The Greatest Stories Never Told

Some of the most delicious unpublished journalism gets passed around like a secret handshake
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Army Man was dark and brilliant. It showcased the work of Andy Borowitz, Roz Chast, Merrill Markoe, and many others who went on to fame and fortune in Hollywood and elsewhere. A feature like Frazier's "My Ideal Woman"—a graphic description of a man—would be impossible to reproduce anywhere except in a rental apartment in Boulder, Colorado, in 1988. In its second issue Army Man teased a major upcoming feature: "Mother Teresa, the Nun You Love to Hate." This was four years before Christopher Hitchens first put the paddle to the beloved Catholic saint-in-waiting in his notorious 1992 Nation column "The Ghoul of Calcutta."

A reprintable example of Meyer's humor would be his list of Chapter 11 filings: "Tommy's Resume Servise. Nite-Owl Skywriting Co. The Pink Pork Chop." And so on.

More typical would be this "Jolly Comedy Joke" from John Swartzwelder, who also became a writer for The Simpsons: "disgruntled man at breakfast: They can kill the Kennedys. Why can't they make a cup of coffee that tastes good?"

Another much admired typescript handed around by the Army Man claque was Harry Shearer's relentless fifteen-round pummeling of Jerry Lewis's muscular-dystrophy telethon. The piece was commissioned by Clay Felker's magazine New West in 1976. At various points in the article Shearer (whose credits include several voices on The Simpsons) mentions how Lewis's factotums kept trying to usher him away from the center of the telethon action. It appears in retrospect that they should have tried harder, in order to keep observations like these out of circulation:

Nobody causes muscular dystrophy, and almost nobody gets it. The day before the show, [Jerry] did a promo with a fat lady from Channel 8 in Honolulu and concluded it by yelling, "Watch the show and getta hunka nooky." Every Muscular Dystrophy telethon ends with Jerry's singing "You'll Never Walk Alone," a peculiar choice of songs to address to crippled people.

New West "bumped it for a Mary Murphy profile of Dino DeLaurentis (key detail—he falls asleep on a transatlantic flight, his head in her lap)," Shearer remembers. "I guess I sent a bunch of copies around, trying desperately to get it published somewhere. A lot of people read it"—both before and after he managed to sell the piece as an insert to Film Comment in 1979.

V ideo killed the radio star, and samizdat has been over-taken by technology. It has gone digital.

Cases in point: Years ago sportswriters regaled one another with transcripts of bootleg tape recordings of the profession's most notorious interviews. Exhibit A is the Chicago Cubs manager Lee Elia's tirade in the midst of a 1983 losing streak: "If they're the real Chicago BLEEPin' fans, they can kiss my BLEEPin' BLEEP right downtown …" Exhibit B is the Los Angeles Dodgers coach Tommy Lasorda's 1976 assessment of Dave Kingman's three-homer outing against his team: "What the BLEEP do you think is my opinion of it? I think it was bleeping BLEEP. Put that in, I don't give a BLEEP."

Those interviews and others can be heard on the Internet in less time than it takes to read this sentence.

Michael Kinsley, then the editor of the online magazine Slate, discovered the reverberating power of the Internet when he sent what he thought was a private message to his friends and colleagues on July 12, 1998, titled "My Career as Editor of The New Yorker." Kinsley laid out in embarrassing detail a meeting with The New Yorker's owner, Si Newhouse, who eventually chose Kinsley's rival David Remnick to succeed Tina Brown. Within a few days the letter had been read by almost every journalist in America. "I sent it to everyone I knew," one recipient says. It was one of the first recorded instances of viral gossip with e-mail as the vector.

Similarly, The Wall Street Journal's Middle East reporter, Farnaz Fassihi, sent an e-mail to a few friends last year that immediately became one of the most-read dispatches from Iraq. ("Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days is like being under virtual house arrest …") "The e-mail was a private correspondence to my friends and not meant for publication," Fassihi told me. "It was shocking and overwhelming to see it snowballing around the world as it did."

Samizdat is no longer a matter of punching typewriter keys through recalcitrant carbons and hoping the neighbors don't tip off the KGB. Now self-publishing is waking up in the morning, turning on your computer, and sharing your thoughts with the hypothetically limitless audience of the Internet. The San Francisco-based consulting firm Technorati recently estimated that the number of digitally published Web diaries, or blogs, almost doubled in the first half of this year, from 7.8 million to 14.2 million.

Forget writing for "the desk drawer." Forget mailing copies of your unpublishable work around to your friends. To paraphrase Yogi Berra ("Nobody goes there; it's too crowded"), so many people are doing it, it's hardly worth doing at all.

Alex Beam is a columnist for The Boston Globe.
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