texasmonthly.com: Where did the idea for Bum Steers come from and when did it first appear in the magazine?
PB: Bum Steers was a shameless rip-off of Esquire’s Dubious Achievements awards. At the time, Esquire ranked with The New Yorker as the best-written magazine in the country, and the Dubious Achievement awards were widely read. The original idea for a Texas version may have come from editor Bill Broyles, or with the first writer to tackle them, Richard West. The magazine’s first issue was February 1973, and so the first Bum Steers appeared in February 1974. The name caused some consternation around the office, because the first ad campaign for Texas Monthly had promised, “No bum steers or bluebonnets.” We did a really controversial cover the second year of Richard dressed in a raincoat, which he was holding open—from the back of course—with the line, if I remember correctly, “Texas Exposed.” For the first four years (1974—1977) they continued to appear in February, and in 1978 they moved to January, where they have remained ever since with the exception of 1986, when the Sesquicentennial issue appeared in January and Bum Steers was moved back a month.
texasmonthly.com: Can you explain the whole process of how Bum Steers works?
AD: We prepare for it all year long. In the editorial department we have a big cardboard box labeled “Bum Steers,” and everyone—writers, editors, art folks—throws clippings and printouts and press releases in there every month. Readers are great about sending in submissions; we get dozens from them. And we have regular Bum Steer-ophiles around the state who keep an eye out for local follies. By the end of October, when we start planning and organizing, the box is crammed full. There are several hundred items to wade through. We divide them into “Yes,” “Maybe,” and “No” piles, until we’ve winnowed the finalists down to 150 or so. Then we write up each item, and the whole batch has to be copy edited, fact-checked, and subjected to the rest of the editorial process. It’s like doing a big annoying jigsaw puzzle—it takes a lot of time, effort, and swearing.
PB: All during the year, the Bum Steers team—mainly Evan, Anne, the art department, and I—are on the lookout for our Bum Steer of the Year to put on the cover. Sometimes it is obvious who or what the Bum Steer of the Year should be, and sometimes it is less obvious. We also look for funny products and books that can go in the Gift Guide and Bookshelf sidebars. By the end of the first week, we want to have a polished version, edited and with as many headlines as possible, for all items. We also must come up with a cover idea during the first week. The second week is devoted to refining and to choosing sidebars and finalizing the cover. Hours are spent debating color, content, image, and nuance. The third week is usually a short week, because it is before Thanksgiving, and the goal, indeed, the mandate, is to have all copy ready except the introduction to be laid out on the weekend before the last week of work on the issue. Deputy editor Jane Dure is responsible for making sure that we are keeping up with the timetable.
What I have been talking about is the little picture of Bum Steers. The big picture is understanding what a Bum Steer is and how to make it work. A Bum Steer is (1) an unusual, funny incident that happens to ordinary people and sheds light on the human condition; or (2) something stupid or outrageous done by a public figure. Bum Steers are their own art form. The item must be written in a way that makes absolutely clear who the Bum Steer is on and precisely what is funny. Long, complicated items do not make good Bum Steers. Sometimes we have to choose one of three funny things in an incident, just to keep it focused. Write-ups have to be pithy and sharp. We try to make the joke come at the end of the write-up. Then the headline plays off the end of the write-up. There are so few words in a Bum Steer and in a Bum Steer headline, but it takes so much work to get each one right.
texasmonthly.com: What is your all-time favorite Bum Steer?
AD: I couldn’t pick a single favorite Bum Steer—it sounds almost as hard as picking a favorite book or movie—but this year when I was sorting through the Bum Steer box, the item about Texas being the nation’s leading manure-producing state struck me as almost the perfect Bum Steer. And it wasn’t just the scatological possibilities for the headline.
PB: My all-time favorite Bum Steer, which means my all-time favorite headline, was an incident when Texas A&M was cited by state environmental authorities for dumping effluent into a creek, which, I swear to God, was called Shinola Creek, which led to the pluperfect headline, “Now We Know the Aggies Really Can’t Tell It From Shinola.” This is the case where, as sometimes happens in Bum Steers, the item isn’t inherently funny but the headline saves the day. This year we had some wonderful heads: “Grab Your Crotch Gently Yet Firmly” for the same Texas Rangers’ hiring of a manners coach to teach etiquette to Rangers’ prospects; “Slow Traffickers Keep Right” for a car that was driving on a not-yet-open stretch of freeway; “But What Was His Punishment?” for a man who had attacked a police officer at a McDonald’s and was ordered by the judge to stay out of McDonald’s for five years; “Selena Some of the Time” for the cancellation of further performances of the musical, “Selena Forever.” Occasional bathroom humor works; when a fire started by a soiled diaper left in the sun did serious damage to an apartment complex, the headline was, “It Was a Number-Two-Alarm Fire.” I’m always happiest when I find a headline that works for an item that seems funny but is hard to capture, as when Parkland Memorial Hospital prepared to issue cowbells to patients for summoning help on New Year’s Eve just in case the Y2K bug shut down their buzzers. My head: “For Auld Clang Syne.”
texasmonthly.com: Typically, how many items fall out and why?
PB: I’d say around 10 percent to 20 percent of the items fall out from the original list that is distributed. The editor cuts some that he doesn’t think funny, and some more fall out because they don’t seem that funny on second reading. Fact problems account for around half of the lost items.
texasmonthly.com: Who comes up with the great headlines?
AD: Almost everyone in the editorial department contributes to the great headlines, as do many of our writers-at-large. This year I’d give the MVP award to our regular byliner Kathryn Jones, who in her first Bum Steer try scored with eight or ten great heads. All that input keeps the humor from becoming stale or one-sided.
texasmonthly.com: When did you start working on Bum Steers and how did you get the job?
AD: I started working on Bum Steers in 1997, mostly to help expedite the process by having two editors instead of one. I would like to think I got the job because of my imagination, intelligence, and devotion, but I expect my colleagues would attribute the honor to what they would no doubt call my perverse sense of humor. I do have a pun problem, I admit.
PB: I think that 1978 was my first year in charge of Bum Steers. I got the job because Richard West embarked on a long project of going to live in places like Marfa and Port Aransas and writing about them.
texasmonthly.com: Who decides who or what will be the Bum Steer of the Year?
PB: Bum Steer of the Year is essentially the editor’s call. The criteria is that it has to be someone or something that is funny and extremely well-known. Not, the drought. If not for the election this year, it would have been the Dallas Cowboys.
texasmonthly.com: How much time did you spend on Bum Steers this month?
PB: I take them home. I live with them. I carry them around with me in the car so that I can write down a headline if one occurs to me. Sometimes I dream about them.