Prairie Pop: An interview with mischievous media mogul Paul Krassner

Illustration by Jacob Yeates
Illustration by Jacob Yeates

In 1958, Paul Krassner founded The Realist, a magazine that inspired a generation of satirists and alternative-media moguls. You can draw a straight line from Krassner’s groundbreaking magazine to independent publications like the one you are holding in your hands. (However, when People magazine dubbed him the “father of the underground press,” Krassner shot back, “I demand a blood test.”)

Other independent publications such as I. F. Stone’s Weekly and The Village Voice debuted before The Realist, but Krassner’s magazine had the biggest impact on the 1960s literary landscape. It pioneered an envelope-pushing style that laid the groundwork for “New Journalists” such as Tom Wolfe; its contributors included Ken Kesey, Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, Lenny Bruce and Joseph Heller. The Realist had many taglines over the years, but the most apt was “The Truth Is Silly Putty.”

Because Krassner launched it with nothing more than a title and some loose change, he relied on friends and favors to keep the magazine afloat in the early days. He reached out to Mad magazine art director John Francis Putnam, who designed its logo and contributed a regular column named “Modest Proposals.” The Realist emerged as an adult analogue to that subversive kid’s magazine, and its popularity grew throughout the 1960s—reaching 100,000 subscribers at its peak.

With Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, Krassner co-founded the Youth International Party, or the Yippies—a name he coined. They plotted several absurdly serious spectacles, including an October 1967 protest/prank that brought together the politicized antiwar wing of the counterculture and the spiritual descendants of Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. Krassner observes, “It was West Coast mysticism mixing with East Coast politics.”

The Yippies held a press conference to publicize their antiwar rally. “It was a mutual exploitation,” Krassner tells me. “If we gave good quotes, they gave us good publicity.” There, they demonstrated a (fake) new drug named Lace—which caused people to take off their clothes and have sex. “We held a press conference and demonstrated this with live hippies who fucked in front of all the press,” Abbie Hoffman recalled in an interview that appeared in the seminal book Pranks! “It was a good put-on.”

Time magazine and several other news outlets covered it, especially because the Yippies claimed they were going to use Lace on the cops. Krassner was to play the reporter who accidentally got sprayed—and laid—but to his dismay he was scheduled to speak at an Iowa Writers’ Workshop event: “It was a literary conference that went on for a few days,” Krassner says. “I recall that I spoke about publishing The Realist, and censorship. Robert Stone, the novelist, was there and so was the San Francisco Mime Troupe.”

While in Iowa City, Krassner procured a big bag of cornmeal that the Yippies used in a mock-magical rite that would help them levitate the Pentagon. But before they could cast their silly spell, they had to deal with some bureaucratic red tape. “We applied for permits to raise the Pentagon 100 feet,” Hoffman said, but the request was rejected.

“How high do you want to levitate the Pentagon?” Krassner remembers a bemused government official asking, clearly in on the joke. The proposed height of 100 feet was deemed too high—if you’ll pardon the pun—”so we finally bargained them down to three feet.” Krassner and his Yippie pals got their permit, which they used to gain press attention. “It made for a good quote,” Krassner says. “And it served as an organization tool, using media manipulation to inform people about the demonstrations at the Pentagon.”

Another classic Krassner provocation was his red, white and blue “fuck communism!” poster, which was a kind of semiotic prank. By letting these two highly charged words battle it out in the same sentence, it showed how absurd it was for uptight people to get so worked up over either word. “I liked the incongruity of it,” Krassner says. “The same people who were rabid anti-communists were the same ones who got so up in arms over the word fuck.”

One Realist subscriber bought 25 posters and had them sent to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, the John Birch Society and presidential candidates Lyndon B. Johnson and Barry Goldwater. Krassner joked, “If the post office interfered, I would have to accuse them of being soft on communism.”

Kembrew McLeod plans to spend the summer trying to levitate Kinnick Stadium.

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