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was bipartisan war, but at that point it was under the Democrat’s watch, and who wanted to go to Florida for the Republican Convention during off-season?
I remember calling Dick Gregory, because it would be his town that we we’re going to going to. He was thinking of running for president himself, and asked me if I thought Bob Dylan would be a good vice-president. I said, I’m sure he would, but I guarantee you he would never run for public office. So Gregory ended up with Mark Lane, the JFK conspiracy researcher and lawyer, as his running mate. And in Chicago he invited a bunch of people–hundreds, thousands of people–to come to his house, because they would have go past a police blockade.
So anyway, we came back early from our vacation. Jerry and Abbie already knew each other. The meeting we were having, on the afternoon of December 31st, New Year’s Eve afternoon of 1967–that’s where I came up with the name Yippie. And the point was to make it a joyous occasion, with a lot of humor–because the movement had become so somber, in the “Old Left”, as it was called. So that was how it wove together.
David: Why did the FBI refer to you as a “raving unconfined nut”?
Paul: Oh, probably because it was true. Actually, in 1968 there was a profile of me in Life magazine, and it was favorable. So the FBI had their program on counter intelligence, and they’d try to get people in various ways–whether on drugs, or however they could get them. In my case they just wanted to hurt what they thought was my reputation. So they wrote a poison-pen letter to the editors of Life magazine. By “poison-pen letter” I mean that it wasn’t on FBI stationary. It was ostensibly from a student named “Howard Rassmussen”, at the Brooklyn College School of General Studies. (By the way, there’s an example of what I mean by a specific detail to give something verisimilitude. It’s not just Brooklyn College; they also got the School of General Studies in there.) “Howard Rassmussen” wrote a letter complaining that The Realistwas obscene, calling attention to “The Parts Left Out of the Kennedy Book”.
He said that to refer to me as a social rebel was just far too cute, and that I was really a nut, “a raving unconfined nut”. So that was in the letter to Life magazine. But before the New York office of the FBI could do that they had to get permission from the Washington office. J. Edgar Hoover’s two top associates, in their reply to the New York office’s request for permission, justified it by saying that I was a force behind the Yippies, a leader of the New-Left, and is editor of The Realist, like these were illegal things. That these were all legal things that I was doing was the significant thing to me. The Washington office sent back a letter, giving them permission to send this, and and saying that it would reveal my character to the public.
I called my autobiography Confessions of a Raving Unconfined Nut. I figured, as long as the FBI called me that, I might as well get something out of it.
David: One of my favorite Paul Krassner stories is when you did acid at the Chicago Seven Trial. I was laughing out loud when I read your account of the trial, and how it became like a Loony Toons cartoon. Why did you decide to trip at the trial, and could you give us a brief recount of this experience?
Paul: I guess it was partly because there were a lot of dates and times of meetings that I would have had to testify to about the Yippies, and it was like preparing for a history final. So it was in January of 1970. I went and I brought along some acid. On the day that I was going to testify, we were at lunch–the lawyers, Abbie and Jerry, and some of the others–and a piece of hashish, was being passed around the table. Everybody took a bite out of it, except me– because I took out this tab of acid that I had brought with me. And I said, I’ll do this instead. Abbie said, “oh, I don’t think that’s a good idea”. And Jerry said, “oh go ahead, do it!”
David: Is that what he actually said?
Paul: Oh yeah. This was before he did his book called Do It! Actually, I had already said that to him once before. This was at a meeting, a conference of college editors in Washington D.C., where I had been asked to introduce the Peace candidate, Gene McCarthy, and then I was disinvited. There was a big headline in the papers, something about Vietcong being killed. And Jerry wanted to rush up, and ask McCarthy what he felt about that, and give him a bunch of lapel buttons. So he was wondering whether he should do it or not. And I said, Jerry, just do it. So that might have been in his subconscious.
But in any case, when I took the acid, my reason was twofold. I knew from experience that if I took acid after a big lunch (or before or during), it would be likely that I would throw-up. And I wanted to throw-up because then, I figured, I would be kicked out of court, and wouldn’t have to remember all those dates, times and places of our meetings. And also, it would be my theatrical comment on the injustice of the trial.
As it turned out, I didn’t throw up. And I would be asked like, where did this meeting take place? And I couldn’t think of the word “Chicago”. So I said,” right here”. “Right here in this city” I saw Abbie at the defendant’s table trying to mouth the word “Chicago”, and the bailiff walks up to him, as if to say, no coaching from the audience. So it was very trippy. Abbie stopped speaking to me for ten months, because he thought I was irresponsible, and I hadn’t really seen it from their point of view, because they were on trial. But the night before I testified, he had told me to try and give the judge a heart attack. So I was getting mixed messages from him.
David: How did you start doing standup comedy?
Paul: When I was attending City College in New York, they had a group called the City College Service Organization, which went around to hospitals and army posts and entertained. This was, I guess, maybe 1950 or something like that. I had stopped playing the violin when my teacher died. He would poke me in the ribs, and say things to mock me, so I didn’t enjoy it. I had technique, but I didn’t have the passion to play the violin. But I had the passion to make people laugh–which I discovered when I scratched my leg at Carnegie Hall on stage–and the first laugh was free.
So I auditioned for this group. I was still using the violin in my comedy act. I had a picture of Marilyn Monroe scotchtaped to the back of the violin. I had a “sold” sign hanging from the neck of the violin. I would say things and play between them. For example, I would say, what song did Eve sing to Adam? And I would play “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Me”. Then I got more political as I went on. I would make fun of the McCarthy hearings.
I would make fun of taboos. Once, after I started working in little nightclubs, still with my violin, I was doing a thing called “Music to Masturbate By”. I was playing songs like “All Alone” by Irving Berlin. I could hear my violin teacher throttling around in his grave, in his casket. And the night club owner said, hey, this is a dinner show. People are eating. They don’t want to hear about masturbation. Whereas, now, it’s, of course, one of the biggest topics that standup comics do.
David: What year was this?
Paul: This would have been during the early Fifties. I remember one time I had a gig on New Year’s Eve, and I took the subway all the way from Queens to the Bronx. I got up there, started doing my little act, and the people were drunk. They said, get him off. We want to dance. And I figured they were right. So I got off, and I left. My father called me a quitter. Then when I started The Realist I would get a lot of speaking engagements at colleges, which was, essentially, comedy in the guise of a lecture. Then I did a lot of antiwar rallies, and I became like a Bob Hope of the peace movement.
I met Lenny Bruce in 1959, and he encouraged me to go back to doing standup. I did my first real show in 1961 at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village. And there was a difference between editing a magazine, and the existential process of being right there, with the audience, and something either works or it doesn’t. The challenge for me was in memorizing the order of things, because as you can see in this interview I’ve gone off on tangents. So I would just develop tangent spotters in the audience. I made the most of my foibles. So that’s how it started.
David: Why do you think it is that comedians share a certain kind of camaraderie?