Paul Krassner was one of the funniest and most poignant satirical
writers and comedians of the 1960s counterculture. In 1958 he
published the first issue of The Realist, a pioneering underground
free-thought magazine. In 1967 he was one of the founders of the
Youth International Party, the Yippies!, with Abbie Hoffman, Jerry
Rubin, and Ed Sanders, among others. He was a cohort of Ken Kesey's
Merry Band of Pranksters and a protege of the infamous stand-up
comic, Lenny Bruce. Krassner wrote for Mad magazine in its infancy,
and he currently writes as a columnist for High Times magazine.
George Carlin once said of Krassner, "The FBI was right; this man is
dangerous – and funny; and necessary."
It was a real pleasure to interview Paul Krassner for Reality
Sandwich. My hope after speaking to Paul is that our project here is
following in the footsteps of some of the great social projects he
has been a part of.
AE: Paul, you have had a prolific career as an activist, writer and
artist. Talk about the evolution of your work. What are some of your
most memorable moments and projects?
PK: During my last year in college, I started working for Lyle
Stuart's anti-censorship paper, The Independent, where I served my
apprenticeship, wrote several columns & articles, and eventually
became managing editor. Lyle became the general manager of EC Comics,
which published Mad in comic book form. When a Senate investigation
into juvenile delinquency put fear into the hearts of comic book
publishers, they put a seal of approval on every cover.
That would've interfered with Mad's freedom of irreverence, so Lyle
persuaded publisher Bill Gaines to turn Mad comics into Mad magazine.
I wrote a few freelance pieces for Mad, and had a few rejected
because the subjects were considered too adult, since the readers
were mostly in their teens, and circulation had reached a couple million.
I said to Gaines,"I guess you don't wanna change horses in
midstream." He replied, "Not when the horse has a rocket up its ass."
There was no satirical publication for grown-ups. This was before
National Lampoon or Spy magazine, before Doonesbury or Saturday Night
Live. So I decided to launch The Realist. All the issues are
currently being posted online, four issues per month, as The Realist
I never labeled an article as satire or investigative journalism, not
wanting to deprive readers of discerning for themselves whether
something was actually true or a satirical extension of the truth. My
most memorable time was when I published The Parts Left Out of the
The president had been assassinated in 1963, and now in 1967 there
was a book, Death of a President, which had been authorized by JFK's
widow Jackie and his brother Bobby. They had certain material
deleted, and I tried to obtain a copy of the original manuscript, but
failed. I was forced to write it myself. Now, 40 years later, it's
still remembered by subscribers as the most notorious thing that I
I never took any salary from The Realist, subsidizing it with
freelance assignments and doing interviews for Playboy. In New York,
I started an organization called People, which supported a variety of
social service programs. Also, throughout the 1960s and beyond, when
abortion was illegal, after publishing an interview with a doctor who
ran a clinic, charging as little as five dollars, I became an
underground abortion referral service. I was subpoenaed by DAs in two
cities but refused to testify before their grand juries.
After moving to San Francisco, I covered the Patty Hearst trial and
was put on the hit-list of an underground group in Berkeley which
turned out to be led by an FBI provocateur. I also covered the Dan
White trial. He was an ex-cop who had confessed to – and then,
despite all the evidence, pleaded not guilty to – a double political
execution, of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the
first openly gay elected official in the country.
I was the first reporter to refer to the trial as using "the Twinkie
defense," which worked, and the seven-year sentence resulted in a
riot. I was beaten by a couple of cops, and consequently my gait
became so twisted that I now have to walk with a cane. Except for
that, at age 75 I'm in fine health, due to good genes and never
taking any legal drugs. Oh, wait, I ingested an aspirin last year,
but that was at a party, and I simply gave in to peer pressure.
You were involved in the Youth International Party (the Yippies),
worked closely with Lenny Bruce and hung out with Ken Kesey's Merry
Band of Pranksters. How did these groups shape your consciousness? Do
you still believe in the power of creative activism?
Publishing The Realist became a sort of participatory journalism, so
it was an organic transition from covering the antiwar movement to
co-founding the Yippies with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. The
essence of the Yippies was described by folksinger Phil Ochs: "A
demonstration should turn you on, not turn you off." Yippies were a
cross-fertilization of stoned hippies and straight politicos.
Responsibility could be fun. Guerrilla theater could be effective.
Brett Morgen, who directed The Kid Stays in the Picture, has now
directed a documentary, Chicago 10, about the protests at the
Democratic convention in 1968 and the conspiracy trial that followed.
I wrote a few animated re-enactment scenes, and appear as a cartoon
character, though an actor did the voiceover, because apparently I
don't sound enough like myself. The movie opened both the Sundance
Film Festival and the Austin Film Festival, and will open in theaters
around the country in February 2008. During the Q&A that followed the
Austin screening, I was asked what's necessary for activism to work
these days. "Imagination," I began. Later, I had a sudden impulse,
pretended that my cellphone was vibrating, took it out of my pocket
and said "Hello," then told the audience, "It's Rudy Guliani's wife."
The Wall St. Journal discovered that he's gotten that phone call
during 40 speeches.
Lenny Bruce was a close friend, and I edited his autobiography, How
to Talk Dirty and Influence People. He was the biggest influence on
me as a stand-up satirist. In 1961, I opened at the Village Gate in New York.
When I moved to Venice Beach in 1985, I continued to perform and got
an award from the LA Weekly for my one-person show. I still perform
at various venues, though not as often. Currently, I'm working on my
long awaited (by me) first novel, about a contemporary Lenny
In 1971, I co-edited with Ken Kesey The Last Supplement to the Whole
Earth Catalog. What he and the Pranksters and Lenny and Abbie and
others like Wavy Gravy all had in common was a sense of playfulness
combined with courage and sticking to principles. When I interviewed
Kesey, he was anti-abortion, but a few years later he changed his
position, saying "A woman has as much right to control her body as
she does to control her mind." And when I freaked out from
information overload while investigating the Manson murders, Kesey
helped ease me out of it.
How were psychedelics involved in the consciousness of activism and
protest? Were they a necessary part of the equation?
Psychedelics served as one tool – along with Zen meditation, chanting
(if the universe is infinite, the paths to connect with the universe
are also infinite) – to unite the left and right lobes of the brain,
to make an intermingling between the conscious and the subconscious.
Acid enhanced the senses. You could see the color of music and you
could taste ice cream in your toes. Making love became a sensuous art
rather than wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am. The CIA had hoped to use LSD as
a means of control, but a whole generation of young people used it
instead to help deprogram themselves from mainstream culture,
reprogram themselves with a natural, humane value system, and then
live their alternative, whether that was to be as a member of a
commune or to march in antiwar protests or both.
And because of this unpredicted countercultural phenomenon, the CIA's
plan backfired. Beneath the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, there was at
the core a spiritual revolution, with folks rejecting western
religions of control, instead getting involved with eastern
disciplines of liberation.
Do you feel that people are generally reverent of the power of
psychedelics, the rich shamanic history? Were people aware of their
power and history in the 60s and 70s?
Some are, some aren't; I don't know what the ratio is. Who's to say
that dancing on Ecstasy is not a rich shamanic experience?
Personally, I went through a phase of psychedelic machismo. I took
acid before rush hour in the subway, before going on The Tonight
Show, before testifying in the Chicago Conspiracy trial. The power of
psychedelics exploded out of the blandness and repression of the
Eisenhower-Nixon years, just as it feels now that another
evolutionary jump in consciousness – this time with the aid of
technology – is exploding out of the blandness and repression of the
When you founded The Realist in 1958 did you have any idea your
publication could be powerful? What were your intentions?
I wanted the magazine to be a hybrid of Mad and The Independent. I
wanted to make people laugh about serious matters, to break
superstitious taboos, to communicate without compromise. Steve Allen
was the first subscriber. He sent gift subscriptions to several
friends, including Lenny Bruce, who sent gift subscriptions to
several friends, and it grew in that kind of Malthusian fashion. It
started with 600 subs from responses to a mailing list, and I thought
it might reach 1000. When it did, I thought 3000 would be a nice
number. Then circulation reached 5000 mostly through word-of-mouth,
the purest vehicle for advertising, and it was free.
At its peak, The Realist had a circulation of 100,000, with an
estimated million in pass-on readership and at libraries. What the
readers had in common was a disdain for bullshit and a hunger for
intelligent satire, and whenever I meet a reader, they tell me how
much The Realist inspired them, and I appreciate that. I published it
as a monthly magazine through 1974, then re-launched it as a
quarterly newsletter in 1985. The last issue published was Spring 2001.
What are your thoughts of our media today, specifically the Internet?
Can activisim have the same felt presence it did in the 60s with the
massive amounts of available information, advertising and programming?
I always felt The Realist should put itself out of business by being
an example of the 1st Amendment in action. The democratization of the
World Wide Web has helped make that possible. It was said that
freedom of the press depended on having a printing press, and the
Internet has provided virtually unlimited printing presses of the
electronic persuasion. I'm a media junkie, and after getting input
from newspapers, magazines, radio and TV, I find a different mindset
– an antidote for the mainstream media – on the Internet.
It's changed the nature of protest, both in providing information and
background, and acting as an organizational tool that's quicker,
cleaner, cheaper and reaches a way larger audience, as compared to
those messy mimeograph we used to churn out flyers to be snail-mailed
or personally distributed. People make their own choices about what
to explore on the web.
Do you feel that in order to use psychedelics, a person should at
least be actively involved in working towards legalization? Are there
I can't make rules for anyone but myself, and I even avoid that. My
version of success is to try to do the right thing every moment. So,
sure, there are psychedelic ethics, mainly not to dose anybody. The
truth is that the Partnership For a Drug-Free America was founded and
funded by the alcohol, tobacco and pharmacetical industries. And they
don't want no steenkin' competition! Why grow pot in your window
garden at hardly any cost when you can get a prescription for Prozac
and feel so happy you begin to develop suicidal tendencies?
I think that as long as any government can arbitrarily decide which
drugs are legal and which are not, then anybody who's behind bars for
a drug offense is a political prisoner. Stoners have to decide for
themselves whether they want to join the battle against the insane
priorities of the war on drugs – actually, the war on some people who
use some drugs.
What are your thoughts on global warming? How should we approach such
a daunting issue, one that will effect not just one country or race
or people but the whole planet? Do you see global warming as a
manifestation or projection of a collective shadow?
Global warming – oops, I mean "climate change." (This is, after all,
the age of euphemisms.) Torture sounds like so much more fun when
it's called "alternative interrogation techniques." Professional
assholes from Jerry Falwell to George Bush have labeled global
warming a hoax. The irony is that the ice now melting in the Arctic
regions are expanding access to the ocean waters underneath which
there's more oil.
I don't pretend to know what to do about it besides what's obvious
and what scientific experts suggest. There are more and more young
people who are devoting their lives to protecting the environment.
What must the Intelligent Designer have had in mind to allow such
devastation of its own creation?
You recently worked on the film The US vs. John Lennon. The film
suggests a government conspiracy surrounding his murder. Tell us
about your work with this project and your feelings on Lennon's death.
I was interviewed for the documentary, that's all. It was a long
interview, but they only used a couple of sound bites and they left
out my favorite Lennon story. One evening at my home, John, Yoko and
I were smoking a mixture of marijuana and opium. When he was
absentmindedly holding onto it, I asked, "Is 'don't bogart that
joint' a term used in England, or is it purely American, based on the
Humphrey Bogart movies where a cigarette would be dangling from his lips?"
He replied, "In England, if you remind somebody to pass a joint, you
lose your own turn."
There was a government conspiracy to deport him and to arrest him for
drugs, to prevent him from participating in the counter-inauguration
of Richard Nixon's second term, for fear that would swell the ranks
of those protesters. But I don't know about a conspiracy to kill him,
except there was a rumor that Mark David Chapman was hypnotized at
the same school in Hawaii that John Hinckley, who attempted to
assassinate Ronald Reagan in order to impress Jody Foster, was hypnotized at.
But who knows, sometimes a lone nut is just a lone nut.
What are you up to these days? Do you have a vision for the future?
I'm in the final throes of putting together a collection of my
columns and articles over the past few years, We Have Ways of Making
You Laugh: The Varieties of Pornographic Experience & Other Follies.
I may have found a literary agent to represent me, and if he finds a
publisher, I hope it will out next year.
Meanwhile, a New Age media fable I wrote in 1973, Tales of Tongue
Fu--about a man with a 15-inch tongue who goes to a summer camp for
gurus--is being republished in November. In 1993, Simon & Schuster
published my autobiography, Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut:
Misadventures in the Counterculture. Recently, they reverted all
rights back to me, so I'm updating, expanding and of course
fantasizing about transforming it into a movie.
On my website paulkrassner.com you can check out the digitally
colored edition of the "Disneyland Memorial Orgy" poster. There's
also a few of my books available there: One Hand Jerking: Reports
From an Investigative Satirist, with an introduction by Lewis Black
and a foreword by Harry Shearer; Pot Stories For the Soul, with an
introduction by Harlan Ellison; Murder At the Conspiracy Convention
and Other American Absurdities, with an introduction by George
Carlin; The Winner of the Slow Bicycle Race: The Satirical Writings
of Paul Krassner (including The Parts Left Out of the Kennedy Book),
with an foreword by Kurt Vonnegut.
You can also hear the voice of Homer from The Simpsons, Dan
Castellaneta, introducing me at the taping of one of my albums, Irony
Lives! However, Fox TV owns that voice, and seven lawyers decided not
to grant permission, not wanting to be associated with such satirical
targets as Terrorist Attacks and In the Guise of Security. But who
ever thought that Homer Simpson would some day become an intellectual property?
As for the future, there will be kids who grow up thinking that tap
water always came out of plastic bottles, that humans were always
required to take off their shoes before getting on an airplane, and
that men always used spray-on condoms as a form of birth control. I
waver between hope and despair, but as the late singer/songwriter
Harry Chapin one said, "If you don't act like there's hope, there is
no hope." So even hope can be a placebo.
In fact, I'm thinking of marketing, under the brand name Placebo, a
variety of pills, for people who know that placebos work, but like to
take something tangible. I do what I can in the present, based on
what I've learned in the past, and then I surrender to the unknown.
My advice for the future is to always remember that the political
system is merely a buffer between the status quo and the force of
evolution. And, whenever you eat a club sandwich, always take the
toothpick out before you bite into it.
Thanks for taking the time to chat!
Hey, thanks for your stimulating and generous questions. I'm happy to
be the ham in your reality sandwich.