Review: Jest Magazine Vol. 4 Issue 1
Ah, the days before YouTube…
There was a brief New Golden Age of humor writing from the late-1990s to early-2000s. It began once the interent as we know it today was getting close to ubiquitous, as the America Online/Prodigy days were drawing to a close. Anyone with a computer and a browser could publish writing anywhere on the web. It was a free-for-all. Suddenly, magazines and newspapers and blogs were springing up everywhere. Everyone had a voice!
Humorists especially rejoiced. No longer constrained to a handful of juvenile magazines (e.g., Mad and Cracked) and snobby backpages of major Atlanticist ones (e.g., The New Yorker), fans of written mirth could take advantage of lowered barriers to entry created by the internet and write low-grade laughs to their hearts’ content.
And they did. Dozens of humor publications exploded online. Some didn’t even need publications (e.g., Tucker Max, Maddox) — their humorous blog posts were “forwarded” via “e-mail” from college “computer labs” around the country. Things went viral. The Onion went online and was devoured by millions. The National Lampoon reemerged as an online humor mag. It was a great time to be a humor writer, as long as you didn’t expect to get paid (with a few big exceptions).
I’ve written about this in more detail here.
This boom in written humor was so great that it leaked off the internet onto the floor of the real world. Technology helped there too as desktop publishing software greatly lowered the barriers to entry to creating a print magazines as well. It was not surprising, then, when some time in the early-2000s, a group of New Yorkers created Jest magazine. (Strangely, it seems to be the only thing in the universe without a Wikipedia entry.)
It ran for 3–4 years, and I have three issues. I plan to review them here and there as part of The Clap’s section on humor history. I begin with Volume 4, Issue 1 for two reasons: 1) It is one of the three issues I have, and 2) YouTube debuted in February 2005, and YouTube killed written humor.
YouTube debuted in February 2005, and YouTube killed written humor. And that’s why the February/March 2005 issue of Jest is so poignant.
It took a few more years, until the widespread adoption of the high-speed internet access necessary to allow for streaming video and then 4G to take it mobile, but there’s no doubt about it, YouTube and streaming video killed written humor. Increasingly cheap digital video cameras, HD, 4G mobile broadband, Final Cut Pro; all these tools lowered the entry to making high-quality, internet-streamable video. And once funny people realized you could make a video and anyone anywhere could watch it immediately, reading and writing written humor seemed like studying Sanskrit. What was the point?
And that’s why the February/March 2005 issue of Jest is so poignant. Here you have a bunch of funny people truly thinking they are going to be the next National Lampoon, producing a quality, glossy, four-color magazine. They have offices on Fifth Avenue in New York, New York! They have an art department! They have ads! They have a website (that now redirects to collegehumor.com)! Yet they are oblivious to the fact that YouTube has just started and it will destroy them.
When you read this issue of Jest in that light, with the knowledge that the whole endeavor is doomed, it heightens the experience. It’s like watching the crew laugh their way through lunch in Alien, knowing what they don’t — that a silicon-toothed nasty bastard is going to rip through Kane’s chest at any moment. In this case, the chestburster is streaming video and Kane is Jest’s publisher, David Fenton.
I’ll start with the cover (top). It’s topical and pretty funny. There are some pieces that when viewed today could perhaps be seen as culturally insensitive, or, at a minimum, pithily illustrating that the staff and contributors seem to mostly be of the caucasian persuasion (see below, from p. 5), which seems odd for New York City even in 2005. Overall, though, there is more good than bad. Most of the pieces would definitely be in the upper tier of comedy on Medium, and I could see the potential in a lot of these ideas had they had a wider reach.
The issue opens with a letter from “Editor-in-Chief,” Frank Santopadre. From it, we can glean that this is not Jest’s first year in operation. I seem to recall it started in 2000 or 2001. So it’s in its third or fourth year. You have to wonder what would have happened to it had streaming video not come about. I assume it was bought by College Humor, or at least its web domain was. Letters to the editor follow. Some seem spoofed. The retorts are funny at times.
Next come two short, half-page bits (p. 12):
How the Swedes Keep Their Spirits Up During the Long Arctic Winter — by Sean Crespo. Highlights include “4. Playing ‘Spot the Finn’” and “12. Imagining own funeral.”
New Additions to the Oxford English Dictionary — by A.J. Rothman. These are couple actual additions to the OED followed by commentary and some “fake” entries, e.g., “velch,” “reophilia.”
There’s also a literal haiku about Steve Urkel under the heading Sitcome Character of the Month Haiku, by David Lynch. I don’t think it’s the David Lynch.
Next (p. 15) comes a spoof gossip/celebrity news column that is now very dated, and a “little known facts” bit (both by Eben Weiss and Scott Bassett). There’s also a cartoon credited to reodorant.com
On page 16, we have an advice-column parody called Need Advice jes’ax Tammy! by Jen Kirwin, written in the advice of a trailer-park queen type. This is followed by Thoughtless Male Survival Guide by Christian Finnegan, one of two such “guides” that are so common in humor writing because they are such an easy way to write jokes about X topic.
On pages 18–19 is a funny and original feature called Know Your Groundhogs, by Brad Bates.
On pages 20–21 appears a piece called 2n1 Books by John Marshall. Titles and synopses follow for “The Bi-Polar Express,” “Gulliver’s Mobil Travel Guide,” “Sense and Sensemilla,” and “Green Eggs and Hamlet.” Not much else to say. You’d have to read it.
Next (p. 22) is a piece called Jest’s Fashion Time Cops by Dan McCoy. It is a catty call-out session on the fashion choices of FDR, Ghandi, Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill, and Mark Twain in the voices of Yakov Smirnoff, Nicki Hilton, Melissa Rivers, Laurie Anderson, Connie Chung, Ralph Garman, Darryl Strawberry, and Kathy Griffin. A lot of these are really funny one-liners. I know I too enjoy the craft of coming up with jokes within the boundaries of absurd historical premises, so I like this. The cheap “slut” slur about Nicki Hilton is dumb, mean, and doesn’t fly in 2018, for sure.
Then (pp. 24–25) comes a “Precious Moments” parody by Frank Santopadre with illustrations by Katie Deedy. This definitely pays homage to some of the National Lampoon’s best satire, such as The Vietnamese Baby Book and Foreigners from Around the World.
It definitely cuts close to the quick, but given that this has been done before (almost exactly) in the National Lampoon, it’s lost some of its force. Or maybe I and we as a society have just lost all capacity to be shocked. I do like that even thirteen years ago there’s a Fox News joke and most of the socio-geopolitical tragedies depicted here are still ongoing. We don’t seem to be making much “progress” any more, do we?
On page 26 comes Candy Hearts for the Dysfunctional by Karen Sneider, a breed of humor I like to file under “S” for self-explanatory. Not that it’s bad. It’s good in fact. It’s just that the title conveys the jokes exactly. You almost don’t even need to write them. Like instead of the film Wedding Crashers, I think they could have just had Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn come on screen and just say to the camera, “So, we’re like wedding crashers. We crash weddings to meet girls.” And the audience would nod and then slowly laugh and then keep laughing as they imagine all the scenarios that actually happened in the film. Highlights here include “Valentine, You’re the 1 for me! I forgive you for gut-punching me in Walgreens last week.” This would hold up very well today. All of these could have been retitled under “Valentine’s Day Cards for Harvey Weinstein,” and it would have been perfectly timely.
Pages 28–30 hold an interview with comedian Lewis Black by Scott Blakeman. Pages 32–35 contains Victoria’s Secrete Lingerie for Him by Frank Santopadre, photography by David Neff. It is exactly what it says it is. Dudes in lingerie, but not men’s lingerie (if there were such a thing) but women’s lingerie. I guess that’s the joke. And then men are old, fat, and/and ugly. So it works on two (not too creative) levels. There’s a couple of so-so funny jokes in the product descriptions, e.g., “It’s paunch meets raunch!”
Pages 36–37 bring Relationship Books for Women Through the Ages by Bruce Cherry. It goes, a little something, like this: Why Women Love Sirens (Greece, 400 B.C.), If I’m So Wonderful, Why Doesn’t He Rape Me? (The Northumbrian Coast, 950 A.D.) [slight wince at that one], He’s Just Not That Into Thee (Mainz, the Rhineland, 1450 A.D.), Women Who Love Too Much and the Men Who Own Them (Virginia, 1790 A.D.), Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus, Really! (Space Station Alpha, 2250 A.D.). And then there are short excerpts done in the voice of the era, bits from reviews, etc. There are dozens of jokes packed in here. Some are good, some a great, some are okay.
Next (pp. 38–39) we have An Open Letter to the Puerto Rican Teenagers Who Accosted Me Last Week by Jack Kukoda. You, like me, might be thinking this is some borderline racist shit. And maybe it is. I just can’t tell. For most of it, it seems like the author might be retelling an honest tale of getting brutally assaulted by some Puerto Rican teenagers. If he is being honest then I feel for him, because he really got his ass kicked — almost killed! But it almost sounds too brutal. Like, this would have been on the national news, I would think, had it actually happened. He gets stripped naked and a tree branch is stuck up his ass, for example. And he says he went into a coma for nine weeks. If all that’s true, then this is probably really therapeutic for him, and I don’t begrudge him. If the kids who did it were Puerto Rican, then they were Puerto Rican. But if it wasn’t true, then what purpose does this piece serve? Aggravating racial tensions? Shitposting? If it is just exaggerated from a real, but slightly less severe beating, then why? I just don’t know. It’s not that funny, but if it’s true it doesn’t have to be. If it’s true, it’s touching and scary, and, I guess, funny for the tone of how level-headed and forgiving he is. Maybe? If it’s not true, I don’t know what it is, but if I were Puerto Rican, I would know for damn sure. I lean toward it being not true (especially since at the end of the letter it says “Jack ‘Last name and address withheld’” but the byline includes the author’s full name). This one is perplexing, but continues with some questionable racial themes throughout the magazine. I don’t know if they were trying to be “edgy” or what.
Speaking of the recurring theme of borderline racialist/racist/racially insensitive stuff, we have on pages 40 to 41 a piece by Brad Bates entitled History of the Wigger (remember that word that was both offensive and dumb? [It reminded me of people calling $20-dollar bills “Yuppie Food Stamps;” it just doesn’t make sense in its own universe.]). Not sure if this is a brand of juvenile posturing (“Look how shocking and offensive I am!”) or an honest attempt at satire. I guess that is an indictment in its own right. (Damning by faint damning?)
Pages 42–43 present J.A.Y.W.A.L.K.A. by Kyria Abrahams. This is a rarity. An actual, factual humorous essay about the author’s experience being caught in a police “jaywalking sting” in Queens. It’s funny and contains some great 2005 references to “CompUSA” and a “Pentium 4” laptop.
Page 46 brings us The Honorable Judge Fetus by Justin Tyler. Here we have another honest to goodness humorous essay. This one is better than the last because it is not autobiographical. And what’s more, it is still timely. It’s about George W. Bush appointing an aborted fetus to the Supreme Court upon the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. (Remember when people thought she was right wing? Those were the days!) This is a funny piece, with some good fetus jokes, law jokes, political humor, and creative thoughts about how the premise might actually play out. And it could be transported to 2018 about a replacement for RBG when she retires (or dies, more likely) and not even need to be rewritten.
On pages 50–53 is An Underachiever’s Guide to Resume Writing by Mike Sikowitz. This is the second “guide” in this issue. Such “guides” have been a staple of humor writing for a long time now. It could run on any of the humor sites still operating today. Pretty forgettable, I’m sure. But I’m not sure, because I didn’t read it. I should do a “guide” to writing predictable hackneyed humor pieces…maybe I will.
Page 54 contains Little Known Awareness Ribbons by Will Hines, another piece from the “self-explanatory” category of humor.
Page 56 gives use Kiss My Asana by Betsy Wise, a snarky yoga-based rant centering around descriptions of made-up yoga poses. It’s angry. That’s okay. This was, after all, only a month after Bush had begun his second term.
On page 57 we find Memos of a Sesame Street Fact Checker by Daniel McCoy. This is an original concept. I’ll give it that. It’s pretty well done. Pithy.
The penultimate piece (pp. 58–59) is another illustrated piece called Polygamist Valentine’s Day Cards by Eben Weiss & Scott Bassett. This is as self-explanatory as the Candy Hearts for the Dysfunctional piece above. Done pretty well.
There follows a list of open mic night venues, and shameless plugs for the websites and performances of the issue’s contributors (most of whom are also standup comics).
There are ironic ads throughout for restaurants, comedy clubs (including Upright Citizens Brigade), a DVD store, clothing stores, a cosmetology center, furniture stores, a computer store, a bar, a gym, a after-market bidet for your toilet (seriously!), a theater, and (naturally) a strip club/sports bar called (appropriately enough) Privilege.
Two ads in particular are worth mention. One is an ad for the short-lived, liberal radio network “Air America,” formed in response to President Bush. Again, the irony now is that Bush looks like a lovable teddy bear/LBJ compared to Trump. He expanded Medicare to include prescription drugs, after all. Of course, he was an incompetent fool who allowed neocons to run rampant over him and nearly bankrupt the country and destroy the Middle East with consequences we’re still living with today. But still, compared to Trump? And yet he spawned Air America. What’s our response today? Twitter outbursts?
Finally, and of less societal importance but some cultural trivia, we have an ad that maybe be part of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer’s incipient reemergence and transformation from blue-collar cheap swill to the ironically blue-collar hipster cheap swill of choice.
All in all, this issue of Jest is decently funny. Some of the pieces seem dated, some are timeless. Some are stale. Some are fresh. Some are borderline offensive. Quite a few in fact. But there are some real highlights. May favorites were Know Your Groundhogs, just for the title, and The Honorable Judge Fetus. The latter is probably the smartest, best piece in this issue. It could have even been longer, but I like it as it is.
This issue is also a time machine back to the pre-YouTube, pre-Funny or Die days of humor of lo those many (13) years ago. Overall, though, there’s not enough originality for this to even passably resemble National Lampoon at its peak. It is well done humor, much of which you will have seen before, and a lot of which you will see again and again forever.
THE CLAP VERDICT: B for trying.