Publisher/editor of The Realist, satirist, comedian, Merry Prankster, Yippie co-founder, and compatriot of a who’s who of the counterculture is still shocking all the right people at age 86. In the first part of this long interview, he talks about the founding of The Realist, the origins of the antiwar movement at Berkeley and his friend and collaborator Lenny Bruce.
Reel One: Paul Krassner’s Vocabulary is Leaking
How to describe Paul Krassner in a word? Legend? No, that’s too simple. The term “legend” reduces the journalist, satirist, editor, publisher, comedian, Merry Prankster, Yippee co-founder and lecturer to the status of a mythic creature. “Unicorn” would be better: Krassner has caused generations of cocktail-sedated-starched-white-shirt conformists to look at him like he has a huge horn growing out of his forehead. It could be said Krassner is a modern oracle––or, a sort of seer––the one who knows all and who can talk of the past, present and future with outrageous clarity and humor.
Perhaps there is no single word to describe Krassner. His Prankster nickname, “Zen Bastard”, best sums up a man who as a six-year-old played a precise violin at Carnegie Hall and who as an adult befriended those set on loosening up an intolerant puritan America––Hugh Hefner, Ken Kesey, Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Larry Flynt, Richard Pryor, George Walker, Norman Mailer and Lenny Bruce––continually bedeviling anyone who claimed they were in charge.
Krassner has been sued by countless oh-for-gosh-sakes-be-polite corporate types for his statements, stories and commentaries; he was the first living man inducted into the Counterculture Hall of Fame and has sworn he’ll never appear on television without being high. Now 86, Krassner is on-it as much as ever, although he needs a walker to get around as the result of being brutally and irreparably beaten by San Francisco police in 1979 while reporting on the Dan White trial. [Editor: White murdered San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk but was convicted of a lesser charge, setting off a riot.]
In our phone call conversation, Krassner claimed, “My vocabulary is leaking”, although that’s likely due to his prolific writings over the last 60+ years and his willingness to exclaim “FUCK” when everyone else was speaking in asterisks, at-signs and stars. As the editor of a nationally distributed underground magazine, The Realist, Krassner showed Disney characters in a full-on orgy, published detailed conspiracy theories and suggested Lyndon Baines Johnson had sex with John F. Kennedy’s corpse. People were, and still are, shocked. No doubt that’s what happens when people take themselves too seriously; it’s also what happens when a “news” magazine for adults comes out of the offices of Mad, the initial home of The Realist in 1958.
Krassner can tell the story of The Realist, and how many other things came to be, better than anyone. Here are his first editorial and a few of his recollections, all part of an hour-plus conversation that had me believing in time travel, comic phantoms and the undeniable limits of linear thinking.
In the first issue of The Realist, published in Spring 1958, Krassner laid out a philosophy that has remained essentially unchanged in the 60 years since:
“This editorial will be written in first person singular, as a sort of symbolic gesture toward a society where conformity has replaced the weather as that which everybody talks about, but which nobody does anything about…
“However, I am neither for conformity nor for non-conformity. I am for individuality. If one’s individuality is in effect non-conformity, then so be it. But basically, one’s individuality consists of conformity—to oneself.
“In my capacity as editor of The Realist, I am both non-partisan and partisan. Non-partisan in that I’m not a Democrat or a Republican or a Vegetarian. Not a Communist or a Fascist or a Prohibitionist. Not a socialist or a capitalist or an anarchist. Not a liberal or a conservative or a vivisectionist. Not Catholic or Protestant or Jewish. Not Unitarian or Buddhist or Existentialist. Not hip or square or round.
“Not even an American—in the sense that, as one book reviewer puts it, to call a man a South African just because he was born in South Africa is like calling a kitten a biscuit because it was born in an oven. If you must give me a label, then label me a human being. I have no pride in being a human, though, because I had nothing to do with my becoming one.
“But, whereas animals don’t have a rational code of ethics, I like to think I do. Which is where I am partisan. Moral partisanship is the reason for my “anger.” And if I don ’t protest what needs to be protested, I might just as well be an animal.
About his 1958 editorial, Krassner now says, “Wow! I wrote that? Really, I forgot. It’s still true for me––except I became a vegetarian. The Realist really began long before I started it. I had my apprenticeship in publishing at an anti-censorship monthly called The Independent. I was in college, writing a column for them called ‘Tomorrow’s Leaders’, and doing a humor column, too. I was also doing freelance work for Mad, where I wanted to do a piece on the pros and cons of unions, but my editor there said it was too much oriented towards grown-ups; and, as you know, Mad was written for a teenage crowd.
“In that moment, I realized other countries, from England to Australia to Russia, had satirical magazines for adults and we had none in the United States. That was the conception of the whole idea and I put the first issue of The Realist together from there. A magazine called Progressive World let me use their mailing list, and I sent out flyers to 600 people. I asked them to subscribe and told them they could have their money back if they didn’t like what they got. Out of those 600, only one didn’t want a subscription.
“The first subscriber was [comedian and Tonight Show host] Steve Allen. He was reading The Independent so he knew of my work. Steve sent subscriptions to various friends; Lenny Bruce was one of those people. Lenny then sent a bunch of subscriptions out as gifts to his friends. It was Malthusian [viral, in pre-social media speak]. I didn’t have any advertising; people were passing it on to other people because there was nothing like it. I had no competition.
“I thought it might get up to a thousand in circulation, then More-And-More happened; a lot of campuses got subscriptions and people of all types did, too. What they all had in common was a sense of irreverence; my slogan became, ‘Irreverence is our only sacred cow.’ We had a thousand subscribers, then three thousand; by 1967, we had 100,000 subscribers. When we published “The Parts That Were Left Out of the Kennedy Book” [May 1967] people were stealing copies from libraries and a lot of those were quickly passed on to friends. It was a thrill, and I didn’t have to worry about the publisher; I was the publisher, as well as the editor, and I didn’t have to answer to advertisers: there was no advertising. The only people I owed something to were the people reading it, and they appreciated that.
“Looking back, The Realist was an awakening for people––or if they thought they were insane, they realized they really were sane. People whose work I appreciated, like George Carlin, Louis Black and Lenny Bruce, they got people on. It was much better than advertising really because we were all personally asking people, ‘Do you know about this?’ Ken Kesey did it from his bus; he passed out copies of The Realist from Further. I knew his work, so it was mutual.
The Teach-In at Berkeley & The Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog
“The first time I met Kesey was at the big Vietnam Teach-In at Berkeley [University of California Berkeley, May 1965]; these Teach-Ins were going on on campuses all over the country. Jerry Rubin was the organizer of this one; he was a Berkeley grad student and was reading The Realist, and he called me to ask if I could come be an emcee. I said, ‘Sure’, and he asked if I could get him in touch with Norman Mailer. I gave him Norman Mailer’s number and Jerry asked him to speak, too.
“One of the other readers of The Realist was Phil Ochs, a folk singer I admired. Rubin had never heard of Phil Ochs; I told him, ‘He’s a troubadour, as good as Dylan.’ I got Ochs to come, to play songs in between speakers, and he and Rubin ended up good friends. [Among the other 30+ speakers at this anti-Vietnam Teach-In were child psychologist Dr. Benjamin Spock; socialist leader Norman Thomas; futurist Alan Watts; comedian Dick Gregory; journalist and anti-nuclear activist Paul Jacobs; with British philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell providing an audio-taped message. A pro-Lyndon Johnson speaker withdrew at the last minute, so organizers placed a “Reserved for the State Department” sign on an empty chair on the stage for the duration of the two-day event.
“Kesey came up to me, speaking in mid-sentence, as if we had known each other for years. He was like that; it was just his style. I hadn’t smoked marijuana yet and we ended up smoking Thai stick. It was something I wanted to do again and again. By then, Kesey was set on turning people on in different ways, ones that superseded writing books, although he did end up writing more later. Right then, he was just living and loving life: the three Ls.
“After the Teach-In, I got a call from [Prankster and Whole Earth Catalog publisher] Stewart Brand. He wanted Kesey to contribute to and publish an editorial supplement to the catalog. Kesey said to him, ‘I’ll do it, if you do it with Krassner.’ Stewart called, asking me, and I remember saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes’; five yeses.
“Kesey drove me out and I ended up living in San Francisco. We became close friends; we worked in a garage putting together the supplement. Hassler [Prankster photographer Ron Bevirt] and Kesey would pick me up every morning; we’d have breakfast, smoke a joint and go to the garage. We’d go back and forth, discussing what to put in. I had brought a box of stuff from New York, cartoons and things. Hassler did an article about flossing his teeth. All kinds of things were tools, tools of culture rather than merely gadgets. The piece we worked on came to be known as The Last Supplement to The Whole Earth Catalog and it had a cover drawn by R. Crumb. Hassler was fun to work with, but he lived up to his nickname; I said something once and he said, ‘You’re a Zen Bastard’, that’s now one of my names [an FBI agent once called Krassner “a raving, unconfined nut”; that later became the title of his 1994 autobiography].
Thumbing Through the Dictionary with Lenny Bruce
“Lenny lived in LA, and he called me. He was coming to New York and invited me to come meet him at his hotel. I gave him a copy of The Realist where he saw that when somebody said ‘fuck’ it would be printed out. Typically magazines used an “F”, asterisks or dashes, and a “K”, and you had to guess at what was said, like a crossword puzzle.
“Lenny asked, ‘How do you get away with that?’ I said, ‘Well, the Supreme Court had just recently said a periodical could have that kind of language, that that usage was not obscene, especially if it was in a periodical that had material of societal merit, that was good reading, that had prurient interest.’ Lenny said, ‘Prurient?’ He hadn’t heard that word.
“Lenny had his suitcase on the bed in his hotel room. He opened the suitcase up and there was a huge unabridged dictionary. That’s what he carried; he was trying to teach himself, give himself new words to work with. We looked up prurient. First, it said something about itching, or something like that. Then we saw that prurient referred to some aspect of arousal that had a sexual aspect to it. That night, Lenny was performing at Town Hall and he asked me to give away The Realist out front. He brought a copy on stage and talked about it and about prurient.
“When we met, Lenny was trying to write his autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. Playboy offered him a chance to publish it in six installments and I came on to help him; we became good friends in that process. I wasn’t ghostwriting; I was just editing. Lenny was a good writer and he wrote several pieces for The Realist.
“I traveled with him some and the six installments took a couple of years, I think. We would work where he had gigs; I remember meeting once in New Jersey and another time in New York. He would write in his dressing room, and a lot of the stuff that he did on stage became part of the book as if it was to make a point about it. Then he started getting arrested; that was a whole thing that hadn’t been happening before.
“The first arrest was in Atlantic City, I think, then in LA and in San Francisco. It was like if district attorneys wanted to push their own career, they had to bust Lenny Bruce. And as Lenny said, “If you got busted in town A, then they want to bust you in town B.” He saw it that way, and he knew that cops were just doing their job in a certain sense. He got busted one time for saying cocksucker. He asked, “Don’t you ever say cocksucker?”
“Even though a lot of the things he said didn’t really have prurient interest, they weren’t obscenities. What Lenny really got busted for was for free speech, the critique and satire of religious leaders. No comedians were talking about religion, making fun of religion. He did it. He wanted to do it on stage with the same freedom that he did in his living room.
“Lenny died in 1966; he was only 40 years old. I didn’t deal with people who thought he committed suicide. It wasn’t that; it was just that he OD-ed. His electric typewriter was still humming; he was working on a word––constitutional––I think. He had stopped in the middle of that word. Tea was boiling in the kitchen. He didn’t commit suicide; that’s obvious. Sometime after he died, I started thinking about what would Lenny say about this, what he would say about that. I sometimes used what came to me, almost if I was channeling him, until one day Lenny said to me, ‘No, you’re not channeling me’, and it stopped.”
In Reel Two, Krassner describes the end of The Realist and his role in “disrupting” the 1968 Democratic Convention, in getting to the Roe v. Wade decision and in labeling Dan White’s Twinkie Defense. He also talks about Trumpo, the Republican Elephant, and his latest collection, Zapped by The God of Absurdity, which will be available from Fantagraphics Books in early 2019.
In the meantime, there’s more Krassner here: In a 2007 interview with Jesse Hamlin of the San Francisco Chronicle, he recalled the LSD-fueled Summer of Love. These are our favorite paragraphs:
“The Summer of Love was really a state of mind. You could walk along Haight Street and somebody would say, “Hey, you wanna try this pill?” and you would do it, just because you admired his halo. It was very open and trusting. Personally, I realized I wasn’t the only Martian on the block. It was like a convention of Martians. They were all together. This was happening all around the country. I was doing stand-up, and I opened for the Grateful Dead in Pittsburgh, and again, there was the feeling that it was the first big gathering like that. The hippies realized that there were more of them than they thought. I think what it really engendered was a sense of community. There was an epidemic of idealism, as I call it. A lot of seeds were planted: the seeds of the environmental movement; the organic food movement; the women’s movement. The women’s movement really wasn’t launched officially until September of ’68, when there were protests against the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City. But nevertheless, the young women at these outdoor concerts, who were dancing bare-breasted, were really on the front lines of feminism.
It was sex, drugs and rock and roll, and those were all fun. But at the core of the counterculture was a spiritual revolution, in a sense of leaving the Western religions of control, and exploring the Eastern disciplines of liberation. There was meditation. There were workshops in advanced breathing. The counterculture represented a certain economic threat, because here were several people sharing a car, or not getting insurance, but taking care of each other, making their own clothes, using less electricity, making candles. The Justice Department was trying to infiltrate communes. I spoke to a friend of an ex-FBI guy who said they had the FBI hippie squad. And they had to learn how to roll joints, the better to infiltrate with. Originally, the CIA intended LSD to be used as a means of control, but all these young people deprogrammed themselves from the mainstream culture, and then reprogrammed themselves with a more humane value system. All the people I know from that time have, whatever their profession, they brought that same sense of idealism and compassion with them. Socrates said, “Know thyself”, then Norman Mailer, said “Be thyself” and the unspoken mantra of the counterculture was “Change thyself.” And the psychedelics––but not necessarily them, it could’ve been meditation or Zen or whatever––served as vehicles for people to change themselves. And that included protesting against the war, which meant that the CIA’s plan had backfired.”