Yesterday, much to this blogger’s shock, a Twitter account claiming to be much-revered former New York Observer editor Peter Kaplan made its presence known to me. This is funny, because I’ve closely followed two other iterations of Kaplan on Twitter, @CrankyKaplan and @WiseKaplan since early March.
If you have no idea what the fuck is going on, you’re not alone. Maybe I should start from the beginning.
Until last summer, Peter Kaplan was the editor of the New York Observer, the infamous salmon-colored weekly newspaper that was, if you’re not familiar with it, New York print journalism’s version of Gawker before the internet came along. The Observer chronicled life in New York from a place slightly more uptown than us here at the Voice, but much more fearlessly than the chronic trend-chroniclers at, say, New York Magazine. For example, it’s the place Candace Bushnell originated her Sex and the City column, back when something like Sex and the City was still groundbreaking. As history would have it, life at the Observer was pretty goddamn insane under Kaplan, who at the Observer was (in many people’s memories) the embodiment of every wild, wisdom-dispensing, capricious New York print editor to ever live. For example, from a remembrance of Kaplan’s time there:
….There were these nights of sitting around in the room around the laser printers, drinking beer, or worse, and gluing the paper together. And just barely making the deadline for the printing presses. There was this incredible camaraderie, and competitiveness, a joie de vivre about a racy scoop. It felt a lot more like the movie about a newspaper than any other place I’ve worked.
Long story short, this kid name Jared Kushner came in, bought the paper with his dad’s money, fired
everyone a bunch of people at the Observer, and has since dedicated himself to turning it into the kind of paper you give away with purchases of his wife Ivanka Trump’s jewelery. Kaplan ended up at Conde Nast Traveler. And that was that. It happens.
Or so everyone thought.
Because earlier this Spring, two Twitter accounts popped up, one claiming to be “Wise Kaplan” — a introspective, bombastic, creepy sociopathic New Yorker who relishes being as such when he’s not working on a screenplay with Peter Bogdanovich — and “Cranky Kaplan” — an extroverted, hypermanical womanizing alcoholic who travels around on a Segway scooter, gets arrested, and types in ALL CAPS. Both were very, very funny. Neither were obviously Kaplan. But the genius of the jokes is that you didn’t have to know Kaplan to find them funny, and if you happened to, well, imagine a hyper-realized bi-polar version of one of your more colorful friends played out by someone else on Twitter. It was, and is, pretty genius.
Today, Slate’s Nathan Heller pulled the masks off the two Kaplan Twitters, giving them what Mike Taylor at Fishbowl NY correctly noted as an “overwhelmingly thorough exposition and analysis” of the feeds, explaining both who the authors are (former Observer writers Peter Stevenson and Jim Windolf). He is the first person to publicly unmask them, and he did it in a wonderful fashion. Go read it.
Now, a confession:
I killed this story — if it still is a “story,” and not a hyper-meta Twilight Zone of Twitter Humor — for my own selfish purposes a few months ago.
After becoming moderately obsessed with the Twitter feeds, and doing some research, I contacted Windolf and Stevenson to see if it was actually them. I was absolutely convinced it was. How?
Besides hearing about it from other former Observer staffers, I’d done my research.
In an interview Windolf did with former Observer writer George Gurley, he noted that once Peter Stevenson — his partner in Fake Kaplan Crime — arrived at the New York Observer, the place “became mayhem.” For example, Windolf fondly recalled the various things Kaplan threw out the window, including a computer and an issue of New York Magazine.
Also, that time Windolf had to barricade his office with a filing cabinet from Kaplan. Stevenson also did an interview with Gurley where he recalled the various pranks the he and Windolf pulled while at the Observer. Like the time they invented a Singaporean gossip columnist, who also became a Singaporean billionare, and a Singaporean publicist.
Stevenson remembered the way Kaplan would call people out in public, “gleefully, which is really funny.” Kinda like the way Kaplan, if impersonated, would append everything with “Whattatown!” Which his “Wise” doppelganger did. There was no way it couldn’t be them.
It turned out, yes, to be them. They were still cagey about it, having just been a month into the project, the genesis and execution of which, again, Nathan Heller covered far more than I ever was going to.
It’s worth noting that while researching this, I had not stopped giggling about it for a week straight. And it got even funnier. I contacted Peter Kaplan about it:
I’ve heard about these cranky and wise Kaplan “tweets.” But it’s a little like being Jack Benny–whoever is doing these understands me somewhat better than I understand myself.
Are you really doing Runnin’ Scared? What about Mary Perot Nichols?
….I guess my comment on smart/cranky is
WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT?
And then, Studio 360 radio host and author Kurt Andersen, who I’d heard had also become a fan of the Kaplan Twitters:
Do you think they’re an accurate representation of Kaplan?
Of course not! But they are a hilarious cartoon version with increasingly little resemblance to the inspiration.
Why do you derive such joy from them?
At first it was because I know Peter and the idea of such a perfect parody with such a small audience (of which I was a member) was very appealing. But now I like them (as I think I tweeted) as maybe the first great Twitter sitcom, as glimpses of a fully realized fictional character and his unfolding adventures.
And what do you think it is that’s captured the, uh, hearts of the 900 people [It’s currently 2,010] who are now following Cranky Peter Kaplan?
Some because they know him, but most, I presume, because of the sitcom/fictional-character part, this lovable, totally game, backward-looking crank of a certain age. And there are so many tweets! 20 or 30 a day per feed. Amazing. If any real person I follow tweets that much, I unfollow them.
Also: do you have a preference between the two?
Good question. At first I liked Wise more, then I liked Cranky more, and now I love them as a perfect bipolar combo.
Perfect. I had my confirmation, I even had my quotes from Kaplan and a famous fan! But I still coluldn’t bring myself to get Windolf and Stevenson to confirm on-record whether or not they actually were the two Kaplan’s, even though I knew it! Why?
Because in the history of humor, more often than not, once you spell out a joke, it begins to lose what’s so great about it: the parenthetical wit, the quiet machination of it that creates the laugh. And I didn’t want to lose this little gift a few people had been given for a ridiculous, hyper-meta story only, again, such a small segment of people actually knew about. I didn’t want to spoil the joke. And at the time, Windolf and Stevenson weren’t completely sure of whether or not they’d be able to keep going once the covers had been pulled off.
And then it got bigger. And bigger. More people started referencing them. Mergers & Acquisitions novelists Dana Vachon started Tweeting at them. Vanity Fair bloggers were linking to them. Hell, even the Observer snuck in the occasional Cranky Kaplan link! They had started to take on a second-life of their own, one that reached beyond the New York Media clusterfuck of humor and beyond, into a joke that, theoretically, could keep going even after unveiled. Which, now that the accounts are still going even after Heller’s piece has come out, doesn’t seem to be a problem. Especially now that the real Peter Kaplan has joined in on the fun.
But my issue was one of having the joke, or having the story. I chose the joke. But given the deservedly laudatory reaction to Heller’s piece, what was a better joke than it was a story when I was looking into it is now of quality in equal proportions. Personally, I’m glad I got to enjoy the secret without spoiling the joke. On the other hand, Heller did an absurdly great job not just figuring out who the Kaplan Twitters were, but more importantly, why they’re so great to so many people. In fact, this is one of those rare scenarios in which everyone wins, at the expense of nothing: A good story, a good story about a story, and solid proof that people can still very much inspire very concrete, tangible greatness. Or at the very least, make them laugh, just for the sake of doing so.