Fake news stories are all the rage these days. And yes, they can be hard to distinguish from real news. I have friends who were taken in by a recent story reporting that Arizona was implementing a gay-to-straight conversion program in its public schools. I wasn’t fooled by that one, but I have been hoodwinked by two or three others.
This may seem an odd sort of question, but … what’s the point?
Back in 1989, the legendary satirist and Yippies-founder Paul Krassner said to L.A. psychiatrist Hector Glasco,
People are jaded, because of this conveyer belt of information. I already forget what it was that I was so horrified about on the news yesterday. And I was horrified! But you develop an emotional callus to the horror. And a danger satirists can run into is to see the news just as grist for their mill.
Krassner himself pioneered hoax news stories in his groundbreaking magazine The Realist. But his hoaxes always had a point—for example, his notorious obituary for Lenny Bruce, written two years before the controversial comedian’s death in 1966. As Krassner explained to Dr. Glasco,
I was hanging around with Lenny at the time, and there was almost a competition among police departments to bust him. Nightclub owners were scared. He was not getting work, and his work was his life. So it was as if he were dead. I wanted to pay tribute and expose that harassment while he was alive.
You can read the obituary in The Realist Archive Project. (Is this a great time or what?) There is nothing glib or superficial about it. It is, in fact, an excellent piece of journalism, and the most disturbing thing about it is how much of it was true …
There was a time when Lenny read a lot, from Jean-Paul Sartre’s study of anti-Semitism to the latest girlie magazine. He carried in his suitcase from city to city a double-volume unabridged dictionary. But in his dying days, he carried around law books instead. And he wasn’t as much fun to be with any more.
Or as Lenny explained it to Krassner,
I’m changing.… I’m not a comedian. I’m Lenny Bruce.
The hoax fooled plenty of people. It also moved and enlightened them. The same was not true of a later hoax, in which somebody else wrote an obituary of Paul Krassner. When Hector Glasco asked him about that …
So there’s a distinction between—what? Honest and dishonest hoaxing?
… Krassner replied,
Creative and easy. Having a point or being pointless.
The problem with many fake news stories going around is that they seem easy, uncreative, and pointless. Back when a hoax really meant something, Krassner even took the trouble of asking Lenny Bruce’s permission before publishing his obituary. Lenny cheerfully complied, but also asked,
What makes you think I’m gonna go before you do?
Paul Krassner turned 81 this year—as Groucho Marx once predicted, “the only live Lenny Bruce.”
An abridged version of Hector Glasco’s conversation with Paul Krassner appeared in Pat’s and my 1991 novel The Jamais Vu Papers. Now the full-length original version appears for the first time since 1989 in Jamais Vu VIEWS, available both in paperback and on Kindle.