A longtime activist tor free speech, Hustler founder Larry Flynt airs his views on censorship, drugs, politics and the art of publishing in this February, 1999 interview with Ivan Lerner. On the occasion of Flynt’s birthday November 1, we’re republishing it below.
Lawrence Claxton Flynt is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Hustler magazine. The success—and controversy—that Hustler and the plethora of other Flynt-owned publications (from the S/M-themed Taboo to urban music-themed Rap Pages and skateboarding’s Big Brother) has engendered has also made him a millionaire many times over, as well as the subject of a successful and controversial movie.
Released in 1996, The People vs. Larry Flynt starred actor and hemp activist Woody Harrelson as the wily and hell-raisin’ Flynt. with Courtney Love as Althea, his late fourth wife, and Edward Norton playing the earnest, young lawyer who eventually argues in front of the Supreme Court for Flynt’s First Amendment rights to produce satire (in defense of Hustler’s infamous Campari ad spoof where Jerry Falwell was portrayed as a drunk who had sex in an outhouse with his mother).
“Anybody can be a playboy and have a penthouse, but it takes a man to be a hustler,” Flynt wrote in his publisher’s statement in the first issue of Hustler. In his autobiography he elaborated on the philosophy behind that throwing of the gauntlet, writing, “I can see how my hillbilly disgust with anything pretentious or phony has generated both anger and success. Hustler became a success because I was willing to bypass the sexual hypocrisy of my competitors and cater to the erotic imaginations of real people. I have railed against the institutions and people who have held down the common, ordinary citizen: government, the rich, organized religion. In the pages of Hustler I have satirized and ridiculed every institution that exercises illegitimate and corrupt power. I have dared to portray people’s real sexual fantasies, not those that conform to someone else’s idea of what is appropriate. Little did I guess, when I took my first unsure steps into the publishing business, that all this would happen. I just followed my instincts.”
One of those highly successful instincts was the maneuver to be the first American publication to “flash pink.” However, that also drew the attention of the very people Flynt was setting out to satirize. While obscenity bust after obscenity bust kept arriving, Flynt fought them all, often being jailed for contempt of court, and once had to spend time in solitary confinement in a prison medical center.
Flynt has most recently outraged the Puritans by taking out a full-page ad in the Sunday Washington Post and offering a cool $1 million to anyone who could “provide documentary evidence of illicit sexual relations with a congressman, senator or other prominent officeholder.”
High Times: Why do you think America seems so anti-pleasure?
Larry Flynt: Well, the church has had its hand on our crotch for over two thousand years. (laughs) And the government is exceedingly moving in that direction, figuring if they can control your pleasure center, they can control you. And they seem to be obsessed with imposing their moral values on other people. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have any problem with people who have moral values if those values work for them and their family. Where I part company with them is when they try to impose their values on others.
In the same sort of vein, what’s your view on the legalization of marijuana or other drugs, including your stance on the Drug War?
Well, I don’t know. I think the Drug War has been a dismal failure. And I’m definitely for the legalization of not only marijuana, but all drugs. And I can speak from some firsthand experience on that topic because when I was shot and paralyzed in 1978, I was in chronic pain for several years. And it finally got to a point where even the prescription medication was not relieving my pain. And I could get some relief and comfort from smoking a joint. So I probably have a different perspective on that than a lot of people do.
You see, my theories on legalization are based simply on the example of Prohibition. It didn’t work in the ’20s and it’s not going to work now. I think education is the best route to go, and if people want to do themselves in, then that should be their right to do so. We have laws against drunk driving; these people are prosecuted vigorously. We have laws against selling liquor and tobacco to minors. The same thing could be applicable for drugs. You know, you’re talking about a victimless crime here. I think that the government is just afraid of legalization. I think that thought just scares the hell out of them. But I also think that, at some point, they’re going to have to throw in the towel.
What could you possibly imagine being something that would make them throw in the towel? Finally listening to the voice of the electorate?
No, I think that eventually they’re going to wake up and realize that their efforts have not been successful. And they’re going to have to look at it from a different perspective.
OK. There’s this crazy rumor that you secretly used to own High Times. I knew you were involved with High Times at the beginning.
No, I was never owner of High Times. But about 20-odd years ago, they had a very difficult time getting distribution. And I had a distributing company and distributed my own magazines. And I took on the distribution of High Times and was able to dramatically increase their sales in the late ’70s.
Because you had a wider distribution than they did?
Yeah, I had a wider distribution base than High Times had because they really couldn’t get a major national distributor to distribute them because of content.
What do you think are some of the factors that give a magazine like High Times or Hustler longevity?
Well, obviously, a reading audience that finds something of interest in them. No magazine is going to survive if it doesn’t have a base of support.
I’ve always considered you a consummate businessman, but what is it about publishing specifically that you love? You keep coming back to it year after year. You haven’t given up on it.
I got into publishing quite by accident. I didn’t know anything about it. (laughs) The only thing I knew was I wanted to make money and have a lot of fun, and Hustler afforded me that opportunity. And Hustler became extremely successful, and it was necessary to diversify and start publishing other magazines.
But are you still having fun?
Well, yeah, it’s always fun. (laughs)
How difficult do you think it would be these days to start a magazine as controversial as Hustler or High Times? That is to say a more fringe or counterculture magazine.
It’d be very difficult, and I’ll tell you the reason why: At the time I started Hustler, there were 1,500 magazines being sold on the newsstand. Today there’s over 4,000. So they’re all vying for prominent display which, you know, is what you need. And many good magazines come out today that wind up failing, just simply because they fall through the cracks in the distribution system.
So there’s no real formula for success? Or is there a formula?
Oh, yes. There is a formula for success. But, you see, it doesn’t matter how good of a magazine you publish. If you can’t get it into the readers’ hands, it’s gonna fail.
Moving a bit to politics now, it seems that bureaucrats have been steadily trying to eat away at our civil rights and First Amendment rights. And it always seems to be those of you who are considered on the fringe who keep America’s rights safe. Why do you think that more people just aren’t as vocal as you are?
Well, one word: apathy. We’ve had free speech for so long, it’s lost its value. And many Americans sadly are taking their individual rights and civil liberties for granted. And we as a society only respond to a crisis. You know, something dramatically has to really place these values in jeopardy before all Americans would unite and speak out.
Hustler made a really shocking statement when you ran those combat-atrocity shots. What was the impetus for that? And was there any particular fallout because of that issue?
You know, I just got so fed up with hearing about nudity being obscene that I decided to publish all of those gory photographs of decapitated, mutilated bodies from the Vietnam War. And just basically asked America the question, “What do you think is more obscene, a beautiful woman or this?” And it impacted people a great deal. It had a great effect on them. They still talk about it today—just like you’re even bringing up the question.
Continuing in the political vein, a guy like Charles Keating Jr. whose savings-and-loan scandal winds up ripping off the taxpayers for a trillion dollars, gets off with a slap on the wrist. Yet the President gets a blowjob and everyone is outraged. What’s your opinion on this? Why are people focusing on the wrong thing so often?
Well, Charles Keating is the individual who spearheaded my prosecution in 1977 in Cincinnati. He was the head of an organization called Decency Through Law. I just think that people’s priorities are all screwed up when it comes to sex. You know, sex is the strongest single driving force there is, other than that of survival. And it’s not something that can be repressed. And I think sexuality is something that should be allowed to develop in a normal fashion.
Right. But with the President and everything, it’s just people getting outraged for the wrong reasons.
Well, people lie to get sex. They lie during sex. They lie after sex. They lie about sex. You know, 99 percent of the American males who would have got caught having an affair would have denied it. So they’re making an issue out of something that is just absolutely ridiculous.
What advice would you give to someone who was going to try pot for the first time?
Oh, I don’t think I would have any advice for them. Of course I don’t recommend it for children, you know. But if you’re an adult and it’s a choice you want to make, then that’s your choice.
I don’t even know if you guys are really friends or anything, but High Times has covered Woody Harrelson’s activities and his pro-hemp stance. Has he ever tried to get you involved in some of his organizations?
Woody and I are very close friends. I supported Prop 215 and I support Woody and what he’s doing. I think this matter with hemp is just totally ridiculous. You’d have to smoke a joint the size of an 18-wheeler truck to get high on the hemp. What happened was in 1937 the Marihuana Act got passed and hemp got included in that. And it should not have been. It should be a major crop, possibly to enable the tobacco growers to go in a different direction.
The greatest right that any nation can afford its people is the right to be left alone. And people who enjoy pornography or smoking a joint, all they want to do is to be left alone.