David Macaray : Twelve Questions for Satirical Icon Paul Krassner

Paul Krassner in the day. Photo by Robert Altman.

Twelve Questions for
satirical icon Paul Krassner

“I think [audiences are] more aware now of the contradictions in mainstream culture, the phony piety that permeates society, the inhumane hypocrisy.” — Paul Krassner

By David Macaray | The Rag Blog | February 27, 2013

To say Paul Krassner has lived an eventful life is an understatement. He invented The Realist, America’s premiere counterculture journal. He co-founded the Youth International Party (Yippies). He was a child violin prodigy who, at age six, was the youngest person ever to perform at Carnegie Hall.

He was a member of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. He edited Lenny Bruce’s classic, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. He’s written more than a dozen books, recorded several comedy albums, and, at age 80, is still writing, lecturing, and stirring the pot.

Krassner is unique in that he’s one of those veteran radicals who never came in from the cold, never cashed in his chips, and was never co-opted by the mainstream media. This was partly because he didn’t seek their approval, and partly because he wasn’t considered “domesticated” enough to be embraced. As testimony to his wit and sensibilities, he’s the only person to have won both a Playboy magazine satire prize, and a Feminist Party Media Workshop award for journalism.

1. What’s it like being 80 years old?

Well, I’m more aware that it’s one more decade closer to my death, and my priorities keep falling into place. And in order to keep myself, literally, from falling into place — stemming from a police beating in 1979, when I got caught in a post-verdict riot after covering the trial of Dan White, who was sentenced to seven years for the assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk — I now walk around with a cane, and when I go anywhere I use a walker.

Otherwise, I seem to be in good health. I owe my longevity to never taking any legal drugs. Although, I did take an aspirin last month. I didn’t have a headache or anything, it was just at a party, and the host was passing around a plate full of aspirins. It was just a kind of social ingestion. You know, peer pressure.

2. What do you think the result would be if all 50 states legalized marijuana?

Allow me to quote Ken Kesey’s response when I asked, “Do you see the legalization of grass as any sort of panacea?” “The legalization of grass,” he said, “would do absolutely nothing for our standard of living, or our military supremacy, or even our problem of high school dropouts. It could do nothing for this country except mellow it, and that’s not a panacea, that’s downright subversive.

3. How do you feel about Medicare?

It’s worked for me until now. All I know is that my doctor and the doctors of two friends, each with a different doctor, were told that Medicare alone would not be accepted any more. The unstated reason is that an HMO supplement plan will pay the doctor a monthly sum per patient whether or not they come in for medical help. So the doctors and the insurance companies benefit from this plan. And the patient becomes a pawn in the game.

4. Why did you title your memoir Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut?

After Life magazine published a profile of me in 1968, an FBI agent sent a poison-pen letter stating, “To classify Krassner as some sort of social rebel is far too cute. He’s a nut, a raving, unconfined nut.” Even if that were true, it’s not what taxpayers provide funding for the FBI to do. So when I wrote my autobiography, I decided that the agent’s words would serve as a more appropriate title than Yay for Me.

5. The FBI’s tactics during this period are so frightening, they almost defy belief. What was the Bureau’s main beef with you?

I guess they perceived me as a threat to the status quo. But I perceived them as a threat to my life. In 1969, they produced a Wanted poster featuring a large swastika and the headline “LAMPSHADES! LAMPSHADES! LAMPSHADES!” Inside the four square spaces of the swastika were photos of Yippie co-founders Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and me, and Mark Rudd of SDS. The text warned that “the only solution to Negro problems in America would be the elimination of the Jews. May we suggest the following order of elimination? (After all, we’ve been this way before.) All Jews connected with the Establishment. All Jews connected with Jews connected with the Establishment. All Jews connected with those immediately above. All Jews except those in the Movement. All Jews in the Movement except those who dye their skin black. All Jews (look out, Jerry, Abbie, Mark and Paul)!”

My FBI files indicate that the leaflet was approved by J. Edgar Hoover’s top two aides in Washington D.C.: “Authority was granted to prepare and distribute on an anonymous basis to selected individuals and organizations in the New Left the leaflet submitted. Assure that all necessary precautions are taken to protect the Bureau as the source of these leaflets. NY suggested a leaflet containing pictures of several New Left leaders who are Jewish. This leaflet suggests facetiously the elimination of these leaders. NY’s proposal would create further ill feeling between the New Left and the black nationalist movement.”

And, of course, if some overly militant black nationalist had obtained that flyer and eliminated one of those New Left leaders who was Jewish, the FBI’s bureaucratic ass would be covered. “We said it was a facetious suggestion, didn’t we?”

6. Given that you were at the forefront of the tumultuous Sixties, what comparisons between then and now can you make? How were the Yippies and Occupy movement similar/different?

Image from Hollywood Progressive.

We had to perform stunts to get media coverage. A group of us went to the New York Stock Exchange and threw $200 worth of singles onto the floor below, where shouts of “Pork Bellies! Pork Bellies!” suddenly morphed into Diving for Dollars. This was followed by a press conference about the connection between capitalism and war. And now, an Occupy placard, “Wall Street Is War Street,” gave me a strong sense of continuity.

The evolution of technology has changed the way protests are organized. The Yippies had to use messy mimeograph machines to print out flyers that had to be folded and stuffed into envelopes, licked, addressed, stamped and mailed. The Internet — and social media such as Facebook and Twitter — have enabled Occupiers to inexpensively reach countless people immediately.

7. Despite the obvious limitations of our traditional two-party system, who are some of your all-time favorite and least favorite politicians?

Favorites: Bernie Sanders, Barney Frank, Dennis Kucinich. Least favorites: Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush.

8. Obviously, it’s way too early, but if you had to bet $100, who do you see as the Democratic and Republican candidates in 2016? 

Hillary Clinton and Chris Christie.

9. What inspired your infamous FUCK COMMUNISM! poster?

Mad magazine art director and Realist columnist John Francis Putnam wanted to give me a housewarming gift in 1963. He had designed the word FUCK in red-white-and-blue lettering emblazoned with stars and stripes. Now he needed a second word, a noun that would serve as an appropriate object for that verb. He suggested AMERICA, but that didn’t seem right to me. It certainly wasn’t an accurate representation of my feelings. I was well aware that I probably couldn’t publish The Realist in any other country. Besides, a poster saying FUCK AMERICA! lacked a certain sense of irony.

There was at that time a severe anti-Communist hysteria burgeoning throughout the land. The attorney general of Arizona rejected the Communist Party’s request for a place on the ballot because state law “prohibits official representation” for Communists and, in addition, “The subversive nature of your organization is even more clearly designated by the fact that you do not even include your Zip Code.”

Alvin Dark, manager of the Giants, announced that “Any pitcher who throws at a batter and deliberately tries to hit him is a Communist.” And singer Pat Boone declared at the Greater New York Anti-Communism Rally in Madison Square Garden, “I would rather see my four daughters shot before my eyes than have them grow up in a Communist United States. I would rather see those kids blown into Heaven than taught into Hell by the Communists.”

So I suggested COMMUNISM for the second word, since the usual correlation between conservatism and prudishness would provide the incongruity that was missing. Putnam designed the word COMMUNISM in red lettering emblazoned with hammers and sickles. Then he presented me with a patriotic poster which now proudly proclaimed FUCK COMMUNISM! — suitable for framing.

10. Also, I have to ask about your controversial Disneyland Memorial Orgy poster. How did that come about?

When Walt Disney died in December 1966, it occurred to me that he had served as the Creator of this whole stable of imaginary characters who were now mourning in a state of suspended animation. Disney had been their Intelligent Designer, and had repressed all their baser instincts. But now that he had departed, they could finally shed their cumulative inhibitions and participate together in an unspeakable sexual binge to signify the crumbling of an empire.

So, I contacted Wally Wood, who had illustrated the first script I wrote for Mad, and I told him my notion of a memorial orgy at Disneyland. He fulfilled that assignment with a magnificently degenerate montage, unleashing those characters’ collective libido and demystified an entire genre in the process. I published it as a black-and-white two-page centerspread, which was so popular that I re-published it as a poster. In 2005, a new, digitally colored edition of the original artwork in authentic Disney colors (you can see it at paulkrassner.com) was done by a former Disney employee who prefers to remain anonymous.

11. Having done stand-up comedy for more than 50 years, how have your audiences changed?

I think they’re more aware now of the contradictions in mainstream culture, the phony piety that permeates society, the inhumane hypocrisy. And I’ve evolved right along with them. Performing, for me, has always been a two-way street. English is my second language. Laughter is my first.

12. And finally, what are you working on currently?

I’m writing my long-awaited (by me) first novel, about a contemporary Lenny Bruce-type performer. I’m also compiling a collection, The Best of Paul Krassner: 50 Years of Investigative Satire. And I’m gathering up my archives — translation: all the crap in my garage — for some lucky university.

[David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor), is a former labor union rep.] 

Find articles by and about Paul Krassner on The Rag Blog and listen to Thorne Dreyer’s three Rag Radio interviews with Paul Krassner.

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