Paul Krassner: The Life of an Investigative Satirist

Paul Krassner
Paul Krassner talks about his book ‘Who’s to Say What’s Obscene’ on C-SPAN on September 15, 2009. Photo credit: C-SPAN
Reading Time: 18 minutes

Paul Krassner was an icon of the 1960s, yet his words and cultural influence resonated right up until his death this past week at the age of 87. Krassner called himself an investigative satirist, and People magazine once referred to him as “the father of the underground press.”

In 1958, he founded the Realist magazine, which he often referred to as “the magazine of the lunatic fringe.” It folded in 1974 but carried on as a newsletter up until 2001.

He also coined the word “Yippies” — co-founding the political organization in 1967 with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin — and dropped acid with Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Ken Kesey, and Groucho Marx.

As a stand-up comic he was mentored by Lenny Bruce and later edited Bruce’s autobiography. His writing appeared in dozens of publications — he was an early contributor to Mad magazine — and Mercury Records released his early comedy albums. He hosted a talk show in San Francisco under the name of Rumpleforeskin.

Krassner was a longtime voice for what he saw as the cover-up of the Kennedy assassination and gained even more notoriety for writing and publishing a book that he referred to as the “missing chapter” from The Death of a President, historian William Manchester’s account of the JFK assassination. Jacqueline Kennedy tried and failed to block the publication.

Back in July of 2009, exactly ten years ago, WhoWhatWhy podcaster Jeff Schechtman had the opportunity to record a lengthy conversation with Krassner. As an interesting look back to another time, we now share that conversation with you.

googleplaylogo200px download rss-35468_640

Click HERE to Download Mp3


Full Text Transcript:

As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to time constraints, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like. Should you spot any errors, we’d be grateful if you would notify us

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.

Paul Krassner was an icon of the ’60s, but his words and his cultural influence carried right up until his death this week at the age of 87. He was a violin prodigy as a child, and then a success as a stand-up comic. He liked to call himself an investigative satirist, and People Magazine called him the father of the underground press. He founded The Realist Magazine back in 1958 and published it through 2001.

Jeff Schechtman: For many years, his style of personal journalism blurred the line between observer and participant. He covered the antiwar movement and cofounded the Yippies with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. He published material on the psychedelic revolution and then dropped acid with Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, and Ken Kesey. As a standup comic, he was mentored by Lenny Bruce, and then he edited Lenny Bruce’s autobiography. He hosted his own radio call-in show in San Francisco and was the head writer for an HBO special satirizing a presidential election campaign.
Jeff Schechtman: Mercury Records released his first two comedy albums, We Have Ways of Making You Laugh and Brain Damage Control and his articles have appeared in numerous publications, including Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mother Jones, and The Nation. His autobiography was titled Confessions of an Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in the Counterculture. But George Carlin really has the final word on Krassner. Carlin said, “This man is dangerous and funny and necessary.”
Jeff Schechtman: Back in July of 2009, exactly 10 years ago, I had the opportunity to record an extended conversation with Krassner, and the following 30 minutes are part of that conversation.
Jeff Schechtman: The title, Paul, of your newest book is Who’s To Say What’s Obscene?: Politics, Culture, and Comedy in America Today. As we look at obscenity in politics and comedy in America today, hypocrisy really is the new obscenity in some ways.
Paul Krassner: Oh, yeah. The most recent example of it are these people, governors and senators, who have these affairs, yet they’re the same ones who have campaigned against same-sex marriage, against adultery. People like Gary Condit, who was a leader in the fight to get Bill Clinton impeached. He himself later on had an affair with an intern, Chandra Levy. Somebody asked William Bennett, the morality czar, if that wasn’t hypocritical, and Bennett said, “Well, hypocrisy is better than having no values at all,” and that became my mantra.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about comedy today. We have a whole bunch of young people today that get their news from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and the link between news and reality and satire seems to be closer than it ever was since the ’60s.
Paul Krassner: Yeah. Well, it used to be what Steve Allen said, “That comedy is tragedy plus time,” but then there’s been an acceleration of everything including the rate of acceleration is accelerating and so it became less of a space between a tragedy and a comedy until they were happening simultaneously. For example, Jay Leno told the joke about the Waco-Davidian cult that was there while it was burning. It was still in the process of burning, and the joke was that there were two kinds of members of the cult there now regular and crispy. It’s a cute joke, but it was just strange to hear it while the fire was in progress now, so that was simultaneously. Now there were jokes about Michael Jackson even before he was buried. So it’s now sort of that tragedy is comedy plus time.
Jeff Schechtman: How much of that is because we have trouble getting our heads around anything, getting to understand anything in this 24/7 news cycles, accelerated culture, you’re talking about, that the only way we can come to grips with it sometimes is through comedy.
Paul Krassner: That’s part of it, but part of it is the need for topicality, and so writers for comedy shows… I was the head writer once for an HBO satire of the election in 1980 and writers would come to me and say, “I can’t find the funny in this.” This kind of desensitization that goes on where comedy writers have to find something because it’s in the news, even though it hasn’t been digested yet. The implications of the news haven’t been savored yet, and a lot of them aren’t really making any points, that sarcasm passes for irony, and easy reference jokes. So Ted Kennedy used to be the reference for a fat joke, but then he got brain cancer and the tumor and he stopped being the joke, and they would put somebody else in. And audiences, they don’t always laugh. They just applaud, and it’s as if they’re really applauding themselves because they recognize the reference.
Jeff Schechtman: It’s interesting. Perhaps the only exception to that idea of topicality of comedy, was 911. It took a long time before anyone dared joke about that.
Paul Krassner: Yeah. In fact, Larry King was asking comedian Bill Maher “When can you do joke about 911?” It’s too soon because the whole country was wounded. But now I did a show up a week ago, and I asked, “Is it too soon to do anything about Michael Jackson?” and the whole audience said, “No, it’s not too soon.” So I think we were all getting jaded.
Jeff Schechtman: You’ve started The Realist back in 1958 because you said at the time that there were no other publications that really engaged in adult humor. Talk about what was going on back then. Why you thought that was important.
Paul Krassner: Yeah, I started at the end of the ’50s, which was known as the silent generation. I think the counterculture exploded out of the blandness and repression of the Eisenhower-Nixon years. Just as now, there seems to be an evolutionary jump in consciousness happening, exploding out of the repression and blandness of the Bush-Cheney years. It’s a different timing now. I mean, there are comedians who say, “Oh, I missed George Bush,” but I was happy to sacrifice him.
Jeff Schechtman: Well, but yet, even without Bush there, there’s still a lot to make fun of.
Paul Krassner: Oh sure. Yeah. People say, “Well, Obama is so nice you can’t make fun of him,” but there are issues. There are other areas that there’s always… As long as there’s controversy, as long as there are contradictions between what people say and what they do, it’s natural to be made fun of. But what happens is a lot of the comedians want to get there six minutes on the David Letterman show. Jay Leno when he was on and now Conan O’Brien, they make fun of personalities rather than issues.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about the humor of Lenny Bruce. He was your mentor in terms of the standup comedy you did and what that comedy was about. Because it really was about issues and irony.
Paul Krassner: Oh yeah. That’s the thing that people associate Lenny with rough language when actually he was the first comedian I know to make fun of nuclear testing, to poke fun at the irrationality of the drug laws, what I call the war on some people who use some drugs. He talked about the low teachers’ salaries. They were really issues that people now don’t associate with him, but he broke through the traditional kind of Borscht Belt comedians who joked about … Did mother-in-law jokes. Who did Asian driver jokes.
Jeff Schechtman: Catholic Church.
Paul Krassner: Yes, yes. Then he got deeper into it and would do lines like, “People are leaving the church and going back to God.” And so he represented that cultural shift that was going on where people were trying to get away from Western religions of control and in the spiritual path and turned to eastern disciplines. Interestingly enough, Barack Obama is the first president who actually in his inauguration speech acknowledged the existence of non-believers.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about when the comedy of that period and the irony of that period in the late fifties, into the mid-sixties, into ’66, ’67, started to give way to an anger that was very different than the comedy that preceded it.
Paul Krassner: There was a time when, I think it started in England, where it was called the generation of angry young men. I think it was imitation of style. So for example, if people wanted to get on David Letterman’s show, they tried to mimic him, and what they did was kind of adopt his style of cynicism. That was their role model. The same thing with Conan O’Brien and David Letterman don’t like political stuff that much. So the comedians would do jokes about their first date or if they got married then about the problems and being married. But, it was relatively superficial, and it wasn’t really getting at the heart of things. And they were hostile.
Paul Krassner: I know that a woman came up to me after the end of one of my shows and she said, “Thank you. I was so afraid to come.” I said, “Afraid, why?” She said, “Well, I’ve been to a comedy show before and they’d made me cry.” She was sitting in the front row and they used her as a target and I said, “No, no, no, I just want to make you laugh. That’s all.” So it became a style. Like any industry, people would simply imitate the successes, and the successes were based on the lowest common denominator.
Jeff Schechtman: When did the anger set in though in that period in the ’60s? When did the comedy give way to anger?
Paul Krassner: That’s a hard question. I think the Vietnam War had something to do with the anger, because there was frustration. There was a draft at the time and there were people wearing lapel buttons that said, “Not with my body, you don’t.” Because of the draft, people could relate to it. It wasn’t an abstract thing. Everybody knew somebody who was going to be drafted or affected their families and their friends and their coworkers.
Paul Krassner: I think the war had a lot to do with it because more and more people realized that it was a war that was unjustified and that was really an invasion of another country. They used the Communist Domino Theory as a rationale. Just like the war in Iraq, it was based on lies. It was based on euphemisms. Then they would refer to concentration camps as strategic hamlets, and now they refer to torture as enhanced interrogation techniques. It’s all just continuing to pull new wool over new eyes.
Jeff Schechtman: You have referred to yourself as a kind of investigative satirist. Talk about that and the investigative part of it, the work that you’ve done with The Realist and other publications and how you’ve turned that investigative ability to satire and to humor.
Paul Krassner: Yeah, as a journalist and as a satirist, I could see relationships between the two. I mean, sometimes you just report the news and people laugh because they haven’t read that yet, and they think you’re making up something brilliant. Such as there are actually spray-on condoms now. But, if you tell people that and they don’t know about it, they think, “Wow, what an interesting concept. That’s very funny.”
Paul Krassner: In my case, I do a lot of research out of which to draw up material that calls to be targeted as satire. The more information I can get the wider my awareness of the hypocrisy or the contradictions in it that can be made fun of. So, it’s dealing with the information, not just the stereotypes of Bob Dole was the old guy. So, if you wanted to have old guy jokes, Bob Dole was the image you used, but they didn’t talk about his policy so much. Just their ageist jokes.
Jeff Schechtman: Some of the most controversial investigative stuff that you’ve done had to do with the Kennedy assassination. Going back to the exposé about Mae Brussell in 1972. Talk a little about that, Paul.
Paul Krassner: Yeah. It was a turning point in American history when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I published articles by May Brussell, who was the queen of conspiracy research. This was before computers, and so she had 40 filing cabinets filled with folders of the various categories. When the Watergate break-in occurred in June of 1972, it brought together the eight years of research she had done. Then she saw connection. The same names popping up. The modus operandi. She made those connections in terms of the secret government.
Paul Krassner: For me, I could get humor out of it, such as… Well, the example that comes to mind is that there were bullet holes in his throat, theoretically from The Book Depository where Lee Harvey Oswald was, but also from the grassy knoll where the three conspirators, who were dressed as tramps, were. I was able to make a joke about that, that Kennedy had been a satanic figure and it was like in The Exorcist. His head turned around 180 degrees at the precise moment that the shooting was taking place, which is why it looked like the bullet came from The Book Depository. I had to research that stuff about autopsies and conspiracy theories before I could come to that for political conclusion.
Speaker 3: Talk about the impact that Kennedy’s assassination had on you at the time.
Paul Krassner: Well, he was the first president that I voted for, and when it happened you knew that it was done for a purpose. It was like a military coup in a sense. Mort Sahl, for example, left the comedy world temporarily and went down to New Orleans to assist in the DA Jim Garrison’s investigation of the assassination. It’s interesting that a lot of the comedians that I’ve known and associated with, have been conspiracy theorists, because for comedy you have to kind of step outside of the regular boundaries to see what can be humorous about it. Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Orson Bean, Barry Crimmins, Richard Belzer, who even wrote a book about conspiracy theories. It’s interesting to me that there should be that connection, but it makes sense because for conspiracy theories, you also have to kind of think out of that proverbial box.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk About Lenny Bruce and how he dealt with the Kennedy assassination.
Paul Krassner: When Kennedy died, Lenny made a remark that when Jackie Kennedy got onto the back of the car, Lenny said, “Oh, she was hauling ass.” Actually though, she was trying to retrieve a piece of Kennedy’s brain that flew out onto the back of the car. He talked about, he took a biological approach to politics. We’d talk about how the horniness of a womanizer like Kennedy, and how he would tell the secret service agents, “Okay, stop there. I want to go have a tryst in the woods with Marilyn or something.” He just took the humanness and the foibles of these political icons and made fun of them in a way that people who were not in power could understand and could see that, as Henry Kissinger once said, that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.
Jeff Schechtman: When Lenny Bruce died in ’66 talk about your sense of that at the time.
Paul Krassner: On one level, I thought it was very sad because as a satirist, he had so much more to offer and he was so uncompromising in his work. As a personal friend it was a great loss too. My current obsession is working on a novel about a contemporary type Lenny, which stemmed from 1966 after he died. I kept thinking: “What would Lenny be saying now? What would be his take on this?” And, there has come a certain point now where I thought that I was actually channeling Lenny, until one day he said to me, “Come on, you don’t believe in that crap.” So I stopped channeling him.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about how your audiences, and you still do stand up from time to time, how have your audiences changed? Who comes today? What do you see today?
Paul Krassner: The most gratifying thing is that old fans of my work come with their offspring or offspring bring their parents. It shatters the myth of the generation gap. I did a show last week, and people came up and said it’s different from the humor they see on TV, except for people like, I guess the big three is, John Stewart, Steven Colbert and Bill Maher. They appreciate it. There’s a hunger for it because these are really depressing times and repressing times. The more repression there is the more need there is for irreverence towards those in authority who are responsible for that repression.
Jeff Schechtman: Do you think there’s anything that you could call a counter culture out there today?
Paul Krassner: Sure. There’s always been a counter culture. I mean, in recent decades it went from the Bohemians to the Beats, to the Hippies, to the Yippies, to the Punks, to Hip-Hop. There’s always a counter culture. It just has taken different forms. I think now it’s become much, much more of a multiethnic, multiracial kind of process, especially with the help of the Internet.
Paul Krassner: One of the reasons I stopped The Realist was because I wanted to eventually put myself out of business in the sense that I acted as the canary in the coal mine of taking chances and living out what the First Amendment is. It’s just a law. I mean, free speech existed before the First Amendment, and people mistake it now. If there’s censorship, they say, “Oh, that’s a violation of the First Amendment,” which is not accurate because the First Amendment only applies to when the government is involved in suppressing speech.
Paul Krassner: I think what used to be called a counter culture now has become mainstream culture in terms of anybody can do what I was doing on the Internet in the sense that my goal was to communicate without compromise. The web provides that forum. Anybody can communicate without compromise. There’s a law of supply and demand in terms of the audience for their communication. There’s a lot of competition for it. I think that all of the things that the ’60s counter culture, the seeds that they planted are still blossoming, whether it’s organic food or environmental concern. They were a threat to the economy in terms of they didn’t buy insurance policies. They lived in communes and took care of each other. They would pool their money and have one car for several people. They would make their own clothes. They would make candles and use them instead of light bulbs. So, it was a threat to the economy, and the think tanks certainly found that out.
Jeff Schechtman: It’s interesting. You look back at the ‘60s and your founding of the Yippies and the anti-Vietnam protests and everything else, that it all involved a certain degree of organization and a certain organizational skill that something like the Internet and Twitter make so much easier today.
Paul Krassner: Oh yeah. It’s changed the nature of… The Internet has changed the nature of protest itself. We used to have to get our hands messy with mimeograph ink, getting leaflets ready, which would then be mailed to people or delivered at rallies. Now, MoveOn.org organized demonstrations so much easier. It was quicker. It was immediate. It was a wider audience that was reached. It was just almost simultaneous that that kind of organizing could be done, and it didn’t cost the money for stamps. It’s a whole different process now that’s going on, and it applies to other areas too. Medicine. People can communicate with people who have had the same medical symptoms with others and not just depend on doctors. There is a process of some kind of citizens’ revolt that’s going on, and it’s a very subversive phenomenon. It’s being done out in the open. I like that combination.
Jeff Schechtman: Is it too diffuse? Is it ever going to reach any kind of critical mass as the ’60s protests did around Vietnam and civil rights?
Paul Krassner: Well, those civil rights and the Vietnam war and a few other things, decriminalization of marijuana and abortion rights, these were some of the main issues during the ‘60s. Now there are, I counted at least 25 different causes that are going on, and some of them… in fact, the slogan, the songs of the ’60s was We Shall Overcome. Now it’s become, in effect, We Shall Overlap because there are so many causes. Save the whales, save the rain forests, wages for housewives. There are so many causes, and most of them are justified. Some of them are trivial, but everybody has their own agenda and perceived reality through that agenda.
Jeff Schechtman: Does that make it more difficult for any of those agendas to really be achieved and for there to be, as I said, critical mass around any of them today?
Paul Krassner: I think so. That’s the ones that I think have to do with numbers. When I needed surgery about 20 years ago, there were 37 million, including myself, who did not have health insurance. Now there are 47 million. That’s why healthcare and the economy, jobs, are the two big issues because that’s what most people are suffering from.
Jeff Schechtman: How about the discussion with respect to drugs today? Certainly that was a big part of the ’60s and not as much a part of our discussion today.
Paul Krassner: Yeah, I think it’s reached a level of a tipping point in public awareness of the hypocrisy behind the laws. My feeling is that as long as any government can decide which drugs are legal and which are not legal, then anybody in prison on a drug offense is really a political prisoner. So that 1200, 1300 people a day die in this country alone from cigarette smoking, and yet marijuana causes no deaths. The worst that’ll happen is maybe somebody will raid the refrigerator at midnight for the munchies.
Paul Krassner: There is now more and more talk of making marijuana legal so that it can then be taxed, which would help, especially in California, billions of dollars in taxes that could be raised. I think that it’s kind of doing the right thing for the wrong reason. I think that marijuana should be decriminalized so that people shouldn’t spend time behind bars because they were smoking a weed and not because it’s going to bring more money to the local economy.
Jeff Schechtman: When you talk to young people today, and we’ve been engaged for the past couple of years, I suppose, and still are in all of these sort of 40th anniversary celebrations. The 40th anniversary a year or so ago of the summer of love, and this year, the 40th anniversary of Woodstock and the 40th anniversary of the Vietnam war, various aspects of the Vietnam War. What are young people today understand about that time?
Paul Krassner: I think they’re learning from it. The fact that it’s a year with a zero at the end makes a difference. There are at least three books that I know that are coming out about Woodstock. There’s the 40th anniversary of the Manson murders. People don’t understand that. They think, “Oh, he was a Hippie,” when he was never a Hippie. He spent most of his life in prison, and his family were thieves and murderers and rapists.
Paul Krassner: I think that a byproduct of these anniversary celebrations is bringing young people up to date about what really happened at that time, and not the quick imagery of… If they think of the account of the hippies in the ’60s, all they think of is two main images. A party where people are passing a joint around or police throwing a bunch of hippies into a wagon that’s going to take them up to the local jail. It was much deeper than that.
Paul Krassner: It was true. It was sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Underneath that was this spiritual revolution where people really wanted to de-program themselves from the mainstream culture, which they considered had inhumane attributes. Then reprogram themselves in a more humane philosophy and then live up to that philosophy, not just have it as an abstract belief. I think that more people are open now to change with factors such as the environment, such as the recession, is sort of forcing them into alternative ways of thinking and being.
Jeff Schechtman: Just makes it tougher when so many escape into the celebrity entertainment culture of the day.
Paul Krassner: Oh yeah, there are people… I just saw the movie Bruno, where this guy wants to be famous. It’s not that he is talented, he just wants to be famous. And there is so much of that now. It’s kind of heartbreaking to see how many thousands and thousands of people line up in order to audition for American idol. Not that they have talent, but they want fame.
Jeff Schechtman: Was there that desire for fame in the ’60s do you think?
Paul Krassner: I guess there’s always been. People are called born leaders in whatever their fields are, entertainments or politics. So I think that that’s just the human condition is to want to be admired and recognized and acknowledged by others, but it depends because fame is a tool. If you want to reach more people then fame helps. Artists, whether writers or photographers or movie makers or painters or sculptors, poets, whatever they are, a lot of them are willing to just communicate with their hard drives. Others really want to be discovered by more and more. They have to try to catch…
Paul Krassner: I’m glad that whatever public recognition I have is of my name rather than my appearance so that I can still be an observer rather than the observed. I can go out in public. I don’t have to do what Elvis Presley did, which was go to the dentist at midnight where there would be nobody in the waiting room. It could be a terrible burden, an addiction as it was in Michael Jackson’s case.
Jeff Schechtman: What are you doing online now? Tell us, are you blogging? What are you doing?
Paul Krassner: I blog occasionally for Huffington Post and Counterpoint and Reality Sandwich. I’ll use my computer for three purposes. As a word processor. It has destroyed the concept of a first draft because now you edit as you go along. It’s also changed the nature of… There used to be books, collections and thousands of great letter writers and now what is it going to be in the future? The great Twitters of our time. A Collection Of A 140 Characters By 140 Characters. It used to be people would flourish words, and now they’ll just say, “That’s cool. We’ll give you an email instead of a long analysis.
Paul Krassner: It leads to a certain carelessness. Whereas people would proofread their stuff previously, now there’s a kind of carelessness. Oh, that’s good enough to send. You can see the typos are blatant in email. I use it for word processing, processing, email and research. I’m more or less of a Luddite. I never even learned how to drive a car, but I’m becoming almost as much in awe of technology as I am in awe of nature.
Jeff Schechtman: Paul Krassner, thank you so much for spending time with us today.
Paul Krassner: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you, Jeff.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Heidi De Vries / Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0) and Amazon.

Where else do you see journalism of this quality and value?

Please help us do more. Make a tax-deductible contribution now.

Our Comment Policy

Keep it civilized, keep it relevant, keep it clear, keep it short. Please do not post links or promotional material. We reserve the right to edit and to delete comments where necessary.

print

There are 2 comments

Comments are closed.