Monday, December 7, 2015

An Interview with Paul Krassner - Part Three

Kliph Nesteroff: You and Lenny Bruce discussed the phrase "Sick Comedians." This was a media term at the end of the 1950s that was used to undercut new comedians like Bob Newhart and Jonathan Winters. Guys like Shelley Berman and Mort Sahl were dismissed as"Sick Comedians" for no reason. It was a way of insulting the new, young comedians.

Paul Krassner: Mort Sahl was even kind of prudish. He was essentially a clean comedian. The only sex joke I recall him doing was about V.D. in the army. This is poorly paraphrased, but Mort's joke was that the guys who wanted to meet girls would trace the steps of people who came to the clinic. There were comedians who spoke freely offstage, but onstage those topics were taboo. 

Kliph Nesteroff: In an interview you did with Mike Nichols, he sort of dismissed Lenny Bruce's act.

Paul Krassner: Yes, I got invited to do a feature for Playboy called The Playboy Panel. I did an interview with Hefner by mail and asked him questions he had not been asked before, which he liked. He asked me to be an editor and flew me to Chicago. I asked them, "Would I have to leave New York? Would I have to give up The Realist?" Both answers were yes, so I turned them down. They weren't used to people saying no.

Playboy paid editors and writers a lot, which is why Norman Mailer and those in the literary world could not resist. The articles were good. They were the first mainstream magazine to do an article about Bertrand Russell being against atomic bomb testing, so in their way they were subversive in the best sense. So I did this Playboy Panel, but I didn't actually have a panel. I had to do each interview separately and then put them together to seem like a roundtable discussion. I forget what Mike Nichols said about Lenny, but Lenny replied, "Ah, he's just mad cause I balled his wife." That was left out because of the Playboy legal department. They felt it could be libelous. Mike Nichols didn't say that was the reason [he didn't like him], but Lenny speculated it was.

Kliph Nesteroff: You attended the run through of The Steve Allen Show when Lenny Bruce appeared for the first time.

Paul Krassner: I went to the rehearsal. That was before I even met him. 

Kliph Nesteroff: 1959.

Paul Krassner: That sounds logical. I met him that year. Lenny was doing a bit about being controversial. "But I get good reviews!" And he held up a copy of The Daily Forward, which was written in Hebrew with a big Hebrew headline. It was interesting to watch him because he had this jazz rhythm and would bobble his head like the bobble heads you now see on dashboards. 

Kliph Nesteroff: In 1960 you attended a comedy workshop which featured David Frye and Vaughn Meader.

Paul Krassner: Right. They were there with a variety of would-be comics. They both did impressions. What was interesting to me was that Vaughn Meader was doing John Kennedy and David Frye did Richard Nixon right after the primaries. So each of them was hoping their candidate would win. So Vaughn Meader ended up benefiting from it and for the time being David Frye went back to doing Robert Mitchum impressions.

Kliph Nesteroff: Were you friendly with Vaughn Meader? He had a bizarre trajectory, both his career and his life. Of course, Lenny Bruce has that famous joke, but later Vaughn also got into LSD...

Paul Krassner: Yes, Lenny's opening line was a week after the assassination. The tension was palpable. He came onstage and everybody knew he had to say something. He couldn't ignore it. Nobody knew what he would say. He stood there, kind of milking the tension. Finally he said, "Vaughn Meader is screwed." There was an explosion of laughter because it released the tension. It turned out to be true.

Vaughn Meader lost TV programs he was scheduled on and nobody would hire him. He moved to San Francisco and became an over aged flower child. Later on he became a born again Christian, but we were in touch. He read The Realist and we knew each other from the comedy workshop. He called me in 1968. He asked me for a tab of acid, which I gave him. March 31, 1968, Lyndon Johnson announced that he was not going to run for reelection. That was a shock. He just announced it and immediately my phone rang. I didn't even say hello. I just answered and said, "I accept the nomination."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Paul Krassner: It was Vaughn Meader. He was tripping at the time. He called to ask if he had hallucinated the announcement. When we started the Yippies, we invited him to New York. It was 1968 and Bobby Kennedy was killed. We asked him if he wanted to play Bobby that summer when we went to Chicago for the counter-convention. He had mixed feelings about it. He was involved intellectually, but didn't come.

Kliph Nesteroff: How was his mental health? I heard he was ruined by what happened to his career.

Paul Krassner: I think he tried to write Christian songs and brought Christianity into his act. He had some kind of - not rehabilitation - but he started performing again. After a while we lost contact. But it did his change his life. He regained a Boston accent and grew this big pompadour as the rug of success was pulled out from under him.

Kliph Nesteroff: Stan Irwin from the Sahara in Las Vegas booked Vaughn Meader because he felt bad for him. He wanted him to do comedy, but Vaughn refused. He only wanted to do country and western music.

Paul Krassner: That was it! Country and western, yes. 

Kliph Nesteroff: They fired him after two nights because nobody wanted to see him do country and western.

Paul Krassner: Did they want him to do his Kennedy impression?

Kliph Nesteroff: They wanted him to do comedy.

Paul Krassner: I suggested to him that he do the ghost of John Kennedy commenting on the current administration, that that might work, but he just didn't want to take a chance.

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