The Joke’s on Newsweek


I'm a subscriber to Newsweek magazine and a semi-regular viewer of Stephen Colbert's television show. I also enjoy mushroom pizza, and I'm a fairly frequent consumer of hot fudge sundaes.

OK, you see where I'm going, but for the record: Having Colbert as a "guest editor" for an entire issue of Newsweek is like pouring hot fudge on a mushroom pizza.

Despite back flips by the magazine's real editor, Jon Meacham, to defuse criticism of the blatant promotional stunt by conceding on page two that such suggestions are at least "half-right," readers might conclude that Meacham is being only "half-honest." With a cover borrowed from a 1989 issue of Spy Magazine, and content patterned after Maureen Dowd's column in The New York Times in which Colbert was a guest writer, the Newsweek issue marks the point at which the venerable newsweekly Jumped the Shark.

Colbert's turn as guest editor is about as pleasing as having Barack Obama as "guest CEO" of General Motors.

Yet, if Newsweek's gambit proves successful, other outlets will have to scramble to compete. Jeff Foxworthy as editor of The Economist might attract attention. Sean Hannity as guest editor of The New York Times would be drop-dead fascinating.

Sarah Palin would make a nifty guest host on The Late Show with David Letterman, but she'd never do it. That's because unlike the Newsweek-Colbert alliance, which was based entirely on attracting an audience, Palin says that following her recent tiff with Dave she refuses to appear on the show because she doesn't want to boost his ratings.

Actually there is precedence for these various "guest" shots. Dick Cheney was, after all, "guest president" during the entire Bush Administration. Then there's Rupert Murdoch, who functions as guest editor of every newspaper he owns. And the Steinbrenner family has a long history of guest-managing the New York Yankees.

Arnold Schwarzenegger strikes many Californians as a guest governor. Donald Trump enjoys masquerading as a television host. Charles Barkley fantasizes that he's a golfer.

If comedians are allowed to take over as guest editors of major magazines, it won't be long before an entire state like, say, Minnesota, elects a comedian as guest senator.

And let me quickly pull a Meacham, as they say in publishing, by acknowledging that I'm fully certified as a pretend writer.

This whole thing reminds me of a TV gag I once did in which I glued strawberries on stalks of asparagus and offered them for sale in a supermarket as "Asparaberries." It proved funny because so many shoppers believed it. The thing was: those who liked strawberries felt Asparaberries would be too bland, while those who enjoyed asparagus were certain the new product would be too sweet.

Stephen Colbert's a funny guy. And Newsweek is, apparently, a serious magazine struggling to redefine itself as something still worth buying each week at a time when the bottom is falling out for many publishers.

In a way, having Colbert as a guest editor is like when an orchestra invites some famous non-musician to be guest conductor. The audience gets to see this notable person flapping his or her arms around, and the music still sounds good as long as the musicians pay no attention whatsoever to the conductor's gyrations.

In their joint venture Colbert comes off as funny. But most of the jokes are likely to have been at Newsweek's expense.

© Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Monterey Herald.

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