Until January 7th, I had never heard of Charlie Hebdo, but when Islamic terrorists broke into the offices of what was described as “a small French satirical magazine’’ and killed dozen people, including the editor-in-chief, four other cartoonists, two other editors, an economist, a mainterance worker, and two police officers, I instantly identified with the victims. After all, I spent the happiest, headiest days of my career at a small satirical magazine called Spy, so on a visceral level, I felt a connection to those people that I did not feel with, say, the poor grocery store owner who was also murdered in the same despicable wave of violence. Je mange du pain, mais Je suis Charlie.
Thus it came as a tremendous compliment when the cartoonist Ted Rall, writing about the killings in The Los Angeles Times, said, “The Charlie Hebdo artists knew they were working at a place that not only allows them to push the envelope, but encourages it. Hell, they didn’t even tone things down after their office got bombed. They weren’t paid much, but they were having fun. The last time that I met print journalists as punk rock as those guys, they were at the old Spy magazine.’’
People were quick to call Ted out for hyperbole. Former Spy editor Larry Doyle, never one to miss an opportunity to crack wise, said on Facebook, “ The most dangerous thing I ever did at Spy was take a call from Camille Paglia.’’ Matt Weingarten, Spy’s copy chief and an erudite musicologist, observed “There are many ways to characterize the old Spy staff that come to mind, but “punk rock” is not one of them.’’ Playboy editor Jimmy Jellinek tut-tutted “ Making fun of Anthony Haden Guest is not the same as being murdered for mocking the prophet.’’
Captain Obvious couldn’t have said it better. No, we never mocked the prophet, but Jellinek, who is actually an intelligent man, surely knows that Spy was about a lot more than shooting Anthony Haden Guest in a barrel. One reason that we never mocked the prophet is that it never occurred to us to do so, any more than it occurred to us to mock Osama bin Laden or Lindsay Graham or Kanye West. They all became topical after our time. When the first bombing of the World Trade Center occurred in January 1993, those of us who were in the founding group of Spy were half out the door and soon altogether gone. You cannot blame us for not taking on targets who were still beyond the horizon. We were satirists, not soothsayers.
More importantly, we differed from Charlie Hebdo, or at least its cartoonists, in our approach to satire. Charlie’s cartoonists tarred with a wide brush, making fun of groups and group characteristics. Not us. Making fun of groups—Jews, blacks, Catholics, etc.– was an older, discredited form of humor, and we were just too liberal to do that. Too liberal, and too sharp. We mocked people, institutions, power, and once in a while ourselves. But not group stereotypes. It just wasn’t smart enough.
Not only did we never mock the prophet, but apart from a few jabs at Cardinal O’Connor and Catholicism (writing the archdiocese to ask if it okay to use a pesticide that called itself “birth control for roaches,’’ that sort of thing), we never even mocked religion all that much. I wonder, had we been in business in 2006, whether we would have joined Charlie Hebdo in republishing the dozen cartoons depicting Muhammad that had brought such trouble to the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. We might have, but quite possibly not. We would have been sympathetic to Charlie’s free speech arguments and would have wondered why Muslims insist on sacred cattlehood and can’t accept the kind of free-for-all that other religions and other institutions take for granted. But I don’t think we ever looked to become collatoral damage in somebody else’s fight. We preferred to make our own trouble.
We took on the targets that were in front of us. Some of them were manifestly dangerous people, like the KKK and mobsters. We wrote about mobsters a lot. I don’t believe we ever feared violent retribution from anyone. It is true that James Toback made some sort of ominous comment that caused us to hire a bulky fellow to man the front desk for a couple of days, but nobody went to ground. It is also true that Anthony Pellicano, the notorious Hollywood private eye who later did time in a federal penitentiary for the illegal possession of explosive, firearms and grenades, went to jail for bugging people, told my colleague John Connolly that he was going to kill me. In an entirely thoughtless and breezy manner I had mentioned his name in a parody film poster, and an unamused Pellicano took umbrage, and went out of his way to make sure that John gave me the message. Did I feel threatened? No, I felt baffled.
Far more realistic than violent payback was the risk of social and career retribution. The choice of targets cost some of my colleagues friendships and opportunities for social advancement And all of us played with our careers. All of us were young journalists, people who lived at least some of the time on our ability to access the rich and famous, and to be on the good side of their publicists and other representatives. All of us had dreams of working at magazines, writing books, getting into the movies, and yet we all chose to advance out causes by taunting the powers at the New York Times, Conde Nast, Si Newhouse, Tina Brown, Mort Zuckerman, Rupert Murdoch, Hollywood studio chiefs, television network execs, Liz Smith, and many other powerful people in the media who could affect our careers. In the end, the Spy association did not prove too damaging, although some of us occasionally paid a price. Even as recently as last year, I lost a significant publishing opportunity at the hands of someone whom I ridiculed at Spy a quarter century earlier. It was a painful loss, but I am entirely without regret. At least on one occasion the price we paid was a shot at real money; Mike Ovitz must have grown tired at being mocked in Spy once sent an underling to propose that CAA represent us in Hollywood. To their eternal credit, Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter turned down the deal with the devil. And some us declined to pay the price: one of our editors became afraid that his association with Spy would damage his literary aspirations, and quit the magazine. I thought he was a coward then, and now, after reading some of his subsequent works, I still do.
So I think Ted Rall was right. We wrote for ourselves, and we didn’t care what anybody else thought. In that way, and quite likely in that way alone, yes, we were punk rock, and in that way, yes, we were Charlie. We were Spy.