RVA NO.2 : PUNCHLINE creator Pete Humes talks independent media and where its all going.

by | Aug 30, 2010 | POLITICS

In August of 2002 I moved into a dorm on Monroe Park. An incoming freshman at VCU, I remember thinking this place looks like a fucking wasteland as my parent’s car passed through an apparently inexplicable alternating current of historic urban mansions and dilapidated tenements. The city looked dirty and abandoned, like a pair of cheap high heeled shoes you’d see in the gutter on Saturday morning. I couldn’t imagine anything worthwhile actually happening in such a desolate landscape, one that seemed populated entirely by old-money gentry, bums, and college kids.

A print journalism major (for a minute), I went straight for a copy of the school paper, only to find some glorified newsletter that made my high school paper look professional.

One day and a bad frat party later I was walking to the dining hall for the first time, and stopped at a newspaper box. It wasn’t an especially holy moment. The box wasn’t some shimmering beacon of hope, beckoning like fate from the sidewalk that twisted around the cathedral in front of Shafer Court, and I wasn’t mysteriously awakened by the sensation of the inky newsprint in my hands. But I did get the feeling that there was something I had overlooked my first, hastily judgmental appraisals of Richmond.

Punchline had an immediately apparent character, one that seemed radically unique, irreverent yet with discernible local pride, and possessed a voice that spoke as though it never considered existing anywhere else. And it was damn funny. I first fell in love with Richmond’s rooftops and alleyways, but I got the impression that there might be something here worth loving while reading Punchline.

Four months later I was an editorial intern, operating under some Almost Famous induced delusion of imminent renown, writing art review blurbs from press releases while the office whirled in chaotic routine around me.

Three months after that, Punchline went out of print. It had run from 1997 to 2003, and in that time grown to embody and embolden the vaguely subterranean stirrings of an inertial creative class that is coming to define Richmond today.

Now, over seven years later, I find myself in the backyard of a baller-worthy house in Northside, siting in remarkably comfortable lawn furniture across from founder and editor of Punchline, Pete Humes. Pete lights a cigar and leans over the small patio table between us, takes a sip of coffee, and looks out into the dusk for a minute.

In August of 2002 I moved into a dorm on Monroe Park. An incoming freshman at VCU, I remember thinking this place looks like a fucking wasteland as my parent’s car passed through an apparently inexplicable alternating current of historic urban mansions and dilapidated tenements. The city looked dirty and abandoned, like a pair of cheap high heeled shoes you’d see in the gutter on Saturday morning. I couldn’t imagine anything worthwhile actually happening in such a desolate landscape, one that seemed populated entirely by old-money gentry, bums, and college kids.

A print journalism major (for a minute), I went straight for a copy of the school paper, only to find some glorified newsletter that made my high school paper look professional.

One day and a bad frat party later I was walking to the dining hall for the first time, and stopped at a newspaper box. It wasn’t an especially holy moment. The box wasn’t some shimmering beacon of hope, beckoning like fate from the sidewalk that twisted around the cathedral in front of Shafer Court, and I wasn’t mysteriously awakened by the sensation of the inky newsprint in my hands. But I did get the feeling that there was something I had overlooked my first, hastily judgmental appraisals of Richmond.

Punchline had an immediately apparent character, one that seemed radically unique, irreverent yet with discernible local pride, and possessed a voice that spoke as though it never considered existing anywhere else. And it was damn funny. I first fell in love with Richmond’s rooftops and alleyways, but I got the impression that there might be something here worth loving while reading Punchline.

Four months later I was an editorial intern, operating under some Almost Famous induced delusion of imminent renown, writing art review blurbs from press releases while the office whirled in chaotic routine around me.

Three months after that, Punchline went out of print. It had run from 1997 to 2003, and in that time grown to embody and embolden the vaguely subterranean stirrings of an inertial creative class that is coming to define Richmond today.

Now, over seven years later, I find myself in the backyard of a baller-worthy house in Northside, siting in remarkably comfortable lawn furniture across from founder and editor of Punchline, Pete Humes. Pete lights a cigar and leans over the small patio table between us, takes a sip of coffee, and looks out into the dusk for a minute.

Actually the main inspiration was a paper in Richmond that was around for a little while called the Richmond Funny Paper. It was around in the mid nineties, and this guy out of Charlottesville did it. It was just a tabloid that ran syndicated cartoons, and I illustrated covers for it.

The paper went out of print and Pete began designing onscreen ads for the Byrd Theatre. After a few talks with Duane Nelson, who was running the theater at the time, the two decided to attempt their own publication.

I told him we could definitely make money from the first day. I didn’t know shit. But I just really wanted to do something different. And I tried to get all the things lined up and he was like “well, if you can sell the ads, you can do it.” So I went out with my little book and backpack and tried to sell something that didn’t exist yet to these people, and most of them weren’t buyin it.

But a few did, and after some wavering, they began producing a monthly cartoon paper.

When it first started out, you could see in the first few issues, it was really like this one man show, where I was sifting through all these comics, and I would just pick out which comics I thought were funny and put them in. Or I would run humorous stories that I thought were funny. I drew all the covers, or designed the covers. So I set the tone, but then as more people became involved, it really just took off, and took on this life of its own. And I think looking back at the whole run, that’s what defined its success.

We did that monthly for about six months, six or seven, and then it just sort of morphed into this, as more people came on board, it became like a weekly paper kind of thing, kind of inspired by The Onion and The Stranger in Seattle.

With Nelson keeping the project afloat, supplementing what costs weren’t covered by advertising, Punchline began to attract the attention of like-minded creatives in Richmond. One such contributer was Chris O’Keefe, who initially came onboard as an ad salesperson. O’Keefe was a driving force in the evolutionary shift of the publication towards a broader, more community-oriented format. Heavily influenced by City Paper, his push for the inclusion of articles and comprehensive band listings was the catalyst for Punchline to begin fulfilling its own unseen potential.

So it just kinda warped from there, and eventually another big push came with John Goldberg, he was the graphic designer. He got involved and took the look of it up a hundred notches from me just throwing shit together. He put a real signature design on it, put a lot of his voice into it, and we just started building up steam, selling more ads. And we eventually went from monthly to bi-weekly, we took that jump, and then we went to weekly in ‘99. But it was just a group of people getting together, no fuckin idea what they were doing, and just going with it.

Pete’s words vibrate with personal relevance, and not because I get the sense they were lost in an unfamiliar world they had inadequately prepared themselves for, but because he seemed to impart a sense of dedicated vision, of an unwavering belief that there was somewhere to go and they would sure as shit get there. Even if they weren’t quite sure where that place was.

I think all those other things sort of laid the groundwork, Throttle and Caffeine [magazines], and the music scene, it was all there, it was all fertile. I don’t think we pulled off any great miracle. We came around and we were like “oh look at all this shit in the soil.” It made it ripe for planting. And I think the fact that we were so open-doors, we let a lot of different voices come in, and we were open to a lot of stuff. I wanted it to be reflective of everything that was going on.

Richmond has a habit of bitching about its own insufficiency, like an infant unable to change its own shitty diaper. But sentiments of inadequate cultural vibrancy in Richmond today can’t hold the bug-repellant candle on the table up to the esoteric state of local culture when Punchline adopted the responsibility for mining it.

But I can remember it was very, very hard to find…. you had to look for the scenes. You had to look for the clubs, it seems like now it’s just everywhere. We would have lost our minds if the National was around. But in terms of the acts being in town, to me it’s phenomenal. But it can go either way. Because then it was harder to find things going on, but in a way it was also more interesting when they did go on, because you had to fight. I don’t know if that makes sense. The amount of stuff that had to come together for the New Year’s Eve thing to have ever happened is incredible to me too. But stuff like that, right place, right time, everybody wants something to happen, but it’s always Richmond, so there’s always something that will fuck it up, or twist it up.

And Punchline wasn’t exempt from the notorious resistance of our fair metropolis to the establishment of a steady, well reinforced foundation for the support of its creative citizenry. Culture in Richmond travels through time in much the same way as that first car ride into the city passed through the trappings of affluence and poverty. Waves build and crash, these asphalt shores are always wet with the residue of collapsed movements, dismantled designs, the scattered breath of something that was sure it would never run out of air.

I mean at the time, we really hit on something. But the people, and I don’t mean to repeat myself, but having some distance from it, looking back, it’s all these people that added to it. Jeyon Falsini, he’s booking shows in Charlottesville right now, and he’s the kinda guy who just came in and worked his ass off for free. We drove around town and distributed the paper in his Trooper every Thursday with these dirty papers until the fuckin thing blew up one day. And he compiled all the club listings, and we tried to get everybody in. The Midway Lounge and every fuckin open mic and jazz place, he was adamant about getting everybody in. But that’s the type of thing that kept us afloat, all these people that came in at the right time.

It was this serendipitous confluence of forces, the right moment, the right people with the kind of vision necessary to recognize and act upon it, that birthed Punchline, which in turn set in motion the social machinery of growth and change that can only run on a certain type of elusive youthful energy, the uncommon inspiration that radiates from every formidable artistic, political, and cultural movement.

The freedom is amazing. The freedom of doing that for yourself, and knowing that that issue, and that thing, is the most important thing. I miss the all nighters. I would just stay, and I watched the sun come up so many times. And I’m not saying that’s because we were working so hard, we usually left stuff to the last minute, but it was a lot of fun. And I think we could only do that in that specific time of our lives.

I’m married, Liz and I are married and we have kids, and me doing that is not possible now. But when you’re out and you put an issue to bed at 1 am and go hit last call, drink too much, come back in hungover and distribute the papers, that was fun. But I think RVA has picked up the reigns beautifully, and it seems perfectly natural. And I don’t even want to say passing the baton, because I didn’t, I dropped the fucking baton. But there’s gotta be a place for that, especially in this town.

And in the current economic climate, those are some slippery reigns. We’ve seen a dramatic shift towards immediately digestible soundbites, and a profound decommodification of information. The true journalist, at least in any professional sense, is fast becoming an endangered species. The desire for physically tangible, reputable sources for news and entertainment has been replaced by the instant gratification and rapid accessibility of free internet sources, often provided by the general population casually, as on Twitter and Facebook.

It’s like the great American fast food movement, but with cheap and easy words and images instead of victuals purposed to be convenient rather than nourishing and well made. And in a way it’s good; it empowers the average person to partake in a larger dialog, to feel, and actually be, heard more loudly than ever before, just as eliminating the mealtime ritual had the benefit of allowing people to spend more time on productivity and recreation.

But just as a popular weariness of shitty, unhealthy eating habits has given rise to the slow food and locavore movements with their emphasis on gourmet quality, sustainability, and care in preparation, I have a theory that we’re heading towards an equitable shift in the consumption of information. No, Twitter isn’t going anywhere and neither is Burger King, and I don’t want them to, but eventually people are going to ache for the well-crafted writing, high quality design, and physical presence of actual news and entertainment publications. A movement of well cultivated literary insights, of technically sound images rather than the microwave immediacy of camera phones. At least I fucking hope so.

Either way, certain things have their moment, and if it’s possible that we’re now approaching a renewed collective interest in print media, Punchline was fighting for survival when the rest of the world was beginning to pull away from traditional sources of information, and at the same time Richmond seemed to be stuck in one of its characteristic lulls.

Richmond has this weird roller coaster history. Stuff is here for you and then it’s gone, and then it’s here and then it’s gone, and we were begging for so long for something to come around and just stay, just stick around. And I guess that’s just the way Richmond is going to be. Peaks and valleys.

As with any independent publication, Punchline relied on the culture it documented and perpetuated as much as it did on its own balance of business and, as Pete (and countless significant others of RVA Magazine staff) referred to it, clubhouse. You have to balance out the shit pay with a casual approach, the casual attitude with solid business practices.

Part of the reason that we stopped, is we were really tired. We were tired and the money issues caught up with us, and we couldn’t fight for that anymore. Regret wise, I really don’t have any. It was great fun, and I love the fact that it marks this period of Richmond. I’m really, really proud of that, and it was a blast to be a part of that. But you know, aside from when people don’t have you on the list, it’s really sort of invigorating to be backstage in the city, where you’re like, “I’m writing about this.” Or “I’m getting behind this, I’m going to figure this out and present it to people.” And you’re sort of backstage, while the show is going on. So we liked that a lot.

When Punchline closed its doors it was between issues, so there was no formal farewell. One week it was cranking out papers, the next their boxes sat empty. I didn’t keep in touch with anyone from Punchline, but years later I heard that Pete was taking the Editor-in-Chief position with a Media General “alt-weekly” called Brick. Ever wary of corporate approximations of indie culture, I was nevertheless excited to see what would come of the magazine with him at the helm. But it became immediately apparent that something essential was missing from Brick, and that no matter how much talent it attracted, it could never be the thing it aspired to. Pete didn’t stick around long, and the magazine went out of print unceremoniously, to nobody’s great surprise.

Yeah, I can’t believe it wasn’t gone… and I’m not saying because of me, but it wasn’t working for them from fuckin day 1, so I can’t believe it lasted so long. But I think the newspaper is going to die out. Because what happens is, you just need to be relevant, you need to be unique, you need to be your own voice, and there was nobody that had that vision for that thing. What little vision I had while I was there, because my mind and my heart wasn’t in it, you know, I just did it because I had a big ego, and I was like “I can fuckin do this again.” But Liz was pregnant, I was older, I wasn’t going out, I didn’t know shit, I didn’t feel like staying up all night to put this thing together. So that just sort of fell apart. But there was no vision for it after I left. There was nobody picking up the reigns. You guys had Tony starting it from the beginning, who’s got this “I’ll fuckin die for this thing,” attitude, and you absolutely need that. And I think that when a publication of any kind loses that focus and that drive, it’s just a matter of time.

With the evolution of information technology destabilizing the homogeneous, conservative juggernaut of corporate news institutions, the void left is a rare opportunity for the Punchlines of today (and I’m not just referring to RVA Magazine here) to rise into prominence. If the major daily paper is unsustainable and low in demand, and the Twitter feeds and blogosphere are insufficient, what’s left is to channel the collective consciousness represented by the internet’s marketplace of ideas into periodical art, something more connected and accessible to the community than the Times-Dispatch, something more focused, radically identifiable, and passionately cultivated than a hashtag search.

It’s kinda crazy for anybody to think about doing it. I hate the fact that there’s 40, 50 free pubs every restaurant you walk into, it just becomes trash. And it’s almost like people create these things to hold up advertising, and there’s nothing in them. That’s kind of frustrating. I would like to see more sort of coalescing of stuff online. I really like what RVA News has done, bringing these people together, but there’s still like a million voices out there, and I think someone coming up with a strong online presence would be great.

But the tangible stuff, there’s always a spot for that, especially people like me are going to be getting older, or we are getting older, we still have a fond memory of that stuff, and we want to see something. That’s what always blew me away, people always saved Punchlines and collected them like little pieces of art, and I liked that, because we put it together like it was a piece of art, for the most part, as best we could. So I don’t know, I’d like to always see something tangible. It seems like there’s so much, besides RVA News and RVA Magazine, there’s a lot of fractured stuff going on, and maybe people could realize that there’s strength in coming together. A couple people that can be really strong ringleaders to create these scenes. Maybe we need that, maybe we need more sort of leaders, cultural leaders in the city that can bring that stuff together.

Pete describes Punchline as being something of a middle finger to STYLE Weekly, and it makes sense for a thing like Punchline to grow out of a certain discontent for what’s available and accepted. So long as there are mainstream publications content to scrape the easy cream from the top of the Richmond scene and feed it to the mild interests of passive consumers, there will be alternative publications diving deep to find the rest, and bring it to the hands of the insatiable, the restless and impassioned, to the makers and dreamers, and to help create the sense of unity and momentum necessary for them to make something more.

And maybe that’s the most important aspect of putting together a magazine in a place like Richmond; not some egoistic showcasing of individual talent, but the building of not only the community being documented, but also amongst the documenters.

Don’t try to please everybody, you know? And that sounds corny as shit, but enjoy yourself, write the things that you want to read, tell the jokes that you laugh at, cover the bands that you like, and if you’re not crazy, people will follow, or you’ll attract people that want the same thing. Surround yourself with good people. That right there is the fucking key. If you want to do something, don’t do it all yourself. There are plenty of people. Even with Brick, we went out with our hands open and said “we need covers, we work for a major paper, but they’re not giving us any money. We can give you this, will you do a cover for us?” And we had some illustrators that won awards for doing their stuff. So you make yourself look better by surrounding yourself with really good, passionate people. Don’t do it yourself.

Richmond is a medium, the unfired clay of an ancient and haunted sculpture of distorted ghosts and undeveloped visions. It is an exhausted and tireless landscape caught between the echoes of long dead ideals and the stifled voice of incubating potential. There is an energy always threatening to wane, an undulating capacity for stagnation just below the restless surface of a building tide. And there’s something in this that makes independent media profoundly important, both as a record of what’s happening, and a catalyst to perpetuate it, and, particularly in Richmond, for the use of a traditional medium in the creation of something unconventional.

by Preston S. Duncan
You can read old issues of Punchline at www.lestercat.net/punchline

This article was pulled from the newest issue of RVA Magazine. To read more from the issue CLICK HERE.

R. Anthony Harris

R. Anthony Harris

I created Richmond, Virginia’s culture publication RVA Magazine and brought the first Richmond Mural Project to town. Designed the first brand for the Richmond’s First Fridays Artwalk and promoted the citywide “RVA” brand before the city adopted it as the official moniker. I threw a bunch of parties. Printed a lot of magazines. Met so many fantastic people in the process. Professional work: www.majormajor.me




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