He dropped acid with Timothy Leary and published a nude picture of himself in Hustler, but when Paul Krassner wrote about doing coke with the Pope, he was only joking. Long before The Onion, Krassner was blurring lines between fact and his audacious imagination.
A '60s radical and founder of the Yippies with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, Krassner, now 70 years old, founded the underground newspaper The Realist in 1958, printing satire alongside news stories. Some call Krassner the father of the alternative press, to which he quips, "I demand a blood test!"
In 1967, he caused a sensation by penning a satire in which Lyndon Johnson has sex with John F. Kennedy's corpse, prompting Jackie Kennedy to revile him and the FBI to keep a file on him.
Krassner continues to skewer the status quo with his one-man show, "The Return of the Realist." Part journalist, part stand-up comedian and all-around contrarian, Krassner performs in Portland this week. Really.
Suspending disbelief, WW reached Paul Krassner at his home in Desert Hot Springs, Calif. The truth, after all, is out there.
Willamette Week: For people who aren't familiar with what you do, describe your performance.
Paul Krassner: I was going to say that it's a cross-fertilization of what Lenny Bruce did and what Mort Sahl did, but there are probably people who'll say, "What band were they in?" so I can't take any references for granted. It is essentially investigative satire. I research things I get disturbed about or draw from my own experience. It's sort of like alchemy to turn horror into humor or to see the absurd side of tragedy.
Is that therapeutic?
In the sense that it is a catharsis, yeah. And also, in communicating [my point of view] to an audience by making them laugh, they don't feel like they are being lectured to.... They are laughing about the truth and what they and I perceive as the truth.
You are a fan of Politically Incorrect, and you've been on the show. I remember Bill Maher after 9/11 wondering if it was OK to make jokes yet. He asked, "Is it funny yet?" Is it funny yet?
I guess it is sort of instinct. I got offended by Jay Leno when he started to joke about the fires in Colorado when they were still going on. It used to be that comedy was tragedy plus time. Now [events] have accelerated so that comedy and tragedy are simultaneous. There is a grief period that performers feel as well as audiences.... In May of last year, the U.S. government had given $43 million to the Taliban. And so the line I used was the reason was that the Taliban is a faith-based organization.... For some people it is probably still too soon, whereas workers at the site of the twin towers had their own kind of dark gallows humor, almost like an anchor to reality. I was told as they were digging up body parts and fragments one guy called out to the other "Hey, can you give me a hand?" For them it was kind of a bonding thing.... Compassion is a subjective quality, so that is my personal criteria--truth, humor and compassion combined. And I remember that because the initials are THC, which is the main ingredient in marijuana that gets people high. We all have our mnemonic devices.
There was some time after 9/11 when people were saying that irony is over, that we are all going to be so earnest now.
Oh, they were saying it the next day!
Right; that was the acceleration of it.
And the irony of it!
What do you think makes for good satire?
It should be based on reality. I was going to say that victims should not be the target, but then I thought of Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal, where ostensibly, the victims were the target--get rid of those extra Irish babies by eating them. But I have heard from more than one English professor that students now think that was a true story!
Is the truth more outrageous than any fantasy you could come up with?
It is getting to be more and more of a challenge. A lot of times, in order to set up a concept I'll explain the background and [audience members] are already laughing. They think that [the setup] is the punch line!
Did your satire ever get you in trouble?
I think the part out of the Kennedy book that is in my book The Winner of the Slow Bicycle Race was probably the most controversial thing I ever did. It took several months to get it printed. My printer refused to print it. His wife, who was a law student, said I could go to prison for it, and he was afraid that as a result of that article someone might try to assassinate Lyndon Johnson or that Jackie Kennedy would commit suicide.
Is this Johnson having sex with Kennedy's corpse?
Yes. And so there was a lot of pressure on me not to do it, but there was no question in my mind. First of all, it was a literary challenge. I didn't learn till later there was a term for it: apocrypha. It began because there was an authorized biography called The Death of a President, authorized by Jackie and Bobby Kennedy. When it was going to be published they refused for certain portions to be published. I tried with my contacts to get a copy of the original manuscript so I could publish the parts that were left out. I was unable to do that so I was forced to write them myself. There was no other option. The challenge there was to nurture the incredible in the context of credibility. I structured it starting with totally true stuff about LBJ calling Kennedy's father a Nazi sympathizer--that was all true--and then going on to other things that reporters knew but were taboo, like the affairs with Marilyn Monroe and things like that. And so it was like an onion: I would peel off layer after layer of verisimilitude. I got a lot of feedback from intelligent people--working-class people or professionals or attorneys, a journalist--who said they believed it, if only for a moment. I met a 25-year-old musician, and she told me the JFK stories not knowing that I had written it and believing it was true!
Did that upset you?
It doesn't upset me; it stuns me to have started out with a satirical piece that on some level has become an urban legend.
Is that when satire really works, when you make people believe for a second and then laugh at themselves for believing?
Or get angry at me, yeah. It made the point that the leader of the western world was insane.... That's what [some people] believed all through World War II and Vietnam.... [The audience] suddenly realized that he was insane. And I don't mean to diss the necrophilia community.
Paul Krassner will read from his book Murder at the Conspiracy Convention at 7:30 pm Wednesday, July 10, at Powell's City of Books. The reading is free. He performs "The Return of the Realist" 8 pm Friday, July 12, at Artichoke Music, 3130A SE Hawthorne Blvd., and 8 pm Saturday, July 13, at the Old Church, 1422 SW 11th Ave. Tickets are $13 in advance (Fastixx), $16 at the door.