Beloved Esquire Franchise, 'Dubious Achievements,' Becomes One

When Lee Eisenberg worked on Dubious during the 70’s (he was the editor of Esquire from 1976 through 1978, and then again from 1984 through 1990), there was a cardboard box outside of someone’s office year round, and people would drop clippings into it whenever they came across something ripe in a newspaper or a magazine. Come August, Mr. Eisenberg said, the box would be dumped out and people around the office would share in the task of typing up short summaries of each item. For the next month and a half, whoever wanted to work on Dubious would get together for hours every day, choosing the best items, shouting out headlines, and arguing about how to phrase things.

Sometimes this would happen in the office, and other times it would happen across the street at the Berkshire Hotel bar, where Esquire editors ate lunch every day. “This was when you could still drink at lunch and eat peanuts,” Mr. Eisenberg said. “The Newsweek people who worked a couple blocks to the south would also come there.”

By the mid-80’s, Dubious was less of a staff-wide effort and more of a “guerrilla task force” made up of those who had the most enthusiasm for it, according to Mr. Eisenberg. Every year it was a slightly different cast, but the core group from 1985 until 1997, give or take, was Mr. Hirshey, Mr. Solomon, Lewis Grossberger, and Gil Schwartz (a.k.a. Stanley Bing). Michael Hirschorn, according to Mr. Hirshey, joined the team in the early 90’s.

From Labor Day until Thanksgiving or so, they’d work on Dubious almost every day, sometimes at Mr. Hirschorn’s Chelsea loft (known as the “Dubious Clubhouse”), sometimes in the office, but most often over three-hour-lunches at the handful of restaurants near Esquire headquarters below Central Park that would tolerate them. “It was jokes and food, always,” Mr. Grossberger said. “We were always joking and gaining weight. I don’t know if we could have done it without eating.”

Their favorite place to go was the Cosmic Coffee Shop on 58th and Broadway, a cheap Greek diner that served club sandwiches, eggs, and babka for dessert. One year, Mr. Hirshey said, they ran up a $4,000 dollar bill by the time Dubious season was over and got their picture hung on the wall; according to Mr. Solomon, the five of them would regularly order for 30.

On a good day, sessions like that would yield half a dozen useable jokes, most of which Mr. Eisenberg—Dubious’ “spiritual leader,” according to Mr. Solomon—would casually tear apart upon review. If he didn’t like a headline, he would either say it was terrible or mark it “TTB,” a bit of shorthand meaning “try to beat” that continues to haunt Mr. Hirshey and Mr. Solomon to this day. “He would torture us mercilessly over every headline,” Mr. Hirshey said. “He’d make us write 20 and then he would choose the first one.” Mr. Eisenberg did not apologize for this: “Hirshey is someone who likes to suffer,” he said.

By the time Mr. Hirshey left Esquire in 1997, the once-innovative headline-item format that had made Dubious such a distinctive voice in humor had inspired countless copycats: over the course of the 12 years during which he served as the section’s shepherd, Mr. Hirshey said, he “fired off rockets” to publications like Texas Monthly (which introduced their version of Dubious, “the Bum Steer Awards” in 1974), People Magazine, and Entertainment Weekly in which he asked them to please at least acknowledge the source of their inspiration.

Mr. Eisenberg said the imitators should have compelled the architects of Dubious to innovate: to deviate from or even abandon the original format and evolve so that everyone else was never not just playing catch-up.

“It probably could have used a shot of humor growth hormone once in a while,” Mr. Eisenberg said, sounding somewhat detached but disappointed.

Mr. Grossberger, meanwhile, lamented the fact that the feature was killed before it had the chance to turn 50.

“What lovely timing,” he said. “I’d say that’s pretty dubious! I guess the Hirshey gang will have to have its own 50th anniversary celebration at the Cosmic.”

He went on: “A few years ago I would have been outraged and denouncing it. But I sort of expect everything to end now. It’s like the whole culture seems to be co
ming to an end. Everything is stopping, ending, collapsing. So nothing surprises me… It would be nice if Dubious could keep going and it would be nice if our gang could keep writing it. But reality is not what it used to be.”

Beloved Esquire Franchise, 'Dubious Achievements,' Becomes One