“Paul Ryan: The Magazine” Needs You

Prototype covers for Paul Ryan parody

Prototype covers for “Paul Ryan: The Unofficial Magazine.”

The brains behind last summer’s masterful online-only parody of The New Yorker (a.k.a. “The Neu Jorker”) are now seeking funds for their follow-up project: an “unofficial parody magazine” devoted to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. In addition to mocking the Wisconsin Republican, the one-shot publication will also be “a satire on the entire magazine industry,” organizers Andrew Lipstein and James Folta promise in their four-minute Kickstarter video: “Each page will take on a different genre, like muscle magazines … sports magazines … in-flight magazines….” Their as-yet-unnamed co-conspirators include veterans of the Onion, McSweeney’s, Mad, the Paris Review and other mags and TV shows. Ryan himself hasn’t endorsed the project, for some reason, but the guys have found a plausible stand-in by the name of Branson Reese.

Branson Reese, Andrew Lipstein and James Folta

Too tall for Paul?: Lipstein (center) and Folta inspect Ryan wannabe Reese.

Lipstein and Folta hope to raise $10,000 in their Kickstarter campaign, which ends February 10. Right now they’re about $8,400 short of that, so parody fans who want to be part of the “Paul Ryan” phenomenon should head over here and open their wallets, just as I did. (Per Kickstarter policy, pledges will be collected only if the funding goal is met.) The creators hope to have the mag out in October, by which time the real Paul Ryan could be anything from Leader of the Free World to a small pile of irradiated ashes, depending on how the Trump era plays out. Stay tuned. — VCR

Online: Spy’s “New York Times,” 1992.

Spy's fake Times front page

Parody OfThe New York Times. Title: “The New York Times.” Parody By: Spy.
Date: July 15, 1992. Length: 4 pages. Contributors: Uncredited.
Availability: Occasionally seen on eBay and abebooks; online right here.

Real Times front page for July 15, 1992

Real NYT, 7/15/92

Amid the current worry over “fake news,” it might be soothing to revisit a political hoax that only wanted to raise a few laughs. On the night before Bill Clinton’s nomination at the 1992 Democratic Convention, Spy magazine smuggled a thousand copies of a facelifted New York Times into Madison Square Garden for delegates and journalists to find the next morning. “The front sections of copies of the real Times were wrapped with Spy’s new pages one, two, op-ed, and back page,” George Kalogerakis wrote in the 2006 history, Spy: The Funny Years. “Ross Perot was running as a strong third-party candidate, so the lead front-page story was: PEROT SET TO PICK TV’S OPRAH WINFREY AS RUNNING MATE. For a few seconds, democracy teetered. Then everyone laughed. … [T]he parody was discussed on the The Tonight Show by Tom Brokaw, reporting live from the convention floor, and by [Nightline‘s] Ted Koppel as well, who fooled his wife with a copy.”

A second Ross Perot story said the eccentric billionaire had kept his mother’s body in an attic for seven years after her death, “apparently believing she was still alive.” Spy later said this was one of the alleged “dirty tricks” that prompted Perot to suspend his presidential campaign on July 16, the day after the parody appeared. True or not, it’s no crazier than Perot’s own claim that George H.W. Bush and the CIA were planning to disrupt his daughter’s wedding.

Spy's 1992 Times parody page 2

Spy was obsessed with the New York media world generally and the Times in particular, and both are skewered here. British tycoon Robert Maxwell, who had conveniently drowned off the coast of Spain as his media empire was collapsing, reemerges on page two as “Roberto Maxbueno,” secretive publisher of the Canary Islands’ trashiest tabloid. Vanity Fair’s Tina Brown promises Condé Nast a “New New Yorker” in the back-page “Chronicle,” and, on the Op-Ed page, former Times editor Abe Rosenthal says nothing for 400 words in a column aptly headlined “I Don’t Know.”

Spy's 1992 Times parody page 3

The other Op-Eds parody a trio of familiar Times types: the Highly-Credentialed Has-Been (played here by Michael Dukakis), the Concerned Empathizer (Anna Quindlen), and the Gadfly Intellectual (Camille Paglia). All three are aped precisely and, in the Paglia take on Bill Clinton’s sex appeal, exuberantly: “In a way, we citizens are like millions of sperm ejaculated toward the great womb of the commonweal, driven to swim in order that one may be selected to fulfill the general imperatives of the organism as a whole,” runs a typical sentence in “A Hot-Button Candidate.”

Spy's 1992 Times parody page 4

The real Camille Paglia appreciated the attention: “Just a note to express my admiration of your New York Times parody, with its deft, skilful and hilarious send-up of my heavy-breathing, multi-adjectived op-ed pieces,” she wrote in Spy’s October issue. The July 15, 1992 “Times” succeeds as both a prank and a parody, and is still funny 24 years later. I’ve posted it here so you can see for yourself. — VCR

Online: National Lampoon’s “Mad,” 1971

Mad parody cover and contents page

Parody OfMadTitle: “Mad.” Parody In: National Lampoon.
Date: October 1971. Length: 15 pages. Contributors: John Boni, Sean Kelly, Henry Beard (writers); John Romita, Joe Orlando, Ernie Colon, Al Weiss, Babi Jeri, John Lewis, Stuart Schwartzberg, Ralph Reese. Availability: Online here. Reprinted in National Lampoon Comics (1974) and National Lampoon’s Magazine Rack (2006).

October 1971 National Lampoon cover“Mad” is one of National Lampoon’s best and best remembered parodies. Like Mad itself, it goes after its target with very little subtlety and a great deal of skill, piling up visual and verbal gags to drive home the message that even iconoclasts can have clay feet. You’ll find the whole thing on John Glenn Taylor’s blog “Easily Mused.” where it’s been sitting since 2009. I only discovered it the other day, by way of an essay by Matt Keeley at Kittysneezes.com.

Keeley’s “What, Me Funny?” is such a thorough, page-by-page examination of “Mad” that there’s little to add, but I want to echo his observation that it “seems to come from a place of love.” Disappointed love, of course. NatLamp’s fiercest parodies were of magazines its writers’ younger selves had considered the height of sophistication and then outgrown, or at least come to see as formulaic: Playboy, Esquire, The New Yorker. Mad was the NatLamp gang’s first crush and first disillusionment, and the combination of hurt feelings and intimate knowledge in articles like “Citizen Gaines” and “You Know You’ve Really Outgrown Mad When…” is so intense it’s almost painful. Too many magazine parodies aren’t actually about the publications they resemble; they’re just random jokes stuffed into a conveniently familiar format. “Mad” is about Mad and nothing but Mad, and its narrow focus is what gives it such a sharp point.  — VCR

Excerpt from the Mad parody

Jack Rickard aped by John Lewis.

Parodists and Copycats

Covers of Time and Cavalier

Time and its U.K. wannabe Cavalcade in 1937.

When is a parody not a parody? When it’s a straight-faced, money-grubbing imitation, according to the courts. Lawsuits over parodies of copyrighted works are rare and their outcomes unpredictable, but two things any accused parodist better be able to show are (1) that no reasonable person could mistake the parody for the Real Thing, and (2) that the parody hasn’t cut into the Real Thing’s sales. The easiest way to avoid this fix is to make the parody as unlike its target as possible, but that rather defeats the purpose. So parodists find themselves sweating to duplicate the look and tone and subject matter of a particular publication, while at the same time making clear to the even densest readers that what they’re holding isn’t that publication. It’s a rare and delicate art, and it’s how parodists justify their massive paychecks (joke).

Playboy and Gallery covers

May 1972 Playboy and the November 1972 debut issue of Gallery.

Occasionally, however, some enterprising pirate cuts through the niceties and kidnaps a format in broad daylight, strictly for profit. In 1972, a businessman named Ronald Fenton launched a men’s magazine called Gallery, with lawyer F. Lee Bailey as figurehead publisher. “Fenton not only copied the Playboy formula — he copied the magazine line for line, picture for picture, party joke for party joke,” Aaron Latham wrote in New York soon after the first issue appeared. “The only thing he changed was the name” — and even there he made sure to imitate Playboy’s distinctive logo. Time cracked that Gallery was “perhaps meant to be mistaken for [Playboy] on newsstands by the nearsighted,” and said Hugh Hefner’s lawyers were inspecting the first issue for possible copyright infringement; even Bailey thought the mag was too obviously a Playboy clone. “Gallery’s next issue is to be partly redesigned,” Time noted, “but Fenton is unworried. ‘All magazines,’ he says blandly, ‘have similarities.'”

Covers of Reader's Digest and Conservative Digest

The Digest and its “pure chance” lookalike (from Tom Crawford’s  Legal Guide for the Visual Artist).

Hefner chose to ignore Gallery, which soon shed its Playboyish pretensions and became just another skin mag. Giant Reader’s Digest (circulation 17 million) wasn’t so sanguine in 1985, when a small Colorado-based monthly named Conservative Digest (circulation 15,000) shrank its page size and began printing its table of contents on the cover. Though the contents were back inside after two issues, Reader’s Digest sued for copyright and trademark infringement anyway and asked for $1.2 million. In June 1986 U.S. District Court Judge Gerhard Gesell found that Conservative Digest had “copied Reader’s Digest’s trade dress in a manner which created a likelihood of confusion,” but awarded the larger magazine only $500 for trademark infringement and nothing for actual damages. Gesell reproved the big Digest for “relentlessly” pursuing the small one, but he saved his sharpest zinger for Conservative Digest editor Scott Stanley Jr.: “Mr. Stanley … testified that he did not copy Reader’s Digest‘s front cover but by chance happened to achieve complete identity while casually developing his own ideas for a new cover using a design computer,” the judge wrote in a footnote. “This testimony, reminiscent of Greek mythology recording the birth of Athena who sprang full-grown from the head of Zeus, is not worthy of belief and is rejected.”

Dingbats from Time and Cavalcade

Dueling dingbats, Time’s on top.

For truly blatant appropriation, it’s best to be outside U.S. jurisdiction altogether. Every newsmagazine since 1923 has lifted its basic format from Time, but Britain’s Cavalcade took everything else, too — from the cheeky tone and convoluted syntax to the shape of the dingbats separating short news items. Cavalcade would have been the first British newsmagazine, but editor Alan Campbell’s former employer got wind of his plans and beat him to press in early 1936 with a rival called News Review.

Inside pages of Time and Cavalcade

“Frankly plagiarizing”: March 1, 1937, Time and May 15, 1937, Cavalcade.

Time didn’t lose much sleep over either imitator, though it did call them “frankly plagiarizing” in a story on their launch. It was especially cutting about Cavalcade’s “casual way of commenting on the parallel” in its first issue: The only mention of Time was a footnote blandly calling it “a news-magazine published in the United States.'” As a news-magazine published in Great Britain, Cavalcade lasted about two years, then became a newsprint tabloid. News Review also grew less like Time over the years and ran out of the same in 1950.

Publications that wouldn’t hesitate to sic the law on imitators tend to tolerate parodists because it makes them seem good sports, because parodists aren’t rich, and because parodies usually have the word PARODY printed on them in great big type. Unlike copycats, parodists want buyers to know they’re getting a spoof — especially if the spoof costs more than the real thing. (In 1982, some newsstands mistakenly sold the $2.00 “Off The Wall Street Journal” as the real Journal, price 50 cents.) Most importantly, parodies are one-shots, usually gone by the time the Real Thing’s next issue hits the stands. But when they’re done right, one is enough. — VCR

Esquire’s “Ladies Whom BeCause,” 1962.

Ladies Whom BeCause cover

Parody Of: McCall’s / Ladies’ Home JournalTitle: “Ladies Whom BeCause.”
Parody In: Esquire.  Date: July 1962. Pages: 7. Contributors: Howard Zieff (photos), John McCray (art); no writer credits. Availability: Not hard to find.

Esquire cover, July 1962.

Esquire, July 1962.

Every so often, a magazine develops an unexpected craving for parodies, features them for a few years, then moves on. Take Esquire: Starting with “BeCause” in 1962, over the next 12 years it parodied Mad, Scientific American, The Saturday Evening Post, Ms. and People. It also imagined some unlikely newstand nuptials (“I, Playboy, take thee, Reader’s Digest…,” August 1965) and swiped Playboy’s “Interview” format for a chat with Hugh Hefner (December 1970). The most elaborate take-off ran in the December 1969 issue: an eight-page preview of The New York Times for November 8, 1976. One prescient feature caught up with former President Nixon, who had resigned halfway through his second term.

Esquire's full-page boiling water photo.

Fun with water in “BeCause.”

Esquire’s editor for most of this period was Harold Hayes, who had edited the student magazine at Wake Forest in the late ’40s, but the uncredited brains behind “Ladies Whom BeCause” were most likely David Newman and Robert Benton, two young editors who worked well as a team and had similar senses of humor. (They later went to Hollywood and grabbed the brass ring on their first try with the screenplay for Bonnie and Clyde.) Newman cut his editorial teeth at the Michigan Gargoyle in the mid-’50s, and Benton was a veteran of the Texas Ranger. They handled Esquire’s annual college issue and came up with a number of college-mag-like features, including the Dubious Achievement Awards and the March 1967 parody, “Sceintific [sic] American.”

As its name suggests, “Ladies Whom BeCause” is a mash-up of Ladies’ Home Journal and McCall’s, mostly the latter. Founded in 1873, McCall’s was the oldest of the “seven sisters” women’s magazines* but consistently played second fiddle to the Curtis Publishing Company’s Journal. That changed in the late 1950s, after art director Otto Storch gave McCall’s a major redesign emphasizing full-page illustrations closely integrated with headlines and text. “Mr. Storch used a variety of photographic processes to make type twist, turn and vibrate in the days before computers made such special effects commonplace,” Steven Heller wrote in Storch’s New York Times obituary. The look was widely imitated and proved popular with readers; in 1960, McCall’s passed the Journal in circulation for the first time ever.

John McCray's art for Ladies Whom BeCause

John McCray’s double-page pastiche of illustrator Brian Sanders in “Ladies Whom BeCause.”

Real Brian Sanders art from the '60s

Real Sanders art from the ’60s.

Like its targets, Esquire was Life-sized in the ’60s and had room to mock these innovations in all their wide-screen splendor. An article titled “22 Fun Things to Do With Boiling Water” deploys a few skimpy lines of text on a full-bleed photo in a triumph of presentation over content. That goes double, literally, for John McCray’s two-page illustration for the inevitable boy-meets-girl short story, where the central couple almost disappear in a gray-green subway station painted in the classic ’60s style of Brian Sanders. (Sanders’s art is so closely associated with the era that AMC hired him forty years later to do posters for Mad Men.)

Real McCall's cover for December 1961

Real McCall’s cover, Dec. 1961.

Not all the jokes are visual. “What is your own personal definition of an isosceles triangle?” one reader asks advice columnist “Sen. Mildred H. Pauling,” who gives an equally “personal” reply. A vacuous gossip column by “the Duchess of Mortmain and Avon” kids its targets’ longtime weakness for Big Name contributors with little or nothing to say. Even the hyperventilating cover text echoes that on the real McCall’s cover the previous December, and needs only slight exaggeration to become pure blathering giddiness. (In fairness, McCall’s editors seem to have been having the same kind of fun themselves.)

Parodists, most of them male, have been mocking magazines for women since at least the 1920s, often with a heavy overlay of clueless condescension. “Ladies Whom BeCause” isn’t free of such blemishes, but it partly compensates for them by being impeccably dressed. — VCR

—————————————-
* The others: Ladies’ Home Journal (1883-2014), Good Housekeeping (1885- ), Redbook (1903- ), Better Homes & Gardens (1922- ), Women’s Day (1931- ), Family Circle (1932- ). McCall’s died in 2002, two years after Rosie O’Donnell was named editorial director and one year after its name was changed to Rosie.

Spy’s 10-Magazine Parody Pack, 1991

Spy's parody of Vanity Fair and People

Vanity Fair and People as spoofed by Spy, 1991.

Parody Of (in order): Vanity Fair, People, The New Republic, Architectural Digest, Esquire, Rolling Stone, New York, GQ, New York Times Book Review, Harper’s.
Title: “Coming Soon to a Newsstand Near You.” Parody In: Spy, August 1991. Pages: 9. Contributors: Uncredited.  Availability: Not hard to find.

Spy cover, August 1991

Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter launched Spy in 1986 as a new kind of humor magazine, one that would mock New York’s rich and powerful by snarkily dissecting their actual behavior rather than making stuff up: “Not parody, [but] satire,” the prospectus said. But parody’s ability to make satire look believable proved too tempting to resist, and after a few years Spy took to running pieces that were fact-based without quite being real, like 1990’s Annual Corporate Report from the Gambino crime family. Another, more fanciful feature (“A Casino Too Far,” August 1990) used fake newspaper clippings to show Donald Trump’s fall from mogulhood to bankruptcy over the next six years. If they’d just looked a few decades further …

Intro page of Spy article

Spy, Aug. 1991, p. 45.

Spy’s “Coming Soon to a Newsstand Near You” also peered into the future, but only a few months, and only to cover an event everyone knew was coming: the September 1991 publication of Harlot’s Ghost, Norman Mailer’s much-ballyhooed novel about the CIA. On Spy’s newsstand, Mailer’s 1,300-page gobstopper is mere grist for the editorial mill. “Harper’s” counts the book’s four-letter words for its Index. “People” probes Mailer’s love life, while “GQ” and “Architectural Digest” grade his clothing and shelter. “Esquire’s” Jim Harrison can barely hear Mailer over the burble of his own gastric juices, and “Vanity Fair’s” Nancy Collins turns what should be a portrait of the artist into an advertisement for herself. In the broadest and funniest bit, Jan Wenner drops names, diet tips and the conversational thread in a “Rolling Stone” interview with his clearly bored subject:

JW: “You know what Mick does to stay fit? One weekend a month he does nothing but drink carrot juice.”
NM: “Mick?”
JW: “Jagger.”…
NM: “The ectomorph? With the articulated rib cage?”
JW: “Yeah. Now, you wrote The Executioner’s Song, right? …

Spy's parodies of Rolling Stone and New York

Spy’s “Rolling Stone” and (inset) “New York.”

Salman Rushdie in the “Times Book Review” and Leon Wieseltier in “The New Republic” are almost as self-absorbed, though they name-check Musil and Doctorow rather than Jagger. The navel-gazing climaxes with a gossipy “New York” magazine item about the story behind Wenner’s interview with Mailer that doesn’t even mention the book. And it’s not like those who do stick to the subject have much to say: A running gag shows each publication struggling to make something out of the same ho-hum Mailer remark: “A damned fat old man, that’s what I am.”

The parodies range in length from a few sentences to double-page spreads and are visually and typographically impeccable. As always with Spy, some of the choicest bits are in the tiniest type: Headlines on fake mini-mag covers include “The 50 Greatest Fretless-Bass Players” (“Rolling Stone”) and “The Oreo Returns” (“New York”). Humor magazines regularly ran multi-title “Burlesque Numbers” like this in the 1920s and ’30s, but for some reason they fell out of favor after World War II. Spy’s “Newsstand” is proof the old formula still has life in it. — VCR

Six fake covers for Spy's parodies

Tiny covers from p. 45, enlarged.

Harvey Kurtzman’s “Sporty Illustrations,” 1957

Will Elder's SI cover in Trump #2, March 1957.

Will Elder’s SI cover in Trump #2, March 1957.

Parody Of: Sports Illustrated. Title: “Sporty Illustrations.” Parody In: Trump magazine. Date: March 1957. Pages: 10. Contributors: Harvey Kurtzman, Bernard Shir-Clif (writers), Will Elder, Jack Davis, Al Jaffee (art). Availability: Reprinted in Trump: The Complete Collection (Fantagraphics, coming August 30, 2016).

1956 Sports Illustrated cover.

Real SI, 1956.

I’ve had my hopes dashed before, but it looks like Harvey Kurtzman’s Trump is finally being reprinted 60 years after its brief run in 1956-57. Trump was the carrot Playboy’s Hugh Hefner used to lure Kurtzman and most of his artists away from Mad. The year before, Kurtzman had convinced Bill Gaines to turn Mad into a 25-cent magazine, but he still wanted more control and a bigger budget. Hefner offered both, but the sudden death of Collier’s in December 1956 spooked his bankers. Despite strong newsstand sales, Trump died after two issues, which quickly became collectors’ items. Thanks to Fantagraphics, new readers can now enjoy Kurtzman’s most elaborate magazine parody, “Sporty Illustrations.”

Launched in August 1954, Sports Illustrated was the first new magazine from Time Inc. since Life, and it took an upper-middle-brow approach to what most publishers considered a low-brow subject. Irreverent Time-Lifers christened the new mag “Muscles.” To erase that image — and the doubts of high-end advertisers — the early SI devoted as much space to yachting, ballooning, dog shows and other snooty pursuits as it did to ball games: In the first year there were two covers on bird-watching.

Two pages of Mad's article on sports magazines.

Mad #32 (April 1957), art by Bob Clarke.

All this was catnip for parodists: The Dartmouth Dart’s “Spots Illustrated” appeared just four months after SI’s first issue; by June 1956, college humorists at Valparaiso, Ohio State, Maryland and Annapolis had followed suit. Almost simultaneously with “Sporty Illustrations,” Mad #32 mocked “Sports Sophisticated” in a feature asking, “What’s Happened to Sports Magazines?”

Kurtzman gets in his own digs at the idea of a sports mag for people too well-bred to sweat: Al Jaffee’s photo roundup includes rich Texans spurring Sherpas up Everest and an “action” shot of a chess match. A column of ads drawn by Will Elder ends with a biodome-like golf cart the player never has to leave.  The one piece on a popular team sport is Bernard Shir-Clif’s reconstruction of President Taft throwing out the first ball of the 1912 season.

Three pages from Sporty Illustrations.

Davis’s climbers and Elder’s puffers in “Sporty Illustrations”

The chief delights of “Sporty Illustrations” are its absurdity and its art. These come together beautifully in a two-page feature, drawn by Jack Davis, that takes one of early SI’s favorite visual motifs — the full-page, full-color photo of Not Much — and gradually morphs it into a Canadian Club ad.

Al Jaffee's bullfight art for Sporty Illustrations.

Al Jaffee mocks SI’s early taste for arty photos of uncommon sports.

It’s rare for a parody of a slick magazine to feature art as slick as its target’s, but Davis, Elder and Jaffee were at the height of their powers for Trump. Jaffee’s “artistic” bullfight picture actually is that, and Elder’s six-panel “Sgt. Bilker” strip is both painterly and cartoony, an early glimpse of the style he used in “Little Annie Fanny.” Davis’s art in particular is miles beyond what he was doing for Mad just months earlier.

Perhaps some of Kurtzman’s dissatisfaction at Mad grew from a belief that Davis, Elder and others (including himself) could only do their best work on a canvas worthy of their talents. If so, Trump’s two issues were enough to prove him right. — VCR

 

Harvey Kurtzman’s “Daily Poop,” 1954

Front page of Mad's Daily Poop.

Parody Of: The New York Daily NewsTitle: “Daily Poop.”
Parody In: Mad comics #16. Date: October 1954. Pages: 6.
Contributors: Harvey Kurtzman (writer), Jack Davis (art).
Availability: Findable. Reprinted in The Mad Reader (Ballantine, 1954), Mad, Vol. 3, No. 13-17 (Russ Cochran, 1987), Tales Calculated to Drive You Mad #6 (E.C. Publication, Spring 1999), The Mad Archives, Vol. 3 (Mad, 2012) and maybe elsewhere.

1954-mad-cov-smHarvey Kurtzman’s “Newspapers!” in Mad #16 is basically a six-page takeoff of the New York Daily News, but it’s preceded by a warning to comic book readers that tabloid journalism’s focus on sex and violence is corrupting American adults. Though clearly a satire of the 1950s anti-comics crusade, Kurtzman’s loathing of the prurience and vulgarity of the tabs is obvious, and his parody is cold-eyed, precise and damning. (So damning, in fact, that it subverts the story’s moral: If comic books are no worse than tabloids like this, maybe they should both be banned.) Even the name “Daily Poop” evokes a not-so-subtle Swiftian revulsion.

Angry letters to the Daily Poop

Proto-trolls commenting in the “Poop.”

The “Daily Poop’s” typeset text and four-column layout reflect Kurtzman’s growing desire to escape the comic-book format and put out a “real” humor magazine. He got his wish the next year, after the same anti-comics crusaders mocked in “Newspapers!” ran E.C.’s other titles off the newsstands, leaving Bill Gaines practically no choice but to convert Mad into a 25-cent magazine beyond the reach of the Comics Code Authority. It’s funny how these things work out, sometimes.

Parts of the “Daily Poop” are silly in the usual Mad way, such as an ad for “Nu-Mal-Trition,” the new weight-loss miracle that “merely knocks you unconscious for days on end.” Elsewhere, Kurtzman and Davis use Mad’s anarchic clutter to portray a society rapidly devolving toward mindlessness: Celebrity gossip crowds out news; movie ads shrink to pictures of lips and one-word titles (“Dames,” “Love,” “Kill”); letters to the editor grow shorter and angrier until all they convey is threats of violence. The world of the “Daily Poop” is a lot like Idiocracy’s. Or ours. — VCR

1954-mad16-poo4-sm

1954-mad16-poo-ad1-sm

 

The Most Parodied Magazine?

Parodies of Life, The New Yorker, Playboy and Time.

College parodies from Missouri (1937), Yale (1961), Arizona (1955) and Penn State (1928)

(WARNING: The following observations are based on the author’s own haphazard — though extensive — collecting and are informed speculation, not gospel. It is even possible  his list of Most Parodied Magazines is imperfect and should include Confidential, Liberty, Mad, National Geographic, Police Gazette, Popular Mechanics, Rolling Stone or Vogue. Further research is called for, as they say in grant proposals.)

What is the most parodied magazine of all time? Playboy thinks it is, but magazine parodies were popular decades before Playboy. The ’20s saw an explosion of “Burlesque Numbers” on campus and in Life and Judge. College mags put out “annual” parody issues  — sometimes decades apart — until they fell on hard times in the ’60s everywhere but Cambridge. Newsstand parodies spiked in the early ’30s and boomed in the ’70s and ’80s in the wake of National Lampoon.

Four New Yorker parodies.

New Yorker parodies from Duke (1941), Ohio State (1947), Punch (1954) and Harvard (1976).

Titles from The Harvard Law Review to Strictly Elvis have been spoofed multiple times, but only a few can draw parodists year after year the way a flame draws moths. My own list contains an even dozen, only four of whom are contenders for the Top Spot. In order of appearance (or reappearance after major surgery), the eight runners-up are:

  • Ladies’ Home Journal (1883)
  • The Saturday Evening Post (revamped 1897)
  • Reader’s Digest (1922)
  • Esquire (1933)
  • TV Guide (1953)
  • Sports Illustrated (1954)
  • Cosmopolitan (revamped 1964)
  • People (1974)

The Journal was the first magazine with one million subscribers; the Post the first with twice that. Their oversize pages were thick with four-color ads and the best illustrations money could buy, which likely made some would-be parodists despair of getting a likeness. Similarly with Esquire, though its risqué content in the ’30s and ’40s led many collegians to plunge ahead regardless. Spoofing the Digest or TV Guide in normal-sized magazines posed an unwelcome choice: Print the parody separately (expensive), or run it sideways, two-up (awkward). SI, Cosmo and People are among the top targets of the past forty years, but they missed all or part of college-parody era.

Four Playboy parodies.

Playboy parodies from Texas (1956), U. Mass (1964), West Point (1965), and Berkeley (1966).

So who are the top targets? Chronologically, the Four Most Parodied Magazines Ever are:

  • Time (1923)
  • The New Yorker (1925)
  • Life (1936)
  • Playboy (1953)

The top twelve share three qualities that appeal to parodists:

Familiarity: It’s no fun imitating something nobody recognizes. All these magazines except The New Yorker and Esquire achieved multi-million circulations, and all except Life and People ran at least sixty years. (People will reach that milestone in 2034; Life’s logo still turns up on newsstand specials.) All are, or were, Top Dogs in their respective categories: There are ten parodies of Time for every one of Newsweek, and the ratio is similar for Playboy over Penthouse and Life over Look.

Personality: Parody thrives on distinctive voices and viewpoints: the tortured syntax and “jeering rancor” of early Timestyle, the folksy certainty and small-town conservatism of Reader’s Digest. A strong personality also keeps a magazine from vanishing up its own genre. There are many parodies of movie, scandal and pulp-fiction mags, for instance, but few target one particular title. (Science-fiction parodies, on the other hand, tend to be very specific.)

Adaptability: A “magazine” was originally a storehouse, and the most parodied can accomodate a huge variety of goods in many sizes. Ten of our twelve could plausibly run a story on any subject, though some would skew it toward a particular demographic; the other two cover television and sports, which barely restricts them. Parodists also favor magazines that run many pieces of varying lengths and styles rather than a few long ones; they’re more likely to tackle the New York Times Book Review than the New York Review of BooksThe New Yorker is a partial exception here, but its air of detached, worldly amusement was a model for four decades of college humorists, and the urge to try on Eustace Tilley’s monocle often proved irresistible. It still does, if this summer’s “Nuë Jorker” is any indication.

Despite that, The New Yorker isn’t THE most parodied magazine. Neither is the other third-place contender, Life, though the first full-length parody appeared within months of its debut (the Missouri Showme’s “Strife,” February 1937). Playboy is comfortably ahead of both, but hasn’t inspired a notable parody in the U.S. since “Playbore” and “Playboy: The Parody” fought it out on newsstands in 1983-84. Which leaves Time.

Mock Times from, top row: Annapolis (1928), Harvard's Advocate (1932) and Lampoon (1941), Dartmouth (1948), Ohio State (1948); bottom row: Alabama (1952), Davidson (1953), Punch (1960), National Lampoon (1984), Emory (1998).

Mock Times from, top row: Annapolis (1928), Harvard’s Advocate (1932) and Lampoon (1941), Dartmouth (1948) and Ohio State (1948); bottom row: Alabama (1952), Davidson (1953),
Punch (1960), National Lampoon (1984) and Emory (1998).

The Penn State Froth’s “Froth Time” of January 1928 is the earliest Time parody I’m aware of. The Navy Log and Yale Record piled on the same year, and in the late ’40s and ’50s parodies of Time popped up on one campus or another almost every month. The Harvard Lampoon issued four between 1941 and 1989. At the other extreme, in 1953 Davidson College’s Scripts ‘n Pranks slimed Time in its only full-length parody ever.

Newsstand mags that have mocked Time include Vanity Fair (in 1933), Ballyhoo, Punch, Esquire and National LampoonThe New Yorker’s 1936 “Time, Fortune, Life, Luce,” written by Wolcott Gibbs in maliciously heightened Timestyle, is thought to be the most reprinted magazine parody ever. It’s certainly the most quoted: “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind” supplied the title for a Gibbs anthology only a few years ago. Just recently, Tom Connor and Jim Downey (“re-Wired,” “Is Martha Stuart Living?”) released a 64-page one-shot with “President-Elect” Donald Trump inside the famous red border.

In February 1952, the University of Alabama Rammer Jammer celebrated the school’s centennial with its “first 100% parody issue,” called, appropriately, “Tide.” (One contributor was a junior named Gay Talese.) “We had several national magazines in mind before we struck our colors to Time,” editor Leo Willette wrote. “Though a good portion of our readers had heard of The New Yorker, only about ten percent ever read it with anything approaching regularity…. Comparable shortcoming manifested themselves with Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal, True, Argosy and most of the spectrum of reading fare. In Time, we assume, the student will find a familiar friend. Then, too, Time (1) has a style not difficult to interpret and copy; [and] (2) gives outlet for a potpourri of short, easily digested chunks of gripes and gags….”

What more could a parodist want — except, maybe, a centerfold? — VCR