Jay Ruttenberg on his comedy zine, ‘The Lowbrow Reader,’ and its new tenth anniversary collection

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Jay Ruttenberg, creator of 'The Lowbrow Reader' (Flickr via jcn)
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Rick Flom

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2012 is a pretty good time to be a fan of comedy.

Without much exertion, one can find a massive wealth of Internet chatter on the stuff. The Onion’s A.V. Club, Splitsider, A Special Thing, and the profusion of podcasts about/containing comedy all serve as homing beacons for the Comedy Nerd—a type that, while not new, has emerged in a short time as common and identifiable as the Science Fiction Dork, the Vinyl Fetishist, or the Gun Nut.

A decade or so ago, this was decidedly not the case. There were a few humor magazines of varying quality, and spotty comedy criticism in the mainstream, but no true home for the lonesome Comedy Nerd. So it was with some prescience in 2001 that Jay Ruttenberg created The Lowbrow Reader, a slim, lovingly-designed journal of “basement brow comedy.” Over the years, issues have appeared infrequently (if steadily), but the best bits have now been collected in an impressive new book, The Lowbrow Reader Reader, published by Drag City Books.

“Now, for whatever reason, comedy is really trendy,” Ruttenberg told me recently in a phone interview. “I feel it wasn’t then [in 2001]—you could either read about it in the New York Times when a new Farrelly Brothers movie came out or you weren’t going to read about it. It just wasn’t covered in the way that it is now.” 

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In the Fall of 2000, a 24-year-old Ruttenberg moved to the city with the requisite mix of zero prospects and earnest enthusiasm. He’d come off a stint at the late, lamented music magazine Puncture, then recently shuttered.

Puncture was this really smart, arty music magazine with a strong literary component,” said Ruttenberg. “They excerpted Infinite Jest early on, and it was one of the first magazines that wrote about Guided By Voices, Neutral Milk Hotel, Sleater-Kinney—longer pieces on music that today is recognized as the canon of indie rock, which at the time a lot of people weren’t paying attention to. When it folded, I cared so much for it, and had written so much for it, that I kind of wanted to keep doing something like that.”

Despite this influence, The Lowbrow Reader almost immediately became something entirely different: an eclectic jumble of humor pieces, comics, illustrations, (funny) poetry, short fiction, and straight-faced commentary on comedy’s deep history. Developing the journal’s voice was a gradual process. The anthology includes a selection from the debut issue, a wild exploration/reminiscence of the forgotten humor magazine CARtoons, best described as MAD Magazine for automobile enthusiasts. The article was written by Royal Trux founder Neil Michael Hagerty, whose writing is lucid and intelligent, even as his subject matter is impossibly zany (if implausibly real). Hagerty’s work is some of the best in the collection and “Go-Go-Go Von Dutch: CAR-toons Magazine” is exemplary of his probingly absurd style, his reverence for irreverence. This early piece ended up partly shaping the voice that The Lowbrow Reader would take.

“There was a little more [pure] comedy content in the first few issues,” explained Ruttenberg. “Like original comedy, MAD-style stuff. It grew as it went on, and the impetus for a lot of that was the CARtoons piece. When he wrote that it was really different than what I had in mind to do with The Lowbrow Reader—and so much better. That really did change the course of what I wanted to do with it.”

Several items in The Lowbrow Reader Reader amount to a sort of re-purposed, re-contextualized journalism: interview pieces for mainstream publications that were either scuppered entirely or mined for comedic content after the fact. These include Margeaux Rawson’s interviews with The Queens of Comedy (“The Queens of Comedy on the Commandments of Sex”) and Ol’ Dirty Bastard (“A Visit With Ol’ Dirty Bastard”). The former is a frank and overly-educative roundtable discussion on the bedroom preferences of Adele Givens, Mo’nique, et al (sample commandment: “Involve food.”), while the latter is a funny-but-retroactively-depressing account of one of the rapper’s final interviews (it was originally published before his death).

Possibly most distressing is “Is This Atkins Soup Kosher? Dating Jackie Mason,” an account by Liza Weisstuch of her interview with the aging comedy legend, which deftly reveals his loneliness, sleaze, and barbaric chauvinism. It’s hilarious.

Articles on other, similarly-revered comedy veterans are more forgiving. Ruttenberg writes pleasingly personal tributes to Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, and Gene Wilder. Hagerty contributes a virtually metaphysical rumination on Don Knotts, while writers Ben Goldberg and Joe O’Brien argue about the controversial Chevy Chase in a pair of point/counterpoint essays, from which no one emerges the clear victor (least of all Chase).

Such pieces help to distinguish The Lowbrow Reader from its online counterparts. The focus falls on the immortal icons of the form, as well as the forgotten, cult-ish corners, rather than ephemeral recaps of sitcoms and stand-up specials. The book is refreshingly free of irony, and Ruttenberg claims a conscious effort was made to “avoid a winking appreciation” of the material discussed. However you may feel about Adam Sandler (who serves as a sort of talisman for the Reader as a whole), Ruttenberg’s “Billy Madison: A Love Letter” convincingly treats him as a profoundly influential benchmark of comedy’s recent past.

Meanwhile, Matt Berube’s crisp, classy design provides a nicely sophisticated contrast to the book’s sillier pages, particularly the John Mathias-drawn covers, which invariably feature a cartoon character seated on the toilet. The many illustrations within are also a key element of the book’s look, with artists like Mike Reddy, Tom Sanford, and Doreen Kirchner offering hilarious and often hideous images to accompany the text. The juxtaposition of anarchic cartooning and austere design style suggests a Brundle-Telepod fusion of MAD and The Believer.

As the comedy canon becomes haphazardly codified by the Internet hordes, it’s nice to have the somewhat old-fashioned Lowbrow Reader as a standard bearer, taking things at a more measured pace, giving images more than the scant glances they get onscreen. Blogs and podcasts and digital shorts will rise and fall, but Knotts, Rickles, Wilder—perhaps even CARtoons—will outlive them all. The approach also lends weight to much of the writing in the book, as it lacks the passing fad-ism inherent in so much Web coverage.

“As writing about comedy has become more popular,” Ruttenberg says, “it has kicked up some of the bad habits of more contemporary rock criticism, and a lot of it seems very clique-ish to me. There seem to be the right performers to like, the wrong performers to like, a lot of buzzwords, and a lot of dismissal of performers who might be older or not cool in the moment.”

This timeless perspective is partly a function of the journal’s irregular release schedule, though Ruttenberg sees no end in sight.

“We basically publish every year and a half. If you’re 25 years late writing about something it’s fine, but if you’re a year late writing about something, it looks bad. In 20 years we can write about Louie.”

The Lowbrow Reader Variety Hour’ celebrates the book’s release on May 29 at Housing Works Bookstore with guests Adam Green, “The Daily Show”’s Wyatt Cenac, teenage girl-band Supercute! (which features Rachel Trachtenburg, of the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players), weirdo comedy beatnik legend Professor Irwin Corey, as well as readings from the book.