Paul Krassner was one of the funniest and most poignant satirical writers and comedians of the 1960s counterculture. In 1958 he published the first issue of The Realist, a pioneering underground free-thought magazine. In 1967 he was one of the founders of the Youth International Party, the Yippies!, with Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Ed Sanders, among others. He was a cohort of Ken Kesey's Merry Band of Pranksters and a protege of the infamous stand-up comic, Lenny Bruce. Krassner wrote for Mad magazine in its infancy, and he currently writes as a columnist for High Times magazine.
George Carlin once said of Krassner, "The FBI was right; this man is dangerous – and funny; and necessary."
It was a real pleasure to interview Paul Krassner for Reality Sandwich. My hope after speaking to Paul is that our project here is following in the footsteps of some of the great social projects he has been a part of.
AE: Paul, you have had a prolific career as an activist, writer and artist. Talk about the evolution of your work. What are some of your most memorable moments and projects?
PK: During my last year in college, I started working for Lyle Stuart's anti-censorship paper, The Independent, where I served my apprenticeship, wrote several columns & articles, and eventually became managing editor. Lyle became the general manager of EC Comics, which published Mad in comic book form. When a Senate investigation into juvenile delinquency put fear into the hearts of comic book publishers, they put a seal of approval on every cover.
That would've interfered with Mad's freedom of irreverence, so Lyle persuaded publisher Bill Gaines to turn Mad comics into Mad magazine.
I wrote a few freelance pieces for Mad, and had a few rejected because the subjects were considered too adult, since the readers were mostly in their teens, and circulation had reached a couple million.
I said to Gaines,"I guess you don't wanna change horses in midstream." He replied, "Not when the horse has a rocket up its ass." There was no satirical publication for grown-ups. This was before National Lampoon or Spy magazine, before Doonesbury or Saturday Night Live. So I decided to launch The Realist. All the issues are currently being posted online, four issues per month, as The Realist Archive Project.
I never labeled an article as satire or investigative journalism, not wanting to deprive readers of discerning for themselves whether something was actually true or a satirical extension of the truth. My most memorable time was when I published The Parts Left Out of the Kennedy Book.
The president had been assassinated in 1963, and now in 1967 there was a book, Death of a President, which had been authorized by JFK's widow Jackie and his brother Bobby. They had certain material deleted, and I tried to obtain a copy of the original manuscript, but failed. I was forced to write it myself. Now, 40 years later, it's still remembered by subscribers as the most notorious thing that I ever published.
I never took any salary from The Realist, subsidizing it with freelance assignments and doing interviews for Playboy. In New York, I started an organization called People, which supported a variety of social service programs. Also, throughout the 1960s and beyond, when abortion was illegal, after publishing an interview with a doctor who ran a clinic, charging as little as five dollars, I became an underground abortion referral service. I was subpoenaed by DAs in two cities but refused to testify before their grand juries.
After moving to San Francisco, I covered the Patty Hearst trial and was put on the hit-list of an underground group in Berkeley which turned out to be led by an FBI provocateur. I also covered the Dan White trial. He was an ex-cop who had confessed to – and then, despite all the evidence, pleaded not guilty to – a double political execution, of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the country.
I was the first reporter to refer to the trial as using "the Twinkie defense," which worked, and the seven-year sentence resulted in a riot. I was beaten by a couple of cops, and consequently my gait became so twisted that I now have to walk with a cane. Except for that, at age 75 I'm in fine health, due to good genes and never taking any legal drugs. Oh, wait, I ingested an aspirin last year, but that was at a party, and I simply gave in to peer pressure.
You were involved in the Youth International Party (the Yippies), worked closely with Lenny Bruce and hung out with Ken Kesey's Merry Band of Pranksters. How did these groups shape your consciousness? Do you still believe in the power of creative activism?
Publishing The Realist became a sort of participatory journalism, so it was an organic transition from covering the antiwar movement to co-founding the Yippies with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. The essence of the Yippies was described by folksinger Phil Ochs: "A demonstration should turn you on, not turn you off." Yippies were a cross-fertilization of stoned hippies and straight politicos.
Responsibility could be fun. Guerrilla theater could be effective.
Brett Morgen, who directed The Kid Stays in the Picture, has now directed a documentary, Chicago 10, about the protests at the Democratic convention in 1968 and the conspiracy trial that followed.
I wrote a few animated re-enactment scenes, and appear as a cartoon character, though an actor did the voiceover, because apparently I don't sound enough like myself. The movie opened both the Sundance Film Festival and the Austin Film Festival, and will open in theaters around the country in February 2008. During the Q&A that followed the Austin screening, I was asked what's necessary for activism to work these days. "Imagination," I began. Later, I had a sudden impulse, pretended that my cellphone was vibrating, took it out of my pocket and said "Hello," then told the audience, "It's Rudy Guliani's wife."
The Wall St. Journal discovered that he's gotten that phone call during 40 speeches.
Lenny Bruce was a close friend, and I edited his autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. He was the biggest influence on me as a stand-up satirist. In 1961, I opened at the Village Gate in New York.
When I moved to Venice Beach in 1985, I continued to perform and got an award from the LA Weekly for my one-person show. I still perform at various venues, though not as often. Currently, I'm working on my long awaited (by me) first novel, about a contemporary Lenny Bruce-type performer.
In 1971, I co-edited with Ken Kesey The Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog. What he and the Pranksters and Lenny and Abbie and others like Wavy Gravy all had in common was a sense of playfulness combined with courage and sticking to principles. When I interviewed Kesey, he was anti-abortion, but a few years later he changed his position, saying "A woman has as much right to control her body as she does to control her mind." And when I freaked out from information overload while investigating the Manson murders, Kesey helped ease me out of it.
How were psychedelics involved in the consciousness of activism and protest? Were they a necessary part of the equation?
Psychedelics served as one tool – along with Zen meditation, chanting (if the universe is infinite, the paths to connect with the universe are also infinite) – to unite the left and right lobes of the brain, to make an intermingling between the conscious and the subconscious. Acid enhanced the senses. You could see the color of music and you could taste ice cream in your toes. Making love became a sensuous art rather than wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am. The CIA had hoped to use LSD as a means of control, but a whole generation of young people used it instead to help deprogram themselves from mainstream culture, reprogram themselves with a natural, humane value system, and then live their alternative, whether that was to be as a member of a commune or to march in antiwar protests or both.
And because of this unpredicted countercultural phenomenon, the CIA's plan backfired. Beneath the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, there was at the core a spiritual revolution, with folks rejecting western religions of control, instead getting involved with eastern disciplines of liberation.
Do you feel that people are generally reverent of the power of psychedelics, the rich shamanic history? Were people aware of their power and history in the 60s and 70s?
Some are, some aren't; I don't know what the ratio is. Who's to say that dancing on Ecstasy is not a rich shamanic experience? Personally, I went through a phase of psychedelic machismo. I took acid before rush hour in the subway, before going on The Tonight Show, before testifying in the Chicago Conspiracy trial. The power of psychedelics exploded out of the blandness and repression of the Eisenhower-Nixon years, just as it feels now that another evolutionary jump in consciousness – this time with the aid of technology – is exploding out of the blandness and repression of the Bush-Cheney years.
When you founded The Realist in 1958 did you have any idea your publication could be powerful? What were your intentions?
I wanted the magazine to be a hybrid of Mad and The Independent. I wanted to make people laugh about serious matters, to break superstitious taboos, to communicate without compromise. Steve Allen was the first subscriber. He sent gift subscriptions to several friends, including Lenny Bruce, who sent gift subscriptions to several friends, and it grew in that kind of Malthusian fashion. It started with 600 subs from responses to a mailing list, and I thought it might reach 1000. When it did, I thought 3000 would be a nice number. Then circulation reached 5000 mostly through word-of-mouth, the purest vehicle for advertising, and it was free.
At its peak, The Realist had a circulation of 100,000, with an estimated million in pass-on readership and at libraries. What the readers had in common was a disdain for bullshit and a hunger for intelligent satire, and whenever I meet a reader, they tell me how much The Realist inspired them, and I appreciate that. I published it as a monthly magazine through 1974, then re-launched it as a quarterly newsletter in 1985. The last issue published was Spring 2001.
What are your thoughts of our media today, specifically the Internet? Can activisim have the same felt presence it did in the 60s with the massive amounts of available information, advertising and programming?
I always felt The Realist should put itself out of business by being an example of the 1st Amendment in action. The democratization of the World Wide Web has helped make that possible. It was said that freedom of the press depended on having a printing press, and the Internet has provided virtually unlimited printing presses of the electronic persuasion. I'm a media junkie, and after getting input from newspapers, magazines, radio and TV, I find a different mindset – an antidote for the mainstream media – on the Internet.
It's changed the nature of protest, both in providing information and background, and acting as an organizational tool that's quicker, cleaner, cheaper and reaches a way larger audience, as compared to those messy mimeograph we used to churn out flyers to be snail-mailed or personally distributed. People make their own choices about what to explore on the web.
Do you feel that in order to use psychedelics, a person should at least be actively involved in working towards legalization? Are there psychedelic ethics?
I can't make rules for anyone but myself, and I even avoid that. My version of success is to try to do the right thing every moment. So, sure, there are psychedelic ethics, mainly not to dose anybody. The truth is that the Partnership For a Drug-Free America was founded and funded by the alcohol, tobacco and pharmacetical industries. And they don't want no steenkin' competition! Why grow pot in your window garden at hardly any cost when you can get a prescription for Prozac and feel so happy you begin to develop suicidal tendencies?
I think that as long as any government can arbitrarily decide which drugs are legal and which are not, then anybody who's behind bars for a drug offense is a political prisoner. Stoners have to decide for themselves whether they want to join the battle against the insane priorities of the war on drugs – actually, the war on some people who use some drugs.
What are your thoughts on global warming? How should we approach such a daunting issue, one that will effect not just one country or race or people but the whole planet? Do you see global warming as a manifestation or projection of a collective shadow?
Global warming – oops, I mean "climate change." (This is, after all, the age of euphemisms.) Torture sounds like so much more fun when it's called "alternative interrogation techniques." Professional assholes from Jerry Falwell to George Bush have labeled global warming a hoax. The irony is that the ice now melting in the Arctic regions are expanding access to the ocean waters underneath which there's more oil.
I don't pretend to know what to do about it besides what's obvious and what scientific experts suggest. There are more and more young people who are devoting their lives to protecting the environment. What must the Intelligent Designer have had in mind to allow such devastation of its own creation?
You recently worked on the film The US vs. John Lennon. The film suggests a government conspiracy surrounding his murder. Tell us about your work with this project and your feelings on Lennon's death.
I was interviewed for the documentary, that's all. It was a long interview, but they only used a couple of sound bites and they left out my favorite Lennon story. One evening at my home, John, Yoko and I were smoking a mixture of marijuana and opium. When he was absentmindedly holding onto it, I asked, "Is 'don't bogart that joint' a term used in England, or is it purely American, based on the Humphrey Bogart movies where a cigarette would be dangling from his lips?"
He replied, "In England, if you remind somebody to pass a joint, you lose your own turn."
There was a government conspiracy to deport him and to arrest him for drugs, to prevent him from participating in the counter-inauguration of Richard Nixon's second term, for fear that would swell the ranks of those protesters. But I don't know about a conspiracy to kill him, except there was a rumor that Mark David Chapman was hypnotized at the same school in Hawaii that John Hinckley, who attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan in order to impress Jody Foster, was hypnotized at.
But who knows, sometimes a lone nut is just a lone nut.
What are you up to these days? Do you have a vision for the future?
I'm in the final throes of putting together a collection of my columns and articles over the past few years, We Have Ways of Making You Laugh: The Varieties of Pornographic Experience & Other Follies. I may have found a literary agent to represent me, and if he finds a publisher, I hope it will out next year.
Meanwhile, a New Age media fable I wrote in 1973, Tales of Tongue Fu–about a man with a 15-inch tongue who goes to a summer camp for gurus–is being republished in November. In 1993, Simon & Schuster published my autobiography, Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in the Counterculture. Recently, they reverted all rights back to me, so I'm updating, expanding and of course fantasizing about transforming it into a movie.
On my website paulkrassner.com you can check out the digitally colored edition of the "Disneyland Memorial Orgy" poster. There's also a few of my books available there: One Hand Jerking: Reports From an Investigative Satirist, with an introduction by Lewis Black and a foreword by Harry Shearer; Pot Stories For the Soul, with an introduction by Harlan Ellison; Murder At the Conspiracy Convention and Other American Absurdities, with an introduction by George Carlin; The Winner of the Slow Bicycle Race: The Satirical Writings of Paul Krassner (including The Parts Left Out of the Kennedy Book), with an foreword by Kurt Vonnegut.
You can also hear the voice of Homer from The Simpsons, Dan Castellaneta, introducing me at the taping of one of my albums, Irony Lives! However, Fox TV owns that voice, and seven lawyers decided not to grant permission, not wanting to be associated with such satirical targets as Terrorist Attacks and In the Guise of Security. But who ever thought that Homer Simpson would some day become an intellectual property?
As for the future, there will be kids who grow up thinking that tap water always came out of plastic bottles, that humans were always required to take off their shoes before getting on an airplane, and that men always used spray-on condoms as a form of birth control. I waver between hope and despair, but as the late singer/songwriter Harry Chapin one said, "If you don't act like there's hope, there is no hope." So even hope can be a placebo.
In fact, I'm thinking of marketing, under the brand name Placebo, a variety of pills, for people who know that placebos work, but like to take something tangible. I do what I can in the present, based on what I've learned in the past, and then I surrender to the unknown. My advice for the future is to always remember that the political system is merely a buffer between the status quo and the force of evolution. And, whenever you eat a club sandwich, always take the toothpick out before you bite into it.
Thanks for taking the time to chat!
Hey, thanks for your stimulating and generous questions. I'm happy to be the ham in your reality sandwich.