by David Jay Brown
Paul Krassner is a rare blend of satirist, comedian, prankster and political activist. Many comedians and writers–such as George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Matt Groening, Robert Anton Wilson, and Kurt Vonnegut–have attributed some of their comedic inspiration to Krassner.
Krassner is perhaps most well-known for publishing the satirical political magazine The Realist, which was the first adult satire magazine.The Realist blurred the distinction between actual news and fictitious humor, and it was often very difficult to tell the difference–which was precisely why the magazine was so much fun. The magazine ran between 1958 and 2001 (with a break between 1974 and 1985). With its irreverent mockery of authority, and its radical politics,The Realist not only paved the way for mainstream adult parody magazines, such asNational Lampoon and Spy, but it was also a large part of the inspiration for the underground press in the Sixties.
Krassner was a child prodigy violinist. At the age of six, he was the youngest person to ever perform at Carnegie Hall. But his real passion was making people laugh. He wrote for Mad magazine in the Fifties, and he co-founded the Yippies (Youth International Party), with Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman in the Sixties. In fact, Krassner coined the term “Yippie”. The Yippies were a radical, left-wing, largely student-based political organization, that staged public pranks–such as running a pig for president and dropping money from the balcony of the New York Stock Exchange–in order to attract media attention, which they used to spread their political messages. They were pioneers in learning how to launch what Douglas Rushkoff would later call “media viruses”–a media story that carries a cultural message beyond the actual story.
Krassner edited Lenny Bruce’s autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, and with Lenny’s encouragement, became a standup comedian himself, opening at the Village Gate in New York in 1961. During the Sixties Krassner often performed on college campuses and at antiwar rallies. When ABC newscaster Harry Reasoner wrote in his memoirs, “Krassner not only attacks establishment values; he attacks decency in general”, Krassner named his one-person show “Attacking Decency in General”, receiving awards from the L.A. Weekly andDramaLogue. Krassner has appeared on numerous television shows–including “Late Night” with Conan O’Brien, and “Politically Incorrect” with Bill Maher–and has written for HBO and Fox television shows, such as Ron Reagan’s late-night TV talk show.
Krassner’s comedy albums include, We Have Ways of Making You Laugh, Brain Damage Control, Sex, Drugs and the Antichrist, Campaign in the Ass and Irony Lives! He is also the author and co-author of numerous books, including The Winner of the Slow Bicycle Race, Confessions of a Raving Unconfined Nut, Sex, Drugs and the Twinkie Murders, Impolite Interviews, Pot Stories For the Soul, Magic Mushrooms and Other Highs, and Murder At the Conspiracy Convention & Other American Absurdities.
I interviewed Paul on November 21, 2003. Paul and I have corresponded by email for years, and I was happy to be able to have this opportunity to talk with him at length. Paul has a thoughtful and generous manner about him. He’s very polite, and he can be hilariously funny without even trying, it seems–often taking you by surprise with his unique perspectives. He had me laughing out loud many times during the interview. We talked about how comedy can be used as a tool to help educate people and increase political awareness, why satire often becomes prophetic, what it was like to accompany Groucho Marx on his first acid trip, and why he thinks that the labels of fiction and nonfiction may no longer be permitted in the libraries of the future.
David: What were you like as a child?
Paul: I was mischievous. I was also a child-prodigy violinist, and turned out to be the youngest person ever to perform at Carnegie Hall.
David: How old were you?
Paul: I was six years old. But even as a kid violinist I was still mischievous. Somebody would be playing the piano on stage, and I would pull the curtain down on them. Or I would play the violin, and then bow to the audience with my rear end facing them. I just had this predilection for breaking frames.
David: How did you first become interested in politics and satire?
Paul: A year later, when I was seven, I was in elementary school, and one of the kids got in front of the class, pulled down his zipper and exposed himself. He got sent to reform school, and somehow, without having the vocabulary to express it, I felt that the punishment did not fit the crime. So the next day , after having done my self-imposed homework, I got in front of the class, pulled down my zipper, and exposed a drawing that I had made of my penis. And this was intuitive mischief, and even subversion. But the rules seemed to me to be arbitrary. So I did that, and the class laughed. In retrospect, I realize that it was an optimistic move. I thought that because I hadn’t shown my actual penis I wouldn’t be sent to reform school, and I was right about that.
Even before that, on the stage of Carnegie Hall, I woke up while I was playing Vivaldi Concerto in A Minor. I had practiced myself right out of my childhood. What started to wake me up was an itch in my left leg. I knew that I wasn’t supposed to follow the impulse of stopping playing the Volde Concerto, and scratching my leg with my bow, so I simply deferred to my underground laboratory of alternative solutions to a problem. What occurred to me–and I followed the impulse–was to just stand on my left leg, and scratch it with my right foot, without missing a note of the Volde. I did this and the audience laughed. And I woke up to that sound of laughter. I mean, that was my relation to the ultimate mystery of existence, without having any dogma to impose a metphor for the mystery.
But the thing is that I was not trying to make the audience laugh. I was just trying to solve my own problem. So thinking about that I realized–and I understood a lot of this in retrospect–that one person’s logic is another person’s humor. And that perception has served as my process for turning political logic into satire–because they all try to be logical up there. With every lie they tell, they think they’re being logical, and the American population has been dumbed down enough to accept a lot of that logic. So then, as I, as I got older it could apply specifically to social and political contradictions and injustices.
David: Why do you think it’s important to question authority?
Paul: Because authorities don’t necessarily have your interests at heart. They may rationalize–or even genuinely believe–that they have compassion and justice in mind, but too often their real goal is to perpetuate their own power.
David: What inspired you to start The Realist?
Paul: I had been working for a monthly anticensorship paper called The Independent. Lyle Stuart was the editor. I had also been doing some freelance stuff for Mad magazine. But Mad was only for teenagers, essentially, preteens even, and if I would give them a subject that seemed too adult, it would be turned down. I remember talking to the publisher, Bill Gaines about this. They had like a million and a quarter circulation, which was pretty big at the time, and still is. I said, I guess you don’t want to change horses when you’re in midstream. And his answer, which became like a mantra to me, was, “not when the horse has a rocket up it’s ass”. At that moment I understood the bottom line .
There was no satirical magazine for grown-ups at the time. This was before Spy, National Lampoon, Saturday Night Live, and Doonsberry. So there was no humor in the things that I was concerned about–which was everything from anti-circumcision to antinuclear testing–because of all the taboos. So if an anthropologist of the future watched the situation comedies on TV, they wouldn’t be able tell what was festering under the culture of piety. So the motivation for The Realist came from combining the First Amendment