December 31st, 2004
A Merry Prankster Keeps On Chuckling
As a paid professional cage rattler, I owe a debt to Voltaire, William
and Mary of England, the Founding Fathers of the United States, H.L.
Mencken and Lenny Bruce, among others.
Without their contributions to the evolution of free speech, I might
not be able to share the opinion that second-rate minds got us into the
disastrous war in Iraq, that hell's hottest corner should be reserved
for religious hypocrites and fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and that
Michael Crichton is a menace and crackpot for suggesting that global
warming is a figment of our imagination.
All of this brings me to the subject of a fellow muckraker who is 72
years old, lives in Desert Hot Springs, never learned how to drive, was
labeled a "raving, unconfined nut" by the FBI and just got nominated
for a Grammy.
Paul Krassner, 72?
Hard to believe. He's the merry prankster, the unindicted
co-conspirator who hung out with the Chicago 7, coined the term
"Yippie" for the Youth International Party, published the
counterculture Realist magazine and demanded a paternity test when
People magazine called him "the father of the underground press."
The writer and stand-up satirist has appeared on college campuses,
"Late Night With Conan O'Brien" and at Desert Hot Springs Chamber of
Krassner headed inland four years ago because the desert was cheaper
than Venice, and followed a friend to a chamber breakfast or two.
"When the Iraq invasion began, everybody was saying the protesters were
unpatriotic. I stood up and introduced myself as a local writer and
comedian and antiwar patriot. I heard one person in the back of the
Seventy-two, and still poking people in the eye with a stick.
But you're wondering about the Grammy, right?
Krassner had a pal whose name was in the first paragraph of this
column, and I'm not talking about Voltaire or William and Mary. A
package of Lenny Bruce's best work was released on compact disc, and
Krassner was nominated for writing the liner notes.
Krassner and I have a mutual friend, former merry prankster Lee
Quarnstrom, who chuckled over Krassner's nomination. The Grammys, of
course, are a marketing tool of the entertainment industry."And here's
this guy the FBI said was a raving lunatic, or whatever they called
him," said Quarnstrom. "I just found it delightful that they nominated
him for a Grammy."
Krassner was just as surprised.
"I didn't even know they had a category in album liner notes," he says.
Krassner wrote a 5,000-word tribute to Bruce - a trailblazing rebel to
some and a drug-addled vulgarian to others - who trampled the
conventions of polite and safe comedy, held forth on subjects such as
nuclear buildups and abortion, and diabolically skewered political
posers and religious frauds.
This often landed Bruce in jail for violating obscenity laws and made
him the subject of a longtime campaign by comedians and activists who
wanted Bruce posthumously pardoned. Krassner's essay begins by tweaking
New York Gov. George Pataki for the language Pataki used last year in
granting the pardon.
"Freedom of speech is one of the great American liberties," Pataki
said, "and I hope this pardon serves as a reminder of the precious
freedoms we are fighting to preserve as we continue to wage the war on
In his liner notes, Krassner wrote:
"Lenny would have been simultaneously outraged by the hypocrisy and
amused by the irony that the governor had pardoned him in the context
of justifying the invasion of Iraq."
In summing up Bruce's legacy, Krassner included the following from
comedian George Carlin:
"Lenny Bruce opened the doors for all the guys like me; he prefigured
the Free Speech Movement and helped push the culture forward into the
light of open and honest expression." Bruce went after "the powerful
people, to puncture the pretentiousness and pomposity of the
In short, he challenged authority, a calling forgotten by all the
slobbering pundits and commentators who acted more like lapdogs than
watchdogs when the White House sold mainstream America on the glories
But what do you expect in an age in which Jack Kerouac is selling
khakis for the Gap, Bob Dylan is selling lingerie for Victoria's Secret
and Robert DeNiro is selling New York City for American Express?
Krassner says he wonders what Bruce would be saying if he were alive
today. Probably the same kind of things Krassner is saying.
He told me, for instance, that he can't believe Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger hasn't legalized steroids yet. He shared his awards of
distinction for the year of our Lord that ends tonight at midnight:
Best Perspective-Restoring Headline: Czech Supermodel Injured in Tidal
The Chutzpah Above and Beyond the Call of Duty Award: Mark Geragos,
attorney for Scott Peterson, for seeking donations to continue the
investigation into the murders of Peterson's pregnant wife "to help
free the man we know is innocent."
The Best Reason for Resigning Award: A tie: to Colin Powell, who wanted
to spend more time with his conscience, and to Bernard Kerik, who
wanted to spend more time with his nanny.
The Most Presidential Statement Award: To George W. Bush, who said,
"Today, we had a rocket attack that took a lot of lives. Any time of
the year is a time of sorrow and sadness when we lose a loss of life."
With thanks to Lenny Bruce and a shout-out to Voltaire, who once said,
"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your
right to say it," happy new year.
And don't trust anyone over 72.