Magazine Weekly: Can Paul Spike pack a punch with the lads?

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The Independent Online
Dentists' waiting rooms across the land are in for a shock. Punch, the ailing humour magazine relaunched with Mohamed al Fayed's backing last year, is being repositioned this week as a firmly downmarket lads' magazine.

Although the magazine's editor Paul Spike has refused to allow The Independent to describe the content of this Wednesday's new issue, it is fair to say that Punch - which itself makes jokes about the amount of times it has been relaunched - will upset the remaining old folks in the shires who welcomed its return from the grave.

It has eschewed the elegant serif masthead for a much more jaunty slanted look; it has slapped headlines and pictures flagging articles on the front cover; much of the editorial has been chopped up into bite-size pieces; and literary and art reviews have been dropped. And the price has been cut from pounds 1.75 to pounds 1.

Punch's problem is nicely illustrated by Spike: "A very nice middle-aged woman told me she was sent a copy of the magazine when it was relaunched in September; she said she was a reader from the past and that she was really happy to see the magazine come back. Then she said, `We really liked the magazine. In fact, we liked it so much that we almost subscribed to it.' That sort of support cannot sustain Punch."

That genteel audience is no longer a viable target. After its relaunch, Punch first tried to target The Spectator's readership with a New Yorker- style magazine and had a sales target of 100,000 copies a week. Spike refuses to say what the magazine is selling now, but informed estimates suggest it is doing less than half its target.

Now Spike wants to see Punch being bought by men in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties rather than by those hitting 50.

Even a brash redesign has a big job to do to turn that around. When it was relaunched, the magazine was mailed free to credit-card holders in the right income bracket. "Several million people saw the early issues and were quite disappointed," says Spike, "so getting them to have another look requires major changes."

Spike, an American who started in journalism on the radical Village Voice in New York in the Sixties, believes the changes will take the magazine back to what it was always meant to be, "a satirical, anti-establishment, political magazine that many Victorian families wouldn't want to have in the house."

His changes have been informed by the changes to humour that have taken place over the past 10 years. He refers to a more cutting, in-your-face humour that includes Brass Eye, Spitting Image and Loaded.

Spike, who was once a senior editor of GQ and is married to Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman, mentions Loaded repeatedly. He believes that the IPC magazine proved that mainstream, mass-market men would buy a glossy lifestyle magazine. He now wants to prove they will buy a weekly, topical humour magazine and the way to make them do it is to move it "into the mainstream".

He also alludes to the Esquire of the Sixties, an American magazine for which he has a great love and claims some kinship. Many do, but at their peril. It was a men's magazine so brilliant that nobody has ever come close.

The heart of the Punch's problem is that it struggles to provide a reason for its existence. Newspapers now provide acres of general interest magazine articles with a humorous edge. It might be argued that what Spike has planned for the magazine is its most radical attempt at revival yet, but Independent columnist Miles Kington, who worked at the magazine for 20 years from 1967 onwards, has seen revival efforts go on for years.

"They were always pulling in marketing people with a new formula," says Kington. He believes it was dusty and dying 30 years ago. "It died because no one wanted it and it should have stayed dead. I think al Fayed bought it to prove that he really could be English and what could be more English than Punch. Perhaps he could have bought the Royal Family."

Furthermore, Kington believes that Punch didn't really go away, it just changed its name to The Oldie: "Deep down, Richard Ingrams always wanted to edit Punch and now he is, only it's not called Punch."

Spike's reference to TV comedies as an influence is also significant. Kington believes Punch was fatally weakened when a generation of humorists moved from writing prose to writing Monty Python and other TV comedies.

Spike tellingly compares his new model Punch with the US humour magazine National Lampoon that spawned writers such as PJ O'Rourke and the Saturday Night Live comedy show. National Lampoon has since closed.