We are saddened to wake up to the news that activist, satirist, journalist, author, provocateur and mighty hoax artist Paul Krassner (b. 1932) passed away last night at the age of 87. I’m not the slightest bit curious about the medical cause, as so many seem to be on such occasions. The cause was clearly that he was 87.
Krassner leaves us at a time both symbolic and dire. One of the leading voices of the counterculture, he departs this earth just short of the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, an event he attended. Voices of protest like his are needed at the moment, naturally. Krassner was a protege and (to my mind) the primary spiritual heir of Lenny Bruce, whose 1965 book How to Talk Dirty and Influence People he edited. Krassner was also a member of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, and was a founding member, with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, of the performative protest group the Yippies, in 1967.
A Brooklyn native, Krassner had studied journalism at Baruch College, and had written for the anti-censorship publication The Independent ,as well as Mad Magazine. In 1958 he decided to merge the missions of both periodicals and created The Realist, which published radical left wing journalism and outrageous satire, and it became a platform for a series of outrageous and notorious stunts. I confess I rarely found (or find) these kinds of things very funny, but I do regard them as valuable for being thought-provoking, as well as revelatory of the true motives and nature of people in authority, as such people often turn quite ugly and repressive in response. Krassner’s work, I think, is the closest American equivalent to Charlie Hebdo. In 1963 he published a red, white and blue poster that read “FUCK COMMUNISM” and included it as a giveaway in his magazine. In 1966 he published a “Disneyland Memorial Orgy” poster, an exercise in cartoon porn. In 1967, he published a humor/hoax piece called “The Parts That Were Left Out of the Kennedy Book” (referring to William Manchester’s The Death of a President, which had been bowdlerized through the involvement of the late President’s widow). The story described LBJ committing acts of necrophilia on JFK’s corpse. Notable contributors to The Realist included Woody Allen, Jules Feiffer, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, R. Crumb, Ken Kesey, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Terry Southern, Garry Trudeau, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Phil Ochs, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Edward Sorel, Bruce Jay Friedman, and a young Harry Shearer.
After the early ’70s, Krassner put out The Realist on a more sporadic basis. It finally ceased publication in 2001. By the ’70s, his stage was much larger than his magazine. He wrote also for The Nation, Playboy, and High Times. He was in John Lennon’s and Yoko Ono’s 1971 art movie Up Your Legs Forever (at least, his legs were). He was in the 1972 subversive all-star film Dynamite Chicken. In 1981 he published an article with the memorable title, My Acid Trip With Groucho (Groucho was a fan, btw, calling Krassner “the only living Lenny Bruce”.) These activities were just the tip of the iceberg. Over the decades, he appeared in tons of documentaries, released stand-up comedy records, published articles and books. One of his more recent high-profile appearances (at least one which many folks will recognize) was in the 2005 stand-up comedy documentary The Aristocrats.
I was thrilled early in this century to exchange several emails with him. I was working on a story about theatrical protest for either American Theatre or the Village Voice. (I worked on a couple of similar pieces. The former article died on the vine due to 9/11, but I still have a fat file of research I conducted. If I still have a print-out of his email I may share it subsequently). The second piece was about protests in response to the 2004 Republican National Convention in NYC, and was published by the Voice in 2004. I found Krassner to be very generous, surprisingly so, for a guy so well known.
Paul Krassner was a controversial figure. There will be many, I’m sure, who do not mourn him today. But First Amendment fans should pay him homage — not with a moment of silence, but a loud scream of profanity, preferably at an inconvenient time in an inappropriate place.