Ersatz, a/k/a Ersatz Culture, appeared approximately two dozen times in the early 1990s, sardonically cribbing its name and initial subtitle (“A New Commodity for those Hungry for Diversion”) from Clement Greenberg’s reactionary essay, Avant-Garde and Kitsch:
'“To fill the demand of the new market, a new commodity was devised: ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide.”
Edited and published by Sam Pratt, Ersatz’s tagline later became The Magazine of Cheap Imitation. Its logo was a backwards registered trademark symbol, and the zine was known for its berserk yet intensely-crafted layouts.
Each issue centered around a single theme (such as soft rock, bumper stickers, and the like) in which so-called lowbrow or unintentional pop culture was at once satirized and celebrated—leaning toward the latter but leaving readers in doubt as to its true sympathies. For example, a 1994 issue published just as Starbucks was gaining a foothold in New York City, improbably argued in favor of “drink[ing] only bad bodega coffee” as part of a sustained assault on “faux connoisseurship.” A rare dual-themed issue (“Hair in Your Food,” about hair and food) included an actual human hair in each copy, along with a large hair and food timeline.
The zine’s format progressed through three main phases: (1) a double-sided black-and-white xerox in letter, legal or tabloid format; (2) a saddle-stapled 4.25" x 5.5" hand-assembled booklet of 28-32 pages xeroxed on specialty papers, and lastly (3) a perfect-bound handbook measuring 6" x 4.375." Early single-sheet issues were written solely by Pratt, or by a single contributor, while the booklet and handbook issues generally were written by a group of contributors.
Ersatz also sponsored occasional public events in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Manhattan, including music performances, art installations and media spelling bees. Many Ersatz contributors (almost exclusively in their 20s at the time) went on to more mainstream cultural careers, including:
- Illustrator/animator Mo Willems, now a Caldecott-winning children’s book author;
- Writer Virginia Heffernan, now National Correspondent for Yahoo;
- Writer Chris Weitz, now a film director (American Pie, About a Boy, etc.)
- Editor Jesse Sheidlower, later the Principal North American Editor at the Oxford English Dictionary.
Other contributors included James Hannaham, Paul Lukas, Caitlin Macy, Jonathan Schwartz, Coleen Werthmann, Toby Young, and many others.
Ersatz came to achieve a regular circulation of 2,000 copies (roughly half of them paid subscriptions). But the zine’s publication slowed as Pratt’s more mainstream writing career took off following a New York Times Magazine feature on zines which featured Ersatz, Lukas’ Beerframe, and others. Pratt went on to write regular columns for Esquire and The New York Post, and contributed pop culture coverage to magazines such as SPIN, Might, Detour, TimeOut, and I.D.
The zine’s (anti-) aesthetic continued in Pratt’s many contributions under the pseudonym Ersatz for the Wired-owned webzine Suck.com (which also made use of other former Ersatz contributors such as James Hannaham), and online under his own name at Stim, Requestline, Epicurious, Tripod, et al.
He published a webzine of his own, TheFinger.com, for several years in the late 1990s, which largely covered the same territory as Ersatz, and relied on some of its contributors.