On November 30, fans of 1960s counterculture commemorate what would have been the 80th birthday of the American Jewish activist and anarchist Abbie Hoffman, who died in 1989. Hoffman was a cofounder of the Youth International Party, whose adherents were called Yippies, alongside Jerry Rubin (1938 –1994), Nancy Kurshan (born 1944), and Paul Krassner (born 1932), among others. Krassner has a new book out from Fantagraphics, “The Realist Cartoons,” often-racy images from a satirical journal he founded in 1958 as an adult alternative to Mad Magazine. Also author of books about the counterculture; drug experiences; and obscenity laws, among other subjects, Krassner recently spoke to The Forward’s Benjamin Ivry.
Benjamin Ivry: Was there anything specifically Jewish about the Yippie movement?
Paul Krassner: Well, the original Yippie founders were living in the Lower East Side of New York City and I’m guessing that there was a Jewish community aspect here and there, but it was irrelevant to what we were doing.
Your family belonged to the Astoria Center of Israel in Queens, a Conservative synagogue. At Hebrew school, you convinced the rabbi that circumcision could not be a covenant with God, since it wasn’t voluntary. Wasn’t this debate essentially Talmudic? Maybe you missed your true calling!
You know, I think of myself as a not-religious person. I’m an atheist because I do not have the ability to accept an invisible friend up in the sky who has very busy phone calls on hold because there are so many people who are praying.
In 2014 you told “In-Sight” that your parents instilled in you “responsibility, honesty, thoughtfulness, healthiness and humor.” So there was nothing to rebel against at home? Or was the urge to rebel a reaction to other adults not being as virtuous as your parents?
There were arguments at home. I was rebellious. My parents had a certain prudish streak and I, of course, was writing about different kinds of sexuality. But there was mutual respect because their prudishness came out of the culture they grew up in. One of the functions of offspring is to continue evolving and have less cultural and governmental brainwashing of infants.
You were a child prodigy on the violin and played a Vivaldi concerto at Carnegie Hall in 1939. Did your parents want to make you another Jascha Heifetz?
I had a brother who was three years older than me and he played the violin. I thought he was getting attention for it and I guess I wanted some attention, in the spirit of sibling rivalry. Between ages three and six I practiced myself out of my childhood. It was mostly practicing a lot. I had a technique for playing the violin but had a passion for making people laugh. The teacher would poke me in the chest over and over and say “Violin, up!” I didn’t like it. I had learned as a kid to understand what other people were doing, thinking, and acting, and therefore I didn’t take stuff personally, but tried to understand where they were coming from. I saw the movie “Intermezzo” and fell in love with the background music. It was Ingrid Bergman’s first American movie and she had a crush on her teacher. I told my violin teacher that I wanted to learn how to play the music from “Intermezzo” and he said that’s not right for me. I knew he wasn’t doing this for me, but for himself, and I knew then that I was going to escape.
You’ve also mentioned a “crazy aunt who tried to kill me when I was nine years old.” What happened? She didn’t like the violin?
(laughs) No, she was crazy. There was a big family dinner at Passover in Brooklyn. [My aunt] asked for a bread knife. I said, ‘What do you need that for because we’re eating matzoh?’ My brother brought the knife, and she stood in the doorway to the kitchen with the knife in her hand and said, ‘Come here, I want to talk with you.’ I ran outside, yelling “Help, help, there’s a murderer in my house!”
Abbie Hoffman would have been eighty years old this November 30. What kind of octogenarians would he and Jerry Rubin have been?
[Abbie would have been] witty and activist. It was his way of life. Abbie had a really sharp sense of humor and was passionate. Jerry Rubin didn’t change his politics so much, but [had] a certain opportunism. I used to describe Abbie as the right lobe of the brain, for impulses and spontaneity, whereas the left lobe was Jerry Rubin, which was calculated. He would think to make sure of things.
You were also associated at times with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters group and its psychedelic painted school bus. You told Ken Kesey, “I don’t believe that Jews are the chosen people, or that people are the chosen species.” He replied, “I don’t believe that people are the chosen species, but I believe that Jews are — or were — the chosen people.” Why so?
[Kesey] was kind of very spiritual. He was a Christian, but he also liked to consult the “I Ching” every day. He was a mixture of a Zen master and a really practicing Christian.
You worked with Lenny Bruce and edited his memoir, “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People.” for publication in 1967, a year after he died. Did Dustin Hoffman’s performance in the 1974 film “Lenny” convince you?
Hoffman called me and asked how I thought he should play Lenny. I said [Lenny Bruce] really loved to savor the satire he was performing, so don’t rush what you’re doing. But [Hoffman] spoke very fast in the movie and I thought that kid will never make it, he can’t take instruction or advice, and he asked for advice.
In 1959, when you met Lenny Bruce, he did a routine about being controversial, adding “But I get good reviews!” and holding up a copy of the Yiddish Forverts. Lenny Bruce threw Yiddish words into his act, but did he read the Forverts?
He did that on the Steve Allen show. He didn’t read the Yiddish Forverts but he did read books about anti-Semitism and that became a target of his comedy.
Groucho Marx phoned you because he was going to be in “Skidoo,” (1968) a comedy directed by Otto Preminger which promoted LSD, and asked you to help him try some. After you dropped acid, you both listened to recordings of Bach and the Broadway musical “Fanny.”
Groucho was seeing visions of churches during the Bach and he said, “Why is that happening? I’m supposed to be Jewish.”
In 1964, the environmental activist Jack Weinberg was quoted in the press that “you can’t trust anybody over 30.” Since Weinberg is 76 this year, is there an age of recycling where people become trustworthy again, or is trustworthiness gone forever over 30?
There was a saying that a liberal is a radical with children. That’s true for some people, but everyone that I know from those years still maintains their value systems.
After “The Realist” published an interview with the American Jewish psychologist Dr. Albert Ellis (1913–2007), author of “Sex Without Guilt,” (1958) you published a parody in “Playboy,” “Guilt without Sex.” Was Ellis annoyed?
[Ellis] had a sense of humor. He appreciated it. He was a pioneer. He didn’t go for what happened to people when they were in the womb, or what they dreamed last night. He called his practice rational therapy. Because he had an open mind and would develop along the way, he changed to rational and emotional therapy, which enhanced his work.
In 2009, you told “The Sun Magazine”: “I get frustrated when [Jon] Stewart sucks up to war criminals like Henry Kissinger.” So in terms of satire, TV is lost as a medium?
You can bring it up to the present when Donald Trump was on “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon kissing his buttocks like they were the Ten Commandments. Other late night stand-up comedians - Seth Meyers and Jimmy Kimmel and Trevor Noah and others - are all anti-Trump.