Q&A: TIME Writer Bruce Handy

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Matt Groening

The Simpsons on a family outing in The Simpsons Movie.

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Robstud asks: Bart Simpson and James Joyce seem like odd bed mates in the chart. What criteria did you use for inclusion in the list?

Bruce Handy: The key word was "influential" as opposed to say, "good" or "the best." Although quality is obviously a component of influence. Usually, anyway. To some extent, too, we wanted people who also represented important 20th century trends or developments. That would help account for the Barts and Oprahs.

Timehost: By way of follow-up, some people online are wondering, then, whether it's more important to be good, or influential?

Bruce Handy: I think it was more important to be influential. At least that's a quality that it's somewhat easier for a group of people to agree on than is quality. For example, I love Sinatra. A lot of people can't stand him. But it's hard to argue he's not an important singer. Or look at the old Beatles vs. Rolling Stones debate. A lot of people prefer the Stones, but how many think they were more influential? Influence, by the way, doesn't have to be for the good. Or look at Stephen Spielberg, our choice for most influential director. I think a lot of people have made better movies than him over the last 25 years. But I can't think of anyone who's had greater influence on movie making around the world in that time frame, although one could argue George Lucas. On the other hand, if it had been my choice alone I would have looked farther back and picked someone like D.W Griffith. Again, it comes down to a certain level of subjectivity here. These are Time's picks. Newsweek or Mad or you, or whomever, might have different ones. That's what makes something like this fun to argue about. And speaking of Mad, I might have chosen Alfred E. Neuman over Bart Simpson.

Timehost: I get the feeling our next questioner would make very different selections. Mister_Wonderful asks: Oh I get it ...you had to have one director ...one band..etc...You couldn't say two directors or two bands might have influenced us more than a cartoon character..which by the way disqualifies your list as total nonsense

Bruce Handy: We decided to break it down into categories because otherwise the whole thing would have been too amorphous and impossible. If we had just stuck to the most influential artist and entertainers period, the dancers and poets would have been wiped out by all the filmmakers. Of course, as I've said, there is a certain subjectivity — i.e. arbitrariness — to all this. But that's what makes it fun and worth doing. And going back to the original questions, which seemed to be denigrating cartoon characters I don't see how you can look at this century and not include cartoons. They're one of our great contributions, along with jazz and film. (I know, I know. The movies were a 19th-century invention. But we 20th century folks really put them to good use.) HugoKnows asks: What about Walt Disney?

Bruce Handy: He's clearly an important figure, no doubt about it. If we had done the *21* most influential artist and entertainers he would have probably made the list. Although that last slot might also have been Matisse's. Or Virginia Woolf's. Or Ray Charles'. BradleyW23 asks: What do you think about Aretha Franklin's comeback?

Timehost: Why was she on the list?

Bruce Handy: I'm glad she's had a comeback, although I personally didn't love the new album. She was on the list both as someone who brought sacred music — gospel — into pop, and thus helped invent soul music. But also as someone who gave women an assertive, independent voice that they had been lacking in pop. Before Aretha, women in pop were too often victims or passive. She demanded R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Redrum1983 asks: Who got cut off the list?

Bruce Handy: Nobody really got "cut" because the list was always somewhat amorphous. But some of the figures I've already mentioned were definitely contenders. Others we talked about were, in no particular order, were Groucho Marx, Elvis Presley. Charlie Parker. Duke Ellington. Hemingway. Ralph Ellison. Jackson Pollack. Steve Allen. Ms_Melissa_ asks: I cannot understand why Elvis Presley would not be included on the list, as he continues to effect American Pop Culture

Bruce Handy: I don't disagree. He WAS influential. But he was also a popularizer of other people's innovations. Also, one of the most important, innovative things about rock is the whole notion of songwriters singing their own works, of the immediacy of expression. Since Elvis didn't write his own material, unlike the Beatles or Bob Dylan or Robert Johnson, who's also someone who could have been included, maybe that cut against him (Elvis). But I agree you could also make a very persuasive argument for his inclusion.

Timehost: Ms_Melissa has a follow-up comment... Ms_Melissa_ asks: He may have popularized the innovations of others, but certainly he provided innovations of his own. The Beatles also popularized others' innovations, yet they made it their own. Just as Presley did.

Bruce Handy: I agree. But I think the Beatles pushed the envelope a lot further. Elvis' most original recordings were his first. The Beatles started out as imitators, then continued to grow throughout their years together. But please don't take any of this as a knock on Elvis. I love Elvis. I love Elvis Costello, too. And he's also not on the list. Robstud asks: Why are there so many Americans on the list? I feel they may be over represented?

Bruce Handy: Hey — it's the American century. Clearly, the Europeans were the great innovators in terms of high modernism. But when it comes to popular culture this century has been all American. American popular culture is really the arts story of the century's second half. The music the world listens too, the movies the world watches, the junk food the world eats are all American — or largely American influenced. and okay, we're probably biased. but we're an American magazine. If Stern or the Economist wants to do the 100 most influential people of the century, they're free to put on more Brits and Germans.

Timehost: Well, we're going to have to wrap things up now...but before we go, any closing thoughts? Any personal choices for the "Person of the Century"?

Bruce Handy: You mean MY choice?

Timehost: Yup!

Bruce Handy: Einstein for influencing the world, Alfred E. Neuman for influencing me personally.

Timehost: Thanks, Bruce, for joining us online this evening. And thanks to everyone in the audience for your questions and comments.

Bruce Handy: My pleasure. I hope this was interesting for people. If just one person was saved it was all worthwhile.

Timehost: And I hear that Homer Simpson is pushing to be included in the next roundup. By the way, a number of you asked why we didn't pick any sports figures...that category is coming up in a future issue of Time. So you can come back and argue over it then.

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