The 1980s brought with them a new social type, a sub-Nietzschean popinjay we’ll call Finance Guy. A bantam alpha, gut sucked into his chest, shoulders padded out like a linebacker, hair center-parted and pomaded back; the little creep who makes nothing but takes a fee on it anyway. The Reagan revolution had handed power — real power, the power to shape our collective fate — back to the bankers, who’d been laid low since 1929; and this, in turn, unleashed an epidemic of ridiculous self-importance for which Spy magazine was the perfect antidote.
A lampoon founded in 1986, Spy immediately took its place within ’80s New York, a city giving itself over to the rackety energies of the vulgar and profane. (Along with Finance Guy, Spy’s favorite target was Donald Trump, whom it famously labeled a “short-fingered vulgarian.”) The magazine’s tone — part awe, part gleeful scorn, all postmodern cheek — was later mimicked by the New York Observer, passed off to Gawker and “The Daily Show,” and is now a default setting on Twitter. There is an intelligent way to honor this legacy while being made uneasy by it. Wherever power is corrupt, satire thrives, and humor has been a necessary coping mechanism in neoliberal America; but it also helped those who know better reap the benefits of a world gone stupid without entirely losing their dignity.
I say this admiringly: No one has been better at this balancing act than Spy cofounder Kurt Andersen. Since leaving Spy, Andersen has been editor of New York magazine,