Reflections on the Art of the Put-on
By Michael Dooley July 3, 2007
Reflections on the Art of the Put-on
By Michael Dooley July 3, 2007
Reflections on the Art of the Put-on
By Michael Dooley July 3, 2007

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 The Huffington 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 well-placed Punch.

Here Lies Paul Krassner

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 media.

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 Lenny Bruce.

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 journalism.”

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 for President.

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 throat.”

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 codes.

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 Papers.

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.”

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Michael Dooley is a History of Design, Comics, and Animation professor at Pasadena’s Art Center and Loyola Marymount University in L.A. He’s an author and since 1991 a Print Contributing Editor. He’s also the creative director of Michael Dooley Design.