Esquire Magazine, “Dubious Achievement Awards”: Classic Mr. Media Interview

(Mr. Media may be a new name for some, but Internet oldtimers will recognize it as one of the original sources of web content and links in the mid-90s. Watch for new media interviews starting in February but while you wait, Mr. Media will revisit columns from the past, such as this one from January 13, 1997)

It’s quite a party.

Anonymous, the author of Primary Colors, is there.

O.J. Simpson, naturally, made the scene, but not as guest of honor this year.

Another favorite of years past, Richard Nixon, put in a cameo appearance, but only to pass on the title of “Tricky Dick” to the new Man of the Year, Dick Morris. Accepting for Morris was his close friend and confidante, Sherry Rowlands.

And alleged Unabomber Ted Kaczynski sent the invitations.

What could possibly draw this cast of characters together? Why, nothing less than Esquire magazine’s 35th Annual “Dubious Achievement Awards,” once more celebrating society’s silliest, tackiest and stupidest public acts. It’s a dumb job but somebody’s gotta do it.

The awards remain one of the constants — and a guaranteed best-selling issue — at a magazine that has seen its own share of dubious moments over the decades. And although O.J. Simpson failed to win a third consecutive title as “Dubious Man of the Year” — because, as Dubious Editor-for-life David Hirshey puts it, “he didn’t kill anybody in ’96” — the awards haven’t lost their bite:

  • The irresistible offspring of two repeat Dubious Achievers, Madonna and Michael Jackson, forced the magazine to publish two covers. “It was impossible to decide which was the more dubious event,” Hirshey reveals. “We tried putting them together but Michael Jackson’s baby kept trying to remove Lourdes’ conical bra.

    “My only regret,” he adds, “is that Madonna and Michael didn’t mate with each other so they’d present us with a Dubious Messiah.

  • A photo spread on alleged Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s home — “whose work has appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post“– is previewed from an upcoming issue of the new magazine, “Shack & Garden.”

  • The marriage of Richard Ramirez, aka “the Night Stalker,” about whom the editors wrote: “Why is it all the good ones are either married, gay or on death row?”

  • Dubious Rookies of the Year include Kelsey Grammer, Pamela Anderson Lee and Jenny McCarthy, all of whom Hirshey expects to see as repeat winners in the years to come. “And more than any other rookie, Jenny McCarthy has the most Dubious potential for a good long run in our pages.

    “What really makes my heart soar,” Hirshey says, “are the people who appear year-in and year-out because we simply cannot ignore them. The Joey Buttafuocos and John Bobbitts, whom you think have gone away, but then you read Bobbitt is a minister. It’s too rich to ignore.”

    Since its debut as a six-page feature in 1961, the awards have grown to a whopping 22 pages. “No one is too high — or too low — for us to poke fun,”
    Hirshey says.

    Overseeing the Dubious awards is the realization of a career dream for Hirshey. “This is the reason I came to Esquire,” he says. “I thought it was the coolest feature I’d ever seen.

    Hirshey tracks his inspiration back to his pre-Esquire job, writing for the New York Daily News’ Sunday Magazine in the early 1980s and its then-editor, Jacquin Sanders, now a columnist with the St. Petersburg Times. “He uttered the inimitable words: ‘Better a cheap shot than boring!’ And that has become my credo.”

    All year long, Hirshey and fellow magazine staffers comb newspapers, magazines, radio and TV transcripts for the best of the worst. In September, Hirshey locks himself and a select team of Dubious arbiters in a room with the chore of winnowing down the thousands of possibilities. For every item used, another six are discarded.

    “The item should make you go, ‘Wow! Did that really happen?’ And the answer is always yes,” Hirshey says. In fact, every Dubious mention is vetted by a team of fact-checkers.

    Supermarket tabloids are not considered as sources of material, despite the implausibility of some items. “The item would have to be picked up by the mainstream press to have credulity,” Hirshey explains.

    At least one Dubious winner caused some consternation for the Esquire staff. Joe Klein was a frequent contributor to the magazine and a friend of Hirshey’s and others before he was revealed as “Anonymous,” author of the roman a clef, Primary Colors. His sleight-of-hand in initially declining credit made him the subject of a baker’s dozen of Dubious items, plus Hirshey and other Dubious contributors hid behind Klein masks in a group photo.

    “We like to think that making $6 million allowed Joe a generous sense of humor,” Hirshey says. “I ran into him on the street as we were finalizing the Dubious Awards. He asked me what I was working on. I looked him in the eye and
    said, ‘Oh, this and that.'”

  • © 2007 by Bob Andelman

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    Copyright 2007 Will Eisner: A Spirited Life by Bob Andelman