No Type, Just Face
After first admiring the brilliant set set of pictures on the front page of the April 29 Sun-Times, I thumbed through the paper looking for the article that justified putting them there. There wasn't one. I'd been applying the design principles of a defunct century. The pictures were totally on their own.
"It was a brave act, wasn't it, to run pictures with no story?" said Sun-Times editor in chief Michael Cooke.
Cooke misspoke. There certainly was a story--the two pictures told it.
The small picture in the lower left-hand corner of the front page--an AP file photo--reminded us of last fall's scuzzy, belligerent, shirtless, tattooed William Ligue Jr. The 35-year-old Ligue was photographed sneering at the cameras as police hauled him in after he and his teenage son jumped out of the Comiskey Park stands to pummel the Kansas City Royals' first base coach.
The big picture dominated the page. "The minute it was presented at the afternoon news meeting we knew we had to build the page around that photograph," said Cooke. "It was a slam dunk, no questions asked."
Brian Jackson took this picture of Ligue outside a courthouse. "That was the story," said Cooke. "He combed his hair, he got himself a very fancy pair of spectacles."
Against his left shoulder--the perfect touch--Ligue held a little boy, one arm around Ligue's neck.
Ligue looked so different, and his contemplative expression made him seem to be so different, that the contrast invited serious thought: about the audacity of smart lawyers, about how our response to strangers is based on what their appearance suggests they think of themselves.
The caption said: "Comiskey troublemaker's 'extreme makeover.' William Ligue Jr., who attacked a K.C. Royals coach last fall, arrived at court looking amazingly different than right after his arrest. His case was delayed Monday."
Journalistically, the two pictures were nothing like, say, the photo (also by Jackson) on the front page of last Monday's Sun-Times. This picture, of a grinning woman in a swirling green dress dancing in the street, also stood alone, but as an emblem of the Cinco de Mayo parade the day before, it did so effortlessly.
William Ligue Jr. is an ongoing legal story. Because there was no hearing, no conventional news was made, but there were conventional ways to proceed. With a sigh of regret, Jackson's photo might have been spiked. Or it might have been reduced to a head shot and run on page 12, or 17, or 28, over a caption saying look at him now. Or in an attempt to justify the front page, a perfunctory article might have been concocted telling us where the case stands and which court is hearing it.
When I realized there was no article I also realized that I didn't know those things and didn't care. Only two unanswered questions mattered. The first might occur only to a journalist: who was being quoted calling Ligue's new look an "extreme makeover"?
The other question I asked Cooke. Who's the little boy?
"Not a clue," he said. "We don't look too closely into those kinds of details."
A Telltale Dig
The same issue of the Sun-Times shattered another tradition. This item ran in "Kup's Column": "WMAQ Channel 5 anchor Marion Brooks and her new beau, attorney Ruye Hawkins of Orlando, Fla., recently dined at the overrated Fogo de Chao."
Kup wrote that?
When Kup celebrated his 90th birthday last July, Roger Ebert sang his praises. "Never in all my years of reading your column," said Ebert, "did I read something that was designed to hurt someone, or hurt somebody's feelings, or make them feel bad."
Overrated? Of course Kup didn't write that. "I believe in keeping it real," says Stella Foster. "I'm just not that crazy about the place." She'd been to Fogo de Chao the weekend before. "I thought the meat was very dry. The portions were kind of skimpy."
But for "Kup's Column" to gratuitously criticize anyone--
"I don't consider that critical," says Foster. "It was just one little word."
Did Irv Kupcinet ever take a shot at a joint he was only mentioning because some swell had been spotted wining and dining there?
"He may have," she says. "This column's been going on for 60 years. I'm sure somewhere along the line..."
Foster's been Kup's right hand for decades. The column now says "Written with Stella Foster," but that understates it. Call his office and it's her voice you hear identifying herself as "cocolumnist," wishing you a great day, and directing your E-mail to email@example.com. Her stamp's on the column, and she's happy with it. "It's rolling right along," she says. "Younger people are reading it again, and that's really nice."
Does Kup read what you write? I wonder.
But that's getting us into a story behind the story, and Foster doesn't answer.
Out of Right Field
Many a newspaper has expanded onto a Web site. The Heckler began as a Web site and then went to print. Actually it began as a cheer in the left-field bleachers of Wrigley Field.
"You know how lots of stadiums have rivalries between sections?" says Brad Zibung, a PR guy for the Leo Burnett ad agency. "At Wrigley there's an offbeat rivalry between left field and right field. We'd sit in left, and right field is larger, so the chant is louder. So we'd bring signs that said, 'Right Field Sucks,' and we joked about a Web site."
More than joked. Zibung's buddy George Ellis registered the www.rightfieldsucks.com URL during the '01 season, and he and Zibung started putting up content after the season ended. "A lot of satire. We poked fun at greed and other issues rampant around Wrigley and the Cubs and major-league baseball," says Zibung. "This season we talked about putting together a newspaper."
The Heckler is that newspaper. Twelve pages thick, it was launched in early April, and most of the 5,000 copies were distributed in Wrigleyville bars. "I've never wanted to just go to something," explains Zibung, the editor in chief, who's 26 and a lifelong Cubs fan, though his fidelity to baseball barely survived the '94 strike. "I've always wanted to be a part of it in my way. So in a way, this is putting me alongside the action. Everyone who writes for it is a huge fan and wants the team to do well."
But the editorial model is the Onion. The banner headline on the front page of the first Heckler japed, "2003 Season Underway: Cubs Concede NL Title."
When I suggest that only a fair-weather Cubs fan would stoop to ridicule a mere 58 years after the last pennant, Zibung takes the point more seriously than I meant it and eventually sends me an E-mail pleading his case. "I was thinking a little more about your doubts of my sincerity as a Cubs fan," he writes. "I understand where you're coming from, but I think at some point, many die-hard fans take on the role of critic....It's that mindset that's given way to The Heckler."
When the Cubs began the season at a winning pace inappropriate to sarcasm, the Heckler didn't stumble. Issue two led with "Tribune to Sell Cubs." John Madigan, chairman of the Tribune Company, was quoted as saying, "We're winning too many games. It's simply not the Tribune way."
The newspaper spawned by a Web site spawned by a bleacher cheer has now spawned a second Web site, www.theheckler.com. Ellis having moved to the west coast, it's up to Zibung to keep everything straight, including the busy schedule of a new Cubs mascot.
Chug-Chug the Comeback Clown hands out the Heckler in bars and roams the park during games high-fiving fans and leading cheers. To Chug-Chug's distress, he doesn't look like much of a clown because Cubs management won't let him into the ballpark in full costume. Zibung says the Cubs cite security concerns--perhaps the same concerns that led them to raise those green screens above the outfield walls last year.
"Why can't I wear my red wig and freakin' red nose and bring the World Series to Chicago as the Comeback Clown?" grouses Jason Yurechko, the unemployed improv student who plays Chug-Chug. "Last year the Angels had that Rally Monkey and won the freakin' World Series."
The Heckler found Yurechko by advertising at www.improvchicago.com for a serious Cubs fan. "I thought, man, that's perfect for me," he says. "I brought to the table that I can do balloon animals, and I'm a graphic designer by trade, so I showed up for the interview wearing a Heckler T-shirt I'd made."
"He's got marginal talent doing balloon animals," says Zibung.
The idea that there's a pecking order among balloon-animal makers is a new one to me.
"He breaks a lot of balloons," Zibung explains. "At the launch party I saw a lot of people with balloon rings around their necks."
Balloons Chug-Chug gave up on?
Yes, says Zibung.
"I do the basics," says Yurechko. "The dogs. The cats. The hats. When you start getting into the fancier stuff, the Cubs emblem--not just the Cubs emblem, but the Cubs emblem with a bear walking through it..."
"It's a matter of time."
The Heckler multimedia empire isn't making anybody any money yet. That's regretted by Zibung and Yurechko--and by Yurechko's wife. "He comes in from northwest Indiana, so I give him transportation and a few bucks," says Zibung. "He knows if the paper brings in money he'll get a portion of it, but it's hard to convince his wife of that."
"She actually is supportive," says Yurechko, "but she was hoping for a little more fundage, if you know what I mean."
When Tribune theater critic Michael Phillips wrote his review of Gem of the Ocean, August Wilson's new play at the Goodman, he took a dig at the people he'd watched it with: "Wilson's characters can spark something even in a predominantly white, predominantly repressed nonprofit regional theater subscription audience."
Phillips's review was published in the Tribune and posted on the Tribune's Metromix Web site. Metromix left his language alone. But the Tribune turned what he wrote into "a predominantly white, predominantly restrained nonprofit regional theater subscription audience."
"I didn't know they changed that," Phillips said when I called him. He'd gone to New York right after finishing the review and hadn't seen it published in either version. "'Restrained' is apparently less insulting than 'repressed.'"
To a white, middle-aged audience it would be. To the younger Metromix crowd, "repressed" might be telling it like it is. Modern editing technology now makes it possible to give every generation the adjectives it approves of.
Trying to explain the Laci Peterson phenomenon in last week's Hot Type, I suggested that the indispensable reason the story took off was "everyone's good-looking." A former Chicago newspaperman wrote in to say, "And white."
OK, that too.