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Reading Steven Heller's “interview”
with Steven Jobs last week brought to mind a comment Rudy
VanderLans once made to me, which I quoted in “Kicking Up a Little
Dust,” a 1992 Print feature. He described Massimo
Vignelli's fashion designs as “resembling prison clothes.” As far
as I know, no one ever solicited a response from Vignelli.
I also recalled a profile I wrote for the 2000 AIGA Journal
of Graphic Design's “Truth” issue. Although its relation to
design may be somewhat tenuous, it's reprinted here in response to
the Jobs piece for whatever amplification and encouragement it
might provide. My subject, Paul Krassner, is now in
semi-retirement, no longer publishing, but occasionally writing for
Post. A few back copies of his Realist magazine,
including the issue containing the full text of “The Parts That
Were Left Out of the Kennedy Book,” are available online to download.
I'm pleased to see Heller continuing in Krassner's satiric
spirit. America's rapacious consumer culture, not to mention the
design field in general, will continue to benefit from a
Reprinted from AIGA Journal of Graphic Design,
vol.18, no. 2, 2000.
The truth is vastly overrated.
Oh sure, it's easy to condemn news programs, advertisers and
websites for falsifying information. But we should also consider
the upside of lying. In essence, a hoax is a lie. Skillfully
executed, it can serve to subvert the authority of the mass
During last year's anti-World Trade Organization protests,
activists wrapped a four-page bogus section around several thousand
copies of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer prior to sales.
The parody contained fabricated news items mocking corporate
malfeasance. Readers were tricked, if only for a moment, into
mistaking antiestablishment propaganda for official propaganda.
This “culture jamming” is part of a tradition of guerrilla
communication that includes Russian samizdat, John Heartfield's
photomontages and Situationist détournement. And let's not forget
the mischief made by Paul Krassner.
Over the past half-century, Krassner has been personally
responsible for some of the cleverest put-ons ever foisted upon an
unsuspecting audience. He is founder and editor of The
Realist, a magazine once described by the Library
Journal as the best satirical publication in America.
People magazine called Krassner the father of the
underground press—but he demanded a blood test.
In 1958, during the repressive Eisenhower era, when the
country's only satirical publication was the teen-oriented
Mad, that he read Esquire's “America Needs a
Punch” by Malcolm Muggeridge, the British humor magazine's former
editor. Taking the article as a personal directive, the 26-year-old
Krassner debuted his 35-cent, 32-page pulp paper monthly, with a
base of 600 subscribers and himself as the only staff member.
The Realist was a confluence of factors: his knowledge of
the tradition of alternative journalism from Ben Franklin's and Tom
Paine's broadsides to I. F. Stone's Weekly; his experience
as a Mad writer and stand-up raconteur; and his desire to
share the delight he felt as a child when he realized he'd been
fooled into believing radio performers Jack Benny and Fred Allen
were feuding in real life.
From the outset, The Realist was a courageous magazine,
printing material no other publication would touch. It dealt with
free speech, abortion rights, women's equality and psychedelics
long before these topics surfaced in the mainstream media. Through
articles and interviews it included countercultural icons such as
authors Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Terry Southern, Ken Kesey and
Kurt Vonnegut, as well as comedians Dick Gregory, Mort Sahl and
Krassner financed The Realist through his freelance
income, mostly as a writer and performer. Uncompromisingly
independent, he's never accepted ads or conducted marketing
surveys, on the grounds that he might be influenced about what he
prints. The only common denominator he sees among readers is “an
irreverence for all the pious bullshit that surrounds us.” The
Realist was originally subtitled “An Angry Young Magazine,”
but over the years it's used many tag lines, including “The Truth
Is Silly Putty.”
The Realist #42, 1963.
The Realist's first foray into media flimflam was the
infamous TV hoax of 1960. At the time television fare was
purposefully bland, as hypersensitive programmers lived in fear of
alienating their market. A Southerner, after seeing what he thought
was a Negro man kissing a white woman on TV, wrote a letter
threatening never to buy the sponsor's product again. So the
sponsor flew an account executive to the man's home to prove that,
due to faulty transmission at the local station, the leading man
only appeared black. “In truth,” Krassner noted, “like so many
leading men, he was colorless.”
To skewer this paranoid mindset, Krassner selected a
particularly innocuous, inane NBC game show, Masquerade
Party, and told readers to send indignant letters to the
network, sponsors and ad agencies, claiming to take offense at some
unspecified incident on a particular broadcast date. The station
received more than a hundred such “complaints.” The sponsors were
infuriated. The network sent letters of apology. The producers
phoned people individually to assure each of them that he or she
was the only one who had complained. All the while, no one had a
clue as to what they were reacting to. Even more remarkable is that
the thousands of Realist readers all kept the prank a
secret from NBC.
In 1971 Krassner “reported” the first waterbed fatality, a
fictional account of a man who was electrocuted when his TV with
frayed electrical wires fell into a puddle made by a waterbed
punctured by his cat's claws. The item was picked up by the San
Francisco Examiner and KCBS news, and at a furniture
manufacturers' convention a resolution was passed calling for
higher safety standards in the manufacture of waterbeds. Krassner
is proud of what he considers an act of “preventive
Krassner never draws the line between truth and satire. “I don't
want to take away from the reader the pleasure of discerning it for
themselves,” he says. In 1966, when The Realist reprinted
an actual item from the well-respected Journal of the American
Medical Association that dealt with drinking glasses, tennis
balls and other foreign bodies found in patients' rectums, he was
accused of having a perverted mind. One subscriber wrote, “I found
the article thoroughly repellent. I trust you know what you can do
with your magazine.”
The Realist published Lenny Bruce's obituary in 1964,
when the comedian was still alive. Krassner, who had edited Bruce's
autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, had
begun to write about the literal and figurative trials of his
friend, whose views on religion and obscenity made him the target
of government prosecution. At one point, he realized that Bruce,
who was being denied his livelihood, might as well be dead. After
it ran Krassner received several inquiries from the media, who
wanted to know the meaning of the obituary. The meaning became
starkly evident two years later when Bruce, after enduring
continued, relentless harassment and persecution, died from an
overdose of morphine.
Among Krassner's other satirical prophecies was his 1976 “Sneak
Preview of Richard Nixon's Memoirs,” published in Chic, in
which Nixon insisted that Watergate was a setup to get rid of him
as President. About a decade later, Tricky Dick made that exact
claim on a network television interview.
Krassner's coining of the term “Yippie” on New Year's Eve of
1967 can be considered a massively successful hoax inasmuch as he
created a group—oxymoronically, an anarchist organization—simply by
defining it. He wanted a word to describe what he saw as “the
organic coalition of psychedelic dropouts and political activists”
that had performed an exorcism of the Pentagon and engaged in other
absurd theatrics. He settled on “Yippie!” when he realized it would
also function as an effective rallying cry. He then decided YIP
should stand for Youth International Party, with the dual meaning
of “party.” This instant myth helped draw radicalized hippies to
Chicago the following year to demonstrate at the Democratic
National Convention. The media became involuntary recruitment
co-conspirators, providing millions of dollars' worth of free
publicity as they reported on Yippie events such as running a pig
The Realist #74, 1967.
Krassner's most inflammatory hoax was the cover story of the May
1967 issue, “The Parts that Were Left Out of the Kennedy Book.” The
book in question was The Death of a President, written by
the historian William Manchester with the authorization of the
Kennedy family. The public's curiosity had been ignited by news
that Jacqueline Kennedy was demanding portions of the manuscript
she felt offensive be deleted. Failing to obtain the missing
material, Krassner, in his role of investigative satirist, decided
to author it himself.
Like Jonathan Swift, with his “Modest Proposal” that eating
Irish babies was a solution to famine and overpopulation, Krassner
attempted to make the excerpts as convincing as possible. He
imitated Manchester's style and improvised on information that was
a matter of record, such as that Jackie had told the writer Gore
Vidal she'd witnessed Lyndon Johnson leaning over John Kennedy's
casket, chuckling. In Krassner's version, she watches him moving
rhythmically while crouched over the corpse. “And then I
realized—there is only one way to say this—he was literally fucking
my husband in the throat. In the bullet wound in the front of his
Krassner, who believes the ultimate target of satire should be
its audience, included an editor's note requesting readers include
their zip code when canceling their subscriptions. Those who opened
the magazine eager for sensationalistic revelations found
themselves shocked to have their expectations met in the extreme.
Others who complacently accepted daily reports of the
presidentially sanctioned napalming of Vietnamese villages found
themselves revolted by Johnson's “neck-rophilia.” Cancellations
poured in, with subscribers dutifully including their zip
There was no official White House reaction; any denial would, in
effect, be a concession that the incident was credible. As Krassner
pointed out in a follow-up report, one of Johnson's favorite jokes
is about a popular Texas sheriff running for reelection whose
opponents decide to spread a rumor that he fucks pigs: “We know he
doesn't, but let's make the son of a bitch deny it.” However, news
of the story had become so widespread that UPI correspondent
Merriman Smith felt compelled to make a statement. In a ludicrously
contorted attempt to discredit the story yet remain within the
bounds of propriety, he wrote, “It is filth attributed to someone
of national stature supposedly describing something Johnson
allegedly did. The incident, of course, never took place.”
The article was intended as a metaphorical truth about LBJ's
crudity and lust for power. But there were many who accepted it as
fact, including an ACLU lawyer, a Peabody Award-winning newsman and
people in high levels of the intelligence community who were in a
position to know that such activities occur. Daniel Ellsberg
believed it, and he would eventually go on to release the Pentagon
Krassner never topped that notorious stunt, although his 1975
Crawdaddy article, “A Friendly Conversation with Patty
Hearst,” earned him a visit from FBI agents. They were looking for
the fugitive newspaper heiress, even though he had her state that
the FBI was partly responsible for her kidnapping.
Krassner's toying with the FBI was a mild form of poetic
retaliation for the Bureau's own “hoaxes” against him. Their smear
campaign included a poison-pen letter to the editor of
Life magazine in 1968 after it had published a favorable
profile of Krassner. Written by an agent under a false name, it
accused Krassner of being “the cuckoo editor of an unimportant,
smutty little rag” and “a raving, unconfined nut.” Although
Life didn't print the letter, it did publish one that
read, “Regarding your article on that filthy-mouthed, dope-taking,
pinko-anarchist, pope-baiting yippie-lover: cancel my subscription
immediately!” Krassner had written it himself. The following year,
the FBI's character assassination took a more literal turn when it
produced and distributed a “Wanted” poster in black neighborhoods.
Photos of Krassner and other political leftists were set inside a
swastika, with accompanying text stating that the only way blacks
can free themselves is by assassinating these Jews.
The FBI was wise to consider Krassner a threat to the
established order. Through his insightful, incisive iconoclasm, he
has proven to be, as Joseph Heller observed, “a formidable bulwark
against pollution by cant and hypocrisy.” He's also demonstrated
the enormous power and potential of alternative media.
Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut.
The Realist's circulation peaked at 100,000 in the late
1960s. It was discontinued in 1974, when Krassner experienced a
period of burnout, and started again in 1985 during the Reagan
administration. It's now a 12-page quarterly newsletter with a
circulation of a few thousand. After five collections of his work
and an autobiography, Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined
Nut, he's announced this winter's issue will be The
Realist's last. At 68, he's decided to concentrate on novels,
which he finds challenging, even though he's been making up
material all his life. “But that was journalism,” he says.
To a large extent, Krassner has achieved his original goal: “To
put myself out of business by helping to liberate communication by
example.” As he predicted in 1962, controversy has become a
commodity, and much of what used to appear in The Realist
can now be found in mainstream outlets. The whereabouts of the
presidential penis receives regular media scrutiny. (Author's
reminder: this article was written during the Clinton presidency.)
Websites maintain lists of objects recovered from rectums. And
countless internet users were recently deceived into believing a
Chicago Tribune writer's column advising “wear sunscreen”
was actually an MIT commencement address by Kurt Vonnegut. Krassner
claimed he was the perpetrator of this cyberhoax, but even if he
wasn't, he deserves credit.
Because The Realist is an extension of Krassner's
unique personality, once it's gone there will never be another
publication remotely like it. He's always considered his magazine
to be art rather than commerce, and “as art, it can't be imitated.”
Certainly through his hoaxes Krassner has amply fulfilled Picasso's
definition of art as “the lie that makes people see the truth.”
If you could ask the Apple visionary just one question, what would it be? Probably not what’s on Heller’s mind.
Section: Inspiration -
interview, Voice, culture
Is graphic design still a hothouse for experimentation? McCoy suggests there is more going on today, but the venues and media have changed—for the better.
Section: Inspiration -
history, interview, Voice
This film will allow designers of my generation and after, to learn about how it all worked before computers, and it will serve to honor the folks who made that transition from hand to digital, for their experience and skills that most designers and illustrators will never know again.
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