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Merry Prankster still stirring the pot

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It's been said that comedy -- with its aggressively entrepreneurial spirit, its endless on-the-road grind, its cutthroat competition and its take-no-prisoners attitude and emphatic "kill" or "die" vocabulary -- is a young persons' game.

Don't bother telling that to Paul Krassner.

The iconic American writer/comedian/activist, who turns 78 on Friday, the day he arrives in town to take part in the 2010 Winnipeg Comedy Festival, insists that humour, and the ability to create it, is nothing more or less than a state of mind.

"I have a young state of mind, because I'm constantly curious and constantly sensitive to contradictions," says Krassner. "So of course, I reject that stereotype about young comics, because I try to be as contemporary as possible. Age is just something chronological that you can't fight."

Krassner has been a fixture on his country's pop-culture firmament for more than half a century, having written gags for MAD magazine, edited Lenny Bruce's autobiography, co-founded the anti-establishment Youth International Party (Yippies) in 1967 with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, dropped acid with Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey (and, for that matter, Groucho Marx) and created the satirical magazine The Realist.

He has made guest appearances opposite the likes of Conan O'Brien and Bill Maher, contributed columns to publications ranging from Rolling Stone and The Village Voice to High Times and Adult Video News, released six comedy albums and authored nearly a dozen books.

In short, he has been there, and he has done that. Which, of course, makes Krassner a fitting choice for the local comedy fest's first stab at a new feature called Storytellers (Saturday at 4 p.m., Gas Station Theatre), whose participants are asked to focus more on biographical perspectives and philosophical insights than the standard setups and punchlines found in other comedy shows.

"It's an interesting concept; it's not without wit," Krassner says. "A lot of times, people in show business try to appeal to the lowest common denominator -- producers and directors and editors will often say, 'We really like this, but they won't get it.' I just don't make that separation between myself and an audience. It's a two-way street.

"I try to appeal to the highest common denominator, so I don't feel like I'm condescending. There's a sense of equality, and I feel that I learn as much from the audience as they might learn from me."

The Storytellers show, which is hosted by CBC Radio fixture Bill Richardson, also features Gordon Pinsent, Barry Kennedy, Tabatha Southey, Michael Muhammad Knight, hannah_g and Charles Demers. Tickets for Storytellers are $17.95 at Ticketmaster.

Krassner is also slated to take part in Sunday's sold-out edition of The Debaters, facing off against Winnipeg-born comic Bruce Clark in a discussion of '60s hippies' contribution to the cultural landscape.

A launch event for his latest book, Who's To Say What's Obscene?: Politics, Culture & Comedy in America Today, will be held Saturday at noon at Mondragon Bookstore & Coffeehouse. Admission is free.

Having spent many nightclub hours in close quarters with the legendary Lenny Bruce, whose often-profane explorations of religion and politics landed him in jail on several occasions, Krassner says the current generation of F-bomb-dropping comedians doesn't really understand what Bruce was trying to accomplish by pushing the comedic envelope.

"He was a self-taught semanticist, and really tried to parse the language and get rid of the magical power that profanity held over people," Krassner explains. "Although Lenny was a pioneer in breaking through those taboos, the irony is that I think he would, in some ways, be embarrassed by the indiscriminate use of language today.

"Too many young comics now think the way to be a comic is to use (the F-word) as a one-size-fits-all noun/verb/adjective/adverb/epithet. ... But among all these cookie-cutter comedians, there are gems that have stood out -- everybody from Chris Rock to Bill Maher to Elaine Boosler to Wanda Sykes.

"There's kind of a renaissance in comedy, because the more repression there is, the more need there is for irreverence toward authority figures."


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 7, 2010 D3

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