Who can be blamed for buying into, for aspiring to the dreams and goods offered up in massive spoonfuls in our brave new 24/7 world? It all is supposed to look so appealing and satisfying. Right? Whether it is or not, you decide—but throughout recorded history, there are, persistently, malcontents who do not accept the conventions, orthodoxies and, these days, the hi-tech baubles and beads we are being enthralled to treasure. Sometimes those odd individuals are viewed as shamans or prophets—more often they are seen as the rodents in the cathedral—madmen, cranks, liberals, humanists, socialists, eaters of arugala. In the past generation, if there are 12 honest men (as the legends of my people would have it) in this world, then a few have escaped my gaze. But who is counting?
There are a few that come to mind—Lenny Bruce, I.F. Stone, Barbara Ehrenreich, Mike Royko, Studs Terkel, Eduardo Galeano, Gore Vidal, Howard Zinn—and Paul Krassner. Had he only published his gadfly magazine The Realist, he would be worthy of high praise and attention, but Krassner continues to ply his subversion in books and other places.
Here’s the immortal Kurt Vonnegut on Krassner:
“I told Krassner one time that his writings made me hopeful. He found this an odd compliment to offer a satirist. I explained that he made supposedly serious matters seem ridiculous, and that this inspired many of his readers to decide for themselves what was ridiculous and what was not. Knowing that there were people doing that, better late than never, made me optimistic.“
This chat took place in latter part of the last decade of the last century upon the publication an anthology of Krassner’s writing, The Winner of the Slow Bicycle Race. His new tome is Who’s to Say What’s Obscene?: Politics, Culture, and Comedy in America Today.
Robert Birnbaum: You mentioned that in your last conversation with Timothy Leary, as you left him, you saluted him. And when you said that, I thought to myself that I could never imagine you making that kind of a gesture. So what was so special for you, what brought you to do that?
Paul Krassner: Well, my impulse was to embrace Leary, but he just looked so frail, I was afraid I might hurt him. He might crumble in my arms. And the gesture was a flashback to when I was a kid and my father used to come home from work and I would salute him and go, “Hi Pop,” so it must have come out of that because it was a very spontaneous gesture. And then when he smiled and returned my salute, it was kind of the other shoe dropping. It was a form of closure. He returned my salute, and it was just a wordless bond between us.
RB: Is there anyone today who affects pop culture like Timothy Leary did?
PK: I think there’s a lot of people who would fit that description who don’t get media attention. It’s the old tree falling in a forest…But I’ve seen them on local levels, here and there. Jerry Brown, I think, is such a figure.
RB: Jerry Brown, the ex-governer of California?
PK: Right, he has a radio show. He calls himself a recovering politician and thinks that Clinton and Dole are the same. He has this program on radio on the Pacifica Network called “We the People,” and he does it out of a communal situation in Oakland with volunteers and everything. I’m not sure what they’re building towards, but I think he might fit that description. I think a lot of musicians fill that void for young people. For example, Rage Against the Machine is a band that is very political, and I have to assume that people who like them agree with their political stance.
RB: Are there other people who had the kind of pervasive effect that Timothy Leary had?
PK: And he continued to build up a constituency, you know, so there were the old acid-heads and the young computer nerds. I think his old partner, Ram Dass.
RB: Babba Ram Dass?
PK: Oh, he dropped the Babba, he’s now just plain Ram Dass. I think he still has his cotery. Ken Kesey certainly does; Tom Hayden, you know he’s a state senator, he’s going to Chicago as an elected delegate, he may run for mayor of Los Angeles…I mean, so these are people who have resonance with people in my circles.
RB: What’s Bobby Seale (ex-Black Panther and part of Chicago 7/8) doing now?
PK: He was selling barbeques…a cookbook called “Barbequing with Bobby.” Who else? It’s funny. Bill Bradley is an example, but he’s quitting, so it’s like the people who leave the system, who have a following…somehow it’s a paradox. I mean there are people like, on the other side of the spectrum, William Bennett, who has his followers. Henry Morgan once said to me, “There are camp followers for anybody,” you know there are probably barbed wire groupies.
RB: Have you been publishing The Realist since 1958?
PK: It was from ’58 to ’74 as a magazine, and then a little 11-year hiatus, and it began again as a newsletter in ’85.
RB: And did you think that you were going to do it that long?
PK: Well, as I wrote in the return issue, the taboos may have changed, but irreverence is still my only sacred cow. I guess I just thought I would do it as my lifetime work. And then I ran out of taboos and money in ’74…
RB: When did you edit Hustler magazine?
PK: ’78. That was for six months. And that was just one of several freelance things I did during those years. I covered the Patty Hearst trial for Playboy, I covered the Dan White trial, the Twinkie murders, and did more stand-up comedy then. So the Hustler thing was just out of the blue; you know, Larry Flynt became a born-again Christian and asked me to take over while he went on the road evangelising. So that was an offer that was too absurd to refuse. I mean, the one award I had gotten for The Realist was from the Feminist Party Media Workshop. My feminist friends were quite shocked when I took the job at Hustler.
RB: So you’d worked at Cavalier, too…
PK: Well that was a column, it wasn’t quite the same. And Cavalier was not quite as raunchy as Hustler. I remember, since it was a porno magazine and he was a born-again Christian, my job was to reform the magazine. I had no idea what to do. But the idea of me being brought in as socially redeeming value…But the first thing I said to him was, “Well what are we going to have, a scratch-and-sniff Virgin Mary?” and Larry Flynt said, “That’s a great idea, we’ll make it smell like tomato juice.” And then the first thing I did was change his editorial so there were no male pronouns to refer to God, and I thought I’d get fired that first day, but he agreed with me that God should have no gender.
RB: Does it seem to you that if they hadn’t run into huge money problems that your stay there would have been longer?
PK: Well, no, if he hadn’t been shot…
RB: Which led to them have money problems…
PK: Which led to the cashflow problem. Might have been, but from the very first day I knew–unlike The Realist–that I would either be fired or quit, and I stayed to see which would happen first. Foolishly, I had never gotten a contract, ’cause I felt if I was hired in such a frivolous way then I could be fired in a frivolous way. And I felt strongly about the first amendment, but I would have preferred to be sharing my vision rather than his.
RB: Have you ever signed a contract?
PK: Well, for my books I’ve signed contracts, and for Mercury Records, for the comedy album, I just signed a contract, but those are the only contracts I can think of, everything else is just…
RB: You don’t strike me as someone who would really litigate.
PK: When I got the record contract, which was like 50 pages long, I said, “You know, you people waste a lot of paper; you could just have the contract reduced to about seven words which were: ‘The company is protected in every way.'” (Laughter)
RB: I know that in The Realist history, the publication of the missing parts–the alleged missing parts of the William Manchester book [Death of A President]–stand pretty high up there as…what do I call it?
PK: As a literary hoax.
RB: Did you in fact ever do the Sirhan Sirhan/Scientology piece?
PK: Yeah, I was gonna to do a piece on the rise of Sirhan Sirhan in the Scientology hierarchy, and as I began to research that, I found that Charles Manson had some connection with Scientology and so, it was a choice between reality and quasi-reality, so I ended up investigating the Manson case instead. In my Manson research, I thought I had uncovered the guy who was an agent in naval intelligence who was posing as a hippie artist and had orchestrated the Manson murders. It turned out to be a false lead, I learned, after I had written about it in Rolling Stone.
RB: After they got sued, too.
PK: Uh yeah, they settled out of court. But that was because it fell through the cracks of their research department because they had it in their Patty Hearst issue, so all their fact checkers were busy with that.
RB: Is the Manchester piece and the Manson piece–are those high points for you or do you feel like you’ve steadily improved?
PK: Well, I guess the thing I’ve gotten the most feedback on still today, the one thing that people come up to me and talk about–and this was in ’67, almost thirty years ago–is the parts left out of the Kennedy book, which is included in the new collection. That was, I guess, a highlight just because it blew so many people’s minds. The Manson thing was more important to me personally, combined with the material I was publishing by conspiracy researcher May Russell from JFK’s assassination to Watergate and beyond, plus my research into the Manson case, plus my research into the Patty Hearst case…In the Manson case I got put onto Scientology’s frame-up listand I was on the hit list of a Berkeley radical group. The reason, they said, was because I revealed that Cinque was a snitch and a police informer and a provocateur, which was true as a matter of record. And the FBI sent me a certified letter warning me that I was on this hit list, but all my Berkley sources said that this particular group–the Emiliani Zapata Unit of the New World Liberation Front, which left bombs at various banks and buildings–was an FBI provocateur group. So it was as though the right wing of the FBI was warning me about the left wing of the FBI. Anyway, with all of this, I went through a paranoid freak-out. I remember Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl where he said “I saw the best minds my generation go stark raving mad.” I had always identified with the “best minds” part, but not with the “stark raving mad.” So for my own personal education and self-understanding, I learned more then than I did in my entire formal education. It helps me to be more tolerant now of the paranoids I meet. I feel like Bill Clinton, you know, “I feel your paranoia.”
RB: What would Lenny Bruce have gone on to become? If he had reached a ripe age of even fifty, what do you think he would have…?
PK: I think he would have continued to evolve as an icon. When I first interviewed him and asked him what’s the role a comedian and he gave a very formal answer: “To get a laugh every 15 to 25 seconds.” And then as he got more and more involved in the world, he would get more serious sometimes in his performances. Instead of yelling out, “Lenny, you’re funny,” people would say, “Lenny, you’re honest.” And I said to him, “You remember you said the role of a comedian is to get a laugh every 15 to 25 seconds? That’s not happening now.” And he says, “Well, I’m changing.” I said, “What do you mean?” He says, “Well, I’m not a comedian; I’m Lenny Bruce.” So he knew that he had become a symbol, and I think he would have continued in that vein. He would have spoken out.
RB: It seemed like everything he was doing was like a rush towards self-destruction.
PK: Well, his friends said that it was just by not compromising, by using language. And it wasn’t even the language that really got him in trouble; that obscenity was the ostensible excuse for why they were arresting him so much. But Lenny knew, and the cops that arrested him knew, and the district attorneys that prosecuted him acknowledged that it was really because of his attacking political figures with satire, using organized religions as a satirical target. Especially in Chicago; on Ash Wednesday, the jury and the judge and the prosecutor all had a little spot on their foreheads. It was very surrealistic.
RB: From time to time, certainly you hear about it in Eastern Mass here, people go to Jack Kerouac’s grave, they have little convocations in memory of Kerouac, but I don’t know anyone who talks about Lenny Bruce or memorializes his existence or anything. Are you aware of that?
PK: Uh, it struck me because this year is the thirtieth anniversary of his death, but I know that both Blue Moon Records in New York and Rhino in LA, I think they both put out CDs of a lot of his work. So there’s a resurgence of interest in his work and I still hear him mentioned. You know, people kind of use him as a standard-bearer.
RB: Who’s even come close to being like him?
PK: Well, I think Bill Hicks, who died at the age of 32 of pancreatic cancer. He was censored on the David Letterman show for talking about abortion. So, in the 35 years that I’ve been performing on and off, I’ve never had an agent, but only recently did I find one, this woman who managed Bill Hicks. And so I sent her a tape and she just arranged for me to perform at the Montreal Comedy Festival in July, which is an international thing. So it’s interesting to have the representation of somebody who you’re on the same wavelength with, because what’s happening now is–as part of the dumbing down of America–people want easy reference jokes. There’s one comedian on the west coast, Rick Overton, whose agent told him that he was too intelligent for the colleges. It’s come to that. And Jimmy Tingle I think is terrific, and I hear he does his shows, but also he’s reduced to doing voice overs for commercials or something.
RB: Barry Crimmins?
PK: And Barry Crimmins too, yeah. There was a producer–it never happened, it would’ve been a good idea–but he wanted to arrange for a political equivalent to Def Comedy Jam, where black comics, like a group of four or five, go from campus to campus, and this was going to be four or five political comics: myself, Jimmy Tingle, Randy Credico, Barry Crimins, Will Durst–it never happened, but it was an interesting idea because when it is presented there’s a hunger for it, people forget that that was a comedic option.
RB: Why are agents saying that their talent is too smart?
PK: I guess it’s greed or fear of not getting big numbers, you know, so comedians want to have their six minutes so they can go on Jay Leno or David Letterman. Everything gets homogenized in the process. A kid of 14 came up to me after one of my shows and said, “I’m thinking of getting into the comedy profession, I hear it’s rather well-paying,” and I was shocked, ’cause for me it’s like a spiritual calling and I said, “Don’t you have to be funny?” But now it’s sort of just a stepping stone to getting your own sitcom. So the whole idea of it has changed. And so you’ll have comedy on Evening at the Improv where they won’t do topical stuff because it has to go into syndication, so they’ll do stuff about airplane food and Gilligan’s Island and their first date. And the audience, they don’t laugh so much as applaud, and what they’re applauding is their own recognition of the references, so it’s a separate reality that Carlos Castaneda never dreamed of.
RB: Is there a counterculture now?
PK: Oh sure, yeah, lot of different forms–
RB: Well, that’s what I mean: a common culture as opposed to some kind of fractured…the model is the mainstream pop culture and then allegedly some counterculture, but isn’t it really something more mysterious and diverse?
PK: It’s kind of coalescing now. In the sixties there was Dylan and Phil Oaks and Joan Baez and all them. Now it’s Rage Against the Machine and Cypress Hill and a few others. There’s also the zines and the world wide web. There are multi countercultures because everything gets so specialized. But in California when they tried to get the medical marijuana bill passed, the state legislature passed it and then Governor Wilson vetoed it. So now they bypassed that procedure and have gotten it as a referendum on the ballot, so the voters can choose themselves.
RB: Have you ever taken a vacation?
PK: (Laughs) A few times I’ve gone with my wife to desert hot springs, but I’ll usually work. I don’t usually separate my work from my play. And I do now what I would do if I went on a vacation–’cause I live right on Venice beach, and so I would walk on the beach, which I do. Perhaps I don’t need a vacation as much as people whose jobs are so loaded with stress, although I do find when I do go away for a couple of days, you don’t realize the stress you’ve been under until you begin to unwind from it. But vacations have not been a way of life for me.
RB: Well, from your books I’ve noticed, as far as I can tell, you’ve been to Cuba, you’ve been to Ecuador, you’ve been to Egypt. Where else have you been around the world?
PK: Oh yeah, well, I guess those are the three, and Canada, and Sheboygen, Wisconsin. That’s about it.
PK: They had the bratwurst festival. (Laughter)
RB: You covered that for someone?
PK: I covered that for Cavalier magazine.
RB: Do you have any particular longing to see the rest of the world, or is it all opportunistic?
PK: Well the Grateful Dead were performing at the pyramids in Egypt.
RB: Shortly after you left Hustler it was a chance to–or were you assigned that as a story?
PK: When I got fired at Hustler, I immediately called up family and friends so they would hear it from me, not in the media. And when I called up Ken Kesey, he said, “Well that’s great, why don’t you come to Eygpt with us?” So you know, that’s how it happened. Lyle Stuart, the publisher whom I had apprenticed under at his paper, The Independent, urged me to come to Cuba, this was a year after the revolution, he was with the Fair Play for Cuba committee. And Ecuador, I went with my daughter on a Shamans and healer expedition. So I guess they could all be considered vacations although I wrote about them. It’s like the old detectives in the comic strips: they go on a vacation, then there’s a murder in the motel room next door that they have to that they have to investigate.
RB: Are you a hopeful person?
PK: I think I am. I mean I might waver between despair and hope in terms of what’s going on in the world, but I remember what singer/songwriter Harry Chapin said, “If you don’t act like hope, there is no hope.” And, so you just do what you have to do; even if hope is a placebo, it feels better to be optimistic than pessimistic. And you know there’s more good people than evil people in the world and, and I didn’t think I would see in my lifetime that the Berlin Wall would fall, I didn’t think I would see that they wouldn’t allow cigarette smoking on airplanes and in restaurants, so there’s been a lot of changes that people do take for granted, but it indicates to me that that it is possible, that it isn’t hopeless and I just see more and more examples. The thing is that as I travel, the local news in every city seems to be generic and they always lead off with the latest murder or auto accident or drive by shooting or whatever, and there’s a phrase that they use which was “lead with bleed.” And so again, because apparently they get higher ratings cause people look at that, and so the negative stuff gets overplayed, I think, and it comes because of the competitive market where you can reach 30 million people on TV and still be considered a failure, so you know I think the news can produce despair instead of hope. But I travel around enough and have enough informal networking that I can see all the people who are acting as though they had hope, and so I do have hope although sometimes I get so weary of the horror, you know the inhumanity, and then I feel hopeful again, and I think well it must be because I have chromosome damage, I’ve lost my perspective.
RB: Or some particular chemical has shifted through your body one day.
PK: Well, there always was that feeling you really wanna change the world and then I think a turning point for me which was, that was too vast a goal, and the thing was maybe to start from the other end to change yourself and you wouldn’t be the only one, others were changing themselves and the institutions are made up of individuals, so if enough individuals can change themselves, then the institutions change in the process.
RB: There’s a lot to be said for thinking globally and acting locally. Though as a young political activist you feel like you, your ambitions and goals should have universal ramifications. I’m sure everybody who protested the war in Vietnam wanted to feel like they stopped the war in Vietnam.
PK: Well there is the 100th monkey syndrome. That you reach a critical mass and then it brings others with it, like the vacuum is created at the end of a subway train. But no, I think that they thought in terms of that they were empowered by large masses of people. But you only have your own consciousness to deal with. But I think that there was a feeling of unanimity, a purpose. So I think it was more ‘we’ than ‘I’ at a certain point.
RB: What about the arrogance that I [we] had towards people who disagreed with us [me], you know? I don’t know that you can you can change people’s minds while you’re insulting them.
PK: Oh yeah, I think I’ve become more tolerant myself in that vein. People have to feel something in their own guts. All you can do is carry out your own responsibility to give them information. But usually there’s something that hits home. Some people may not have been for pro-choice until they had somebody in their family who needed an abortion when it was illegal, and they saw the trouble that they had to go through. I interviewed a humane abortionist for The Realist…Dr. Spencer, see, he’s a legend. And I didn’t expect it to happen, but after I published the interview I began to get so many calls that I was an underground abortion referral service. And I saw the horror…
RB: Have you ever consciously created a political program for yourself, some kind of manifesto?
PK: Um, not really, no; it’s more like the golden rule, just to try to do the appropriate thing every moment, that’s my definition of success for me. Just general principles. I don’t know how to do it, and it’s a very superficial thing, but I do wonder if and see examples of it here and there that capitalism and humanism are not necessarily oxymoronic–so I do see things changing in corporate structures, but greed is not just in the leaders or the CEOs, it’s in the stock holders who don’t think downsizing as a bad thing. They can even have stocks in, you know, cigarette companies or missile factories and overlook the fact that that they’re making money off killing people. Somehow people are able to compartmentalize their morality that way.
RB: It’s hard not to feel bad that the greed is really everywhere. I wonder how do we mix economics and humanism.
PK: I think it’s one of the great challenges, and even though I’m an atheist, I think that spirituality may be the missing link in between that, for people to think of the consequences of their actions, and it happens with individuals who realize that in a certain sense altruism is the highest form of selfishness, I think of Mother Teresa–she gets such incredible pleasure out of helping people that she’s like a junkie: “Quick I need a fix, get me a victim,” which is fine.
RB: The Democratic Convention returns to Chicago, the City with the big shoulders and you’re going. How you feel about it, not how you think about it, but how you feel about the prospect of returning to the–
PK: Scene of the crime? I guess I’m aware of the differences ’cause there was the Vietnam War then, which really served as a cohesive force and also the Democratic candidate was Hubert Humphrey, who was so tied by his umbilical cord to Johnson’s policies that people thought that there was a possibility that McCarthy could be elected, whereas this time it’s Clinton or Clinton. So the impetus is different. People are going but a lot of different special interests–I mean the war then and poverty was pretty much it, so there’s a strange feeling of deja vu because Abbie Hoffman’s son is going to organize protests, Mayor Daley’s son is the mayor there, Tom Hadyn’s going but this time as an elected delegate, I’m going and the weekend before the convention I’m performing two shows and the producers are calling it “The Night of the Living Yippie.” So I have no particular nostalgia about it…That slogan that the whole world is watching was true because a lot of young people were watching on television and seeing people their age being beaten by cops and tear gassed. Reporters would say, “Did you ever think you’d go to a convention in America where we would have to wear tear gas masks?” So I think it woke up a lot of people and anything that wakes up people I guess is good. And it was officially labelled as a police riot, which I think was important. And then the trial itself, the Chicago Conspiracy trial, was further awakening to people.
RB: Did you really take LSD when you testified?
PK: Yeah, well I wanted to throw up in court, and I knew that if I took acid after a big meal it would have that effect. So that would be my symbolic political statement about the injustice of the trial, but also I figured it would save me from testifying because I just couldn’t remember all the dates and places of the meetings that we had had. It was like the nightmare of going to a history exam unprepared.
RB: Did you ever experience a sort of total disorientation for anything longer than a minute or two when you took any hallucinogenics? I mean, in reading this, your references–I mean, you dropped acid with Groucho Marx, is that true?
PK: Yeah. I think I have a certain psychedelic macho, you know. “I can handle anything and people won’t even know I’m tripping.” So there was that, but on the witness stand it became very surrealistic, I must say. But I didn’t really have any bad trips and I said that to Tim Leary once and he said, “Well, Paul, you’ve already had all your bad trips.” I think one time with Wavy Gravy and a bunch of Hog Farmers tripping at Joshua Tree and we were up in a mountain and it got very dark and I was up on this mountain tripping and I had said to Wavy, “Come on I need a bad trip, gimme a bad trip.” And they threw some blue vegetable paint on me or something and so I was up on the top of the mountain, tripping, painted blue, and it was dark, and it was coming down very gradually, and it was a leap of faith: tomorrow I will have somehow gotten down or slept up here or something. But otherwise I have somehow managed to function. There was one time I was tripping at an event–the Hog Farm had a celebration and it was at NYU–and I went to the bathroom and as I’m standing at the urinal there, this guy behind me has a gun and he says, “Give me all your money,” and I remember it was as if I was reading. I looked around and saw “the glint of steel,” I remember that phrase came to mind. I gave him twenty dollars and somebody said, “Don’t tell anybody, don’t tell anybody…” so I didn’t know how big the gang was and, so I guess I was a little disoriented then because outside the party was going and I thought other people are going into that bathroom and getting robbed. So probably still when I’m in a mens room there’s always that little touch of I want to look over my shoulder, but other than that, all my trips have been pretty good. Lucky me.
RB: You have a very good relationship with your daughter. In communicating with your daughter, do you feel like that’s a way of understanding what younger people are thinking?…That’s a sloppy question.
PK: No, but I know what you mean because I think my daughter might be described as post-feminist in the sense that a lot of the things that her predecessors fought for she could take for granted. So she doesn’t label what she does as feminist ideology. She’s just a strong individual and opposes injustice for its own sake. What was interesting to me was that my daughter, Holly, when she was eleven her best friend was Pia Hinkel, the daughter of Warren Hinkel who put out Ramparts magazine, and they’re still close friends now and they’re in their early thirties. (When Holly turned thirty, I told her I could no longer trust her.) And so it was sort of like that movie Julia with Jane Fonda and Lynn Regraves, a similar thing, and so Holly and Pia were going to work on a book together called Daughters of the American Revolution. They never really finished it, but they did several interviews with Phil Ochs’ daughter and Malcolm X’s daughter. And they found that there were a couple of aspects. One was “How do the children of rebels rebel against their parents?” And one of the things was that Holly never read The Realist, Pia never read Ramparts, Norman Mailer’s daughter never read any of his novels, but in doing the research now and talking to these people, Holly said that we always thought you guys were paranoid, but now we realize that there was a police state developing. That was interesting because she had never used a phrase like that, but she understood in retrospect. So that was kind of gratifying, you know, that the consistent pattern was that all of these daughters had some level of reconciliation with their rebel parents. Because a lot of them would have abstract causes for peace but they would ignore their kids. And for me politics was the way you lived your life. You don’t separate your political values from your family values.
RB: Your politics is the way you live your life…
PK: I have a friend, Scoop Nisker, who does radio. His slogan was, “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.” He and I do a humor workshop together; we co-lead it. Scoop is a Buddhist meditator, a sit-down meditator, and I’m a stand-up comic but we have a lot in common and are good friends and he’s always tried to persuade me to come to these 10-day, 30-day, whatever it is, meditation workshops. For me, you know, I don’t separate being and doing. I’m meditative when I’m most engaged doing something. But I realized that I was scared and I was scared of being bored to go somewhere without any media, can’t read, can’t write. You’re silent. I could do without the talking, but I always like to have something to stimulate my mind. I’ll have plenty of time to meditate when I’m dead. But because I was afraid of being bored, I decided to confront my fear and do it and accepted his invitation to go on a 10-day retreat, and that’s when Holly called and said she wanted to go to school in San Francisco. So I had to be there for her transition. There was no question that I had to turn down the invitation to go to the meditation retreat because, had I been irresponsible, it would have tainted the entire meditative experience anyway. That was the other thing that Scoop Nisker said, “Stay high, but keep your priorities straight.”
RB: What are some changes that the alternative press has gone through?
PK: The underground press then was really–had really been a kind of revolutionary commitment and then it sort of evolved into the alternative press which became to a certain extent a good career move and served often as a farm team for the mainstream press. I think that Janet Maslin, the New York Times film critic, was pick up out of the Boston Phoenix. And I know many many many people who work in mainstream press who started in the alternative. And I think they brought some of the values and some of the attitudes with them–it’s not like people completely change–but, you know, so now in, I guess, Portland, for example, there’s the mainstream papers, the alternatives, and then the alternatives to the alternatives. So this is probably not a politically correct metaphor anymore–but there’s Young Turks all over the place. You know you can’t determine what somebody else’s path will be. There’s that old phrase: a liberal is a radical with a family.
RB: Even when you were offered what seemed to be a lot of money at Hustler, your intention wasn’t to follow the program.
PK: Oh yeah, I was able to get articles on abortion into it, articles on Malcolm X, Theodore Sturgeon, the science fiction writer who became our book reviewer, cause there was a kind of snobbery then–people who read the New Republic or the Nation or the Progressive Magazine, but there was nothing to appeal to working-class people. You know, blue-collar workers who had a healthy sense of irreverence toward authority and the government and nobody was really reaching them and in that sense it was an opportunity cause there was a snobbery about it. But I guess there are people who think well now if I’m with Mercury Records which is a part of Polygram, but I don’t think I’m selling out, I think they’re buying in. I think selling out is when you compromise your work in order to reach more people.
RB: Well, you were published by Simon & Schuster, which is part of Viacom.
PK: Right, and I had made a vow to myself that if I couldn’t write about the parts left out of the Kennedy book, include that as it is in the new collection, The Winner of the Slow Bicycle Race, I wouldn’t have permitted it to be published. As it turned out the only stuff that was left out were a few names because of possible liable and that was okay, it didn’t make or break anything.
RB: Other than completing this tour and then going to Chicago, which may or may not be nostalgic, what do you see doing in the next year or two?
PK: Well, I’m working on a novel. There’s like three novels I have in mind that I want to write. And the first one almost brings a full cycle to one of your earlier questions because it’s about a comedian who committed a murder and defends himself in court. It started out with my own question, “What would Lenny be talking about today?” And it’s dedicated to Lenny Bruce who always wanted to do his act before the Supreme Court. So it’s a different rhythm working on a novel, and it’s hard because you have to make up stuff…
RB: But you’ve been making up stuff for years…
PK: Oh yeah, but that’s journalism. (Laughter)
RB: Why is it a different rhythm?
PK: Well, it’s a project that could take a year or two or three, whereas if you’re on a monthly or quarterly schedule…that’s what I meant by the rhythm of it. Somebody once said that journalism is literature in a hurry. So this is journalism at a slow pace.
RB: Is The Realist coming out quarterly as a newsletter?
PK: A lot of bookstores carry it, but I don’t know which ones get it from the distributors. But not the same as it used to be. At its peak as a magazine, it had 100,000.
RB: Isn’t that amazing?
PK: Well, there was no competition; there was no National Lampoon then, there was no Spy magazine, there wasn’t Saturday Night Live or Doonsbury, so I had a clear field of taboos waiting to be exploded, whereas now irreverence has become an industry. So I just try to fill in the holes. Which is good; if it at all depended on me, there would be no hope. (Laughter)
Interview originally conducted in 1996
© 2009 Robert Birnbaum