Comedy’s Lion in Winter

The great Mort Sahl is alive and well and performing near San Francisco.

By From the April 2011 issue

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.

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."

Sahl prefers Sarah Palin to Tina Fey. "One is a dame and the other is ambitious. I think Sarah Palin is a girl" -- his highest compliment for a woman; "I like women who are girls first." He adds, "This whole thing with Palin, among comedians, is class discrimination. 'How dare she raise her voice?' It's not what Palin says. It's that she doesn't qualify -- they qualify. It shows the desperation of liberals to single her out. She's not the enemy but they divert you with their disdain of Palin." He snorts, "The female liberationists won but they didn't get anything they wanted."

Not that conservatives can take much solace from Sahl: "Rush Limbaugh becomes more and more bombastic. As for Glenn Beck, Roger Ailes has gotta be desperate." Sahl overrules the Supreme Court: "You can't even discuss it -- it's totally irrelevant. The Chief Justice was a third-rate lawyer for Reagan."

Sahl's comments are laced with more lethal toxicity than before, with an occasional tendency to rant. His tone swings between bewildered dismay and outraged disgust. "Liberals destroyed this country. Nader is very much on target about Obama -- he's a concessionary president, very passive, too measured. He's addressing me from behind a lectern. He's a cutout liberal. But liberals are totally confused by Obama." With surgical precision, Sahl says, "Obama knew that liberals would feel ignoble if they didn't vote for a black man, so when he came to office half his job was done for him -- but he hasn't done the other half. Think what he might have accomplished if he had a birth certificate!"

THE ASTONISHING THING about Sahl is that he calls himself an optimist despite his disenchantment with America and his ups and downs professionally, politically, and personally (his son, Mort Jr. -- "My best pal" -- died at 19). He relishes putting on the gloves for ideological combat for its own sake -- and for his, and our, amusement, accompanied by grimaces and chortles at cherished lines preserved in mothballs. Indeed, he compares current left-right politics to "a boxing match promoted by Don King. The champion is a bum so you put up another bum and you pretend it's gonna be a struggle. It's a fake reality show, like Keeping Up with the Kardashians.' "

Yet for all his satirical venom and tough talk, he doesn't come off as a hater. Mainly he's a disillusioned romantic, politically and, well, romantically. Sahl's favorite theme after politics is love -- the loss of it, both for America and in women, few of whom met his standard of female excellence ("I kept lookin', pal, I kept lookin' "). Sahl went out with actresses he called "female impersonators," but now calls them all "scared small-town girls." Among his regrets, "I'm sorry I divorced Kenslea; I'm still in love with my wife. If you love a woman it'll make her a better woman." His second wife, China Lee, the first Asian Playboy foldout, whom he twice divorced, always said Sahl thought of America as a woman who had betrayed him. That sounds about right. 

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Gerald Nachman is the author of Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, Raised on Radio and Right Here On Our Stage Tonight!: Ed Sullivan's America. He is currently working on a book about the great Broadway musical show-stoppers.