The great Mort Sahl is alive and well and performing near San Francisco.
At nearly 84, Mort Sahl, the revolutionary political satirist who defied all conventions when he kicked down the stage door of polite stand-up comedy in 1953, is on yet another rocky, uncharted course — old age.
In a life that has zigzagged across the political and professional map, Sahl has bounced from adored left-wing comic savant on a 1960 cover of Time to near oblivion in the 1970s as JFK assassination conspiracy theorist, from right-wing radio talk show host in the '80s back to performing in 2011 in a liberal bastion outside San Francisco, whence he sprung as the first angry young comic at the fabled hungry i nightclub.
A few years ago, Sahl divorced his third, much younger, wife, Kenslea, a Delta flight attendant, and was so low of funds that fellow comedians threw an 80th birthday benefit for him hosted by Larry King. A mild stroke has slowed him slightly but left him as keen a caustic observer of the scene as when he first took on American politics at a Berkeley coffee house in the early 1950s. He’s lost vision in one eye but his gimlet-eyed perceptions remain acute, telescopic, and undimmed. Morton Lyon Sahl doesn’t quite roar as loudly, and seems a little fragile, but still guffaws at his own saber-toothed zingers.
WHEN SAHL STARTED OUT at the hungry i, a halfhearted Berkeley grad student in math with a big mouth and no stage experience but with innate performing chops and a cynical world view at 26, he ripped up the unstated showbiz rule that comedians are there to entertain, not enlighten, let alone stir up the customers. He dressed like a graduate student, in slacks, V-neck sweater, and loafers — not in a tux, the standard comedian’s uniform — and carried a rolled newspaper in which he pasted his punch lines. The newspaper was his trademark prop, as famous as Jack Benny’s violin.
In the 1950s and '60s, Sahl took on Joe McCarthy, Dwight Eisenhower, and John Kennedy with equal vitriolic glee in a steady volley of hilarious abuse. He took well-aimed potshots at liberals and many targets beside politicians — movies, TV, books, religious leaders, pop stars. Or rather, he gave everything in his crosshairs a political slant, from wannabe beatniks to Truman Capote. For Sahl, it was open season on everything. Still is. He used to ask (in fact boast) at the end of every show, “Is there anyone here I haven’t offended?” He remains on the offensive and permanently offended. The mad-as-hell Howard Beale character in Network was supposedly inspired by Sahl.
Unlike his closest comic rebel ally, Lenny Bruce, Sahl worked clean, stayed off drugs, and survived — until he hit a snag by taking on the Warren Report and going to work for New Orleans DA Jim Garrison, bringing his career to a screeching halt. He was blacklisted from TV, he says. Sahl tried to joke his way back into the spotlight in small clubs and radio talk shows, but he’d lost precious comic traction. His faith in America was severely shaken by the assassination (he ragged JFK on stage but privately admired him, even wrote jokes for him); his anti-Warren Report crusade labeled him a conspiracy kook. But polls now indicate most people agree with his original single-bullet suspicions.
Sahl blames his disappearance from center stage on showbiz liberals he felt deserted him, which may account for his hostility toward them. “When Paul Newman asked me if I was still investigating the Kennedy assassination, I told him, ‘Yes, he’s still dead.’”
Before all that, Sahl led the stand-up pack when the comedy standard-bearer was Bob Hope, who gently needled politicians; Sahl jammed the needle in all the way. Hope joshed about Ike’s golf game but Sahl used it as a metaphor in a line about Eisenhower leading a little black schoolgirl by the hand into a segregated classroom, using an overlapping grip.
In 2008, Sahl pulled up decaying lifelong roots in Los Angeles and moved to Mill Valley, San Francisco’s affluent liberal suburb, where he’s the new political sheriff in town (his favorite image of himself), performing for audiences of old lefties who love to gaze at a precious touchstone of their youth even as he scorns them. “I’m part of the folklore now,” he says. “If they reject me, they reject themselves.”
Sahl seems the least likely man to wind up in Mill Valley, known for its bucolic setting and gentle, politically correct folkways. He notes, “If a deer appears in the headlights in Mill Valley, the driver will offer it a lift.” Sahl can mock local liberals and make them love it. The aging satirist has settled in, lunching at the Mill Valley Coffee Shop and The Depot deli, where he’s greeted like a revered leader in self-imposed exile — the Dalai Lama of standup. Sounding like a Mill Valley native, he says, “This is a giving community. People say, ‘What can I do for you?’ That doesn’t go on in L.A.”
IN THE 1950s, Sahl was the only comedian in America daring to do political humor, the first since Will Rogers, but Sahl wasn’t beloved like Rogers. Fast-forward 50 years and every major comedian now dutifully blasts politicians, only without Sahl’s historical context or his wicked, stinging wit: Liz Taylor, he once said, “devoted an entire evening to AIDS” and he described George H. W. Bush as “the fourth man in any car pool.” Sahl claims when George W. Bush told him he quit drinking after he was born again, “I said to him, ‘Why would you want to come back as George Bush?’ ”
Even mainstream late-night comics like Jay Leno and David Letterman now feel obliged to ridicule politicians regularly, but their lines lack Sahl’s ruthless insights. Late-night TV gags about Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Sarah Palin seem like robotic pre-Sahl, pre-sold, mother-in-law jokes. As hot as Mort Sahl was in the '60s, nobody followed in his footsteps; he trudged a lonely political path. He says, “I never felt I was the caped crusader, but they [comedians] were so easily threatened.”
Sahl is the comic godfather of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Dennis Miller, Lewis Black, and Bill Maher, his stand-up stepchildren who often lack the old man’s scope, bite, or satirical bulls-eyes. Sahl pretty much disdains today’s comics. “They’re all 50 and act like 20. They have the references but it’s not filtered through a point of view. They think they’re misfits but non-conformity is now an industry.”
Of today’s prevailing political comics, nobody makes the cut. “They have no sense of what came before, and they don’t love the idea of this country. Dennis Miller drifted farther and farther right until now he’s a salivating fascist. He has contempt for people but none of it’s funny. He’s so busy hating. He says we should blow up the Muslim world. He’s just another guy talking.” Jon Stewart “is making fun of the anchorman. The enemy is not the anchorman. It’s the fascists who are running the government. Stewart said Berlusconi has the largest testicles in the world. Who can laugh at that?”
Not even Bill Maher, whose savage volleys most closely recall Sahl, impresses him: “Maher is just negative — and the cursing! Maher likes me a lot but he thinks I’m naïve.” Jay Leno? No sale. “Leno came on the other night and said ‘John Boehner is criticizing Obama — this has gotta stop. That’s my job.’ If it really were his job he wouldn’t have to say that.” About the only older comics he admired were Jonathan Winters and Shelley Berman, now a buddy. Sahl and Robin Williams are recent unlikely chums.
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H/T to National Review Online