There will never be another magazine quite like Spy, the ethnocentric, caustic, small-print-obsessed New York monthly that defined aggressive irony for a generation. It's been dead for a decade, but now, some of it is back in Spy: The Funny Years, a large-format book that teases jonesing readers with a sprinkling of full article reprints and a lot of office-party reminiscences. While most of the magazine's signature features and design innovations are represented, nostalgia and history would both be better-served by a collection of Spy's best, rather than a breezy narrative of its rise and decline illustrated by too few of its high points.
Spy: The Funny Years is restricted to the period when co-authors Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter ran the magazine, and for once, the insular hubris that marks their retrospective prose is justified; after their departure, Spy was no longer funny. Devotees may recall letting their subscriptions lapse around the time of the Hillary Clinton-in-bondage-gear cover. Meanwhile, other magazines gradually took on more and more Spy-like trappings—eventually, Esquire, New York, Vanity Fair, and, heck, Entertainment Weekly kept the worst of the withdrawal symptoms at bay. Random lists, charted minutiae, maps with obsessively detailed legends, chronicles of cannibalistic media, mockery of celebrity culture, heads floating free on the page—all were invented or perfected by Spy. And none of those tropes have been the same since, possibly because Spy's fearless savagery was rooted in a love/hate relationship with New York City, and its imitators try to translate that elusive tone for their far-flung, less-specific demographics.
Every reader will have a favorite Spy moment unrepresented here, like the chart examining various branches of a cafeteria chain in the city, with a column for "How easy is it to steal the sour cream?" ("Appeared impossible—didn't even try," read one entry.) But what grates most about this expensive tome is how inside-baseball it turns out to be. The 50-cent tour of the Puck building wouldn't be too bad for a chapter or so. But nobody asked for Spy: The True Hollywood Story. Reruns and reprints would be more valuable—and much funnier—than most of this book's self-congratulatory filler.