Los Angeles — Decades before Jon Stewart brought his popular admixture of satire and journalism to the mass media on Comedy Central, the unique hybrid of the two genres could be found regularly in only one very hip and often outrageous media outlet.
But Paul Krassner, the self-described “investigative satirist” who pretty much invented the form in his late 1950s magazine, The Realist, did not stop at being just an entertainer. Krassner, whose 80th birthday will arrive on April 9, was also a child prodigy classical violinist; a stand-up comic who learned his craft at the knee of Lenny Bruce; a fellow traveler with novelist Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters on their path-breaking, hallucinogenic cross-country tour in Kesey’s psychedelic painted bus, and a cofounder, with Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, of the Youth International Party, which in 1968 nominated a pig for president in Chicago’s Grant Park, amid clouds of tear gas and hails of nightsticks from Chicago’s finest during the 1968 Democratic Party National Convention.
Krassner still does stand-up — though these days he stands up with a cane. And he still plays peek-a-boo with his Jewish identity, flashing a now-I-am-now-I-ain’t iconoclasm that may belie a deeper ambivalence.
“Whenever somebody says ‘Oy,’ I automatically say ‘Vey,’ but I’m not Jewish,” he steadfastly maintained in a telephone interview from his home in Desert Hot Springs, Calif. There, in late April, friends and relatives will celebrate the official arrival of octogenarian status for the Yippie whose party’s slogan was “Never Trust Anyone Over 30.”
From 1958, when Krassner launched The Realist from the offices of Mad magazine, through the early 1970s, the magazine mixed truth, fiction and outrage in a blender designed to fuse all three at a molecular level. For example, it published some of the earliest Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories. But some were more serious than others, and after a while it was hard to tell which was which. Which was kind of the point.
Krassner is credited with naming the political activist group known as the Yippies (aka Youth International Party), whose members once attempted to levitate the Pentagon. The party’s other founders, Rubin and Hoffman, stood trial as two of the Chicago Seven for their roles in mass protests during the Democratic convention. All were ultimately acquitted, and a federal investigative commission later concluded that the turmoil and disorder that took place there were, in part, “a police riot.”
Designated a “raving, unconfined nut” in FBI surveillance files, Krassner’s destiny was anything but foreordained for someone growing up during the postwar era in the Astoria section of Queens. He was, he noted, the product of a typically assimilated Jewish family that belonged to the Astoria Center of Israel (“Formerly known as the Astoria Center of Palestine,” Krassner cracked).
“My family had dinner at a Chinese restaurant every Friday. My parents went to synagogue, but only on the High Holy Days, and they would light the candles in memory of dead grandparents, but that was about it. On Sunday we had bacon and eggs for breakfast,” Krassner said.
Krassner went to Hebrew school, he said, “but only to please my parents.” Even there, he played the trickster, questioning the rabbi who instructed his class that circumcision was a covenant with God. “I challenged him, saying if circumcision wasn’t voluntary, it wasn’t a covenant,” Krassner recalled. “He agreed, and said: ‘Okay, it’s not a covenant anymore. It’s an obligation.’”
The Astoria rabbi had a stutter that became an issue during Krassner’s bar mitzvah. “When the father of the bar mitzvah boy is supposed to repeat some stuff, the rabbi goes, ‘BB-bb-ruch Aaa-tah Aaa-aadonai….’ So my father, who doesn’t know Hebrew and thought that was the correct pronunciation, goes ‘BB-bb-ruch Aaa-tah Aaa-aadonai.’