A portrait of the satirist as a child

First published here in April 2016.

At the Strand Book Store the other day, I came across Walt Kelly’s Ten Ever-Lovin’ Blue-Eyed Years with Pogo, a book that I cherished as a child. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Kelly’s comic strip was still running in the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin, and it was among my favorites, along with Peanuts. After school, I used to lie on my belly on the blue-carpeted floor of the living room, the last orange rays of the afternoon sun dappling the carpet through the window, and open the Bulletin to its last pages, where I studied these, and others, and laughed myself silly (though I imagine most of the time, given the subtle comedy of these strips, I merely smiled in recognition). Other books (mostly pictures, but words too) that I cherished at the time were Gelett Burgess‘s The Purple Cow and Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby, both of these published by Dover in fairly sturdy paperback editions. Paging through the Kelly book this weekend, I won’t say that my childhood came rushing back to me in some Proustian tsunami of memory, but quite a bit of it did.

For those who may not remember it, Pogo was an animal strip. Its lead character was Pogo Possum, and the stories meandered through Okeefanokee Swamp, populated by a frog named Churchy LaFemme, a porcupine named Porky, and an alligator named Albert, among the hundreds of characters major and minor who wandered in and out of the strip over its quarter-century lifetime. More to the point, Kelly often used the strip as political satire; in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the period covered by Ten Ever-Lovin’ Years, its most significant target was Joseph McCarthy, and in later decades Kelly would target the FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, and a gentleman from Whittier, CA, named Richard Nixon. In this odd way, I was introduced as a child to recent American history and contemporary politics and racism. And that’s not all; Kelly was, above all, a liberal humanist, and the strip just as often provided a melancholy reflection on a lost, prelapsarian paradise. “Pogo combined both sophisticated wit and slapstick physical comedy in a heady mix of allegory, Irish poetry, literary whimsy, puns and wordplay, lushly detailed artwork and broad burlesque humor,” says an anonymous Wikipedia editor. “[His] characters are a sardonic reflection of human nature — venal, greedy, confrontational, selfish and stupid — but portrayed good-naturedly and rendered harmless by their own bumbling ineptitude and overall innocence.”

This book was soon joined on my shelf by issues of Mad magazine, then enjoying something of a hey-day with the satiric treasure-box of the early 1970s to work through and before it became a brand under the ownership of Warner Communications; it was inexpensive, advertising-free, and owned and published by the anarchic William M. Gaines; and shortly thereafter by the early issues of the National Lampoon, both of these, too, featuring sophisticated artwork and a profound skepticism, even cynicism, towards the American popular and personal experience of the 1970s.

I read these as a boy between the ages of 7 and 13 or so (though the nonsense rhymes of Burgess may have been introduced to me earlier). It was an odd time to be growing up, and I was in an odd situation. My younger brother and I were often plopped down in front of the TV for dinner time as my parents worked on destroying their marriage in the kitchen, and we ingested Walter Cronkite’s coverage of the Vietnam War as we ingested our chicken or hot dogs or what-have-you. A few years later, I learned about American history and the United States system of government in social studies class, but during summer break in 1973 I learned how this worked in practice during the Watergate hearings. On a more personal level, I watched The Brady Bunch and All in the Family as my own parents’ marriage deteriorated, eventually ending in separation in 1970 and final divorce about a decade later.

When I first came upon satiric novels in my mid-teens, I must have recognized myself in some of their main characters. Both Gulliver and Huck Finn, the protagonists of the novels that bear their names, end up solitary, distinctly apart from the cultures that the novels satirized, Gulliver ensconced in a stable and Huck Finn ready to take to the river again. This voluntary alienation may be less a misanthropic nihilism than a strategic retreat. Although Gulliver doesn’t stand for Parliament or Huck Finn become an abolitionist, nonetheless they have been exposed to kindness and compassion as well as corruption. This retreat may, instead, be an acknowledgement that as individuals they are too easily corrupted by ideals (both real and false), practices, experience, and religious or social dogma that, upon a few moments of reflection, reveal themselves as catastrophically corrupt; Joseph Heller’s Something Happened reveals their ultimate psychic toll. As Pogo himself once famously said, We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Indeed. Since then I’ve become corrupt too, and unless you head for the stable or the river there’s really no way to avoid it.

I also remember that it wasn’t all satire. I enjoyed other kinds of humor and comedy, not least the gentler proddings of Robert Benchley, James Thurber, S.J. Perelman, and W.C. Fields (though all four had their darker moments as well), who are also finding their way back to my library after a long absence. All of this eventually led me to William Gaddis, Heller, Terry Southern, and the others. What I find curious is that I never tried to write satire in any focused way myself, given my pleasure and admiration for these writers and artists. Maybe I should have, but I imagine that what stopped me from doing so was the knowledge that Kelly, Twain, and Swift said it all far more effectively than I could. As Tom Lehrer once admonished, I feel that if a person can’t communicate, the very least he can do is shut up.

My daughters are now 6 and 7 and, most happily, one of the things their mother and I appear to have successfully handed down to them was this sense of humor, not least the first buds of skepticism and cynicism (this despite the fact that in high school the vice principal told me that I was too young to be so cynical, but I don’t think you can ever really be too young for that; it saves a great deal of time and sorrow). And what they like to do most, really, is laugh. One day not yet, but soon I’ll start slipping Pogo and Mad into their bookshelves, so that they can enjoy their first childhoods as I appear to be enjoying my second.

Paul Krassner on Charlie Hebdo

My photograph of the final resting place of Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Bernard Verlhac (Tignous) at the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise. Thanks to Marilyn Nonken for tracking this down.

I never met the late Paul Krassner in the flesh, but back in 2015, following the Charlie Hebdo shooting, I had the opportunity to ask him via email about his reaction to that terrible event. His response can be found in the below item, originally posted here on January 8, 2015.

Long before there was a Daily Show there was The Realist. Paul Krassner, who founded the magazine in 1958, is one of America’s most notorious satirists and a pioneer in the great period of American humor that included Lenny Bruce and so many others. He’s still going strong; in 2004, he received the ACLU Uppie (Upton Sinclair) Award for dedication to freedom of expression, and in 2010, the writers’ organization PEN honored him with their Lifetime Achievement Award. “I’m very happy to receive this award,” Paul said in accepting it, “and even happier that it wasn’t posthumous.”

As his biography indicates, he is no stranger to the kinds of controversies that Charlie Hebdo so regularly stirred up. I asked Paul this morning for a comment on Charlie Hebdo and the events of the last few days; this is what he told me:

This massacre is an awesome outrage, even to liberals and conservatives alike, although some dinosaur Republicans might try to blame Obama. It’s a horrendous violation of semantic principles, such as “The menu is not the meal” and “The map is not the territory.” As an atheist, I perceive the irony of those assassins shouting “God is great” to justify their insane act in the name of a deity that I believe doesn’t exist.

And what could happen in America? Security guards protecting the “Onion” offices? Treat “Funny or Die” as Islamic marching orders? Invade the cyberspace of NBC for broadcasting “Saturday Night Live” until it morphs into “Saturday Night Dead” if it’s not already deceased?

Religions continue to rationalize their dogma, from birth to death — and then comes the hereafter for these Muslim murderers where all those virgins supposedly waiting to greet the Muslim murderers in Nirvana are busy reading “Lysistrata.” OMG has declared war on LOL.

Paul Krassner

Paul Krassner (1932-2019).

UPDATE: In 2015, Paul responded to my request for a comment about the Charlie Hebdo massacre. You can find that response here.

Satirist Paul Krassner, the founder of the magazine The Realist, took The Final Step yesterday at his home in Desert Hot Springs, CA, at the age of 87. The New York Times obituary is here.

Coincidentally, I’ve just been re-reading his 1993 memoir Confessions of a Raving Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in the Counter-Culture, which Krassner himself updated seven years ago and offered for sale on his web site (though it’s unlikely now you’ll be able to get an autographed copy). The book charts Krassner’s career and personal life, from his debut on the Carnegie Hall stage at the age of six through the raising of his daughter; more, it charts in its own idiosyncratic way a part of American history we’re still learning to live with. The Realist was founded in 1958, four years after the fall of Joseph McCarthy and six years after the debut of Mad magazine, where Krassner was a freelance contributor; Mad‘s publisher William Gaines generously provided office space for Krassner’s own magazine. Over the next 43 years, Krassner and his contributors pursued a line of absurdist investigative satire that attracted writers such as Norman Mailer, Terry Southern, Joseph Heller, Mort Sahl, and Lenny Bruce (Krassner also “edited” Bruce’s own autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People). The symbiotic relationship of Mad and The Realist — both as businesses (early on) and in their aesthetics — led to other satiric magazines such as the National Lampoon and Spy. Both of those magazines, of course, closed down long ago; Krassner closed down The Realist in the first year of this new century; and, as you likely have already heard, Mad magazine will cease regular publication later this year.

The argument’s been made that we have no more magazines of this kind because we no longer need them. They’ve so deeply influenced popular culture to a degree that they’ve rendered themselves irrelevant, the thinking goes. Who needs Mad when you’ve got Mad TV? National Lampoon when you’ve got Saturday Night Live? Spy when you’ve got Last Week with John Oliver and countless other comedy programs on video, from the major networks to YouTube?

Well, as it turns out, we may need them more than ever, and for a variety of reasons. Reading the pages of a magazine or a book is a more intimate variety of communication than watching a video; a reader is, at the best of times, actively interpreting the nuance of word and image, can go back over it, think about it at his or her own pace. The production of a print magazine, too, is more cost-efficient than garnering the resources of a television network for a weekly program (and this program at higher risk of cancellation than a magazine). Finally, both broadcast and paid mass media are more at the whim of self-appointed censors and Standards and Practices departments than magazines and books, as the National Lampoon writers who moved to Saturday Night Live discovered to their chagrin. Mad (in its first few decades) and The Realist ran little to no advertising and were beholden to no advertisers.

Most important to me is that first quality: the intimacy of reading. As Victor Klemperer pointed out, language is one of the first victims of a totalitarian society. One of the reasons that magazines such as these had the corrupting effect on me that they did was because I could absorb not only the parody and satire of their contemporary targets, but also their worldviews: primarily, skepticism and a certain kind of cheerful nihilism. Ultimately, their message was that you can’t entirely trust anyone — that people in authority all have their reasons to lie to you, and they will if they must. This includes people in the White House, in Congress, in advertising agencies, in classrooms, in churches and synagogues. You are not, as Jonathan Swift, pointed out, a “thinking animal”; you are an “animal capable of thinking,” which is not at all the same thing. Your duty as a human being is to take advantage of that capability. And if you can make fun of those who are lying to you, all the better: it knocks them down several notches, and laughter is often preferable to tears.

This perspective isn’t something you’re going to get from an entertainment conglomerate, a government, or a church (and, it should be pointed out, you shouldn’t entirely trust Mad or The Realist either). But it is a perspective that we need if we’re “live in truth,” as Vaclav Havel put it. It’s no wonder that one of the greatest satiric novelists of the twentieth century, Vladimir Voinovich, lived under a totalitarian regime. Critical thinking, leavened by a sense of humor, may be the greatest threat to tyranny. And the more deeply we can ingrain that habit of critical thinking — through a critical attitude towards language, which we can gain only if we read — the more ready we are to fight against tyranny, whether governmental, physical, or metaphysical.

The entire print run of Paul Krassner’s magazine The Realist is available here, and a 2016 anthology of cartoons originally published in the magazine is available here. In September Fantagraphics Books will publish Zapped by the God of Absurdity: The Best of Paul Krassner, an anthology of his work. It’s available for pre-order here.

 

The good kind of corruption

The cover of a 1967 anthology I owned in my teen years.

While the roots of the literary genre of “black humor” lie in a variety of places (certainly many of Mark Twain’s novels, stories, and essays exhibit the dark, hallucinatory qualities associated with the genre; Jonathan Swift, Nathanael West, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline qualify for the label, and André Breton’s Anthology of Black Humor, gathering more than 40 mostly French specimens, was published in 1940), it wasn’t until 1945 and the post-WWII era that it truly blossomed in the United States. Perhaps it was the development of the atomic bomb that led to a deeper sense of nihilism and pessimism; perhaps it was the increasingly consumerist nature of American culture and entertainment; perhaps it was the yawning gap between American ideals and American reality, becoming ever more obvious after the war, that inspired the writers who placed the absurd lengths to which hypocrisy could extend under their microscopes. Instead of subjecting this hypocrisy to handwringing sorrow, though, the genre subjected it to ridicule. If WWII was supposed to be a war that made the world safe for peace, love, and understanding, it was also a war that generated the weaponry that could destroy the entire human race, and the world it infested, in the space of just a few hours; in the meantime, the corruptions of the culture wormed their way into the hypocritical corruptions of Americans themselves, generating an almost desperate denial of the condition into which the race had contorted itself. The black humorists decided the only sane response was to laugh, especially at themselves, as guilty as the rest of the species.

As I noted yesterday, I blame myself for the corruption of my daughters, budding black humorists themselves; I blame my parents for my own corruption. Among my earliest memories is the night that my parents, wanting to save a few dollars on a babysitter, put my brother and I in the back seat of the car, then drove to a local drive-in theater to see Dr. Strangelove, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb. Of course, they wanted to see the movie themselves (Bambi was a more acceptable children’s film), and I can’t vouch for the validity of this, but something must have rubbed off, even at that young age. Within a few years I was subscribing to Mad magazine; by the time I was in my teens I’d moved on to National Lampoon, Paul Krassner’s briefly revived The Realist, and R. Crumb, but I was also turning to more literary exemplars of black humor: Joseph Heller (my father owned a well-thumbed paperback copy of Catch-22), Terry Southern, and William Gaddis, as well as their ancestors Swift, Twain, West, and Céline .

Lucky I was to live in that time, because the values which this work instilled in me have stood me in good stead: a rejection of blind, moralizing authority; a healthy disrespect for pretension and arrogance; a preference for difficult and ugly truths over comforting and self-satisfying lies; and the bravery and courage to confront hypocritical authority, pretension, arrogance, and lies with creative, subversive, comic ridicule, preferably accompanied by a good stiff drink. Good lessons, I think, for me to pass along to my daughters, and it’s a joy to revisit these works again in the company of my own children. As Twain himself — speaking through Satan — wrote at the end of his life:

Will a day come when the race will detect the funniness of these juvenilities and laugh at them — and by laughing at them destroy them? For your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon — laughter. Power, Money, Persuasion, Supplication, Persecution — these can lift at a colossal humbug, — push it a little — crowd it a little — weaken it a little, century by century: but only Laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.

And, as God Himself recently said,

Drunk, stoned, brilliant, and still dead

Last night my daughters (nine- and ten-years-old) did their father’s heart good by suddenly launching into the creation of some of the most nihilistic, in-bad-taste, NSFW comics I’ve ever had the pleasure to enjoy. At first I thought that the girls had gotten into my R. Crumb collections, but a quick reconnoiter of the bookshelves revealed that they’d been untouched. Larded with references to popular culture (even Dr. Phil and Juul), their comics exhibited the frenzied, id-driven coarseness and humor that I’ve enjoyed since I was their age, poring over the pages of Mad magazine. Truly, they are their father’s children. Their mother viewed the comics with some dismay, but unfortunately my genes seem to have ranked supreme in the sense-of-humor department.

Interesting that these traits should appear now, as they’re just on the cusp of puberty and adolescence, but there is a time for everything. It reminded me of the below essay that first appeared here in 2017; I will follow up with additional notes, inspired by the work of my own darling satirists, in the next few days.

It appears that outrage-fatigue is beginning to affect American comedians as well as everybody else. After a few months of the Trump administration, SNL, after a promising start, is recycling rapidly aging caricatures of Trump and figures in his administration as they used to recycle sketches like “The Coneheads” and “The Bees,” each iteration becoming more tired; even John Oliver, in the first episode of the latest season of his otherwise laudable investigative-satire program Last Week Tonight, seems a little lost.

Earlier this week Marilyn and I turned to Netflix to watch Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, Douglas Tirola’s 2015 documentary about the late National Lampoon magazine, which flourished in the 1970s before declining to a state at which, currently, it’s the clearing house for a brand name that can be rented then attached to pretty much anything or anyone that has the money to purchase it. During its glory years — 1970 to 1975, more or less — it was one of the best-selling magazines in the nation. Deliberately positioned as a humor magazine to bridge the MAD Magazine-New Yorker age gap, it was always a commercial endeavor, but the stars so aligned that it also proved an outlet for some of the best, most outrageous literary parodists and satirists of post-Kennedy America. Its quick demise begs the question: What happened in the first place?

Some satire, like Gulliver’s Travels, Candide, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, lasts, and some doesn’t. “Satire is what closes on Saturday night,” as the decidedly non-satiric American comic playwright George S. Kaufman once put it. Well, the bad sort closes, but obviously there are exceptions, and that’s because although most satire is directed at corrupt contemporary targets that are rapidly lost in the midst of time, those targets stand in as metonyms for the deeper corruptions of the human heart. The British/French military and political conflict that Swift parodies in the first book of Gulliver stands in for the arrogance and foolishness of nation-states; the attack on Leibniz’s philosophy which sparked Candide is also an attack on sentimental optimism itself; and Twain’s satire of race relations and clannish feuding in the pre-Civil War America of Huckleberry Finn is now read as a satiric exploration of the American ideals of democracy and community themselves. Eighteenth-century European politics, a philosophical dispute from the same century, and the socioeconomic situation of the American South in the 1830s have all become somewhat academic, but not the observations about the human condition that these satirists drew from these local circumstances.

The triumvirate of satirists who steered National Lampoon through its first five years — Douglas Kenney, Henry Beard, and Michael O’Donoghue — were, first and foremost, literary satirists. Kenney’s influences included Evelyn Waugh, James Thurber, and Ronald Firbank (the last also a major influence on British playwright Joe Orton); Beard decided to devote his career to literary humor after his exposure to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, perhaps the greatest of post-war American Menippean satires; O’Donoghue’s background was extraordinarily wide-ranging as a habitue of Greenwich Village in the 1960s, though he seems to have been most inspired by the novels of Terry Southern and William S. Burroughs. The best of the short prose essays and other material that appeared in National Lampoon from those years, and the level of baroque style and parody, easily rank with and outshine those of Thurber, Robert Benchley, and S.J. Perelman in their heyday, and unlike the pieces by Woody Allen and others in the New Yorker (however accomplished and of permanent value as some of these are), their work was tinged with the fire of outrage and a keen anarchic sense of the fraudulence of the time and the heart. Even more than Twain, their immediate satiric ancestor was Nathanael West, whose apocalyptic vision of an urbanized, trivia-besodden America in the 1930s, especially in the revelatory riot that closes The Day of the Locust, offered no hope or respite from the corruptions of the spirit.

The Lampoon‘s best work exemplifies all this. Kenney’s spot-on parody of Che Guevara’s diaries reveals the blind, insipid, delusional idealism at the heart of political revolution (especially in an age of celebrity); O’Donoghue’s “Vietnamese Baby Book” is a masterful deconstruction of the savagery and sentimentality that exist simultaneously at the heart of American culture; and Henry Beard’s “Law of the Jungle” is a genuinely astonishing satire not only of the law but also of the human race’s relationship to the natural world. Later, the best movies under the Lampoon banner also transcended their initial subjects. Animal House (co-written by Kenney) explored the disasters that occur when naivete meets reality, Vacation laid bare the anxieties that the commodification of leisure time produces. (I apologize for all this, and thoroughly deserve some lampooning of my own for these interpretations for what are, after all, just barely grown-up versions of the funny pages.)

In 1975 or so, O’Donoghue left the National Lampoon for what he thought were the greener pastures of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, which debuted in that year. Kenney and Beard were, in a way, luckier. Their friend Rob Hoffman in negotiating their contacts in 1970 schemed to include a clause in which publisher Matty Simmons could buy out their contacts based on a multiple of the percentage of the magazine’s value. Kenney and Beard opted to take the buyout, which made them multi-millionaires before they were 30. Kenney went Hollywood and, unable to negotiate the demands and successes of fame, died in a fall from a Hawaiian lookout (whether he jumped, slipped, or was pushed remains a matter of conjecture) in 1980; Beard retired into private life, still writing, and refused to discuss his career with the magazine until he resurfaced in Tirola’s documentary four decades later; the magazine itself had a few more good if not great years under the supervision of Tony Hendra, P.J. O’Rourke and others before its precipitous decline.

Ironically, the reasons for its decline are more numerous than the reasons for its success. By 1975 the political scene in America was becoming more fractured and polarized, and students were increasingly irritated to be told by a bunch of white, upper-middle-class Ivy League elitists that their ideals were illusory at best (while several women were regular contributors to the magazine, including Anne Beatts, Emily Prager, and Shary Flenniken, the skin color in staff photographs of the time is as white as the driven snow); the sophomoric-tastelessness-for-the-sake-of-sophomoric-tastelessness that was always a feature of the magazine began to overtake the more ambitious satires as publisher Simmons strove to drive profits higher and higher; magazine circulations themselves became locked in a struggle against the growth of electronic media. And perhaps the most influential of early Lampoon staffers, Michael O’Donoghue, found that he was unable to tailor his own dark apocalyptic vision to the requirements of the entertainment industry — and O’Donoghue desperately sought commercial success — before his own early death from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 54.

So what of literary satire in the Trump age, given the great achievements of American satire in the half-century before it? Are irony and satire dead — has the future become so dark that we can’t joke about it any more? The same things were said after the Nixon administration, after 9/11, and we’re no closer to a response now than we were then. I doubt there’s an answer in the small shelf of books (and a documentary) now devoted to the history of the Lampoon, its influence, and its offshoots. (These include Tony Hendra’s still-indispensable Going Too Far, Ellin Stein’s That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick, and Josh Karp’s biography of Kenney, A Futile and Stupid Gesture, which is now being adapted into a film for Netflix.) But inspiration can still be sought in the best of its achievements, even if where we go from here is still something of a mystery.