There's irony in the fact that Paul Krassner sees "increasing insanity" in our current politics and culture. The 1960s activist whom the FBI once tagged "a raving, unconfined nut," told me recently that "insanity is evolving along with everything else."
And yet? "And yet I'm still optimistic that compassion is on the rise," he says. "Or is that just wishful thinking? As singer-songwriter Harry Chapin once told me backstage at a benefit, 'If we don't act like there's hope, there is no hope.' Maybe that's only a placebo, but placebos do work."
I first met Krassner in 1989. I was charged with finding a keynote speaker for the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies annual convention, to be held in L.A. for the first time. The unavailability of such obvious choices as Tom Hayden and Jesse Jackson turned out to be a lucky break, because we landed Paul Krassner, the self-described investigative satirist whom People magazine once called "the father of the underground press" -- prompting Krassner to demand a paternity test.
Speaking before a few hundred reporters, editors and publishers -- many of them still of the humorless lefty variety -- Krassner delivered a brain-twisting tour de force that was equal parts Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Groucho Marx. Time blurs the specifics, but what remains is the kind of magical resonance you feel when you think about a book you treasured long ago, though you couldn't recount the plot if your life depended on it.
It's hard to believe that that man will turn 80 next year.
The founder and editor of the groundbreaking journal The Realist says he feels 23. He's publishing a new, expanded edition of his 1993 autobiography Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in the Counter-Culture.
He's also writing lots of magazine articles, updating his website, publishing every issue of The Realist online and, in his spare time, maintaining what he calls his "cottage industry"-- peddling a digitally colored edition of the infamous "Disneyland Memorial Orgy" parody, created by Mad magazine artist Wally Wood and first published in 1967 as a centerspread in The Realist. This may look tame today, but that's owing in part to Krassner, who relentlessly pushed the cultural envelope.
Krassner is something of a Zelig of the left, except he wasn't just there, he was a key player. He co-founded the Yippies with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, and took LSD with Ram Dass, Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary -- Leary let him listen in on a call from a Wall Street broker thanking him for turning him onto acid "because it gave him the courage to sell short." He accompanied Groucho Marx on his first acid trip and later named the protagonist of his first novel Kevin "Schmucko" Marx.
He edited Lenny Bruce's autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. He was a musical prodigy who debuted at Carnegie Hall at age 6, a stand-up comic who recorded comedy albums and a radio host. He's written many books and thousands of articles in newspapers and magazines too numerous to mention. Most recently, Krassner's oldest friend, Orson Bean, who happens to be the father-in-law of conservative bad boy Andrew Breitbart, arranged for Krassner and Bretibart to have a "Dialogue" for an upcoming issue of Playboy.
Today, Krassner worries that "things seem to be going backward. During the '60s, when abortion was illegal," he recalls, "I ran a free underground referral service, and got subpoenaed by district attorneys in two cities, but refused to testify. I thought it would never be legalized in my lifetime, but I became the sole plaintiff in a lawsuit declaring the abortion law in New York State to be unconstitutional. Later, women's groups joined in, which, my attorney told me, eventually led to Roe vs. Wade. Then I thought abortion would never be illegal again, so now it's disheartening to see the right-wing religious conservative movement that supposedly wants to keep government out of our lives, nevertheless trying to criminalize reproduction rights in my lifetime. The devil never sleeps."
Neither, it seems, does Krassner. He's helped pave the way for untold numbers of activists, artists, writers, reporters and editors to express themselves more freely. And he's inspired not just activists and radicals but suburbanites of several generations. When I told my mom I was in touch with Krassner, she reached over to her nightstand and began reading to me from an ancient copy of The Realist, which has occupied that prime position since I was a kid. "The pages are a little yellow," she said, "but I can still read everything, including the postmark."