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Los Angeles — The rabbi got mad and started chastising my father right there in front of the whole congregation because he thought my father was making fun of him. My father wasn’t trying to get a laugh; he was trying to be accurate. My relatives started yelling at the rabbi for yelling at my father. ‘Stop, stop! He didn’t know!’ It was shocking and entertaining.”
Incidents in which reality collided with propriety nurtured Krassner’s sense of the absurd from an early age. Krassner recalled how as a violin prodigy, he made his debut at Carnegie Hall. The young soloist in short pants felt an itch and, in midconcert, balanced on one leg to scratch with his other foot. The audience laughed. Enjoying this response, he repeated the gesture, earning the same response — and so the stand-up comedian was born.
“Laughter is your first language,” Krassner said. “It’s a bunch of folks leaning over the crib, laughing at everything you do.”
The innocence at the heart of all humor is something he experienced during a tour in Ecuador with his daughter, Holly (now married with a child of her own), to visit tribal shamans. “We lived in a shack in the jungle with three generations of an indigenous tribe. I was wearing bug-eyed green sunglasses that I’d picked up quickly in a store — and they couldn’t stop laughing at my shades. To them it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen,” he said.
Krassner has never visited Israel, but he came close in 1978, when he accompanied the Merry Pranksters to Egypt for a Grateful Dead concert in Giza, by the Pyramids. Despite his disavowals of religion, biblical references pop up in Krassner’s dialogues as frequently as in a rabbi’s sermon.
“I am an atheist, but I have a constant dialogue with the deity I don’t believe in,” he said. That conversation, according to Krassner, goes something like this:
Krassner: “So you knew what would happen when you told the Jews that Palestine was the Promised Land, that the Arabs wouldn’t just say: ‘Welcome. Please help yourself to some of our land.’”
God (in a booming voice): “I never promised anything. I just said I’ll see what I can do.”
Sometimes, like Forrest Gump, Krassner seems to have rubbed shoulders with nearly everyone who contributed to the counterculture of the 1960s. Once, he related, he was a speaker on a panel that included Hoffman and Rabbi Meir Kahane, the radical right-wing founder of the Jewish Defense League. “Bob Dylan was there, too, hanging out backstage with his Hebrew teacher, a guy called One-Legged Terry,” Krassner recalled. “I asked Dylan how come he was learning Hebrew, and he said, ‘Because I couldn’t speak it.’ I asked him how he felt about the Holocaust. Dylan, a minimalist, said, ‘I resented it.’”
Krassner cited that moment as a “spiritual orgasm, when you’re laughing and crying and can’t tell the difference between the two, when satire and truth become the same thing.”
Krassner lives in a desert community not far from Palm Springs, Calif., with his wife of 24 years, video journalist Nancy Cain. He keeps busy. Two Krassner books will be published this year, including a rerelease of his 1999 complilation, “Pot Stories for the Soul: An Updated Edition for a Stoned America,” and his 1994 “Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in the Counter-Culture,” originally published by Simon & Schuster, with an expanded edition available on his website and as an e-book on Kindle.
“I still have my hooked nose, my best friends are Jewish, and occasionally I have dinner at a Jewish restaurant,” he said. “And I still hum ‘Adon olam, asher malach’ during interviews,” as he proceeded to demonstrate. “But I don’t believe that Jews were the chosen people. I don’t even believe that people are the chosen species.”
Contact Rex Weiner at firstname.lastname@example.org