UPG Guestpert: Jay Ruttenberg of the Lowbrow Reader

by on May 21st, 2012
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Every month we interview a guest expert, or “guestpert” on our blog.

This month, we feature Jay Ruttenberg, author and editor of The Lowbrow Reader, a zine which is coming out in book form this month.  We sat down with Jay to talk about his work and lowbrow culture in general.

UPG: How did the Lowbrow Reader come about?

JR: I started working on the Lowbrow Reader in the fall of 2000, just after I moved to New York. Originally, I was hoping to make it an iPhone app, or perhaps an interactive publication tailored for an iPad with a strong Twitter presence. Alas, the technology wasn’t quite there yet, so we settled on an old-fashioned zine. In part, I wanted to start the publication because of the negative reviews that had greeted my favorite movie, Billy Madison; in part, I simply wanted to work on a project with the Lowbrow Reader’s designer, Matt Berube.

cover drawing by John Mathias

UPG: How would you define “lowbrow”?

JR: In comedy, I would say that Harpo Marx is lowbrow while Groucho Marx is highbrow. Of course, back in the day, the upper-crust favored Harpo: His fans included Wolcott Gibbs, Dorothy Parker, and Salvador Dalí, a celebrated designer of dorm-room posters. So maybe Chico is the true lowbrow icon? He is definitely the Marx Brother I would least like to meet in a dark alley late at night.

drawing by David Berman

UPG: Do you honestly feel that the lowbrow elements of our culture are being underrepresented?

JR: I worry most about the underrepresentation of middlebrow culture, and hope to remedy this by launching a second publication that will focus on it exclusively. I intend to call it “O, The Oprah Magazine.”

UPG: Who are your greatest lowbrow icons?

JR: Harpo Marx, Larry David, Joan Rivers, my mother, Richard Pryor, Mel Brooks, and Howard Stern.

UPG: As a writer, what drove you to take on the role of editor for a project like this?

JR: I have always enjoyed editing as well as writing. More significantly, one of the most rewarding aspects of working on the Lowbrow Reader is tapping the talents of others—whether writers, illustrators, comedians, or even the musicians who have performed at our events. It sounds corny and pretentious, but I’ve always viewed the Lowbrow Reader as a “collective,” or something along those lines.

UPG: From a zine to a book – what’s next for Lowbrow?

drawing by John Mathias

JR: First, let me take this opportunity to give an unsolicited, morning zoo–style plug to some upcoming Lowbrow Reader events. On Tuesday, May 29, New Yorkers of all stripes are invited to come to the lovely Housing Works Bookstore in Soho for The Lowbrow Reader Variety Hour featuring two of my favorite musical acts in the world: Adam Green and Supercute!, plus two of my favorite standup comedians, Wyatt Cenac and Professor Irwin Corey. There will be a similar event in Chicago later in the summer—stay alert, Chicagoans!

I am not sure what the future has in store for the Lowbrow Reader. I certainly don’t want it to just exist as a website, which seems so petit bourgeoisie. It is my hope to do more books, maybe some 7” singles, and perhaps an art show in a Chelsea gallery that smells like paint. I will also say that The Lowbrow Reader Reader is by far the best thing we have produced to date. If you read it and do not laugh out loud, you are probably a racist.

The Lowbrow Reader Reader is available for sale starting on May 22nd.

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