The great Mort Sahl is alive and well and performing near San Francisco.
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Sahl says the trouble with today’s comedians is that they’re “cautiously liberal, Clintonian Democrats who all jumped on the bandwagon. They don’t really believe in anything. People who do The Daily Show are the New York crowd that doesn’t like anybody between L.A. and New York. They make fun of Southerners.” He sums up today’s comics: “‘Hey, do any of you text while you drive?’ That’s what bothers them?”
Sahl always felt his contemporaries risked nothing and were just comic tap dancers. “Bill Cosby looked upon America as a cow to be milked.” For my book about that era (Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s), Sahl declined to be interviewed, scoffing, “I don’t want to be in there with all those other guys.”
HE DISMISSES MOST POP CULTURE today — from Saturday Night Live (“Boy, is that unfunny”), to Oprah Winfrey (“The whole self-help thing is a defiance of social responsibility. It’s all hokum”), to American Idol (“The mediocritization of America”).
“Did you see The Social Network? It’s totally anti-Semitic. It’s soulless, and the guy who wrote it, Aaron Sorkin, is soulless. That’s who’s writing movies today. The King’s Speech is awful. True Grit is awful. The last movie I saw I liked was the Peter Weir thing, The Way Back.”
Sahl adds, “The old directors, who were hard-right guys, knew how to give you a vision and involve the audience immediately. In the first 20 minutes of Hondo they tell you the whole history of mankind! They can’t make those movies now. The snobs at film festivals can’t understand how those immigrants — Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn — could make movies that touched your heart. It’s a spiritual thing.” Sahl admits he’s harder than ever to please. “I’m even starting to dislike the Marx Brothers! The Three Stooges are better intentioned.” Sahl will mention an old movie like Three Days of the Condor and turn it into a manifesto on the collapse of American values. He says, “Nobody can feel anything anymore — they’re all walkin’ around with this stuff” — he holds up an iPhone. But he’s plugged into everything, from managerial shake-ups at NBC to CNN’s Piers Morgan.
In his act, which could use a light spring cleaning, Sahl never fails to quote his two left/right heroes, Sen. Eugene McCarthy and Reagan military adviser Al Haig, which tends to date him. In fact, Sahl absorbs everything in the culture and derides most of it. He devours everything on TV and online, from The View to Christopher Hitchens’s writings, and buys magazines by the armload (from the New York Review of Books to militia journals).
When his marriage and finances fell apart, Sahl decided to return to the scene of his original comic indiscretions, the Bay Area (“It’s always been lucky for me”). He lives in a modest Mill Valley apartment that feels like a college dorm room. Posters and paintings lean against the walls still waiting to be hung — most nostalgically a blowup of that August 15, 1960 Time cover — which gives the place an air of impermanence. A recent friend and benefactor, Lucy Mercer, watches over him and regularly books him at her theater, 142 Throckmorton, a former Odd Fellows hall now a venue for performers new and old, from toddler comics to venerable senior citizens like Sahl, Shelley Berman, and Dick Gregory.
At a recent performance, Sahl was forced to call for a chair midway through and spent the second hour sitting down and taking questions from a sympathetic audience of 200. “You’re pulling for him so much,” said Peter Calabrese, a former NBC vice president who was at the show. “He’s still so sharp — the voice is there, so he’s not a shell, but he was kind of winded.” Sahl never sagged on stage before. “I was kind of rocky when I got out there. I was so conscious of seeming ancient and vulnerable,” he recalls over a French dip sandwich at a coffee shop; a poster next door reads, “Mort Sahl-one night only! Legendary! Trailblazing!”
Trailblazing or retracing his own footsteps, Sahl is still sought out and just signed for a film with 82-year-old Jerry Lewis, Max Rose, about a depressed ex-jazz musician living in an assisted living community who turns to Sahl’s character for a reason to live. A New York agent is after Sahl to write a memoir, but he would rather do a book on “how liberals have destroyed America with their avarice.”
IT’S A SMALL MIRACLE that Sahl still performs at all. His youthful image — a swarthy, strapping comedian taking on all comers — has segued into a less vital presence, but he still casts a satirical spell and holds audiences with the same acerbic voice that has served him well as the conscience of comedy all his life. He used to be introduced as “The next president of the United States,” and after surviving seven administrations Sahl still hasn’t been termed out. He recalls the loneliness of touring clubs in the 1960s: “I’d go into a town, rent a car, go to the newsstand and then a movie matinee and eat popcorn. I was barnstorming. That was before America became a foreign country.”
Sahl is deeply conflicted about the country, making sweeping indictments of the decline and fall of America, women, comedy, pop music, movies. “The culture once encouraged the best in us-this crowd that’s there now is encouraging the worst in us.”
Sahl remains a moving target when it comes to pinning down his own politics, which slid right after he was abandoned by liberals who disliked his cracks about Kennedy and his Camelot court. The left felt misled, he says, because he was never one of them (“I only belong to me”) and attacked what he saw as Democrats’ mushy politics. “Democrats are so lowly that they embrace Arianna Huffington,” he decrees. “They’re the left wing of the Republican party. Do you want vanilla or French vanilla?”
Sahl remains embattled, the position he feels most at home in. His lifelong credo: “If you were the last man on earth, I’d have to oppose you. That’s my job.” Sahl doesn’t think he’s fled to the right so much as been pushed there by the left. He sounds less right than anti-left: “My politics are radical. The idea of revolution thrills me, but I’m talking about Che Guevara, not what happened in Egypt.”
He carves up Democrats like he once beheaded Republicans (“The liberals made Reagan possible. Carter was your fault. If Reagan had run unopposed he would have lost”), but at times Sahl sounds to the right of Ayn Rand. “I like Ron Paul a lot. Everything he says is true. He’s an honest man, a real American all the way and back, but not being a liberal he doesn’t ennoble himself.” He says, “The last honest liberal was Howard Dean.”
Sahl dashes to the defense of Sarah Palin, the liberals’ favorite chew toy. “She doesn’t bother me. To this [liberal] crowd, she’s the lady that comes over and does the laundry. They think she’s not entitled. But she’s not the enemy. Who’s sending us to war? It’s the third term of George Bush.”
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H/T to National Review Online