For me, June 1995 was an emotional roller coaster. For the first time since 1966, my esteemed Detroit Red Wings reached the Stanley Cup Finals, only to be swept in four games by the New Jersey Devils. Shortly before coach Jacques Lemaire and his signature neutral-zone trap dashed the hopes of the Motor City, I completed the fourth grade, meaning there were only three months standing between me and what would surely be the greatest year of my life: the fifth grade. (Hindsight: Fifth grade turned out pretty rough, as did grades six through 10.)
At the end of this fateful month, my parents lifted a long-standing household ban on PG-13 movies. The embargo had been in place since 1989, when Mom, Dad, 4-year-old Erik, and my days-old younger brother witnessed the gothic fantasia (and age-inappropriate everything else) of Tim Burton’s Batman. For years afterward, the director’s name was spoken of only in derision by my parents, so thoroughly had Burton corrupted Mom and Dad’s fond memories of the Batman they remembered from TV in the ’60s. They had passed those memories down to a son who treasured his Super Powers Collection Batman action figure (with “POWER ACTION BAT PUNCH”), ate Batman birthday cakes, and slept in Batman pajamas—the kind with a detachable Batman cape. And yet, all I retained from the ’89 Batman was a) the scene where the Batwing casts the Batlogo against the backdrop of a full moon, and b) the Batman Taco Bell tie-in that introduced Cinnamon Twists to the chain’s menu.
Ironically, it was the Burton-produced film featuring the Caped Crusader that broke down the PG-13 barrier in my house: Batman Forever, a film that dominated the pop-culture conversation in 1995, but is now best remembered as “the Joel Schumacher one that didn’t destroy the franchise.” The film similarly dominated my life that summer: Whatever allowance money I wasn’t spending on POGs went toward Batman Forever toys, apparel, and any reading material that extended the experience of the film beyond the walls of the movie theater. This mini-library comprised the YA novelization of the film, a few issues of DC Animated Universe-based Batman Adventures comic, and any magazine featuring articles about the film or profiles on its stars.
And that’s how I came into possession of the June 30/July 7 edition of Entertainment Weekly, which featured newly minted Dark Knight Val Kilmer on its cover, bracketed by a handful of familiar all-caps names (“URKEL,” “NICOLAS CAGE,” “HERCULES”) and a few alluringly alien terms (“KITSCH,” “DIGIZINES,” “BJÖRK”). The magazine’s actual Gotham City quotient was relatively low—it’s clear from the cover story that Kilmer would be a one-and-done Batman—but that ultimately didn’t matter, because I held onto the issue well after my Batman Forever obsession proved non-eternal. The magazine wasn’t the key to further adventures with Jim Carrey’s manic Riddler or Nicole Kidman’s slinky psychiatrist, Dr. Chase Meridian. Instead, it was a window into a grown-up world I yearned to be a part of, one that rewarded opinions and wit—a place where a big-screen superhero shares space on the layout grid with C-SPAN. Some people have their lives shaped by religious texts; still others swear by Austen or Salinger, Fitzgerald, Dickens, or the Brontës. I’ve felt the impact of those texts to varying degrees, but whatever marks they leave build on the 1995 “Cool Issue” of Entertainment Weekly. It was my Monolith; from the secrets held within, a worldview began to evolve.
It’s funny that the words and images of this issue have stuck with me, because “cool” isn’t built to last. Cool is a trend, cool is a fad, and 20 years ago this summer, cool was designer jellies and Russell Crowe as the computer-generated villain in Virtuosity. But at the dawn of the internet, in the awakening of my pop-culture consciousness, The Cool Issue made the world of undiscovered TV, movies, music, books, online media, and fashion seem so vast. Garish comic-book movies were only the beginning—what about this comedy where the guy from Sliders shared an apartment with 5,000 cockroaches? Joe’s Apartment was going to be the first feature film produced by MTV, so even if it wasn’t good, at least it was cool!
That was the power of this era of Entertainment Weekly, a publication I came to know and trust in the ensuing years. (Judging by the number of times it’s been name-checked during 1995 Week, I’m not alone in this estimation.) On family vacations, I’d pick up a copy at the airport bookstore or the gas-station newsstand. At the dentist’s office, I’d ask to take home issues whose cover dates had passed. At a time when a print weekly’s page count could reach into the 70s, EW crammed enough content between the covers to last an information-hungry kid like me for a long, long time. My ritual (which I still observe when I come across the magazine in its current, neutered state): Skim the front-of-book for timely tidbits, skip to the reviews section to read the featured takes on film, TV, and music. Then jump back to the cover article and proceed through the other features from there; return to that cover article multiple times in the following weeks, months, and even years. That final step was possible with editorial-intensive, multi-page layouts like “Back To Cool” (the centerpiece of the ’95 Cool Issue) or another personal favorite from later that summer, “The 100 Greatest Videos For Every Occasion.” Lists are now de rigueur in online media, but we’re still scrambling to write them with as much authority and attention to detail as mid-’90s EW.
Or with the same degree of sincere variety. On a single page of the Cool Issue, staffers make the case for two luminaries on seemingly opposite sides of the coolness spectrum: Then-public-access upstart Jake Fogelnest and now-retired C-SPAN CEO Brian Lamb. It’s a terrific juxtaposition, a highly opinionated tastemaking voice of one generation atop an older broadcaster praised for taking no sides and expressing no biases. Fogelnest is photographed in a “LISTEN TO BLACK SABBATH” T-shirt, an issue of skate magazine Big Brother to his right; Lamb recounts a favorite joke told at his expense: “I always liked the one that said I had the personality of a test pattern without the color.” One of these guys is cited for starting a feud with Weezer—can you guess which one?
While he pranced across the nation’s movie screens dropping puns and not-so-intricate riddles, Jim Carrey was reportedly fielding a $20 million offer to star in The Cable Guy. It was a record sum at the time, making it ideal fodder for a musty one-liner in EW’s front-of-book staple, Jim Mullen’s Hot Sheet. (“7. Jim Carrey: He may get $20 million to star in Cable Guy. It sounds like a lot, but he gets only $12.95 a month.”) There’s a sense throughout the Cool Issue that if Carrey wasn’t so in-demand, The Riddler’s rubbery face would be the Batman Forever mug on the magazine’s cover. The comedian of the moment elbows his way into the headline of Jaleel White’s Cool Issue spread, and he’s mentioned by name four times (and quoted twice) in the mini-profile of Lauren Holly, his Dumb And Dumber co-star and eventual wife. “Jim’s in sequel hell right now,” Holly says at one point, alluding to Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls and his unrealized sequel to The Mask, adding another reason why Carrey couldn’t commit to a full feature for the clearly Carrey-mad magazine.
Another possible reason: He simply didn’t need to do it. A feature like “Back To Cool” forms a symbiosis between its editorial overseers and its subjects: An easy way to fill pages for the former, and a potential profile boost for the latter. Lauren Holly had been on Picket Fences for several seasons by 1995, ditto Jaleel White and Family Matters, but the Cool Issue gives them space to demonstrate that they were ready to break out of those primetime roles. If the magazine taught me anything about adult life, it’s this lesson in mutually beneficial relationships. Holly gets a rundown of her upcoming film slate, while White’s “Cool Geek” blurb mentions his enrollment in UCLA and the introduction of Steve Urkel’s suave, alter-ego in properly fitting trousers, Stefan Urquelle.
Here are a couple of spots where the magazine managed to locate lasting sources of cool. Björk more than Lisa Kudrow, maybe, but it was smart to single out Phoebe at a time when everyone was copying Rachel’s haircut. Two decades later, one of the biggest time-capsule thrills the Cool Issue holds for me is noting how much more there was to come for Björk and Kudrow: The former had just put out Post in the U.S. (“Army Of Me” had been kicking around modern rock radio and freaking out MTV viewers since April), while Friends wrapped its insanely popular first season a month prior. Björk provides some choice quotes, specifically a clarification that reads as gloriously quaint in the age of Twitter.
Her distress traces back to a magazine profile she read the day before, which implied that Björk recorded Post in the Bahamas to avoid the advances of Madonna (who was eager to perform with Björk on a British awards show). “Believe me, I’m used to being misunderstood. But this…” she rails in an accent equal parts steel and trill. “I would never say, ‘I escaped to the Bahamas so fucking Madonna couldn’t reach me!’ I wasn’t Björk anymore [in the article]. I was someone else, and that’s scary.”
The scariest time-capsule element of the magazine: I’m one year younger than Lisa Kudrow was when this was published—and one year older than Björk.
Okay, good—still got six years on 1995 Kevin Sorbo. Plenty of time left to do my own personal God’s Not Dead.
I think these three pages wound up influencing my impression of the Cool Issue and the year in which it was published more than anything else. These were the trends that I could most easily observe in my everyday life, as the mid-’90s taste for mid-century tackiness was already spreading to the malls (the bell-bottom, reborn as “boot-cut”), the cinema (The Brady Bunch Movie), and primetime cable (as noted in a Ken Tucker review later in the Cool Issue, ’95 was the year Welcome Back, Kotter joined Nick At Nite’s Block Party Summer lineup). And thanks to the Cool Issue, I’d be able to put words to it: “Kitsch” and “camp,” two entries in my vocabulary for which I can accurately pinpoint the sources.
Because of the way the feature is organized—following the movies first, then TV, etc. running order of EW’s reviews section—the entries on the retro-chic fad come at the very end of “Back To Cool.” But the zeal for things that previously seemed passé informs the aesthetic of the whole piece. The lithe, lounging figures in Maurice Vellekoop’s illustrations sport mod cutouts and Carnaby Street sunglasses. In the main image, a goateed hipster kicks back in an Eero Aarnio Ball Chair, surrounded by posters for Barbarella, I Married A Witch, and Parliament. The first time I saw Mr. Show’s “Iguana” sketch (from 1996), I flashed back to this image; at Chicago’s own Kitsch’n On Roscoe (established 1998), you can eat decent breakfast tacos in what might as well be a re-creation of this image.
As a kid who felt out of step with his peers and inexplicably drawn to the media of past decades, there was comfort in seeing this sort of time-traveling entertainment branded “cool.” 1995 was a banner year in that respect: I lived for Block Party Summer’s “Munster Mondays” and “Bewitched Be-Wednesdays,” and the hype surrounding The Beatles Anthology was more than an oldies-radio-loving kid could ask for. Nobody I knew felt as intensely as I did about Batman Forever, and only my parents seemed to share in my enthusiasm for old TV reruns. But here was this magazine telling me it was okay to like those things. More than okay, even: It was cool.
Perhaps most chilling for the staff of Entertainment Weekly—and most relevant to my own career path—innovations in the realm of “digizines” like Blender, Launch, and Trouble & Attitude are praised, making the Cool Issue’s full-color photos and cutting-edge type treatments look downright primitive by comparison. With a promotional sticker bearing the Blender logo turning up a few pages later, the “the first pop interactive pop culture monthly on CD-ROM” must’ve weighed the heaviest on EW’s editorial mind, but the digizine writeup focuses its attention on the newly launched Trouble & Attitude, which signals its priorities (and desperately cries out for pictorial consideration) with a cover shot of Pamela Anderson in Baywatch wardrobe. Terms like “digizine,” “multimedia magazine,” and even “interactive” would fall away as we became accustomed to getting most of our news and commentary on computer screens; some of us even found employment in supplying the words that are rendered on those screens. Considering EW’s survival (and its stubborn, backward-thinking insistence on using its website as a supplement to the magazine) and Blender’s ultimate embrace of print, the notion that CD-ROM was the future of media feels more dated than any of the tech buzzwords thrown around on this page.
The Cool Issue and “Back To Cool” gave me a glimpse of a past I missed, a present I couldn’t participate in, and a future that would (and wouldn’t) come to be, but I’m glad there are spots where I didn’t listen. The pursuit of cool can come at the expense of the timeless: Beavis & Butt-head and David Letterman were at peak exposure in 1995, landing each in the “painfully cold” section of “Back To Cool.” Potshots at CBS never go out of style, but Albert Kim’s digs at the Tiffany Network’s mid-decade woes are so 1995: “Since its programming Can’t Be Sloppier and it Couldn’t Buy Sports, what did it do? Added a bunch of Crummy, Boring Sitcoms. It Couldn’t Be Sadder.” (Kim has since broken into television, where his work on The CW’s Nikita was done for the network’s non-CBS corporate parent.)
Isn’t that just like cool, though? Look elsewhere in the magazine and you’ll find Hootie And The Blowfish’s Cracked Rear View topping the album charts, or a sidebar about Jon Stewart’s syndicated talk show coming to an end—the former would never ride so high again; the latter had nowhere to go but up. The Cool Issue, like any good magazine, freezes a moment in time. (Pun intended.) None of its proclamations were set in stone, and some would crumble quickly. (The forgotten Kelsey Grammer vehicle Down Periscope merits a now-bizarre number of mentions.)
It’s a document of a specific moment in time, when our collective vision of Batman was draped in latex and basked in neon light, and the hippest person in the room looked like they’d just caught up with ideas The B-52s and Deee-Lite had hatched years earlier. My Monolith is an artifact, rather than a monument.