Paradigm Shift Interview by Philip H. Farber
Paul Krassner is one of our journalistic heroes here at Paradigm Shift. As an editor and publisher, he created the seminal underground 'zine, The Realist, which set a standard for pungent satire and "liberated communication." As a cultural activist, Krassner was one of the founders of the Yippies, with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, a member of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, and a fighter for free speech, abortion rights, and numerous other civil liberties. He is the author of several fine and funny books, including Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut, and Winner of the Slow Bicycle Race.
PHF: Do you think is it currently easier or more difficult to get countercultural ideas into the media?
Paul Krassner: I think it's easier, because the line between countercultural and mainstream is becoming increasingly blurred. One reason is technology. It used to take decades for information to rise from underground, but now it's almost immediate. Another reason is competition. I once predicted that controversy would become a commodity. Indeed, the mainstream media constantly check out the alternative media because they're hungry for fresh ideas. Ironically, the "overground" press sometimes beats the alternative press to the punch. Don't forget, it was the San Jose Mercury News that broke the CIA/cocaine story, not the weekly Metro; it was the Los Angeles Times that reported the four oil companies who had interest in Somalia, not the L.A. Weekly. Also, the taboos have changed and violation of those taboos are more smoothly absorbed by middle America. Witness everything from the satirical Onion shooting up the cultural ladder to alternative medicine taking up a complete issue of the AMA Journal.
PHF: Okay... we like technology here... How much have you explored the Internet as an outlet for your writing? Do you perceive it a viable form for underground media, or do you think we're being swamped with commercial interests?
Paul Krassner: At this point I've written just a few things for publication on the Internet. It's possible that when I retire The Realist after 7 more issues, I might start a web site, if only because I would have such a perfect title--The Virtual Realist--but meanwhile I've found going online to be an extremely valuable research tool. For example, I was assigned to write a review of a re-release of an old comedy album by Lord Buckley for High Times, and just needed a couple of facts, which I was able to search out in minutes. Also, in terms of receiving a "manuscript" or corrections with immediacy, e-mail has been a boon. It's all electronic magic to me. Sure, everybody wants to make money in cyberspace, but that doesn't preclude underground media, since there's always choice. As the inventor of the web said, it's comparable to scenery, because you can be glad if not overwhelmed that there's so much of it available, but you can decide where you want to go and what you want to see. In that sense, it's democracy in action, with equal opportunity for individuals and corporations alike. Word of mouth--or keyboard--is the purest form of advertising, and it's free. Can you tell I'm a convert?
PHF: What prompted you to retire The Realist after all these years?
Paul Krassner: When I started in 1958 the goal was to put myself out of business by helping to liberate communication by example, and though it would've happened without me, it pretty much has happened--for better and/or worse--so in effect The Realist has served its purpose. In fact, there's so much liberated communication now, I should stop before I become a total psychedelic relic. Besides, there are a few novels I want to spend my time and energy on. I haven't written fiction before, although humor is a form of fiction, or at least extended reality. Essentially, I've been an investigative satirist. I said to a friend who's a novelist that it's a challenge because you have to make up stuff. He replied, "But, Paul, you've been making up stuff all your life." And I said, "Yeah, but that was journalism."
PHF: What exactly do you consider "liberated communication"?
Paul Krassner: Fortunately or unfortunately, reportage on the whole Monica Lewinsky story is an example of liberated communication. So is a recent column by Alexander Cockburn on how the mudslide tragedy in Nicaragua were actually brought about by humans--that is, the CIA installed Somoza who caused the peasants to move to areas where so many people and their homes were buried in mud. Discussions on Politically Incorrect are liberated communication, and gawd help us, even Howard Stern fits into this category. Stephanie Miller and Harry Shearer on their radio shows do too. Certainly the Internet has liberated communicated, geographically as well as in content. Of course there is a plethora of propaganda in the media, but there are so many more outlets for counter-propaganda now.
PHF: What, if anything, do you think is the overall societal outcome of so much liberated communication?
Paul Krassner: I guess this goes back to the notion/hope of information rising to the top so much faster than it used to. On radio, for instance, Jim Hightower's commentary and many programs on the Pacifica network. Hightower writes a book and then appears on CNN. Robert Scheer was first published in The Realist, and now he's a syndicated columnist. Other syndicated columnists like Molly Ivins write stuff that once might have appeared only in the underground press. Not that the information results in immediate action, but it's a necessary start.
Theres a poignant opening to the movie Living Out Loud, where the Holly Hunter character is watching the horrors on TV news and her voice-over keeps asking, "What am I gonna do with all this information?" I know when I read a newspaper, I find myself saying, "Well, that's out of my hands," or "Oh, that's good." There won't be total peace and justice and compassion in my lifetime, and everybody does what they can. The causes are myriad, from the rainforests to the whales, from reproductive rights to alternative energy sources. Sometimes one gets thrust into a cause--such as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers--by tragic circumstance. Personally, I can hardly wait for Paula Jones' one-sentence book: The President showed me his penis and asked me to kiss it.
PHF: In "Confessions" (and I heard you say this at Starwood, too) you talk about the laughter of the audience at Carnegie Hall being what woke you up at age 6. I once asked George Carlin how he gets away with some of the shit he says... he responded by saying that when someone is laughing, it's easier to sneak a new idea in. What's your take on that altered state called laughter?
Paul Krassner: When people laugh, their defenses are down--as opposed to being lectured at--so it's possible for them to hear a truth in the guise of humor without the usual resistance. Hearty laughter produces endorphins, so it gets you high without drugs. Also, you breathe in six times as much oxygen as normal breathing. 20 seconds of laughter is goes back to when we were kids and made our parents laugh--which they wouldn't do if they were angry.
PHF: Can you give an example of a particularly good or unusual laugh you've provoked?
Paul Krassner: When I performed at a luncheon of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, I said, "I'd like to begin with a moment of silence, so that you can think about your clients' problems, and then you can make this a billable hour."
PHF: I had a professor in college who put forth the idea that all humor involves pain. I was hard-pressed to think of an exception (for instance, the above involves at least some theoretical pain on the part of the lawyers' clients). Do you think all humor involves pain?
Paul Krassner: No. Although... Mark Twain said that there is no laughter in Heaven. And Henry Hazlitt said that humans are the only species that laugh because we're the only ones who see the difference between the way things are and the way they should be....But I think it's all a matter of scale. An tickle is actually a gentle form of pain, and you can take that all they way up to humor in the concentration camp, as Begnini does in the movie Life Is Beautiful. But back to my original no. I always resist when college professors generalize. Humor can relieve tension, but tension isn't necessarily painful. Consider your various bodily functions that function on tension. Now *that's* funny.
PHF: When you are doing stand-up or speaking, what's the most gratifying or satisfying response you hope for? (Other than laughter, in general, that is.) What, if anything, would you like the audience to take with them?
Paul Krassner: I like it when I surprise myself, saying something I hadn't planned to say. I like when somebody in the audience says something that's funnier than what I've said. What I like for the audience to take with them is an altered perception that was tied to the laugh.
PHF: In the '60s the counterculture had some issues that polarized it and inspired activity. What do you consider rallying points for whatever counterculture there might be as we approach the year 2000? Additionally, what is motivating *you* to action these days?
Paul Krassner: The issues remain the same--reproductive rights, artistic freedom, environmentalism, racism, gender preference, corporate welfare, poverty, animal cruelty--insane priorities where militarism takes precedence over education, where prisons take precedence over logic. Personally, my form of action is communication. And my current causes are personalized because one friend with AIDS and cancer will be tried as ringleader of a conspiracy to cultivate and distribute medical marijuana, and another friend has decided to end her life on December 26, and so I will be writing about both because that's what my contribution, to be responsible to whatever talent I have.
PHF: Is that Peter McWilliams? What's the present status of the case?
Paul Krassner: Yes, it's Peter. The trial will be next year, but we have no idea yet. A motion is being filed next month to allow him to take his medicine until then. This case is the war-on-drugs equivalent of the Chicago conspiracy trial about Vietnam protesters.
PHF: I'm interested in your creative process -- When, where and how do you create your stand-up and written material?
Paul Krassner: Whenever an idea strikes me, I'll make a note of it. Could be while listening to music, taking a shower, taking a shit, walking, eating, watching the news. On stage, something can start as a one-liner, then evolve during performances, and end up as a story. That's how "I Snorted Cocaine With the Pope" developed. And later I published it. But when I write something from scratch, I'm not like other writers who can just sit with a blank page or screen and dive right into it. I need to make some kind of rough outline. Usually I know how I'll begin and how I'll end, and then all I need to do is fill in the middle in some kind of logical, dramatic order. In my satires dealing with public figures, there was no need to describe them, but in writing a novel with fictional characters, it's a whole new challenge.
PHF: What's the jist of your novel?
Paul Krassner: The novel is about a contemporary, controversial comedian who goes to prison for a marijuana bust, makes a deal there to kill a snitch to avoid a gang rape, gets released, becomes successful, then gets charged with the murder, and defends himself in court. It's dedicated "To Lenny Bruce, who always wanted to do his act before the Supreme Court."
PHF: What's the title and when should people be looking for this novel? And what other Paul Krassner products or events should we be on the lookout for in 1999?
Paul Krassner: The title of my novel is "Court Jester" and it will take me at least another year to complete it. Meanwhile, in Spring 1999 Seven Stories Press will publish my book "Impolite Interviews" and Mercury Records will release my third album, "Live From the Neo-Pagan Festival." In the fall, High Times' book division will publish my compilation, "Funny Dope Stories."
You can order Paul Krassner's books by sending check or money to:
Venice CA 90294
Prices are as follows:
Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in the Counter-Culture, $25.
The Winner of the Slow Bicycle Race: The Satirical Writings of Paul Krassner, with a foreword by Kurt Vonnegut, $24.
The (Almost)Unpublished Lenny Bruce (a collection of his articles stories, columns, bits and pieces), $10.
All three books for $57.
A subscription to the final 7 issues of The Realist is $14.
Buy this stuff from Paul, because it's a lot cheaper than ordering these titles from amazon.com