Crowdfunded Comedy: Reviving Print Humor with The American Bystander

The Annual wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for crowdfunding, so we aim to boost up other comedic projects whenever possible.

 The American Bystander is a new humor magazine that came to publication following a successful Kickstarter campaign last November. They’re just about finished with the second issue and need your help to bring it to print. Last week we spoke to Michael Gerber, a founder and publisher of The American Bystander.

In your publisher’s letter from Issue 1 of The American Bystander you wrote “It isn’t even really a magazine. This is willfully re-launching the Titanic, knowing full well it will sink…” Do you still feel this way going into issue two?

Well, it’s funny because people have asked about that. I was partly trying to play against type because those letters are like the statement of principles in Citizen Kane. A guy sits down and scrawls the way that they’re going to change the world, and I really felt like that was not the right mindset to be going into this with. The first thing that you should know about me is that I’ve been trying to do a magazine like this since I was 22 years old and I’m 46 now. I’ve seen them come and go and I know a lot about how The [National] Lampoon worked.

Maybe five years ago, I heard from a friend of a friend that Rob Hoffman, one of the three people who founded The National Lampoon, was very ill and was probably going to die. So I called him up out of the blue, he didn’t know me from anybody, and I called him up and said “Mr. Hoffman, I just want to thank you because nobody knows that you were the person who put together the money, put together the deal, worked with Matty [Simmons] to get it all set up so Henry [Beard] and Doug [Kenney] could do their work. Nobody knows how important you were” The difference between The Lampoon and every other humor magazine before and since has been someone like Rob Hoffman at the front.

I’m no Rob Hoffman but I guess I wanted to say in that letter that we want this to turn into whatever our readers want it to turn into. If that means that it’s a grand success and has a lot of money to spend and heralds in a new golden age of this material, great! If it turns out to be just one issue or two issues, that’s okay, too. Because we’re really just following what the audience seems to want.

Issue #1 of The American Bystander
Issue #1 of The American Bystander

The typical way that people do this is they come up with a business plan and a way of repeating what the Lampoon guys did, which is pump it up into something huge and sell out after five years or whatever, and walk away never having to work again. That’s a very contemporary way of looking at things; “I’m going to start a humor magazine so I can get rich.” That’s not how Punch was started; that’s not how Mad Magazine was started. For anything that lasts over a decade you have to have a different kind of attitude. So I was poking fun at that vain, glorious situation. But I was also trying to check myself to sort of say “the point of this isn’t in five years to have The American Bystander’s version of Animal House. The point is to follow our staffers and say what do you want to do? What’s interesting and challenging? What does the world need? Not what can we sell for a big pay day.” We know what that is and we know it’s what already exists out there. It’s the lowest common-denominator stuff. By saying that, I want to say to us on a managing side and to the contributors: Look, we don’t expect to walk away millionaires from this. We expect to make beautiful stuff and that’s what we expect from you. And that’s what we expect from our readers too. We want them to enjoy it on that level, not be perceived as something we’re selling to advertisers. Their attention and their eyeballs. That’s very different than a corporate magazine or a corporate website, and I want to start out with that idea.

This is my own personal opinion, but I feel like advertising and humor combined, could cumber the potential.

Oh yeah! Mad Magazine was great as long as they didn’t take advertisers and the moment that [William B.] Gaines died and Warner [Brothers] put advertising in the book — If you’re in the business of skewering the sacred cows, the most sacred of cows is the advertiser. The most sacred of cows is capitalist kind of thing “this is the way to do it. Yeah, we’re destroying the earth but this is the only way to do it.” Once you go down that road, you’re fundamentally compromised in the eyes of your readers.

Advertisers don’t like humor magazines. They’re frightened of them, for good reason. They’re frightened of blow-back for good reason. As advertisers want more control over the editorial message in every format, whether it’s print or web or anything else. The fact that we’re starting a magazine going “Fuck you! We want to do what we want to do!” From a capitalist publishing standpoint is crazy! It’ll never work! And the only way it is going to work is if readers say “No, this is great! This should exist.”

What makes a piece of writing right for The American Bystander or are you still trying to find that voice?

The way humor magazines are usually done is a group of people with a similar sensibility get together and decide to do it. That creates the early Lampoon, Spy, the first couple of years of Spy, Mad before [Harvey] Kurtzman left in ‘58 I believe. A really intense flavor.

I didn’t want to do it that way. And I didn’t want to do it that way because this is the first post-internet humor magazine. What I feel the internet does very well is it creates little tiny areas where you can go. Like if you go to the The Toast and you read Mallory Ortberg, who’s one of my favorite writers that we use, she is unquestionably herself in an environment that unquestionably supports her and being herself. I really felt that, in the world of the internet, what people need is not that really strong flavor of five people. You see this in the early Lampoon, too. It’s great when it works. What you need is a place where you can taste a lot of different flavors and say “oh, I didn’t know about this person, I’m going to go check this person out.” What The Bystander is trying to do is create a bouquet, not of one flower, but of each individual flower being beautiful. The most of that person it can be. The most M.K. Brown a piece can be. The most [Brian] McConnachie a piece can be. And then we put it together, and with a strong structure it will be harmonious. We want people to go “Oh yeah, Steve Young, what’s his story?” And then to go into the internet and see what he’s done. From an editorial standpoint, I really try not to give people direction in that way. I try to pick the people who have a really strong sensibility and let them do their stuff, people like George Meyer or Jack Handey, any of these people, Nell Scovell in the second issue. You just let them roll and they do their thing. That’s a little different from how humor magazines usually are. I think it’s a function of what the internet has done to how people consume media.

Meant to be kept

That’s something I’ve loved going through the first issue, catching the bios at the bottom of each piece. “Oh, this person is a Simpsons writer who I haven’t heard of,” and being able to delve into their work. Realizing that there are more humor writers out there.

That’s what we found out in the three years we were getting it ready. First, when Brian and Alan [Goldberg] came to me and said “if you were to do a magazine like this, how would you do it?” it took me a while to figure out how we could fund it and editorially, could we get enough good stuff. I quietly made inquires to some friends. Brian would tell me “you should talk to Jack [Handey].” We did find that they had good stuff, so we started thinking, how is it going to look? How can it sustain if we don’t have a central office? If we don’t have a big design department? If we can’t pay people a lot of money? How do we make this thing work? It’s been guerilla publishing all the way and continues to be so.

The benefit of doing it this way is that we can reach out to anybody. I know we’re going to reach as far as we possibly can. The first one was about “do people want it?” And I think we can say, yes, people do want it. The second is, can we gather enough people quickly so that we can actually make this into a business, so that I can actually get paid for doing this and everybody gets a decent dollar for their contributions. Not what they would get paid for doing television, but that’s not the point. So we need between three and five-thousand people to really make a go of it. Readers, readers who will pay.

With issue number two, we’ve already been about to drop the price from 25 bucks to $20, assuming we can get a larger group. As the group increases, I really think we can drop it further and further so it’s very reasonable both from a “what comparable books cost” and the value you get. That first Bystander, you can sit there for six hours and read that thing! It’s a lot!

Over the three years it took you to put together this first issue, was there a moment when it clicked for you that this was actually something that’s going to happen?

I’ve been doing this for so long and had so many projects. Some huge successes, some huge failures, that I just do it. In those three years, I was working every publishing muscle I had. Early on I decided that I wasn’t going to do a whole lot of writing. I was going to try to edit as much as I could and design as much as I could. I felt that there’s a lot of writers out there and a lot of illustrators, and they do beautiful work. There’s not a lot of people who say “my job is to make sure this all comes together and everybody gets paid.”

Issue #2 of The American Bystander
Issue #2 of The American Bystander

When I pushed the button the first kickstarter, I was not at all sure that we would make it. I had worked nonstop on this for two and a half years, I wanted to see if it works, and if it doesn’t work, okay, we’ll print up a bunch of copies for our contributors and call it a day. That’s what we’re going to do with two too, if we reach $25,000 for two, at least, we need ideally, a lot more than $25,000. We’re gonna print a dummy copy for everybody to say “thank you for playing.”

That moment we hit $25,000 on that first one, I really felt like “okay, this going to happen.” Then the sweat comes, you’re like “Shit! It’s gotta be good and it’s gotta come out on time.” I haven’t told anybody this but two weeks into the kickstarter, the first kickstarter, which was 25 days, more than halfway through, the printer called me up and said “I’m sorry, I can’t honor our agreement. Unless you get me files by a certain day, our presses are too clogged.” I was like, “Shit!” I was promoting the kickstarter, trafficking and laying out a bunch of material. Al Jean came in out of the woodwork, saw the kickstarter and said “do you want a piece?” “Sure, Al!” I was doing that, and I was calling printers saying “It closes on the 13th of November, we’re trying to get it out by Christmas, can you do it?” The only place that could do it was Ingram Lightning Source in Tennessee. That’s why the first book looks the way it does; it’s print on demand. It was crazy. I’m hoping this next one will be easier.

What’s one thing you’ve learned the most from this process?

It’s hard to say… how old are you?

25.

If you were talking to me at 25, I would be full of piss and vinegar and it we would be having a different conversation. Having worked with the idiots in publishing for as long as I have, having them say over and over “people don’t want this, people watch television.” They do, people like stand up, they don’t like cartoons, those days are over. After twenty years you go, “gosh, I don’t think it is but they say it is, and if they’re not going to help I’ll just have to live with this thing not being around.”

I guess what I’ve learned is that people really do want it. If you do it right and you get good people together and allow them to talk to the audience in a proper way, people still enjoy it. That’s pretty great! That’s great to know that if you, Kevin, were to go to any book editor in New York and go “I have book proposal, blah blah blah, and it’s funny” they would give you tons of crap about how “we can’t sell it” and “people don’t like that stuff” and “all we can publish is Amy Schumer’s autobiography.” Which is fine, nothing against Amy Schumer’s autobiography. What this illustrated is that this is a publishing problem not an audience problem. There’s people like George Meyer and Jack Handey writing pieces and they don’t have any place to put them. So there is material out there and there is an audience for it, but corporate publishing is not set up to do a publication like this. So I’m having to work for years unpaid just to set it up in hopes that we can get the machine going.

That’s why issue two is so important that people go and back it. That will demonstrate to us that people aren’t just going “oh, wasn’t that a cool little thing?” They’re going “Yeah, we want a magazine. We want a relationship.”

You touch on this in the video, but can you tell us more about what will make issue two different from the first issue?

I was just talking to Brian about this; we’re not running a big piece in the back. Y’know Ellis [Weiner]’s big piece in the first one, which is wonderful, but he’s very very writerly. One of things people said to me about the first issue is that it turned into The New Yorker because you had page after page of cartoons and Ellis’ Ayn Rand piece. We’re going to do stuff like that in future, but for number two we’re going to do more comics. I’ve been talking to some great comic people and there’s so much activity in that area, I really want to do as much of that as we can.

The other thing is there’s a lot of short stuff. What The New Yorker does, it does very well. But what it does is very limited, and there’s a ton of other types of pieces that a good comedy writer will come up with. We’re trying to do a lot of those. Ideally they have a graphic component to them.

Excerpt from The Vietnamese Baby Book, (by Michael O'Donoghue, illustrated by Newton Meyers. National Lampoon Jan. 1972)
Excerpt from The Vietnamese Baby Book, (by Michael O’Donoghue, illustrated by Newton Meyers. National Lampoon Jan. 1972)

For example, something like the Vietnamese Baby Book. That is a pure magazine piece, and it would only work in a college or professional humor magazine. It wouldn’t work in something like The New Yorker. It might’ve worked in something like Harold Hayes’ Esquire, but the editors would’ve fucked with it and it wouldn’t have been as good. It’s pure magazine humor for one and two; it was a baby book so it was graphic. Most of the piece is the context. We want to do more of that in the future.

Number two: I want to try to catch our breath a little bit, we’re not going to do very much of that. From my background, I parodied Harry Potter and the parody looks very much like Harry Potter, if I parody The Wall Street Journal, it looks like The Wall Street Journal. I want to try to do that in a judicious fashion. To do that, I’m really going to need to know that the money is taken care of, to spend the time on it. Then, I’m going to have to hunt for the right artists and really put it together. If we can raise a significant amount of money for number two and number three, then we can really relax and stretch out and do some ambitious stuff. I’m excited about that, I think it’s possible.

You’ve got a lot of people lined up, such as Merrill Markoe. Who are some contributors that you’ve got lined up that you’re excited to publish and who would you like to see in future issues?

I should’ve thought about this, this is the question. Merrill’s stuff, I love her, I think people are really going to like her stuff a lot. Nell Scovell, I mentioned, she’s an old Spy writer and the creator of Sabrina The Teenage Witch. There’s a great piece by Todd Hanson that I think people are just going to go bonkers for. It’s really funny and Todd is really funny. We’ve got another guy from The Onion named John Howell Harris who is very funny too. Shary Flenniken, did the old Trots and Bonnie cartoons, she’s wonderful and is still crankin’ stuff out.Gerber Quote

The other thing is, I expect if we break the $25,000 barrier, like the first one, people will start coming out of the woodwork and I’d like to see more stand-ups. We’ve got a lot of great writers and we’re going to get more, and I know …a lot of those people. Between Brian and I, we can get pretty much anybody in that realm. As far as illustrators are concerned, we’re going try to get more and more. Mimi Pond is in the next issue, and she’s great and she knows everybody. But I’d really like to get some stand ups. I’m trying to get a publisher to let us reprint a piece or excerpt of a piece from a book that’s coming out soon by a comic. I think that’s really good, and I’d like to do more of that because I think stand up’s a great thing to have in the book.

I want to set this up so we can do it four times a year, maybe six times a year, maybe monthly if we get it right. Just publish everybody! Let the audience say “this person I love.” I love Mallory’s stuff, I think she’s great and people are going to love what we have from her. Brian’s stuff is great, there’s a thing that he and Jack Handey did which I think people will really like. I also think that as we do more of these, people will start to get it and say “this is an institution. These people know how to make this shit in 3-D in a way that most people don’t.” You have to have grown ups reading these things as a kid. It’s great that you’ve been able to gravitate towards the early Lampoon, but for the past 30 years that’s been a small brother and sisterhood.

After this, Michael and I spoke casually about the first issue of The American Bystander when he made one last remark that he felt should be noted about the publication:

It’s meant to be kept. We really are thinking about how readers will think about it when they pick it up. We want it to be serial, in that we talk to you all the time, a core sample of who’s working now and what are they talking about. You can eventually have a shelf full of these things and go “Oh, I’ve never read all of this before.” Read it and because it’s not all timely stuff go “oh yeah, this is really funny.” That’s the idea behind it, which is very different from a magazine and much closer to a “best of” comedy collection that you would buy at a bookstore.

The American Bystander is a new humor publication compiling original work by some of the best humorists in the industry. We strongly encourage you to support their Kickstarter and learn more at AmericanBystander.org

Interview and original artwork by Kevin Cole

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