The Realist

Paul Krassner is one of the great Corrupting Influences in my life, and unlike W.C. Fields with the woman who drove him to drink, I have thanked him for it. In the 50s and early 60s I spent much of my time reading Buck Rodgers Stuff that told me someday humans would walk on the moon, and The Realist warped my mind with similarly fantastic ideas in the social sphere: People of all colors should be allowed to eat in the same restaurants. No one should go to jail for selling a book with "bad words" in it. Have you ever wondered why J. Edgar Hoover is so interested in the Menace of Sexual Deviancy?

One fascinating thing about Krassner is that, like Marshall McLuhan, he went through full-blown conspiracy paranoia and came out the other side. [He wrote a book about the journey, called Confessions of a Raving Unconfined Nut.] Like many people I know, I sometimes sound as if I am in favor of maximum weirdness; in my more lucid moments, I know that what I want is optimum weirdness. In the 70s, The Realist was going beyond optimum towards maximum. Krassner stopped publishing, and when The Realist returned ten years later, he was, like the John Astin character in Night Court, "feeling much better now." He wrote one thing that made me fear a relapse (a suggestion that Colombian drug lords had orchestrated Jerry Rubin's apparently accidental death), but that turns out to be a satire, or at least it's in his collection of satires, The Winner of the Slow Bicycle Race [Seven Stories tpb] (which, by the way, I recommend to one and all).

The latest Realist opens with Krassner taking the rap for the recent fake Kurt Vonnegut graduation speech on the Internet. It also quotes Vonnegut's famous line from Mother Night: "Be careful what you pretend to be, because in the end, you are what you pretend to be." In his early career, Vonnegut pretended to be a lovable simpleton....

Of course, that method never works perfectly. From Slapstick on, Vonnegut's novels mostly read like the work of a lovable simpleton, but there were exceptions: Parts of almost every book, and sometimes almost entire books, like Jailbird, suggested that the author used to be Kurt Vonnegut.

The alleged graduation speech (by Chicago columnist Mary Schmich) was not written as a Vonnegut pastiche, but it works as one because it captures that mixture. Some of it reads like the Vonnegut who said that sometimes he wanted to be part of a primitive tribe so that he would know what to think, and sometimes he wanted to be an alligator, so he wouldn't have to think at all. But there's also the Vonnegut who still can't help thinking, who I could imagine saying, "Worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum."

There's lots of other good stuff thisish, including words by a Lenny Brucelike comic named by Bill Hicks, who died horribly young a couple of years ago. He was angry and bitter and filthy. There's a marvelously disgusting bit about Dick Clark submitting sexually to the Devil. Like life itself, satire isn't fair, and Hicks's stuff certainly wasn't; one often wants to say, "Yes, but..." Here's a typical line: "If the FBI's motivating factor for busting down the Koresh compound was child abuse, how come we never see Bradley tanks smashing into Catholic churches?"

I think the anger is the big change. Standup comics used to act angry, but we were all supposed to know that it was good-natured anger. (Actually, I learned something about standup comics from The Realist. I used to watch The Ed Sullivan Show. It had a different comic every week, but they were all named Jackie and they all ragged on their wives. I didn't understand why. Then Krassner interviewed an ex-stand-up comic, who explained that half the guys in the audience at a nightclub were dragged there by their wives and the other half are sneaking out on their wives. So when the comic says anything about wives, even simple abuse like "My wife is a piece of shit," the guys in the audience laugh and applaud, and the comic thinks he's being funny.)

But now it seems to be real anger. Even George Carlin, who used to be so mellow, is angry. I read Brain Droppings, and much of it is as funny as ever, but he's gone from "Isn't it weird how we use the word fuck" to "If you don't like what I'm saying, fuck off and die."

The Realist also features a marvelous bit of Politician Zen: a verbatim quote from Newt Gingrich that Congress should "make more laws that made making laws that made it easier to make fewer laws easier." That lacks the inspired terseness of Roshi Eisenhower's "Things are more like they are now than they ever were," but I daresay that meditating on Gingrich's words long enough could alter one's consciousness.