An Interview with Paul Krassner

Two flaming liberal pinkos yuck it up for your reading pleasure.

| Wed Oct. 20, 1999 2:00 AM EDT

If you've laughed at a countercultural joke anytime in the last 40 years, you probably owe Paul Krassner a word of thanks.

In 1958, Paul founded a fiercely independent humor magazine called The Realist, in which shrewdly funny investigative reports run alongside revealing news items and humor pieces ranging from cheerful to sharply satiric. Except for an interregnum in the 1970s, Paul has published The Realist continuously for over four decades, publishing original work by Joseph Heller, Ken Kesey, Norman Mailer, and too many other well-known writers to list.

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Outside of The Realist, Paul has led perhaps the quintessential counterculture life: He edited Lenny Bruce's autobiography, performed comedy in concerts with the Grateful Dead and the Velvet Underground, dropped acid with Tim Leary, and protested the Vietnam War with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin.

What makes Paul cool, though, isn't who he knows or where he has been, but the way he always leavens his acute sense of injustice with an equal sense of the absurd. For example, Dick Gregory once announced on Paul's radio show that until the Vietnam War was over, he was giving up solid foods. In turn, Paul announced that until the Vietnam War was over, he was eating all of Dick Gregory's meals.

The FBI once called Paul Krassner a "raving, unconfined nut."

I consider Paul Krassner a national treasure.

And now the bad news: Paul is ceasing publication of The Realist after only six more issues, after which America will be a little bit less cool. While the magazine is still available, I thought it might be a good idea to sit down and grill Paul about his activities in a way the FBI never got a chance to.


BH: Why are you ceasing publication of The Realist? Is reality finally getting too bizarre to satirize?

PK: I've been doing it since 1958, and all my causes -- from anti-circumcision to anti-nuclear testing -- are now part of mainstream awareness. Besides, there are a few novels I'd like to write. True, reality does get increasingly bizarre, but that's the challenge. Meanwhile, performers like Harry Shearer and publications like The Onion make it clear that The Realist has served its purpose, which was to help liberate communication simply by example.

(Note: for a subscription to the final six issues of The Realist, send $12 to Box 1230, Venice CA 90294.)

BH: Speaking of ideas entering the mainstream, you've had several instances of "astral comedy," where something you wrote completely in jest shortly became true. What's your favorite?

PK: I recall when I predicted during a performance that there would be dehydrated urine for sale by mail order for use at drug tests, and then it actually happened. This is a perfect example of my earliest lesson in life: One person's logic is another person's humor.

BH: You've published a lot of controversial stuff, including what might be called alternative versions of Watergate, the Patty Hearst kidnapping, and the Manson murders, and a wickedly pointed (some would say notorious) satire of the pages missing from William Manchester's book on the JFK assassination. Is there anything you ever published that you wish you hadn't?

PK: No, because my soul-searching before publication made me have my retrospect in advance, so that there was no need for regret later on. Of course, there are different ways I would have phrased things, for clarification, say, or used better examples to illustrate a concept.

BH: Before you created The Realist, you started in New York in the offices of Mad Magazine and had an early association with muckraking publisher Lyle Stuart. Would it be fair to characterize your magazine's attitude as a melding of the two?

PK: Yes. It was a deliberate agenda. I wanted to combine entertainment with the 1st Amendment.

BH: You edited Lenny Bruce's autobiography, How To Talk Dirty And Influence People. Is his kind of comedy still alive? How do you see it continuing?

PK: Lenny was unique, but the spirit of his exploration continues in many forms, not just in the arts, but sticking to principles even while friends accuse you of being self-destructive. I may be projecting, but pretending that I'm using Lenny as a touchstone, he would appreciate Chris Rock's comedic talent, but he would be dismayed by Andrew Dice Clay's exploitation of taboos.

BH: Artemis records is releasing a CD of your own stand-up comedy. How would you say that the national sense of humor has changed during the decades?

PK: The fact that my album is titled "Sex, Drugs and the Antichrist" is itself an example of the change. When I began I was a lone voice, and now irreverence has become an industry. In the process, much of popular humor has become a game of hostile name-calling and easy-reference jokes, and instead of laughing the audience applauds itself for getting the reference.

BH: Your new book of Impolite Interviews (Seven Stories Press) includes chats with a wide range of figures from across the political spectrum, including tough guy Norman Mailer and American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell. Ideology aside, which one would kick the other's ass in a bar fight?

PK: I think Mailer would whup Rockwell's ass; bravery would conquer cowardice.

BH: You're also one of the few people who can claim face time with both Squeaky Fromme and G. Gordon Liddy. How would you compare the two, in terms of

  1. fashion sense,

  2. reasoning skills, and

  3. ability to act under pressure?

PK: Well, I hung around with Squeaky somewhat, but only met Giddy superficially a couple of times. What they had in common was selfishness in the guise of loyalty -- Squeaky's loyalty to Charles Manson was equivalent to Liddy's loyalty to Richard Nixon. Specifically, in terms of:

  1. fashion sense: I suspect Liddy wears thong underwear three sizes too small. When Squeaky shot Gerald Ford she was wearing a Little Red Riding Hood outfit. I congratulated her for being prepared to fade into the crowd.

  2. reasoning skills: Liddy is much shrewder than Squeaky. She never could have pulled off Watergate. Oops, neither did he.

  3. ability to act under pressure: Well, they are comparable in terms of not caring about the consequences of their behavior. Although Squeaky wasn't one of Manson's killers, she approved of the act because she thought it was a copycat murder to prove that Bobby Beusolei, in prison for a similar murder, wasn't really the perpetrator, who was still at large. (The real motivation was a cocaine deal gone bad. Manson's brainwashed family served as a hit squad for organized criminals he met behind bars.) As for Liddy, when he broke in to the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist, he made it look like a junkie's burglary. A black man named Elmer Davis was arrested and convicted of that crime, and he ended up serving Liddy's time.

BH: You were one of the founders of the Yippies, and at the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968, you told a reporter that the first act of civil disobedience you were planning was to put truth serum in the TV reporters' drinks. Suppose someone actually did that. What would be the lead story on CNN?

PK: Then, it would've been a report that truth serum had been put in the reporters' drink, plus the truth behind the drug war, the Vietnam War, pick a war, any war. Now it would be the same.

BH: Trivial Pursuit cards name you as the man who suggested putting LSD in the Chicago water supply. Do you have any trouble getting women to let you buy them a drink?

PK: I've never been in that position, since I've never taken any legal drugs.

BH: Lyndon LaRouche once published a report that you were brainwashed and secretly controlled by England's Tavistock Institute. Taking LaRouche at his word, did you get to meet the Queen in person, or did she just send the members of KISS to be your controllers?

PK: Let me put it this way: Have you ever seen Lyndon LaRouche and the Queen together? Aha! For that matter, did you ever see Kiss together? It was all done with mirrors.

BH: You used to work for Hugh Hefner at Playboy, and after Larry Flynt was shot, you were the interim publisher of Hustler (where, just so people know, you tried to pervert a large chunk of Larry Flynt's empire into actual journalism). But at the same time, you've been an ardent advocate of women's rights and gender equality. Some would say there's a contradiction. Your response?

PK: My rationalization was that it was a way of working from the inside of the beast's proverbial belly. People in general and men in particular are victims of their conditioning. It's snobbery to think that Hustler readers are monolithic creatures beyond change. In my hectic six months working for Flynt, for example, I commissioned an article from a feminist writer on abortion rights, and hopefully those pages didn't stick together when it came time to read the piece.

BH: By the way, Al Goldstein, publisher of Screw, lives in my apartment building. Once The Realist shuts down, you might need a gig. Shall I call him for you?

PK: No, thanks. I have his number.

BH: When you ran Hustler, out of fairness you once published a picture of yourself nude. What's the most creative use you ever heard of anyone using that particular issue?

PK: A couple of women told me they masturbated to it. And people rolled joints on that page.

BH: In 1979, you were in San Francisco and got caught in the post-verdict riot after the assassin who killed Harvey Milk wound up taking only a manslaughter rap, having successfully employed the world's first Twinkies-made-me-insane defense. In the melee, a cop mistook you for someone worth beating and clubbed you so badly that you were almost paralyzed and still suffer from several permanent injuries. Have you ever found out who that officer was or spoken to him since? What would you say to him?

PK: There were two of 'em. I guess I'd ask if they'd agree that they were being sadistic inasmuch as they didn't arrest me for anything. And then I'd ask if I could borrow $20. The old guilt-trip ploy.

BH: You have another book coming out soon called Pot Stories For The Soul (High Times Books), a collection of anecdotes from a number of writers -- including a certain internet political humor columnist -- concerning their experiences with marijuana. Care to share a favorite?

PK: One that comes to mind is the time somebody smoked marijuana for the first time at a rock concert, and her friend asked why she kept pinching his knee. She was much relieved because she thought her own knee had gone numb. Another is how a reporter for Newsweek was assigned to turn on other staffers who were researching the blossoming of the counterculture.

BH: You once published a cartoon in which the name SPIRO AGNEW was rearranged to spell GROW A PENIS. I've taken the liberty of anagramming the name PAUL KRASSNER, which yields the following variations:

  • LURK NEAR PASS

  • REAL SUN SPARK

  • USSR PENAL ARK

  • US RENAL SPARK

  • SLAP RANK? SURE

  • LUNAR ASS PERK

  • PERUSAL SNARK

Which one is your favorite, and why?

PK: LUNAR ASS PERK, because it has the most cosmic meaning.

BH: And which one do you think Spiro Agnew would like best?

PK: GROW A PENIS. People always think everything is about THEM.

Bob Harris is a radio commentator, political writer, and humorist who has spoken at almost 300 colleges nationwide. His new book, Steal This Book And Get Life Without Parole, is now available at Common Courage Press.

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