This article appears in the new December 2007/January 2008 issue of The American Spectator, which celebrates our 40th anniversary. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
AS I’VE MENTIONED before, my first job out of college was here at The American Spectator. I was a young punk at 22, with a crew cut, and I owned only one suit. The tie I brought had a pasta sauce stain, and I had just bought my shoes at Sears. They were $18, and I firmly believe they were made from the same stuff used for bumper moldings in the automotive department. I was making $12,000 a year, which, after taxes came to about $12 a day — essentially enough for gum. I took a room in an Arlington home with two — and then three — old ladies. They enjoyed my company even when I snuck a girl back into my room, who later threw up in the bathroom.
I worked at The American Spectator office in Clarendon, a strange amalgam of dry cleaners and Vietnamese restaurants, and not much else. There was a bar called the Keyhole, and they were known for their chili and their knife fights — not in that order. I enjoyed working at the magazine, despite the pay and the low status (I worked in the mailroom, opening envelopes and fetching lunches and cigarettes for staffers), but that’s all I really had anticipated. I didn’t mind. At that age, a man wants to do everything as well as the very best around him but is terrified of the attempt. I would read a wonderful feature by P.J. O’Rourke and say, “I want to do that,” but scribbling even a few sentences of advertising copy scared me.
Still, every day seemed a grimy pleasure — the mailroom stunk of mail (I can’t explain it either), and the nearby Arlington YMCA where I’d work out and run into Bob, an obsessed handball player, became a second home. I met a lot of fun people while working at the mag, from O’Rourke to Ronald Reagan, and spent most of my tenure in a mild state of intimidation. At some point, I’d have to leave, though — to find out if I could write.
I always love telling people that I worked at the Spectator, just to see their response. Last Friday, I was drinking with a wonderful comedian, Will Durst, and when I told him where my first job was, his eyes nearly popped out of his head, rolled onto the floor, and got squashed by a woman in heels. The sad part about the Spectator legacy, in my mind, is that ideology is remembered more than the sheer talent of the people who worked there. The magazine was right on pretty much everything, but what mattered to me more was the people who were there making it right: the Tom Wolfes, Joe Queenans, Andy Fergusons, and so on.
I drove back to California with a few hundred bucks and started sending out resumes. Peter Sussman published my conservative satire in the San Francisco Chronicle — a parody I did on a “bacteria rights festival,” and something on an illness I called Vietnam Film Stress Syndrome, a disorder caused by watching too many late-1980s films about the war — in which everyone from a 16-year-old boy to a grandmother was convinced they were veterans of that besmirched conflict. I wrote those pieces for the Chronicle, but they had the subversive spark of good-natured menace from the Spectator in mind.
I FINALLY GOT A REAL JOB at a health magazine in eastern Pennsylvania, writing about osteoporosis, hypnotherapy, and other stuff that would make your stomach turn if you had to look at the pictures in medical journals. I did, and would — and often ran off copies of these photos at the machine for the pleasure of friends. If you ever received in the mail a picture of a man with a fluorescent light tube stuck in an inappropriate orifice, it probably came from me. Mind you, this was before the Internet — so it took a lot of effort for me to do this. I was that bored.
But during that time in Emmaus, surrounded by health nuts who ate and drank from the New Age trough, I still continued reading AmSpec, a mag that was basically a rock of sanity in an ocean of retardation.
The magazine was also a way to meet other people like you. If you found a friend who read it, he became a better friend.
A few years later I became editor of Men’s Health, and my goal was to stay as close to its winning formula as possible — while injecting some real journalism that revealed truths about our current cultural malaise. I wanted to make sense of the world as AmSpec did. In different features, I immersed myself in Internet porn (to emerge with a full understanding of the consequences of sexual desire detached from love), moved into a monastery to discern religious from phony spirituality, spent a week in a retirement home living among grandmothers (our forgotten commodity), and endured a week eating nothing but McDonald’s (I actually lost weight, unlike Morgan Spurlock, who ripped off this idea years later). These were all stories bent on revealing unspoken assumptions about the world, something AmSpec was always good at. I lost my job shortly after publishing a feature called “the best and worst colleges for men,” which showed in a clever way which colleges were so PC that being a male student made you “the enemy.” One of the worst colleges listed was Georgetown — which happened to be my boss’s alma mater. Oh well.
Landing on my feet at Stuff Magazine as editor in chief, I turned what was basically a beer and babes mag into a fiercely honest publication that covered “stuff” other general interest mags wouldn’t touch. We did features in praise of our troops, including actual surveys asking them how they felt. We wrote about real evil — something that Rolling Stone, once considered edgy, was too cowardly to do. I increased circulation from 800,000 to 1.2 million. I’d like to think the readers appreciated the fact that the mag said things no other mag would — again a direct link from my experience working at AmSpec. If you combine National Lampoon with The American Spectator, and add 12 pages of hot girls — that was Stuff. After unleashing a group of midgets to disrupt a publishing conference, I was canned. After that I moved to Maxim, followed basically the same game plan to lesser success, and ended up back here, in New York, hosting a fantastic and relentlessly surreal talk show called Red Eye.
Red Eye, from a mainstream media perspective, should not exist. It’s a wildly funny show that operates without a net — and it defies cowardly conventions expressed solely by the liberal mind. Every time a lefty is on the show, he turns into a screechy prude.
I call this the “Dean Wormer” effect, named after the bad guy in the classic film Animal House. Every time you get your enemy to act like Dean Wormer — whiny and defensive — you win. The left has always been good at portraying the right as Dean Wormer — stodgy, repressive, and angry people who deny the right to have fun for others. But now that’s changing.
Now, with what I call the new right — the rise of South Park, movies like Knocked Up, and, yes, Red Eye — the left is the humorless folks going “tsk-tsk.” They’re the dipwads — because the politically correct movement has drained them of any humor. For proof, visit the DailyKos or the Huffington Post. Both are angry graveyards of the aging and unfunny.
And that’s where the Spectator comes in, now in 2008.
Reckless humor and the ability to lampoon your enemies are the best weapons you can ever have. Fearlessly making fun of terrorists as our military kills them is a necessity — as is the need to make the left think we’re ready to do the same to them. If there is anything I would want the Spectator to do it is to be really funny.
I’d do it myself if I didn’t have to write this article.