Spy is well known as Patient Zero of the modern chart epidemic. Soon after its debut in the fall of 1986, the virus began spreading like some rampant strain of Studio 54-cultivated herpes through the New York publishing industry daisy chain. Now, it's almost impossible to find a magazine without a chart in it; even The New Yorker managed to slip a suspiciously tabular illustration into its Talk of the Town section a few months back.

While a lack of editorial imagination certainly helped ensure the chart's popularity, the real key to its triumph was a lack of reader attention. Magazines, after all, have always been designed for people who prefer turning pages to reading them; years before NBC and CBS existed, synoptic, graphics-heavy, editorially eclectic publications like Life and Vanity Fair were providing our scattered, shallow ancestors with their first taste of "channel surfing." Spy's charts fit perfectly into the hybrid medium of the magazine, whose visual language unfolds less quickly than TV's super-accelerated glossolalia, but not nearly as slowly as the sclerosed typography of a book. Compared to, say, a classic S. J. Perelman flight of fancy in The New Yorker, which often required 10 solid minutes of travel time from lift-off to landing, a Spy chart was positively Concorde-like in its rapid disposition: You could "get it" in a matter of seconds. And so while Spy's charts, which applied the spreadsheet's bottom-line import to meaningless pop-cult trivia, were ironic takes on, as James Poniewozik put it in a recent Salon essay, "the idea of learning anything of importance by reading a chart," they were also sincere attempts to make humor more efficient.

Next ... Prop o' the charts.

 
 
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