Funny Business

Rich Balducci takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin'

The man with short gray hair moved quickly, stealthily, through the corridors of Barnes-Jewish Hospital's intensive-care unit, carrying a prettily wrapped gift box. He walked past two nursing stations, quickening his pace. At last he found it: ICU Room 5. Inside, August Busch III, head of the largest brewery in the world, was recuperating from a heart-bypass operation. The man poised to enter the room was Rich Balducci, publisher of the satirical magazine Snicker. The two men had met years before -- through their lawyers -- when the brewery sued Balducci for trademark libel over an ad parody, "Michelob Oily."

Then the brewery's all-star team of lawyers and trademark specialists put a full-court press on Balducci. The case had gone from a Balducci victory in the U.S. District Court of Eastern Missouri to a reversal on appeal. When it came back to federal district court, Judge Jean Hamilton coaxed a settlement; Balducci was paid $10,000 by the brewery in exchange for his destroying the remaining offending issues. The next Snicker featured a parody of Busch beer. That was six years ago.

Balducci entered the room. He saw August III, sitting up in bed. At the foot of the bed was his son, brewery scion August Busch IV. "They were very confused at first," recalls Balducci. "And the old man, the Third, he sees the gift box and asks: 'Is that the glove?' He must've thought it was a baseball mitt from McGwire or somebody. I said, 'Who am I -- Michael Jackson?' He didn't crack a smile. Then he looks at his son and says, 'Who's it from? What is it?' I said, 'Well, why don't you read the card and find out?'"

Rich Balducci
Jennifer Silverberg
Rich Balducci

In the gift box were old issues of Snicker. August Busch IV read the card. "That guy cannot read," remarks Balducci. "He was mumbling and stuttering, just butchering the dramatic lines that I had written. It ended with 'The doctors say you'll be up and firing people in no time. Signed, Rich Balducci.' But the name didn't mean a thing to him. He just sat there with a blank look on his face. That really affected me -- that he could just crush someone unseen by shifting weight in his office chair."

Don't tell Rich Balducci that it's unrealistic, even egotistical, to think August Busch III would know him or his pesky fish-wrap. Balducci, 42, is in his own world, a strange place filled with dire prognostications, elaborate conspiracies, neuroses, tantrums and flights of fancy.

Balducci's physical world is a ranch house in a quiet Creve Coeur neighborhood, where he lives with his wife, Kathleen, his mother and three slobbering boxers named Dolly, Whopper and Pixie. On a recent weekday afternoon, he answers the door with an opaque crystal tied to his forehead, looking like some dime-store Mephisto. "It's over the eye chakra," he explains in all seriousness, "and it unlocks energy forces and increases intuition." Apparently R.B. -- as he calls himself -- believes the crystal confers magical powers that will help him summon his inner demon to lambaste, ridicule and skewer whoever happens to stray into his sights. If Mark Twain had "a pen warmed up in hell," then Balducci has a pointed sable brush dipped in bile.

"Come on down to the crypt," he says, descending the stairs to the basement. The crypt is the nerve center of Balducci Publications. The centerpiece is the drafting table strewn with acrylic paints, crayons, erasers and little toys. Steps away, behind a curtain, is the stat camera, acquired from the old St. Louis Weekly. It may be a relic, but it produces four issues of the cartoon-centric Snicker each year. The magazine (really an oversized newspaper format) was conceived by Rich and Kathleen as a forum for local cartoonists and illustrators to show their work. The first issue appeared in April 1987, just before they were married. Soon Kathleen went to work in retail sales while Rich stayed home, drawing his own pictorial broadsides and conjuring Snicker out of long-stewing fulminations. At first, the humor was mostly sophomoric -- "throwing rotten eggs," as Mad cartoonist and former Snicker contributor Bob Staake puts it. In the last five years, however, it's taken a different turn, becoming more political but remaining as sophomoric as ever.

The current issue is no exception. "I hogged the center spread and the back cover," says Balducci. "I try not to do that, but I had to knock Clinton and Bush." The gatefold is a takeoff on the famous war photo of Vietnamese children running down a road, but among the G.I.s behind them is a leering, pantsless Bill Clinton, chasing the bawling, naked prepubescent girl. "Me so horny!" he exclaims. The back cover shows a beaming Dubya snorting lines in the configuration of the White House. "Of course, it offended a great many people, which delighted me," says Balducci, "because people that get offended and try to censor things? I don't dig those people anyway. I think they need to be eradicated.

"You know, like Tom Brokaw?" he continues excitedly. "He calls the World War II generation the Greatest Generation. To me, they were the worst generation, because they were blindly led into World War II like 'sheeple,' and they created the A-bomb, which caused radioactive pollution, and the nuclear power plants came of that. And they talk about car exhaust creating global warming? That's bullshit, because those atomic-bomb tests and, later, the nuclear-bomb tests -- there's been 600 of them by the United States: 200 in the atmosphere, 200 ground-level and 200 underground -- those tests destroyed the ozone layer, created that big hole ..."

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