Expresso Tilt was published "In the grand tradition of The New Yorker, National Lampoon, Playboy, and Hustler," as one cover exclaimed. "For immature readers only."
The cover of another issue told readers that Expresso Tilt was "more than just a magazine," by which I meant that a magazine is more than just a collection of articles, stories, comics, photos, etc. It's a perspective, and that's what a magazine offers to readers. Expresso Tilt's perspective was, if you'll pardon the boasting, what made it unique.
That perspective involved seeing at least a little humor in just about everything. After all, what else is there to do in desperate times but throw your hands to the sky and laugh. The editorial approach was this: don't take anything very seriously, and anything you happen to take seriously has to be so skewed that a typical magazine wouldn't cover it.
The goal was to help the reader achieve a tangible, giddy high. We wanted him or her to let go, to reach a point of absolute gleefulness. We wanted to provide a temporary release from the mundanities of everyday life.
This penchant for taking things a bit too far was central to Expresso Tilt. My favorite explanation for the magazine was, "In an absurd world, the only valid response is to behave in an even more absurd manner." Some people might consider that irresponsible and reckless. We considered it a survival instinct.
The fiction, poetry, and cartoons helped shape Expresso Tilt, but it was the nonfiction articles and humor that defined the magazine. As an editor, we had a few guidelines on subject matter.
As a result we ended up with articles about such outre subjects like the Shaggs, S.P. Dinsmoor, Ben Burroughs, Burnette G. Pletan, and James Hampton.
In a letter to the editor, Kurt Nimmo, who published a literary zine in Detroit, described Expresso Tilt as "the desperate vision of a few people trying to get a few laughs before the SS-20s leave their berths."
My favorite explanation came from Linda Horvath of Montebello, California: "We all grew up with the Nelsons and Beaver and Howdy Doody and here we are now trying to be serious adults. Only it didn't exactly turn out the way they told us it would if we ate our Cheerios and said our prayers every night. So we have magazines like Expresso Tilt."
What that Little Old Lady Taught Me
When we first started Expresso Tilt, we thought of it as a magazine that almost anyone could enjoy. Sure, we knew it was somewhat naughty. After all, the inaugural issue featured a Ronnie Reagan centerfold, complete with rockets buzzing around the beefcake. But we knew that wasn't so bad. There's a long tradition of political satire in this country, so that centerfold was our patriotic duty.
We soon found that not everyone could groove to the Tilt's beat. Middle America (or at least that tiny portion of middle America that noticed) did not appreciate what we were doing.
For example, I used to drop off a bundle of each issue at a small newsstand/convenience store in the suburbs. It was run by a scrawny, foul-mouthed, uneducated, prejudiced old lady. Your basic cracker.
One day I stopped by to replenish her stock of the magazine. She told me that they didn't need any more copies. Not only that, but she recommended I take the remaining copies with me, that is, if I "don't want them to end up in the trash where they belong."
Her insulting tone surprised me. I was sensitive about Expresso Tilt back then, and I took such remarks personally. "I take it you don't like the magazine," I murmured.
"You got it, buster," she snarled. "You ain't welcome around here anymore."
This was a low blow, especially since it was coming from a woman who peddled pinnacles of journalistic integrity like Hustler and National Enquire.
"What don't you like about it?" I asked, genuinely curious at that point.
"Just get the hell outta here," she said, "and don't bring the damn thing back."
Of course, this was not the only time the Tilt met with resistance. On one occasion Uday Nadkarni (who was helping with ad sales) and I were chased out of a shoe store by a drunken cobbler wielding a ballpeen hammer. Another prospective advertiser told me, in a self-righteously quivering voice, that there was "filth on every page." (I guess he didn't like the Joe Queenan story about tattooing ad copy to the penises of young men. One proofreader couldn't bring herself to even look at that story. I should've shown her Punctuation for People with Big Cocks just to see the expression on her face.)
I could never get any of these fine representatives of middle America to be more specific about their complaints. What they innately understood but weren't willing or able to verbalize was that Expresso Tilt somehow undermined and mocked their comfortable, middle-class American lifestyles, whereas Hustler and National Enquirer did not. Needless to say, I was quite proud of myself.
The Name Explained, or What is an Expresso Tilt?
The name came from one of B. Amundson's comedy routines. The bit involved Amundson allegedly drinking forty cups of espresso and literally vibrating down a street, plate glass windows breaking in his wake. The windows were being "titled," like a pinball machine. The phrase gave a vague sense of the nonsensical glee we were looking for and had a nice rhythm to it. (The misspelling of "espresso" was a mistake that we never saw need to fix.)
- Mike Walsh
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