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Fractured Funny Bone

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Amid much honking and squealing from the Great American Hype Machine, two magazines debuted this month -- Cracked and Hallmark -- and if anybody in America ends up subscribing to both of them, I'd like to meet that person.

No. Strike that. On second thought, I do not want to meet that person.

Cracked, to be published every other month, is not technically a new magazine. It's a resurrected and revised version of the formerly deceased humor magazine widely known as the poor man's version of Mad. Hallmark, also a bimonthly, is a new mag from the folks who give us all those heartwarming greeting cards and TV specials. Let's look at them one at a time:

Born in 1958, Cracked was nearly pulseless when Monty Sarhan bought it in 2005. Sarhan promptly killed the magazine, then hired a team to re-create it with himself as CEO and editor in chief.

Who is Sarhan? He's a lawyer specializing in "mergers and acquisitions, venture capital and transactional intellectual property," according to Cracked's news release, and he earned his law degree at Duke University, where he "spent a semester studying asset secularization of entertainment-related revenue streams."

Which is, no doubt, the perfect preparation for editing the new, postmodern humor magazine.

"Comedy magazines are often born from times of crisis -- war, corruption, economic and political travails, social upheaval and questioning," Sarhan writes in Cracked's first issue. "Comedy and humor emerge to provide social commentary and clarity in the face of cultural and political challenges."

Gee, isn't he a high-minded fellow? And what kind of "social commentary and clarity" does Cracked provide in the face of our cultural and political challenges?

Well, there's a feature called "Vehicular Homicide Is the New Black," which notes that Laura Bush, Matthew Broderick and Vince Neil have all been involved in fatal car crashes. And there's a list of "Things Ann Coulter Screams During Sex." And there's the "[Nasty word] Hall of Fame," a compendium of celebrities, including Tom Cruise, David Hasselhoff and Bono, whom Cracked finds obnoxious.

And there's a little ditty called "Mexican Boys: Surprisingly Expensive," in which writer Jay Pinkerton recounts his unsuccessful (and, I hope, fictitious) attempts to purchase little Mexican lads from their parents for 300 pesos.

Are you chuckling yet? Me neither.

On page 57, Cracked stops providing this scintillating comedy and becomes a magazine about comedy. There are interviews with the creators of "South Park" and with comedians Rob Corddry and Ed Helms of "The Daily Show."

And there's a guide to the five worst comedy movies ever made. "Bad comedies," writes Michael J. Nelson, "are worse than anything else in the whole of human history."

Reading Cracked, you understand exactly what he means.

Spend an hour with Cracked and you'll long for something warm, something fuzzy, something wholesome and uplifting. In short, something like Hallmark magazine.

"What's it about?" Lisa Benenson, Hallmark's editor in chief asks in her column. "It's about the joy of lives that are busy and full, and about taking the time to appreciate them."

Hallmark is the kind of magazine that calls autumn "the other New Year" and urges readers to "make a resolution to start fresh!"

Aimed at women, Hallmark is chock-full of positive advice. Start your day by "stepping outside for a quick dose of fresh air." And: "Gather an armful of foliage to bring the warm colors of the season into your home." And: "It's true! Banana cream pie can de-stress you."

Seeking a higher quality of uplifting advice, Hallmark asked several hotshot female authors to reveal "how we get happy!"

Valerie Frankel, author of "The Accidental Virgin," gets happy by decorating her house with glittery, sparkly stuff: "My latest purchase -- suggested by my equally unsophisticated husband -- was two acrylic toilet seats implanted with tropical fish, seaweed and shells."

Allegra Goodman, author of "Kaaterskill Falls," gets happy by wearing goofy hats. "My sister bought me a red felt hat when I sold my first book," she writes. "Since then, I've maintained my tradition of buying a hat with every publication or award, and the collection has grown."

Amy Wilentz, author of "I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen," gets happy by returning her supermarket shopping carts to their proper place. "My cart is my responsibility, and I like to shoulder it," she writes. "I feel almost patriotic as I push the rattling steel vehicle into the long metal corral and shove it in. I'm not just a consumer, there to spend my money. No. I'm a useful and productive volunteer, choosing by this act to participate in something larger than myself -- "

Thank you for sharing, Amy.

"I am turning myself into a cog in a smoothly working machine. I am saying 'thank you' to the supermarket and all its workers -- "

Amy, that's enough.

"I almost expect to have a badge pinned to my lapel for my effort, like a Girl Scout -- and how easy all this self-esteem is -- "

AMY! STOP! Jeez, girl, maybe it's time to switch to decaf.

But the best advice in the magazine -- in fact, the best advice I've ever read in a magazine -- did not come from a famous author. It came from Alyssa Graham, 34, of New York, one of the 14 "real women" who offered their secret beauty tips.

"Good jazz, a glass of wine at the end of the day and lots of lovemaking," she advises. "They take away all the wrinkles."

That's all the advice you need, folks. Now you don't have to buy the magazine.

Just Not in the Cards

August produced two other noteworthy bits of magazine news:

Philips Electronics struck a blow against those obnoxious subscription cards that clutter nearly every magazine these days. Philips purchased two-page ads in four Hearst magazines -- Redbook, House Beautiful, O at Home and Weekend -- on the condition that the mags not contain any of the hated cards. Perhaps we should all run right out and buy some Philips products, just to say thanks.

Time magazine announced that, come January, it will no longer appear on Mondays. Instead, the 83-year-old newsmagazine will appear on Fridays. Why? "On the weekend people have more time to read it," says Richard Stengel, Time's managing editor, "and I want to have the magazine in the hands of people when they're ready, eager and willing to read it."

Folks at Time also point out another benefit: Staffers will no longer have to spend Friday nights working till the wee hours, closing the magazine. Now they'll be able to work something close to a normal Monday to Friday workweek. They may even be able to get a life, if that's the kind of thing that interests them.

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