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The Last Realist

An impolite interview with Paul Krassner

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Paul Krassner, a former leader of the Youth International Party and the founder and editor of the satirical journal the Realist, came to Chicago last spring in the one-man show Campaign in the Ass. He was staying at the Days Inn on Clark at Lincoln, across the street from the park where he, Abbie Hoffman, and Jerry Rubin protested the Democratic Convention in 1968. Krassner wasn't one of the seven tried for conspiracy (though he did drop acid before testifying), and despite my efforts to elicit nostalgia, he didn't bite.

Perhaps the location was too easy: Krassner is forever finding novel ways to interweave his store of anecdotes involving everyone from Dick Gregory to Larry Flynt. At 68, he was just beginning to plan the 146th and final issue of the Realist, which he was retiring because he wants to concentrate on novels and because, as he later wrote in the issue itself, "The Realist has served its purpose--to communicate without compromise--and other voices are following in the same tradition."

Founded in 1958, the Realist was required reading during the 60s, providing a forum for protest leaders, news that was ignored by mainstream media, and above all a voice of irreverence. Its infamous essay "The Parts Left Out of the Kennedy Book" mocked the solemn prose of William Manchester's The Death of a President with a lurid scene of Lyndon Johnson copulating with the wound in John F. Kennedy's throat, and a poster it offered for sale--FUCK COMMUNISM!--confounded conservatives who agreed with the sentiment but disagreed with the language. You'll immediately recognize the Realist's final issue by its cover: a scene of an opium den as if painted by Norman Rockwell.

How do you think the Realist was able to reach the point where people were waiting for it to hit the stands? Was it by publishing articles that no one else would touch?

Essentially that, and essentially the irreverence of it. There was no organ for a sense of irreverence that existed already. The audience was out there, and so it really built on word of mouth. It had a big pass-on readership. So it was the uniqueness of that time because there was no competition. There was Mad for teenagers. The New Yorker had cartoons. Playboy had cartoons--although they were relatively one-dimensional or, breastwise, two-dimensional. There was no Spy or National Lampoon, no Saturday Night Live, no Garry Trudeau. So it built up quickly and got most notorious in 1967 with "The Parts Left Out of the Kennedy Book." That issue reached a 100,000 circulation and probably reached a million in terms of pass-on readership.

Has making money ever been an issue for you? You were publisher of Hustler briefly in 1978, which paid well, but there have been other times when your main job was self-publishing the Realist.

Well, the Hustler job was $90,000 a year, and when I took the job I had about 15 bucks cash that I had borrowed from a friend to buy a pair of pants, because the only ones I had were torn. I remember I had asked [Larry Flynt], "Do you believe that Christianity is the one true path to salvation?" And he said, "No, I believe that Christ was a good teacher and that Buddha was a good teacher, but neither of them were more important than any individual." If he hadn't said that to me, I would have turned the job down. He gave me that answer, and it surprised me, so I kind of liked him in a strange sort of way. I once participated in a radio commercial for 7 UP, and then I apologized in the Realist. It was just a voice-over, and no one would know it was me, but I confessed and apologized.

But for me humor is not just a profession; it's a way of life. It's my peculiar spiritual path, and it's how I view the universe. The most important thing to me always was, How am I going to spend my time and my energy? Time was just instinctively more important than money. I've lucked out. A pot dealer once gave me $10,000 cash in a paper bag.

Why did he do that?

Just because he appreciated my work. If it wasn't karma, it was sure good timing. So things like that have happened, and I've been fortunate. There's a conversation I once had with Dick Gregory about how much creative energy is diverted by having to deal with financial stress. With a lot of poor blacks, all their creative energy goes into survival. I just saw Dick Gregory in New York.

What was he up to?

He was fasting again. [Laughs.] He goes around speaking and protesting. I think he was in Washington. He's sort of like an American Gandhi. Well, Gandhi didn't start out as a stand-up comic, and Gregory will still resort to shtick in his talks. Old shtick with outdated references. Underneath, there's a powerful charisma. You know he's been there, done that, and is still doing it. I remember sitting in his living room, and he told me that I was the first white man he allowed there. I was watching TV with his kids, and on came this commercial for Clairol. The slogan [was], "If I have but one life to live, let me live it as a Clairol blond." The kids were laughing at that, and it was a great experience seeing it through their eyes. It kind of trained me in a way or triggered that new set of synapses as much as I can to see things through other people's eyes.

You mention another triggering moment in your autobiography when, as a child playing violin at Carnegie Hall, you developed an itch on your leg. Trying to scratch it with your other leg while continuing to play gave you, you wrote, your first experience with absurdity. Have there been a lot of those revelatory moments in your life?

All the time. It happened outside my hotel room yesterday when I really had to pee. My bladder sort of knows how long it takes me to unlock the door, get to the bathroom, pick the seat up, and go. But then the card was demagnetized, and I couldn't get in. I went to the elevator to go down and get it remagnetized. While I was waiting for the elevator, which seemed very slow, there was a soda machine to the side and an ice machine. And I thought, "I'm going to pee in the ice machine. At least it's not going to wet the floor." I was ready to do that when the elevator door opened and I went up. Now my bladder is really ready again, but sort of poised, because from experience it knows that the card didn't work a moment ago. I put the card in: it works. I throw the card on the floor and unzip. But I can't find the light switch in the bathroom, and the door closes on me as I have my penis in my hand. It's pitch black, and I have no idea where the toilet is, and I'm peeing all over. Those are moments of truth. This is me. I'm 68 fucking years old, and I'm peeing in the tub for all I know. It helps you not to take yourself seriously.

Do you think a humorist will rise out of the new protest movement to fill your shoes?

Well, Ellen DeGeneres spoke at the gay rally, and she was very funny and very committed. As was Margaret Cho. I think it's happening in all different aspects of the movement now. If I were a total mutation, meaning the only one in that tradition, there would be no hope. There's a lot of bullshit in comedy today, but there are gems shining through the bullshit. And that's to be expected. When comedy becomes mass-produced, it becomes standardized. But there are always those who go beyond the bounds. Then they become commercial, and that sets new standards, and you've got to go further.

Are you involved in any way with the newer protest movements, for example the people who went to Seattle to protest the World Trade Organization?

I didn't go to Seattle or Washington, but I am in touch with a lot of people who did, and I get a lot of E-mail about it. I see what a contradiction it is to the old feeling people had, that the World Wide Web is just going to isolate people. These protests have been organized on the Internet. I'm on list-serves of people who are planning it, and they are very together and very committed and have a sense of absurdity, too. To me it's a continuation of the spirit of the Yippies, and Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin would be thrilled by it. But it's surpassed them, because the [protest movement] doesn't need that kind of leadership anymore. They have the numbers. The numbers is what gets the media attention, not the personality cult.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Russ Ando.

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