Paul Krassner on Obama, Orgies, and the Art of Offensive Cartoons

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There’s something oddly funny about Paul Krassner. And it’s been going on for more than 50 years.

He palled around with Lenny Bruce, the pioneering 1950s “sick” comic, and even edited Bruce’s autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. He was instrumental in founding the Yippies!, those radical “Groucho Marxists” who fought the establishment in the late 1960s with theatrical, absurdist guerrilla monkeyshines. And as the editor of The Realist he paved the way for The Simpsons, The Daily Show, and Bill Maher. Kurt Vonnegut and Lewis Black are just two of the legions of fans who cite him as a major influence and inspiration.

The Realist was a proto-underground magazine of “Free-thought Criticism and Satire” begun in 1958. In its heyday, everyone from Norman Mailer and Joseph Heller to Woody Allen and Dick Gregory to Ken Kesey and Tim Leary to Art Spiegelman and S. Clay Wilson appeared on its cheap newsprint pages. Krassner’s most notorious publishing prank was his “Parts That Were Left Out of the Kennedy Book” hoax in 1967, presented as actual excerpts that Jacqueline Kennedy had removed from William Manchester’s The Death of a President prior to publication. Defying conventional norms of taste and decency, its climactic scene involved Jackie discovering LBJ engaged in necrophilia with JFK’s corpse on Air Force One. Many believed it was true, including Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg. You can read the full story in Krassner’s newly updated Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in the Counterculture.

Uncle Paul wants YOU… to be offended. Exclusive illustration for Imprint by Scott Gandell.

I was tricked into buying my first issue of The Realist. I’d been attracted by a cover illustration that looked like a Jules Feiffer cartoon but which turned out to be a clever parody (see below). Euphoric from the revelation that I’d been duped, and from the magazine’s provocative and challenging contents, I immediately ordered all available back issues. I also enrolled in the Free University classes Krassner mentions in the following interview. His guest speakers were a wide assortment of countercultural icons, including Abbie Hoffman, a pre–Saturday Night Live Michael O’Donoghue (who was then writing the Phoebe Zeit-Geist comic strip for Evergreen Review), and the extremely talented but sadly underappreciated cartoonist Dick Guindon (see his cartoons below).

Paul Krassner at the 2012 San Diego Comic Fest. Photo by Michael Dooley

I caught up with Krassner recently at San Diego’s first annual Comic Fest, a comic book convention with a beatnik and hippie vibe and guests such as the Tits & Clits Comix creator Joyce Farmer and the National Lampoon art director Michael Gross. During his spotlight presentation, Krassner discussed The Realist‘s infamous Disneyland Memorial Orgy cartoon drawn by Wally Wood, which depicted the anarchic antics of Uncle Walt’s cartoon creatures following the death of their God (seen in the foreground of the photo at left). He is currently selling it as a poster on his website.

The following is our conversation about cartoons and controversies, with samples of cartoons that have appeared in The Realist.


You can find The Realist‘s entire 146-issue run here. My thanks to Paul and Ethan Persoff for the images below. And the caption quotes are from Krassner’s “In Praise of Offensive Cartoons” essay in my book, The Education of a Comics Artist.

“In 1971, Stewart Brand invited Ken Kesey and me to edit The Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog, which would also serve as an issue of The Realist. Kesey had been reading a book of African Koruba stories. The moral of one parable was, ‘He who shits in the road will meet flies on his return.’ With that as a theme, we assigned R. Crumb to draw his version of the Last Supper.” March 1971

As the father of the Underground Press—your paternity test came back positive—you’re also the uncle of Underground Comix; who among this unruly brood do you most admire?

Well, it’s a species. Dan O’Neill, R. Crumb, Jay Lynch, Jay Kinney, Bill Griffith, Diane Noomin, Trina Robbins, S. Clay Wilson, Gilbert Shelton, Kim Deitch, Spain*, Melinda Gebbie, Bhob Stewart, Rick Griffin, Shary Flenniken, Ron Cobb, Justin Green, Vaughn Bode, and Art Spiegelman come to mind. With a variety of unique styles, these artists all had in common an acute case of irreverence, a stoned-or-straight imagination, a passionate sense of humor infused with justice and raunchiness, and an uncanny ability to articulate the consciousness—and the subconsciousness—of their countercultural audience.

[*Editor’s note: After this article was completed, we learned that the great Zap Comix artist Spain Rodriguez had passed away. Read more about his life and work in the San Francisco Chronicle’s obituary.]

When was the last time you were offended by a cartoon?

Over the last several years, not just one specific cartoon, but,
again, a whole species. Namely: images and captions that reeked with racist hatred toward Barack Obama.

On the subject of Obama caricatures, what’s your take on Barry Blitt’s 2008 “fist bump” cover? I felt that The New Yorker’s soft, Eustace Tilly style would’ve worked better as an illustration for a “Politics of Hate” feature inside a magazine, and that a grittier, graffiti-scrawl rendering of the same image would have made a more clear, concise cover statement.

Well, although I understood how people with a pro-Obama agenda might have worried that the cover would be misunderstood by a severely dumbed-down public, I thought it was a brilliant parody of the inaccurate negative stereotypes perpetuated by the right-wing propaganda machine. I felt Blitt captured the mood just fine.

So you also don’t believe that Blitt’s image can be de-legitimized in any way, even though anti-Obama hatemongers could easily appropriate it for their own cause?

Nope. Rod Serling once had a scene in one of his films—I forget what, but let’s just say it was a victim being sodomized with a broomstick—and a viewer did a copycat crime in real life. Serling said, “I am responsible to my fans, not for them.”

Okay, here’s a better example. Several decades ago, I was teaching a course, “Satire and Journalism, and How to Tell the Difference,” at the Free University in New York. There was a cartoon in The New Yorker showing a pianist standing at the front of a stage, announcing that, “Before I begin my concert, I just want to say that I’m opposed to the Vietnam War.” We had a class discussion about how subscribers to the conservative National Review would’ve experienced that cartoon on their magazine differently.

What contemporary cartoonists make you laugh?

Garry Trudeau. Dwayne “Mr. Fish” Booth. Wiley Miller—I fondly remember his syndicated comic strip, Non Sequitur, that presented a sidewalk artist who “finally achieves his goal to be the most feared man in the world,” with his placard advertising, “Caricatures of Muhammad While You Wait!”

So, what was your take on the Muhammad cartoons controversies?

As a secular humanist, I found it simultaneously tragic and absurd to witness so much unspeakable anguish caused by religious wars in the Middle East, being fought over deities in whose existence I disbelieve—Jehovah vs. Allah, Jesus vs. Muhammad—and, as a free speech advocate, to witness the death and destruction triggered by Danish cartoonists’ depictions of the Islamic prophet.

There are basic principles of semantics concerning symbolism—the menu is not the meal; the map is not the territory—which in this case serve only to intensify both the tragedy and the absurdity.

On what grounds did you reject cartoons submitted to The Realist?

If it wasn’t controversial enough, or lacked a sense of provocation, or the humor was really corny, or it perpetuated stereotypes, or it was simply something I had no urge to share.

Since one of your goals as editor of The Realist was to put yourself out of business, you must feel a sense of accomplishment from recent book collections like Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant to See [discussed here] and The Best of the Rejection Collection: 294 Cartoons That Were Too Dumb, Too Dark, or Too Naughty for The New Yorker. Still, post-retirement, do you ever feel tempted to publish material such as “The Parts Left Out of The Rejection Collection”? Or maybe a “Star Wars Memorial Orgy”?

Here’s the nail you hit smack on the head. You’ve just committed satirical prophecy, because I’m surrendering to that temptation right here on this very page, right at this very moment. I used to publish cartoons that were rejected by The New Yorker—too controversial or just plain bad taste—including my old friend Mort Gerberg. Upon the re-election of President Obama, he had the cartoon below rejected by The New Yorker. Instead, it was published in the weekly Columbia Paper in his regular “Out of Line” panel on the editorial page.

Mort Gerberg, November 2012

Do you have any cartoon-related predictions for 2013?

Inspired by your notion of a “Star Wars Memorial Orgy,” a cartoon will portray a SWAT team busting George Lucas for fucking the rotted corpse of Walt Disney.

May the farce be with you.

“When the Cuban missile crisis occurred, Richard Guindon created his most popular cartoon for The Realist… The cartoon captured a feeling of powerlessness that permeated the country.” November 1962

“Syndicated editorial cartoonist Frank Interlandi… told me that he simply could not conceive of a more appropriate reaction.” February 1961.

Left: “As the Vietnam War escalated, monks began immolating themselves as the ultimate form of protest.” Don Addis, March 1964. Right: Art Spiegelman, June 1967

Dick Guindon, May/June 1970

Charles Rodrigues, September 1968

Mort Gerberg, September 1966. Click to enlarge.

“New Yorker regulars sent me their cartoons that were rejected for controversial subject matter, poor taste, and taboo violation.” left: An unnamed New Yorker cartoonist, September 1966. right: “Lee Lorenz sent a cartoon, bypassing The New Yorker because he knew it would be rejected.” June 1967

Text by Paul Krassner, illustration by Bhob Stewart, October 1965

“John Francis Putnam, Mad’s art director, whose column in The Realist was titled ‘Modest Proposals,’ wrote one about the apocryphal publication of a collection, Tillie and Mac: Those Little Comic Books that Men Like, resulting in an obscenity charge. Accompanying this was Mad’s Sergio Aragones’ hysterical full-page parody of the genre.” March 1971

Psychedelicized logo by Jay Lynch, June 1967. The top left story opens Paul Krassner’s follow-up report on his “Parts That Were Left Out of the Kennedy Book.”

Dan O’Neill, opening spread of a story, October 1972. Click to enlarge.

Left: B Kliban, April 1964. Right: Sam Gross, April 1966

“The Realist was the first to publish Sam Gross, a mild-mannered accountant who visited my office with his samples one day and eventually replaced Charles Addams as the king of macabre cartoonists. … ‘Humor of the Handicapped’ was offensive to many, though lauded by disabled readers.” June 1964

Frank Cieciorka, March 1964

Richard Guindon, August 1966

Edward Sorel, June 1967

Robert Grossman, October 1972

“During a period of severe anti-Communist hysteria throughout the nation, John Francis Putnam and I responded by designing a patriotic poster.” 1963


See also: The Insider’s Guide To Creating Comics And Graphic Novels, available at