who do we know or who have we read that we like and it was that. It was not very systematic. A lot were people our age and younger—I was 31 when we started Spy, almost 32.
FM: In 2012 you wrote a really interesting piece in Vanity Fair when you said, "we are clinging as never before to the familiar in matters of style and culture." Do you believe this is still true today?
KA: My short answer is, yes, I do. My longer answer is, it could be changing and we just won’t know it for 10 years because it’s not one of these things that you can tell unless suddenly, "Whoa, its 1967, the whole world’s breaking apart, look at this." Unless that happens, it’s a thing that happens so slowly it takes time to see it in retrospect. That said, I don’t want to get too invested in the idea because then you just become a crank and an old fogey and say, “Look, nothing’s changed since 1994,” but I still believe that all the various theoretical reasons for why that happened in that piece are still operative, so I don’t see a big change in what I was arguing.
FM: In 1993 you deemed “Beavis and Butt-Head” the bravest show ever run on national television. What’s brave today, and what are you watching, reading, and listening to?
KA: I can never remember what I’m watching or listening. I’ll try to think. What’s brave today? There are various things. The Colbert Report is still on the air so we’re used to it, so it’s not so amazing 10 years later, twelve years later, whatever. But when it started, it was an amazing thing. Brave in an entirely different way, an ambitious and entirely different way than “Beavis and Butt-Head” was. I would say of that kind of TV comedy in the last decade or two, is to me the most interesting, ambitious thing that’s happened. I thought Beavis and Butt-Head was interesting and cool as I explained in that piece back then but it was brave partly because MTV at its peak was sort of—not biting the hand that feeds it—but like hiring somebody to bite its hand. So that was what was brave of a corporate channel doing such a thing. There’s a fantastic, really good new movie called “Nightcrawler” which is about to come out with Jake Gyllenhaal which is really an entertaining thriller, but it’s also a really smart critique of American business, essentially. Of American capitalism, not to warn people off it because then it will sound like some agitprop horror, but it’s a really good movie. I mean the movie that is brave in various senses and is one of the greatest documentaries I’ve ever seen, that came out last year, is “The Act of Killing.” by a Harvard graduate as it happens. He’s got a sort of sequel that’s about to come out, that I am incredibly eager to see.
FM: Whether Spy was mocking Julian Schnabel’s autobiography or dissecting the fiction of Jay McInerney, a major mission of the magazine seemed to be deflating pretensions. With that in mind, what celebrities, literary figures, or politicians might Spy skewer today?
KA: The thing that makes me think of Spy more than anything else that happens is Donald Trump’s continued existence and prominence in the media, so he would still be there. Shia LaBeouf comes to mind off the top of my head. What we were trying to do rather than one-offs about you know, “isn’t Shia LaBeouf a ridiculous self absorbed asshole,” was we were trying to name and find the trends. We’d do pieces about faux intellectuals and how these young movie stars of the time were putting on glasses and pretending to be serious and quoting Kierkegaard, so finding a bunch of people doing things and being able to connect those dots would be a thing we could do. I have nothing really against James Franco, but James Franco would definitely figure into my magazine were it around in 2014. When people say, "Oh, shouldn’t Spy be around?" I think, "Eh, it’d be tough." One of the ways it’d be tough is with social media. People’s pretensions and every other unfortunate quality are flaunted so wildly every hour, every second on social media.
FM: What did you think of Donald Trump’s run for president?
KA: His multiple runs for presidency. It was publicity stunts by other means. One of the bizarre things about him, I mean more than anyone else I know of, is he obviously lives for publicity,. He lives for the limelight, and so this is a way to do that. I have to say I was somewhat surprised at his far rightness and his birtherism, and that it’s gotten as extreme as it has. I would think, if nothing else, he’s shrewder than that.That’s gotta make his life kind of uncomfortable, I would think. But anyway, I thought it was ridiculous and I hope he does it again.
FM: Do any celebrities hold it against you for what Spy published?
KA: Spy was this satirical thing that was meaning to name names and put off people, among other things. I don’t know about celebrities, but for a while there were people who held it against me and us, and sometimes made it clear in public encounters that they were still pissed off. And it was more New York Times editors than celebrities, which of course, you know, being an editor and writer in New York, that was scarier than an actor being angry at you. There’s one or two still living people who are around and think I’m the antichrist as a result, but not too many. And some of the people we did things about have become my friends. It’s a long game.
FM: What Spy issue or article do you remember most fondly?
FM: Well, I remember we did one about the Kennedys, and we had this cover of Ted Kennedy having a bucket of water thrown on him, and it looked great. It looked realistic. I loved that we were being kind of illiberal and contrarian. And it was not long after we’d been around for a year so I felt like okay, we are now hitting on all cylinders. I remember that cover and that issue and that cover story being, "Okay, I am now fully proud of this thing." The one cover story, the one story that I ever wrote and signed, the thing I did with Paul Rudnick in 1989, called “The Irony Epidemic”, it was about sort of the mass marketification of the smirk, the snark, the ironic air quotes, all that stuff. I think it was a funny piece but it was also essentially this cultural essay, sort of naming this thing and connecting various dots in a way that had not been before. I was proud of that but then there are little things; there’s a tiny little thing that we once ran that I just loved and I still love. It was just this tiny little eighth of a page thing and the headline was "Elvis’ Weight on Other Planets" and it listed what Elvis Presley’s weight would be on various planets in the solar system. I still love that every time I think of it.
FM: What do you think of such nontraditional news outlets as Vice Media, Gawker Media, et cetera, and do you see any of Spy’s influence in them?
KA: I certainly do in Spy, and I think Nick Denton, who started Gawker media, would not disagree with that. If one were to do a family tree it would be one of the things that maybe was influenced by it along with other things in media and comedy. Gawker’s a well done thing. It just makes me realize how grateful I am that we did it only once a month, rather than every hour, which changes the nature of the project. What we did was very hard as well, and hard in a different way than doing it every day. It was more a kind of artisanal operation than just saying, "what’s the latest thing that happened this second that we can report about and be snarky about." And for Vice, I am kind of retroactively jealous in that they have been able to create this business model whereby they’re kind of an ad agency that takes the money they earn from that to put out their videos and magazine and so forth. I think about Spy in connection with Vice, thinking like, "Huh, if we’d somehow figured out that, if that had been possible in 1990, you know, maybe it would have gone on for a while longer." On the other hand, I often think about Spy, "Well, you know, I did it for almost seven years, that’s about as long as I or anybody should in a certain way want to do a thing like that." I don’t want you to think that I think, "Oh, I wish Spy could have lasted forever, I wish I could still be doing Spy." That is not even remotely a feeling I have, but I do look at Vice and go, "Wow, they’ve done an interesting thing and they really have figured out a way to make a business out of that."
FM: So you have a nonfiction book coming out in the near future, is that right?
KA: If I don’t take interviews from people at Harvard and spend my time writing and I finish it, yes, in the near-ish future. That’s what I’m working on, yeah.
FM: Can we get any details?
KA: It’s kind of a very strange history of America and it’s about a kind of twisted view of American exceptionalism. It’s an argument and reporting and research about why and how we are different than all of the other rich countries in the world and not a flattering version of exceptionalism, I would say.
FM: You once said in an interview that you gorged on Kurt Vonnegut as a kid. Let’s talk about the other Kurt: Do you see any connection between Vonnegut’s sense of humor and your own, and what’s your favorite Vonnegut?
KA: I loved Kurt Vonnegut and certainly he was one of the influences on my sense of humor. But he’s my father’s age, my late father’s age, and he was a prisoner of war in Dresden and served in World War II, and so the times and his experiences that influenced his sensibility and his mode are very different than the ones that influenced me in my dull life in the 1960s and ’70s. So definitely, he influenced me. I would say if I was going to make a list of 10 influences, he would definitely be on that list.
FM: Great. Were there any other major influences on your writing? If you were to make that list of 10 influences?
KA: I would say Mark Twain. It sounds presumptuous to say because "Oh, I want to be Mark Twain," but “Huckleberry Finn” was the first kind of grown-up book I read when I was 11 or so, and it was a revelation to me. Hunter Thompson when I was sixteen years old, was—I don’t know if he was was an influence—but it was astounding to me, his “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” And similarly when I was about 14, I guess, and I read Tom Wolfe’s “Electric Kool Aid Acid Test,” that was again influential on my view of what nonfiction could be and what writing could be. Which is to say not an influence in the sense that then I tried to start writing like Tom Wolfe, I didn’t and I don’t, but it was huge for me, when things can most easily be huge, which is to say at 14 and 12 and 16 and 18, you know. A book that had a huge impact on me and probably led me to write historical fiction was Mark Halpern’s “Winter’s Tale,” which came out when I was 28 years old. Two people I look up to a lot are those two guys I met from the Harvard Lampoon, when I was a freshman, Jim Downey, and the work he’s done on Saturday Night Live for 40 years, and Sandy Frazier and what he’s written. His books and his humor in the New Yorker are amazing and great to me. So they both as people and the work they were doing even at 20, 21, were hugely influential on me, and influential in the sense that they were the ones who kind of instantly, love at first sight-ishly convinced me to try to get on the Lampoon. So they would be on that list of 10 or a dozen influences as well.
This interview has been edited and condensed.