Jerry Seinfeld has been a ubiquitous cultural figure for so long that it can be easy to forget that he was once just a hip New York comic whose sharp yet clean style of observational humor made him a favorite for talk show and comedy club bookers. It’s particularly difficult to imagine Seinfeld as a hip young comic now given his recent return to the public spotlight as a cranky, out-of-touch, annoying uncle-type railing against political correctness and the kids today for being too uptight and obsessed with sensitivity to laugh at one of his exquisitely crafted gay-people-are-swishy-queens jokes.
Yet Seinfeld’s early reputation as a sharp-witted yet accessible and mainstream cut-up on the rise made him a smart choice to host Spy Magazine Presents “How To Be Famous”, a fascinatingly bizarre foray into television from Spy, the quintessentially New York magazine that ruled 1980s and early 1990s satire with its witheringly sarcastic exploration of life among the rich, famous, and vapid.
The special was written by a murderer’s row of top Spy talent that includes Graydon Carter, who segued smoothly from mocking celebrities at Spy to deifying them in the glossy pages of Vanity Fair, future scribe of gigantic novels Kurt Anderson, future Newsradio creator Paul Simms, Bruce Handy and Peter Kaminsky.
The onscreen talent on hand to support host Seinfeld is even more surreally eclectic. In addition to Republican Seinfeld, the show prominently features professional crazy Christian Victoria Jackson as, ironically, the special’s “science” correspondent, although she also uncharacteristically shares an anecdote about hanging out at the Playboy mansion (a fertile breeding ground for sin and/or venereal disease) and encourages women to wear low-cut, cleavage-revealing clothes during talk show appearances. Seinfeld and Jackson are joined by professional leftists Harry Shearer, Dick Cavett, and the Smothers Brothers, who rumor has it were once involved in comedy, though now they are known exclusively for their politics, free-speech battles, and yo-yo tricks.
The premise of the special is to offer viewers a tongue-in-cheek, faux-sociological, faintly “scientific” exploration of what was perhaps Spy’s prevalent and over-arching theme:the utter ridiculousness of American celebrity and the bizarre, one-sided, and endlessly fascinating dynamic between famous people and the public that alternately worships and bitterly resents them.
Seinfeld delivers the linking segments while wandering through the offices of Spy (look closely and you can get a glimpse of Graydon Carter in the background!). They might seem like an odd fit now, the ornery uncle and the painfully hip cool kids, but Seinfeld proves to be an inspired choice. Even then, Seinfeld was gifted in delivering lines with glib irony. Seinfeld seemed to exist within sarcastic quotation marks, which perfectly suited a satirical organization that did not take anything seriously, or anything at face value, particularly where famous people were involved.
Seinfeld introduces the six laws of staying famous, which include having talent (the least important skill, we are unsurprisingly informed), seeming intelligent (as opposed to actually being intelligent), and staying contemporary, which was advice Spy would have been wise to follow itself.
The special was able to rope in the kinds of celebrities that the magazine was devoted to mocking. Joe Namath, for example, shows up to analyze a clip of Eddie Murphy’s entourage safely shepherding the superstar from his automobile to a movie premiere the same way he would analyze a play in his capacity as a football commentator.
Ricardo Montalban, meanwhile, whose mere existence Spy found endlessly amusing, is a good enough sport to participate in a “scientific” experiment segment designed to analyze ordinary people’s response to being in the presence of a genuine celebrity where a group of people are led into a plain white room where the only attraction is Montalban’s presence. The segment is hosted by Jackson in her now-ironic role as a “science” correspondent, though as a fundamentalist Christian screeching insane accusations against President Obama to anyone who will listen, she now falls closer to the “enemy of science” camp in real life. Unlike Seinfeld, Jackson was a bad fit for Spy, even then, but the material she’s given is strong enough to overcome her dithering-sexpot delivery.
Part of the special’s humor lie in presenting the groaningly over-familiar in unexpected ways. A clip of the Rolling Stones performing onstage identifies the group only as a “middle-aged rock combo.” Even in 1990, the joke was that these geriatric dinosaurs somehow were shameless enough to charge people to see them perform songs they had been doing twenty-five years. A quarter century later, the default gag on the group would remain the same. It’s entirely likely that 25 years from now we’ll still be making Rolling Stones-are-old jokes.
The special traffics extensively in genially mean-spirited snark about the absurdity of fame and the ridiculousness of the people who cling to it but the default tone is one of wry amusement.
Spy Magazine Presents “How To Be Famous” does a shockingly good job of channeling the magazine’s smart, smartass, fame-obsessed sensibility for the equally fame-obsessed but much less smart and smartass world of network television. That helps explain why the special did not lead to a full-on series on the order of Mad TV or The Onion News Network. In one of the less inspired bits, the special marvels that Buster Poindexter could be universally beloved by New Yorkers (a statement that is objectively not true) while in Las Vegas, he’s unknown while some weird country singer named George Strait (who, outside of Spy world, is one of the most successful singers of the past 40 years) is apparently super-popular. It would have cut a little closer to home to acknowledge that Spy magazine was fucking huge in New York and a non-entity for much of the rest of the country.
Spy Magazine Presents “How To Be Famous” is a time capsule, an entertaining sociological document of the curious times and obsessions that inspired it. It’s deeply dated, but in that respect it is all too true to Spy’s legacy as well. Spy personified 1980s New York comedy, but the downside to embodying an era and a very specific sensibility so acutely is that at the dawn of the 1990s, when the special aired, it was already well on its way out.