texasmonthly.com: You were the main writer on Bum Steers this year. Can you take us through the process of writing a Bum Steer?
Rich Malley: Well, I had almost nothing to do with the most important part of the process: finding the news items that become the Bum Steers. A lot of folks with sharp eyes and keen wits submit those throughout the year, and there would be no Bum Steer Awards without them.
Next, senior executive editor Paul Burka and others at the magazine cull the 120 or so most “Bum Steer–worthy” items. It takes a lot of experience to know which stories to keep and which to cut, because often a story that seems like it is just begging to be given the Bum Steer treatment ends up not working. That’s a huge part of the process.
My contributions mostly involved taking the items that made Paul’s first cut and condensing them into short blurbs. The key here is finding the hook in the story that you can hang a funny headline on. After I wrote each blurb, I tried to come up with at least one funny headline for it.
After I submitted my blurbs and headlines, members of the magazine’s staff contributed their own headline ideas. Then, Paul and the rest of the Bum Steer team selected the funniest headlines, buffed and polished the prose to a high gloss, and wove everything into a coherent whole.
What I think Paul does so well is writing headlines for items that refer back to earlier items in the story, and developing themes (the “You Have the Right to Remain Stupid” series, for instance) that run throughout the article. To me, that is what elevates the story above a mere compendium of jokes and really draws readers into the piece.
texasmonthly.com: Were you involved at all in selecting the Bum Steer of the Year?
RM: No. As I write this, I don’t even know who the BSOTY is. If there is a more closely held secret, I don’t know what it is, other than maybe Colonel Sanders’ secret recipe, or how Ashlee Simpson’s career has lasted so long.
texasmonthly.com: How do you come up with headlines?
RM: The best ones, or my favorites, at least, spring to mind almost automatically. But for most of them, I’ll write many different headlines, often all variations on a theme. I’ll do that until I think I have the wording just right, or until the Pop-Tarts are done, whichever comes first.
texasmonthly.com: Which do you prefer, writing blurbs or writing headlines? Why?
RM: I’m not sure which I like writing more, but I definitely prefer saying the word “blurb.” Try it. It’s soothing, isn’t it? “Blurb. Blurb. Blurb.” I could go on saying it all day. But I won’t, because my officemate has a worried look on his face.
Seriously, I enjoy both. It’s fun to come up with a headline that’s a keeper, but I also like reading a proposed Bum Steer news item and crafting a blurb that will lend itself to a great headline, whether mine, or someone else’s.
texasmonthly.com: What was your favorite Bum Steer this year? Why?
RM: The scatology of the Keller High School cheerleaders is pretty hard to top. Why? Because the Texas cheerleader is such an icon, and this incident touches on the conflicting notions many of us have about them—their perkiness and good sportsmanship on the one hand, and their cutthroat competitiveness on the other.
texasmonthly.com: What was your favorite headline this year? Why?
RM: The headline for the escaped Dallas gorilla. It wouldn’t be the Texas Monthly Bum Steers without one headline that is a long extended pun, and I love to see how far Paul will push the bounds of ridiculousness.
texasmonthly.com: What is the most difficult aspect of working on this story?
RM: Other than getting the teller at my bank to believe I didn’t forge my name on a check from Texas Monthly, you mean?
I’m pretty confident of my comic ability, so I thought I would be able to come up with clever, funny headlines for every item. It didn’t happen. I knew a lot of the headlines I submitted would just be straw men that would inspire the other writers who followed me to say, “I can write something funnier than that.” And, without exception, they did. So that was humbling.
texasmonthly.com: How much time did you spend working on Bum Steers?
RM: Probably a lot more than I realize, but when I’m having that much fun, time is irrelevant, although the person I put on hold two weeks ago might disagree.
texasmonthly.com: Did you ever feel that you couldn’t think of anything clever to say?
RM: Constantly, but I didn’t let that stop me from saying it anyway, and I’m only partially kidding. Like most writers, I’m my own harshest critic. I was frequently surprised to find that other people liked some of my headlines more than I did.
texasmonthly.com: Did anything unusual happen this year while working on Bum Steers?
RM: Funny you should ask. Yes, something unusual did happen. Unfortunately, until Mr. Cheney voluntarily releases me from our confidentiality agreement, I’m not at liberty to discuss it, other than to say the weasel never felt any pain.
texasmonthly.com: Why do you think Bum Steers has been such a success all these years?
RM: A few reasons come to mind. First of all, after thirty years, the Bum Steers issue is a Texas tradition. Secondly, some of the traditions we Texans cherish the most are the ones that force us to take ourselves a little less seriously, contrary to the rest of the country’s notion of us as humorless, self-important Neanderthals. Lastly, it’s an annual confirmation that although our state may be weird, it’s unlike anywhere else.