Wednesday, January 23, 2008
dubious, moi? Esquire quashes annual list
Beloved Esquire Franchise, 'Dubious Achievements,' Becomes One
BY LEON NEYFAKH
This article was published in the January 28, 2008, edition of The New York Observer.
“It would be like instead of re-imagining Eustace Tilley, David Remnick decided to behead him,” David Hirshey said. He was talking about Esquire’s decision to discontinue Dubious Achievements, the beloved, mischievous year-end roundup of folly that has been running in the magazine since 1962. Like a blooper reel but real, Dubious was an annual assessment of all the awful things that had happened in the world during the preceding 12 months. It was pronounced dead in this month’s issue of Esquire; according to a note from editor David Granger, the franchise has run its course because its descendents and imitators—available on the internet and TV “on a daily—if not instantaneous—basis” have rendered it redundant.
Mr. Hirshey, who presided over Dubious from 1985 until he left Esquire in 1997 for a career in book publishing, compared Mr. Granger’s decision to “Sports Illustrated killing its swimsuit issue because you can find better tits online.”
And yet, Mr. Granger is right to observe that the field has become crowded: in the 47 years since the feature debuted under Harold Hayes—the editor who made Esquire the greatest magazine of the ’60s—its tone (snotty, prankish) and its format (a frisky pinch of a headline followed by a succinct summary of a regrettable news item) have been copied so much that they have become not just conventional but nearly universal.
“We’ve asked ourselves every year whether we should continue to do it,” Mr. Granger said in an e-mail. “Dubious was an important part of Esquire. It was a great idea when it started and at some points of the magazine’s life, it was one of the best things in the magazine. For more than the last ten years, it’s seemed less and less necessary each year. There was more and more snark in the world and the Dubious format seemed increasingly less special. So, late last year, over lunch a bunch of us talked it over and I decided that this would be the last one.”
THAT DOESN’T MEAN it’s not sad seeing the original get put to bed three years shy of its 50th birthday. And while most of the guys who contributed to Dubious contacted for this story said they did not want to second guess Mr. Granger’s reasoning, everyone agreed there was plenty to grieve.
Michael Solomon, who edited Dubious with Mr. Hirshey during the 90’s, said one of the first items he wrote was about a Boy Scouts handbook advocating abstinence that had come out that year. The headline? “But you can still eat a Brownie now and then.” Easy, funny. This is what all the best ones sounded like.
“Putting it in Esquire at that particular time, it was an extraordinary smart move,” said Robert Benton, the filmmaker who, as Esquire’s art director, invented Dubious Achievements with David Newman. “Nothing comes from a vacuum, and there was a kind of cynicism and irony that showed up somewhere in the early 60’s. I’m not really gifted enough to tell you when it came in and why.”
When Lee Eisenberg worked on Dubious during the 70’s (he was the editor of Esquire from 1976 through 1978, and then again from 1984 through 1990), there was a cardboard box outside of someone’s office year round, and people would drop clippings into it whenever they came across something ripe in a newspaper or a magazine. Come August, Mr. Eisenberg said, the box would be dumped out and people around the office would share in the task of typing up short summaries of each item. For the next month and a half, whoever wanted to work on Dubious would get together for hours every day, choosing the best items, shouting out headlines, and arguing about how to phrase things.
Sometimes this would happen in the office, and other times it would happen across the street at the Berkshire Hotel bar, where Esquire editors ate lunch every day. “This was when you could still drink at lunch and eat peanuts,” Mr. Eisenberg said. “The Newsweek people who worked a couple blocks to the south would also come there.”
By the mid-80’s, Dubious was less of a staff-wide effort and more of a “guerrilla task force” made up of those who had the most enthusiasm for it, according to Mr. Eisenberg. Every year it was a slightly different cast, but the core group from 1985 until 1997, give or take, was Mr. Hirshey, Mr. Solomon, Lewis Grossberger, and Gil Schwartz (a.k.a. Stanley Bing). Michael Hirschorn, according to Mr. Hirshey, joined the team in the early 90’s.
From Labor Day until Thanksgiving or so, they’d work on Dubious almost every day, sometimes at Mr. Hirschorn’s Chelsea loft (known as the “Dubious Clubhouse”), sometimes in the office, but most often over three-hour-lunches at the handful of restaurants near Esquire headquarters below Central Park that would tolerate them. “It was jokes and food, always,” Mr. Grossberger said. “We were always joking and gaining weight. I don’t know if we could have done it without eating.”
Their favorite place to go was the Cosmic Coffee Shop on 58th and Broadway, a cheap Greek diner that served club sandwiches, eggs, and babka for dessert. One year, Mr. Hirshey said, they ran up a $4,000 dollar bill by the time Dubious season was over and got their picture hung on the wall; according to Mr. Solomon, the five of them would regularly order for 30.
On a good day, sessions like that would yield half a dozen useable jokes, most of which Mr. Eisenberg—Dubious’ “spiritual leader,” according to Mr. Solomon—would casually tear apart upon review. If he didn’t like a headline, he would either say it was terrible or mark it “TTB,” a bit of shorthand meaning “try to beat” that continues to haunt Mr. Hirshey and Mr. Solomon to this day. “He would torture us mercilessly over every headline,” Mr. Hirshey said. “He’d make us write 20 and then he would choose the first one.” Mr. Eisenberg did not apologize for this: “Hirshey is someone who likes to suffer,” he said.
By the time Mr. Hirshey left Esquire in 1997, the once-innovative headline-item format that had made Dubious such a distinctive voice in humor had inspired countless copycats: over the course of the 12 years during which he served as the section’s shepherd, Mr. Hirshey said, he “fired off rockets” to publications like Texas Monthly (which introduced their version of Dubious, “the Bum Steer Awards” in 1974), People Magazine, and Entertainment Weekly in which he asked them to please at least acknowledge the source of their inspiration.
Mr. Eisenberg said the imitators should have compelled the architects of Dubious to innovate: to deviate from or even abandon the original format and evolve so that everyone else was never not just playing catch-up.
“It probably could have used a shot of humor growth hormone once in a while,” Mr. Eisenberg said, sounding somewhat detached but disappointed.
Mr. Grossberger, meanwhile, lamented the fact that the feature was killed before it had the chance to turn 50.
“What lovely timing,” he said. “I’d say that’s pretty dubious! I guess the Hirshey gang will have to have its own 50th anniversary celebration at the Cosmic.”
He went on: “A few years ago I would have been outraged and denouncing it. But I sort of expect everything to end now. It’s like the whole culture seems to be coming to an end. Everything is stopping, ending, collapsing. So nothing surprises me… It would be nice if Dubious could keep going and it would be nice if our gang could keep writing it. But reality is not what it used to be.”