Monday, May 11, 2015

An Interview with Paul Krassner - Part One

Kliph Nesteroff: I was watching your appearance on The Joe Pyne Show. I'm kind of surprised how many counterculture types even bothered appearing on this combative, right-wing show in the late 1960s. Although today it is a pretty fascinating piece of cultural history.

Paul Krassner: Well, you know, it was a challenge. They only showed part of it. At one point he was asking really mean spirited questions. The part that got the most attention was when I said, "Let me ask you a question, do you take off your wooden leg before making love to your wife?" He had been in the Marines and lost a leg. He owned seven guns and kept one under his pillow. He got totally discombobulated. His jaw dropped. It was live in Los Angeles when people saw that. It was bleeped out when it was syndicated.

Kliph Nesteroff: I have heard the same story attributed to Frank Zappa...

Paul Krassner: Oh, that's interesting. Some times things get skewed.

Kliph Nesteroff: Zappa fans are obsessive and that story has been told several times, but nobody has ever produced the footage and some assume it apocryphal.

Paul Krassner: Yes, because they didn't actually see it. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I want to ask you about some of the earliest things you did in showbiz. You performed on the Horn and Hardart Automat Show on radio with host Ed Herlihy.

Paul Krassner: My brother and I were both violin players. I don't know how old I was or how young. Ralph Edwards was the host, but this time Ed Herlihy took over. When I finished playing he called me "a deadpan." I said, "What does that mean?" He said, "Well, you didn't smile while you were playing." I was a little brat already. I said, "It's radio! They can't see me!" The older kids called it Horn and Hard-on. I remember I resented it because I didn't even get a free lunch. We all had to sing a song coast-to-coast. "On a bus - beep-beep." Something like that. It was a strange phenomenon for me. The other performers did smile, but I was just concentrating on not screwing up what I was playing.

Kliph Nesteroff: You were a big fan of radio shows like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.

Paul Krassner: Yes, this was before television, so growing up, radio was really my best friend. I believed everything. I believed there was an actual feud going on between Jack Benny and Fred Allen. I put the lights out when the mystery program Lights Out told you to. I listened to a lot of popular music. In those days you could remember the melody and appreciate the lyrics. I would fall asleep late at night to the radio. The first time I got interested in plays it was through the radio. The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. I thought, "Oh, wow, I want to write plays when I grow up!" I wrote two plays when I was a senior in high school, but that was it.

Kliph Nesteroff: When you were a bit older, but still young, you had to deliver a package to the greatest radio comedians - Bob and Ray.

Paul Krassner: Yeah, I was twenty-one. I was working for Lyle Stuart who was publishing a paper called The Independent. It was a precursor to the alternative press. He wrote to Bill Gaines, the publisher of MAD. He was a big fan. He got a letter back from Bill Gaines saying he was a fan of The Independent. He signed the letter, "In Awe." They became friends and Gaines hired Lyle Stuart as the business manager of EC Comics. So we moved the office of The Independent to Lafayette Street and what was known as the MAD Building. He had an office on the same floor, so I also ran errands for MAD. One of my errands was to deliver something to Bob and Ray at WINS. They were there reading newspapers while the commercial was on. The night previous, someone like Wolfman Jack had been playing rock and roll. I walked in and I remember Bob and Ray were joking about him. They said, "He probably goes home and listens to Henry Mancini records."

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)

Paul Krassner: They were cordial. It was fun and strange to see people who I only knew as disembodied voices on radio.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you become friendly with anyone at MAD Magazine?

Paul Krassner: Yes. The first Christmas, I still used my violin as a prop for performing. Bill Gaines invited me to perform at the Christmas party. That was a thrill because it was in his office and it was crowded with all these framed pictures on the wall of stuff by Basil Wolverton. I did my first script on a freelance basis for MAD. It was "If Comic Strip Characters Answered Those Little Ads in the Back of Magazines." It had things like Little Orphan Annie sending for Maybeline and Dick Tracy answering an ad for a nosejob. I had Alley Oop answering an ad for hair removal. It showed Alley Oop with all the hair removed from the side of his face, revealing he had no ears.

Kliph Nesteroff: I remember that very, very well. I had that issue when I was a kid and always thought it was hilarious. I never realized that you wrote that. 

Paul Krassner: Well, you must be the first person I've ever talked to who saw it.

Kliph Nesteroff: I must have been eight years old, but I didn't remember seeing your name on it.

Paul Krassner: Well, back then the artist got a credit, but for the writers they just put "Our Usual Gang of Idiots." Enough writers complained that they finally gave them bylines.

Kliph Nesteroff: MAD is sort of a precursor to your publication The Realist. Obviously it had a younger target audience and wasn't as lewd or political, but it had a very similar temperament. That combination of humor and subversive undertones. Seems like an organic outgrowth for you...

Paul Krassner: Art Spiegelman did his first cartoon in The Realist. He said it was graduate school for MAD readers and it's true. It was a decider in what The Realist would be - a MAD Magazine for adults. There were no satirical magazines for adults at that time. There was no Spy Magazine, no National Lampoon or in other forms either - no Saturday Night Live and no Doonsbury. I had an open field of taboos to explode.