The Realist Still Raves : Paul Krassner, Irreverent Political Iconoclast of ‘60s, Is at it Again
Paul Krassner owes a debt of gratitude to the FBI. When Life magazine published a profile in 1968 of Krassner and his off-the-wall satirical publication, The Realist, it prompted this letter to the editor:
“To classify Krassner as some sort of ‘social rebel’ is far too cute. He’s a nut, a raving, unconfined nut. As for any possible intellectual rewards to be gleaned from The Realist--much better prose may be found on lavatory walls.”
The letter, never published, was signed, “Howard Rasmussen, Brooklyn College.” In fact, the writer was an FBI agent. Krassner found the letter years later in the FBI file on himself he obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request. And with delight, he borrowed from it in naming his newly released autobiography: “Confessions of a Raving Unconfined Nut.”
A quarter-century has elapsed since the Life article, but rest assured that Krassner is still raving after all these years. He insists that he maintains “a pathological resistance to authority,” and he still publishes The Realist, now in newsletter form.
The man who coined the term Yippie, who says he dropped acid with Groucho Marx and who did testify at the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial while hallucinating on LSD, is now 61 and lives in a Venice bungalow with his wife, Nancy Cain. The New York native has lived in Venice since 1985, a place he describes as “the Lower Eastside with sand.”
The outward appearance was decidedly unradical as he sat on an overstuffed gray couch for a recent interview, stroking his cats, Puffy and Donnie. But the message was as nutty as ever.
“I never wanted to deprive readers the pleasure of discerning what is true and what’s not,” he said. “Mostly, my readers like their satire undiluted. A lot of my satire works because it’s in a journalistic formula which gives it a level of verisimilitude. Our only sacred cows are irreverence and obviousness.”
Take the latest edition of The Realist. It contains transcripts, ostensibly obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, of a telephone conversation between former FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover and his assistant, Clyde Tolson. If they were real, the transcripts would corroborate the claims of a recently published book about Hoover that he and Tolson were having a homosexual affair. Suffice it to say that they make for very provocative reading.
Krassner, whose greatest influence as a comedian was his friend Lenny Bruce, performs stand-up comedy in Los Angeles at nightclubs and at rallies for his favorite causes: legalization of marijuana, protection of abortion rights, fighting censorship. He will perform tonight at 6:30 in the lobby of the California Federal Bank building at La Cienega and Wilshire boulevards in a benefit for the L.A. Humanist. Krassner will also perform Saturday at 8 p.m. for a benefit for Alliance for Survival at the Church in Ocean Park in Santa Monica.
The author of four books, he just wrapped up a nine-city tour promoting his autobiography. Now in its second printing, according to Seale Ballenger, a senior publicist at Simon & Schuster, the book is a combination of autobiography and social history of the counterculture that sometimes reads like a Who’s Who of the ‘60s. It has received mixed reviews.
Krassner launched The Realist in 1958 after a stint at Mad magazine. Initially, The Realist was a sort of naughtier, grown-up version of Mad. (It was in Mad’s offices that Krassner claims to have lost his virginity with a young woman, who told him during the momentous act not to be concerned about contraception; his Neumanesque reply: “What, me worry?”)
Priding itself on seamless blending of the true and the made-up, The Realist became a seminal underground influence. Years later, it prompted People magazine to describe Krassner as “the father of the underground.” His retort: “I demand a blood test.”
Through much of the ‘60s, one of The Realist’s principal missions was the constant testing of decency laws. Its subscribers included the likes of Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller and Terry Southern. Although Krassner took on controversial issues like abortion, the Vietnam War, integration and recreational drug use, the publication achieved the most attention for its inflammatory hoax: “The Parts Left Out of the Kennedy Book.”
In an insolent jab at William Manchester’s book, “The Death of a President,” Krassner wrote in the 1967 article that newly sworn President Lyndon B. Johnson committed an act of necrophilism on the corpse of John F. Kennedy that changed the nature of Kennedy’s bullet wound.
Even many of Krassner’s most broad-minded readers thought the article went way over the line. Newsman Harry Reasoner referred to it in his memoirs, “Colors that Fade,” and said that there were only two men in his life he would refuse to shake hands with: Sen. Joseph McCarthy and Paul Krassner.
Despite such loathing, Krassner says he has no regrets about publishing it, adding that he did so after “a lot of soul-searching.”
“Many people still tell me that it was the first thing that woke them up to the cover-up of JFK’s assassination,” said Krassner, who ran a self-parodying “The Parts Left Out of Krassner’s Book” in The Realist last summer. “It was also a metaphor for Johnson’s crude character. I didn’t believe Johnson had anything to do with it, but he benefited from it.”
Some of his other pranks even alienated some of his closest fellow radicals. He was called as a defense witness in the Chicago Seven case, in which some of his close friends were tried on charges of inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention.
In his book, he wrote that he took 300 micrograms of LSD before testifying. From the witness stand, he said, defense attorney William Kunstler looked like the Wise Old Owl, the prosecutor looked like the Big Bad Wolf and presiding Judge Julius Hoffman looked like Elmer Fudd. “I felt exactly like Alice in Wonderland.”
Let’s just say his testimony was unhelpful. It took Abbie Hoffman, one of the defendants, a few years to forgive him, Krassner said.
The Realist suspended publication in 1974; there were fewer taboos by then and, perhaps more significant, there was no money.
Krassner did a brief stint after that as publisher of “Hustler” and he edited Lenny Bruce’s autobiography, “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People.” He lived in San Francisco in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, doing a radio talk show hosted by his alter ego, Rumpleforeskin, doing stand-up comedy and writing occasionally for the likes of Newsweek and Playboy.
He moved to Venice in 1985 and resurrected The Realist. The “Reagan government-by-public-relations years,” he said, were fertile times for a satirist.
Krassner is now at work on a novel about a controversial comedian, inspired by and dedicated to Lenny Bruce. He says writing the book is a schizophrenic process because as he writes, he resents the protagonist more and more for stealing all his comedic material.
“There is a hunger for nonformula-ized humor,” Krassner says. “The response I’ve been getting (as comedian and writer) has been enthusiastic. A lot of comedians do reference humor today, airplane food and stereotypes. When people compare Andrew Dice Clay to Lenny Bruce I get angry because Lenny’s humor united people and Clay’s humor divides. It’s fascist humor.”
Krassner is not the only comedian who’s taken up book writing, of course. When a visitor noticed “Private Parts,” Howard Stern’s autobiography, sitting on his coffee table, Krassner deadpanned: “I shoplifted it. For better or worse, he’s a folk hero. But I didn’t want to pay for it. Call it situational ethics. I have to look at him like a surgeon to see how the culture is doing. Stern represents the id of a whole section of society.”
It is tempting to regard Krassner and other aging ‘60s radicals as has-beens, but that might not be wise. Some scholars, including historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., say the time is ripe for a rebirth of activism and activist government.
Many of Krassner’s close friends from the ‘60s won’t be around to enjoy it--Bruce, Hoffman and Phil Ochs, for example, are all dead. But Krassner is ready.
“I see a new counterculture emerging, but one that is less innocent,” he said. “They see the hypocrisies. I see evidence of it in the music and in the movement to legalize marijuana. Marijuana is illegal, yet cigarettes are legal and they kill a thousand people a day. If you smoke marijuana the worst that might happen is you’ll raid your neighbors’ refrigerator. We put flowers in rifle barrels and they’ll put condoms in them. A metaphorical difference.”