Monday, July 18, 2016

The American Bystander

Jason Zinoman in The New York Times.

Cover by Charles Barsotti, Issue #2, Spring 2016.

The first issue of The American Bystander, a new print-only humor magazine, began with a letter from the publisher predicting failure. “This is willfully re-launching the Titanic,” Michael Gerber wrote last fall, “knowing full well it will sink.”

Founding a magazine that you can’t read online does seem like the kind of thing Max Bialystock would do if he went into publishing instead of musical theater. But the old-fashioned form happens to be a perfect match for the refined pleasures of this delightful publication, an essential read for comedy nerds.

The American Bystander, whose second issue came out last week and which can be ordered online, does not just belong to the tradition of defunct magazines like The National Lampoon and Spy. Its nostalgic, lightly witty style evokes influences that have been dead even longer, like the raconteur Jean Shepherd and the sophisticated stylist Robert Benchley. 

In an era when so much comedy is boisterous and engaged with the world, The American Bystander’s humor is understated and escapist, steering clear of topicality and political jokes. The only time the new issue mentions Donald J. Trump is to illustrate how 30 years of satire have failed to diminish him. 

Internet headlines may boast about political satirists destroying and eviscerating their subjects, but this magazine has different ambitions, and while they may seem more modest, don’t be fooled. Call it comedy for comedy’s sake.

An attractively produced mix of quick-hit jokes, cartoons, fake advertisements, interviews, first-person essays and deep-dive satire, the magazine is united by an arch tone that provides a nice backdrop for its periodic descent into silliness.

In an essay with slow-building momentum, Todd Hanson, the original head writer of The Onion (which stopped publishing in print in 2013), contributes a “sprawling epic micro-novella” about his firm conviction that the game rock, paper, scissors makes no sense. “Rock obviously punches hole in paper,” he explains. “Anyone can see that.”

What begins as a clever spoof of righteous logic spins into a parody of a paranoid activist, as his cause leads him to challenge the government, face down insurrection and become embroiled in a lonely battle for a lost cause. It’s a twisty story that earns its laughs by continually finding ways to extend the joke.

The comedian Dave Hill and the comic writer Katie Schwartz offer more earthbound stories hinging on the romantic or erotic lives of older people, and Mallory Ortberg, who writes the Dear Prudence column for Slate, mixes satire and savvy film criticism in a precise gem of an essay that imagines how life would be perfect, if only Stanley Tucci were your boyfriend.

Much of the magazine is filled with work by gifted writers whose names are far more obscure than their work, including critical contributors to The Simpsons (Al Jean, George Meyer) and the talk shows of David Letterman (Merrill Markoe, Steve Young). 

Many highlights of the first two issues come from Jack Handey, whose perfectly constructed absurdism appeared in “Deep Thoughts” on Saturday Night Live. It’s wonderful to see what he does with a larger word count — like a loony epistolary dialogue about Count Dracula with Brian McConnachie, head writer for The American Bystander — but he still shines most in the short form. 

His brief story The Escape Artist is a model of misdirection: “I knew it wouldn’t be easy. Before the guard got back, I had to convince the monkey to get the keys and open the cell door, then cut the ropes on my hands, then make me a nice breakfast.”

The American Bystander reaches for chuckles more often than belly laughs. That twee tone can veer too close to the muted humorists at The New Yorker, which is aggressively satirized in another recent example of literary humour, The Neu Jorker, a meticulously realized 80-page parody of that media institution. It initiates the look, style and tone right down to small ads for antiques or obscure businesses.

In his publisher’s letter in the latest issue of The American Bystander, Mr. Gerber tried to explain his refusal to fail by suggesting that his magazine was a reaction to the glut of cheap, easily accessible content. 

But these new experiments in literary comedy are also a result of the peculiar shape of the current comedy boom, a vast, fractured scene that has produced a multitude of niches and audiences as obsessive as music fans about arcana and overlooked artists.

In other words, a rising tide could even lift the Titanic — at least for a little while.

Inside Issue #2

Frontispiece: Easter Island by Bill Lee
Publisher’s Letter by Michael Gerber 
Talk Talk Talk by Liana Finck 
The Woman Who Forgot by MK Brown 
Gallimaufry by Mallory Ortberg, John Howell Harris, Jack Silbert, David Misch, Matthew Grzecki, Jack Handey, Paul Lander, Megan Koester, Mike Shear, Jay Ruttenberg, Matthew Powers, Dennis Perrin, Mark Bazer, The Covert Comic, Al Jean, Eric Branscum, Katie Schwartz, Ryan Nyburg, River Clegg, Joey Green, Geoffrey Golden and Sean Kelly 
The Great Pretenders by Julia Wertz 
Musicians You Should Know by Jay Ruttenberg & Mike Reddy 
Jury Selection by Simon Rich 
Eleven Short Stories by Jack Handey 
8PM – Curb Your Enthusiasm by Megan Koester 
Have A Nice Day, Forever by Doug Kirby & Ken Smith
If Stanley Tucci Was Your Boyfriend by Mallory Ortberg
Welcome to Infinity World by John Howell Harris
Unbroken by Dave Hanson
What I Will Say To The Three People At My Book Reading by Merrill Markoe
The Ding-Dong Hoodlum Priest by Brian McConnachie
The Right Drink for Any Occasion by Michael Thornton
Leash-less in Seattle by Shary Flenniken 
Just So You Know by Bill Franzen
The Mad Mascot of Soho by Ron Barrett
The End by Nell Scovell
Odd Birds by Rick Meyerowitz and Sean Kelly
#sicsemperpapyrus by Todd Hanson
I Love My Gun by Seymour Chwast 
The Dracula Letters by Jack Handey and Brian McConnachie
The Elements of Strunk by Jamie Brew
Interview: Sam Lipsyte by Mike Sacks
What Went Wrong by Steve Young
I Conquered Kilimanjaro (…Nearly!) by Mike Reiss
Anapest by David Chelsea
With Bells On by Dave Hill
Making My Amends by Merrill Markoe
Zayde’s First Blow Job by Katie Schwartz
There Are No Free Elephant Rides in Life by Brian McConnachie
I Can Teach Anyone To Play Piano! by Michael Ian Black
Whether Report by Peter Kuper
Public Hair by Julia Wertz and Laura Park
The Day Dad Came to Breakfast by Howard Cruse
John Wilcock: New York Years — Jean Shepherd by Ethan Persoff and Scott Marshall
Towel Off! by Nate Bramble
The Diary of Merrill Markoe by Merrill Markoe
What’s An Aging Hipster to Do? by Mimi Pond
Crossword #1: “Comic Duo-logues” by Matthew Matera and Alan Goldberg

“Is the Christian pious?”

With cartoons & illustrations by Ron Barrett, Charles Barsotti, Kate Beaton, Louisa Bertman, Chris Bonno, M.K. Brown, Roz Chast, David Chelsea, Seymour Chwast, John Cuneo, Liza Donnelly, Xeth Feinberg, Liana Finck, Shary Flenniken, Rick Geary, David Geiser, Pia Guerra, Sam Henderson, Brandon Hicks, Farley Katz, Ken Krimstein, Peter Kuper, Rick Meyerowitz, P.S. Mueller, Joe Oesterle, David Owen, Jonathan Plotkin, Mike Reddy, Marc Rosenthal, Cris Shapan, Mark Simonson, Michael Sloan, Mick Stevens, Len Stokes, B.K. Taylor, Tom Toro, D. Watson, Julia Wertz, Shannon Wheeler, Derek Yaniger, and Jack Ziegler.

The American Bystander #2
large format (8.5x11)
126 pages
$25 US


"Why Falling in a Manhole Isn’t Funny" by Steven Heller in Print.

Cartoon by Seymour Chwast

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