“Krassner loves ironies, especially stinging ironies that nettle public figures. He would rather savor a piquant irony about a public figure than eat a bowl of fresh strawberries and ice cream.”
– Ken Kesey
How well does Paul Krassner’s brand of humor holdup? Is there still bite in his barbs and do his words still generate laughter? Fans of The Realist, which he founded in 1958 and edited for many years—and readers of his provocative books, including Who’s to Say What’s Obscene?—can begin to answer those questions thanks to a new, handsomely produced book, Zapped by the God of Absurdity: The Best of Paul Krassner ($26.99) from Fantagraphics. Whether this collection of essays is the “best” of Krassner isn’t clear. He wrote and published so much. Still, it’s pretty fucking good.
If we think of Krassner, who was born during the Depression of the 1930s and who died in July 2019, primarily as a comic and a comedian we will likely be disappointed by Zapped. Sometimes Krassner is funny and sometimes he’s not at all funny, as he himself realized. In his essay “Swimming in the Dead Pool,” he tells a story about visiting Ken Kesey in Oregon soon after Kesey’s son Jed was killed in an accident. When a group of friends were sitting around in a circle and one of them mentioned that the Dead Kennedys, the punk rock band, was on tour, Krassner quipped “I wonder if Ted Kenendy is gonna see ‘em.” Kesey replied, “That’s not funny.” Krassner came back with “You’re right. I apologize.”
That was a rare occasion. Krassner usually didn’t say he was sorry about anything he said, and certainly not when he conjured Jackie Kennedy’s explaination, soon after JFK’s assassination, that she saw Lyndon Johnson “literally fucking my husband in the throat. He reached a climax and dismounted.”
That passage appeared in The Realist in a story titled, “The Parts that Were Left Out of the Kennedy Book.” To some, that description of the vice president fucking the president in the neck was sarrilegious, unpatriotic and obscene. To others, it captured perfectly much of the madness and the unreality of what took place in Dallas, Texas in November 1963. Krassner often pushed the limits of free speech and almost begged to be censored and banned, which is what happened to his hero, Lenny Bruce. In fact, The Montreal police confiscated and destroyed copies of The Realist in 1967.
In the pages of his magazine, Krassner defintely pushed the limits of free speech as evident in three essays in the next-to-the-last section of Zapped: “The Taste of Semen,” “Eating Shit for Fun and Profit” and “’I Fuck Dead People.” Talk about bad taste! For Krassner, coprophiliacs and necrophiliacs were both fair game for satirization. So were God, the FBI and Communism. In the late 1950s, and the early 1960s and then again in the wake of Watergate, Krassner recognized the places where American society was most vulnerable and went after them with a vengeance.
In the “The Sex Lives of Presidents,” which is included in Zapped, he impersonates Richard Nixon and describes H. R. Halderman giving “Tricky Dick” a blowjob. In a way, that image is merely a teaser. Krassner is after bigger game than cocksucking. He means to bring down the Nixon White House and everyone around the president, including General Alexander Haig, G. Gordon Liddy and John Ehrlichman, all of them criminals, and also all of them, in Krassner’s casting, figures in a comic opera played out against the tragedy of Vietnam. Comedy and tragedy collided in his mad, mad, mad, world.
Krassner reuses the Nixon & Halderman cocksucking gag in “The Autobiography of Monica Lewinsky,” in which he mimics the White House intern who gives Clinton a blowjob and then explains, “The reason I visited the White House 37 times was not for Bill—it was to be with Hillary—shewas the one who desired me physically. The rumor about me being a lesbian was true.”
Halderman giving Nixon a blowjob still seems funny after all these years. Monica and Hillary as two lesbian lovers doesn’t strike me as comical, though it might seem hysterically funny to others. As William Zinsser insightfully noted in his book, On Writing Well, “humor is elusive and subjective. No two people think the same things are funny.”
Rather than think of Krassner as a stand-up comic who made wisecracks and offered one-liners, it might be more helpful to think of him as a political writer who uses satire to attack and undermine the hypocrisies of American society. In the essays contained in the pages of Zapped, he offers serious comments about “the absurd age we live in,” and about American ironies and contradictions.
In “The Paradox of Our Nation,” Krassner has Nixon say, “We turn our vices into virtues.” Krassner’s Nixon adds, “Only in America does there exist the freedom to reveal how insidious we have been, and then continue in our insidious way with an even more determined spirit.” Krassner impersonating Nixon and then having Nixon express his (Krassner’s) ideas is pretty funny.
The longer Krassner lived and the more insidious American society became, the more difficult it was for him to continue to do the work he had been doing for decades. In “Operation Chaos Lives,” he observes that John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan demonstrated that “once again, satire would be outdistanced by reality.” The society he saw as schizophrenic made him increasingly angry and indignant.
Still, it’s important to remember that he didn’t satirize everyone and that he admired Groucho Marx, Robin Williams, Dick Gregory and Lenny Bruce. Krassner’s essays about them are all in Zapped. Contrary to his assertion, he did have some sacred cows, or at least near-sacred. Mother Theresa wasn’t one of them. In “Alternative Facts” he pours out all his venomous feelings for Donald Trump, whom he calls “a crooked businessman, liar extraordinaire, bragging pussy-grabber, make-America-white-again, anti-choice, anti-Semite, false Christian” and an “insanely narcissistic dictator.”
Were he alive today, Krassner would add the word “impeached” to his long list of words that we might remember as we leave the 2010s behind and move into the 2020s. If you loved The Realist, Zapped is for you. If you’re a millennial and have never heard of Krassner you’d better get Zapped fast.