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.’
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