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Understated Elegance [braapp!]
The view from Here at The American Bystander
Hi hello there from hazy, slightly humid Santa Monica, where I am ringing in Labor Day weekend in the traditional manner: sitting at my desk eating pretzels so salty they make my feet swell. It’s hot in my apartment friends, and I’m writing this at great speed between one type of needle (flu shot) and another (Worsley acupuncture). So forgive, forbear, and be kind—mea culpa if this all sounds like Lewis Lapham after a case of warm PBR. “I am reminded of a quotation from [braaapppp] Gnaeus Julius Agricola…”
I have been thinking a lot about the future of The American Bystander. Don’t worry, it’s permanent—you’re talking to the guy who has spent 34 years and counting reviving his old college humor magazine just because. When I refound something, it stays refounded; if only AT+T had taken my phone calls about MAD! And I’d really love to get my hands on Playboy. Is there an audience for Playboy, in this PornHub/OnlyFans era? I say yes, especially as severe weather increasingly imperils our electrical grid. Paper, gentlemen, spicy photos on paper. The only real question is, are today’s Hollywood stars truly iconic enough to build secret sex tunnels to the Mansion, like Beatty and Nicholson did?
Before you ask, there are no sex tunnels, secret or otherwise, under 1122 Sixth St.; there was a hot tub in the basement, but at some point it was filled in. This building was built in 1970 with no A/C but—priorities—a hot tub and, next door to that, a “party room.” Now both rooms stink of mildew and are full of half-broken exercise equipment. This is not progress. Sometimes things get worse, and you have to take the future by the neck and shake.
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Getting back to The Bystander, there is a paragraph that rattles around in my head—I think it’s from Here at The New Yorker; it certainly sounds like Brendan Gill. I never met Gill, Yale Class of ’36, but I’ve known whole Society tombs’ worth of gents like him, and the snobbier they are, the more effusive I become towards them. “My God,” they think, “is he going to give me a hug?” And sometimes I do.
In his genial, slightly bitchy, probably only quasi-truthful history of what once was America’s Preppiest Magazine, Gill tries to explain why a publication ostensibly aimed at Manhattan’s upper crust was able to survive—and even thrive—during the Great Depression. People always need yeast, that is true, but it wasn’t Raoul Fleischman’s largesse keeping The New Yorker in business, it was something much simpler.
“It wasn’t the dowagers of the Upper East Side that came to Ross’ magazine in its time of need,” I think Gill wrote,” but all the suburban housewives in places like Grosse Pointe and Winnetka, who felt that The New Yorker sitting on their coffee table gave their home a certain something.”
You’ll forgive me for tooting my own kazoo (there’s OnlyFans calling), but I think The American Bystander also conveys a certain something, maybe even more than the post-Advance New Yorker does. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad ol’ Eustace Tilley still stalks the land, monocle in hand, and only wish he were ten times bigger and more prosperous—but the idea that the current institution is anything like the pullulating mass of ink-stained lunatics Gill describes is absurd. The New Yorker filled in its hot tub, if you ask me, the moment Tina Brown came on board, with her notions of “heat” and “synergy.” The whole point of the old lunatic New Yorker was that it was a century’s worth of slightly sus Prepster Culture congealed onto ink and paper; ne’er-do-well second sons, coldwater baths, peeling paint on iconic architecture, posture photos, cutting people at The Lizzy, Golden Labs with bandanas; interminable classes with crotchety professors talking about the composition of Mississippi mud. The old New Yorker wasn’t hip, it wasn’t timely—and that’s what made it WONDERFUL. A major media outlet that doesn’t give a fuck about “what everyone’s talking about”? That sounds delicious.
But today, are there New Yorker writers collecting paychecks through decades of writers’ block? Is anybody drawing cartoons on the walls at One World Trade Center? I’ve only been in their new digs once—the day Bob Mankoff was cleaning out his desk—and it looked nothing like the warren populated by eccentrics Gill so lovingly describes. The New Yorker has changed, because the world has changed, and not for the better.
So there is a Preppy Weirdo gap in American culture, and I say to you now: Bystander’s going to try to fill it. In fact, we’ve been doing just that since 2015—since 1982, if I’m honest. Since TNY had to grow up—it is, to my way of thinking, the only major magazine left in America—Bystander is going to have go in the other direction. If The New Yorker is the office, Bystander needs to be the beach house: comfortable, but a bit jumbled; added onto; leaky, creaky, handsome; expensive to run but filled with history and hijinks and fun. A place confident enough to shelter oddballs and protect outsiders—even from its own ostensibly commercial purposes. Beautiful, eccentric, quietly outrageous. A little too educated, and a little too lowbrow. A little too Anglophilic, and a little too American. A little democratic, and a little too, well, snooty.
“Hold on,” I can hear my General Manager Laura Fox saying, “we’re not snooty. It’s not snooty to say The American Bystander is the best magazine in America. We are! I wouldn’t work seventy-hour weeks if that weren’t the truth. Not for what you pay me.”
Laura is right. Like Ross’ early New Yorker, The American Bystander is amazing and getting amazing-er. The issues are coming thick and fast—#26 this week, Out of Line in three weeks, #27 by Halloween. But as I sit down to write this, sweat rolling down my nose, I realize: Bystander is like a vintage car. It’s expensive, inconvenient, beautiful, utterly handmade—and that’s why I love it. It’s coach-built comedy, yesterday’s utilitarian object transformed by time into a declaration of personal style. Subscribing ot The Bystander says something about you, just like subscribing to The New Yorker said something about those ladies from Winnetka.
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You all get this; this is why our percentage of paid readers is nearly three times higher than your average Substack. And why most of our print subscribers have been with us for over five years. This isn’t a magazine, it’s a cult. Thank you.
Today, Saturday September 2, we’re unveiling our new store at theamericanbystanderstore.com. As you’ll see, it is not very funny. It is full of SEO-packed sales copy that we’ll buff up in 21 days, after Google has done its magic. It is Mammon Incarnate…and, with luck, it is going to fund decades’ worth of sophisticated silliness, one sweatshirt or pack of novelty golf balls at a time. So go buy something and wear it proudly. And when someone asks you, “What’s The American Bystander?”, smile so widely they’ll think, “This dude is going to hug me.”