Paul Krassner, counterculture satirist who coined the term ‘Yippie,’ dies at 87
When People magazine called Paul Krassner “the father of the underground press,” he responded with mock outrage.
“I immediately demanded a paternity test,” he said.
It was a typical response for Krassner, a comedian, satirist and writer who took little seriously while challenging social and political standards in the 1960s. The motto of his groundbreaking counterculture magazine, the Realist, was “Irreverence is our only sacred cow.” The FBI, which kept tabs on Krassner, once wrote a letter calling him “a raving, unconfined nut.”
Krassner died Sunday after a brief illness at his home in Desert Hot Springs, Calif., said his daughter, Holly Krassner Dawson. He was 87.
Krassner was a key figure in the swirling cultural upheaval that began in the late 1950s and continued through the Vietnam era.
He coined the word “Yippie” in 1967, co-founded the Youth International Party with radicals Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, and was among the activists who turned Chicago’s 1968 Democratic National Convention into a madcap showcase for antiwar protesters. Afterward, he testified at the Chicago 7 conspiracy trial while hallucinating on LSD.
The Realist, published by Krassner from 1958 to 1974, challenged decency laws by printing uncensored profanities and writing candidly on race, abortion, recreational drug use, religion and homosexuality.
Krassner called the publication “the magazine of the lunatic fringe,” a label that belied its wide influence.
Comedian George Carlin once said that, in the 1960s, Krassner was “funnier than Danny Kaye, more powerful than Jerry Lewis, as important as acid.”
Krassner’s most infamous moment probably came in 1967 when he printed what he said were unpublished excerpts from William Manchester’s book on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, “The Death of a President,” including a passage that described Lyndon Johnson having sex with JFK’s dead body.
In fact, it was all fiction written by Krassner. The outrage was so heated that even some of Krassner’s most broad-minded readers thought it crossed the line. Newsman Harry Reasoner said in his memoir that there were only two men he would not shake hands with: Sen. Joseph McCarthy and Paul Krassner.
Krassner said he never regretted publishing the piece.
“Many people still tell me that it was the first thing that woke them up to the cover-up of JFK’s assassination,” Krassner told The Times in 1993. “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.”
Paul Krassner was born April 9, 1932, in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens. His father, Michael, was a Hungarian American printer; his mother, Ida, a Russian-born legal secretary.
He was a child violin prodigy who performed at Carnegie Hall at age 6, the youngest person to do so at the time. But he had little passion for the violin and put it aside.
Krassner did develop a passion for pranks, something that followed him into adulthood. “I found out as a kid that you can get attention by making someone laugh,” he said.
While studying journalism at New York’s Baruch College in the 1950s, Krassner worked as a stand-up comedian under the name Paul Maul and joined an anti-censorship newspaper called the Independent. After college — he walked out of his last class, three credits short of a degree, and never went back — he started contributing to a new humor magazine called Mad.
Krassner noted that there was no satirical magazine for adults, and in 1958 the Realist was born. Priding itself on a seamless blending of the true and the made-up, the magazine became a seminal underground influence.
Along with articles such as “I Was an Abortionist for the FBI” and “The Act and Art of Nonconformity,” the Realist published in-depth interviews with such figures as Lenny Bruce, Hugh Hefner, Joseph Heller, Woody Allen and Timothy Leary.
A young Carlin found the Realist both a revelation and an inspiration.
“It allowed me to see that others who disagreed with the American consensus were busy expressing those feelings and using risky humor to do so,” Carlin wrote in 2002.
Bruce, who was jailed repeatedly for his profanity-laced shows, was shocked when he saw that the Realist published obscenities without repercussion.
He and Krassner became close friends and Krassner edited Bruce’s autobiography. In 1964, the Realist published a fake Bruce obituary that brought angry calls from readers disheartened that the comic’s death had been suppressed by the mainstream media.
In May 1967, the Realist published “The Parts Left Out of the Kennedy Book,” the inflammatory hoax that drew greater ire than any other Krassner prank. In the same issue was the “Disneyland Memorial Orgy” poster by cartoonist Wally Wood, which depicted Disney characters doing sex acts.
On New Year’s Eve 1967, while randomly looking for words that rhymed with “hippie,” Krassner created “Yippie” to describe an amorphous collection of counterculture activists led by himself, Hoffman and Rubin. Only later did he decide it stood for “Youth International Party.”
As the group prepared for protests at 1968 Democratic National Convention, Krassner rattled Chicago leaders by suggesting that the Yippies were planning to put LSD in the city water supply.
One of Krassner’s pranks alienated some of his closest fellow radicals. He was called in 1970 as a defense witness in the Chicago 7 case, in which some of his close friends were tried on charges of inciting a riot at the convention. He took a large dose of LSD before testifying, hoping that he would be so sick that he would be dismissed.
Instead, Krassner stumbled through disjointed testimony, having trouble remembering words such as “Chicago.” From the witness stand, he said in his memoir, the court clerk looked like Goofy, the prosecutor like the Big Bad Wolf and the judge like Elmer Fudd. It took Hoffman, one of the defendants, a few years to forgive him.
By 1968, the Realist’s subscription list had grown to 100,000 and Life magazine published a positive profile of Krassner. Afterward, an FBI agent, using a fake name, sent a letter to the magazine saying, “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.”
Krassner was a step ahead. His own letter to the editor said, “Regarding your article on that filthy-mouthed, dope-taking, pinko-anarchist, Pope-baiting Yippie-lover: cancel my subscription immediately!” Krassner’s letter was published; the FBI’s was not. (Krassner discovered it years later when he was able to examine his FBI file.)
The Realist suspended publication in 1974. There were fewer taboos by then and it was making little money.
In 1978, Krassner did a six-month stint as publisher of the pornographic magazine Hustler. He lived in San Francisco in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, doing a radio talk show and stand-up comedy and writing occasionally for the likes of Newsweek and Playboy.
Dawson, Krassner’s only child, described her father as funny and generous, someone who offered her experiences that other children didn’t enjoy. As a girl, Dawson said, she went with her father to watch the trial of Patty Hearst and spent at least one summer at novelist Ken Kesey’s farm, playing on his Merry Pranksters bus.
“Other kids might have been going to Grateful Dead concerts,” Dawson said. “But not with their dad.”
In addition to his daughter, Krassner is survived by his wife, Nancy Cain; his brother, George Krassner; his granddaughter, Talia Dawson; and nieces and nephews.
Krassner moved to Venice in 1985 and resurrected the Realist as a newsletter, publishing it until 2001. The Realist never regained the influence it had in the ‘60s, in part because Krassner found it harder to shock people. By the 1980s, he said, “bad taste had become an industry.”
After closing the Realist, Krassner moved to Desert Hot Springs in 2001. He was nominated for a Grammy in 2004 for the liner notes he wrote for the album “Let the Buyer Beware,” a boxed set of Lenny Bruce performances and interviews. A book titled “Zapped by the God of Absurdity: The Best of Paul Krassner,” is slated for release later this year.
For his 1968 Life profile, Krassner offered a personal philosophy: “If I had one thing to tell everybody, it would be: Do it now. Take up music, read a book, proposition a girl — but do it now. We know we are all sentenced to death. People cannot become prisoners of guilts or fears. They should cling to each moment and take what enjoyment they can from it.”
Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get all the day's most vital news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.