A Class Clown in the Court of Public Opinion
In Praise of Indecency: The Leading Investigative Satirist Sounds Off On Hyprocrisy, Censorship and Free Expression
2009 (Cleis Press)
The satiric voice and presence of the late Paul Krassner (1932-2019) is inextricably intertwined with at least a couple of decades of the American counterculture, beginning in the late 1960s. Along with Abbie Hoffman, Krassner is credited with having started the Yippies. He helped edit the autobiography How to Talk Dirty and Influence People written by his friend, the comedian Lenny Bruce. When he headed west, Krassner became friends with Ken Kesey and other Merry Pranksters, dropped acid with Groucho Marx, and hung out with John & Yoko.
The dust jacket for this posthumously published essay collection In Praise of Indecency include raves from seriocomedic novelist Tom Robbins and social critic and comedian George Carlin. Like these and the other irreverent figures he knew and spent time with beginning in the ´50s, there is a spunky exuberance to Krassner´s writing, a tone that is a blend of Benzedrine and Beat poetry. Like the writings he self-published for years in The Realist, each essay begins with a simple subject--the language surrounding obscenity in media, for example--and then begins to riff. Often, Krassner intentionally goes to absurd lengths to gleefully expose the hypocrisy of American society´s attempts to regulate everything that is biological, natural, free, and fun. In all of these essays, Krassner is challenging convention, a class clown in the court of public opinion.
Some of these essays succeed better than others. Pornography--from its representation of women, to what can (and cannot) be filmed, and more--is a recurring theme within these pages, and Krassner´s perspective (in 2021) feel like they are definitely from at least a couple of earlier generations. His views are definitely male, white, heterosexual, and privileged, and he seems to assume that the audience for his satire is, as well. The perspective of women, or queer-identifying individuals, or people of color are almost entirely absent.
When he is cooking with gas, his essays feel fresh and relevant (perhaps a sad indictment of American society, given that more than half a century has passed since Krassner began expressing his views in public). The title essay, ranting and jamming on what is considered "indecent" in media, reminded me of Carlin´s famous 1972 sketch about the "seven words you can never say on television."
If Howard Stern is a "shock jock," Krassner aims for a similar level of controversy, just with the written word instead of on the airwaves. Some entries in this collection I just find puzzling: an imagined interview with Pee Wee Herman and Pete Townsend, over child pornography possession? Or Krassner´s numeros writings about computer-generated kiddie porn, or scatological porn? Or the excerpt from his 1962 interview with author Norman Mailer, who claims that rape is a lesser evil than masturbation?
I mean, wha....?
Given their brevity, each entry in In Praise of Indecency begins to feel a bit superficial; they feel less like essays, and more like long social media posts. In one chapter, there is a stimulating premise of an idea--the link between pornography and the Manson family murders, hinting towards the fact that those killings were potentially not random at all--but Krassner doesn´t go much further than to tantalize and insinuate. He skates along the surface, but doesn´t seem to frequently shy away from ever plunging that deep.
These pieces are quick quips, some snarky beginnings to subjects that I would be interested in hearing more of his views on. But few of Krassner´s views contained here really go much further than openings, and I feel as though I leave each of these conversations still hungry for more--more meaning, more satisfaction, more depth. But perhaps that is beyond the scope of the author´s agenda, or of his satire in general?