A few years back, pioneering stand-up comedian and social satirist Mort Sahl—who is appearing with veteran humorist Dick Gregory at the Rrazz Room in downtown San Francisco through Saturday—was asked, after a show at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center, where he placed himself in the political spectrum.
“I’m an old Berkeley radical,” Sahl said, “Not some Social Democrat, with avarice in their heart, talking about loving Humanity—unless it’s from Haiti, or someplace else that’s not in fashion.”
Sahl, whose career first took off at the old hungry i nightclub in North Beach in 1953, retains his independent perspective and his signature wry, wayward wit—and employed it this week in a phone interview, taking off from that recollection:
“Social Democrats are too righteous for radicals. And they’re in heaven now with Obama. He never speaks for an audience less than 75,000. He’s beyond criticism; he’s been ‘divined.’”
All that’s silenced the liberals. They can’t say anything now, about the war or anything else ... Nancy Pelosi ... and Joe Biden, who’s like Ed McMahon.”
Asked about the opposition, Sahl acerbically replied, “A Higher Power decided to sacrifice the Republican Party.”
Sahl continued: “The Republicans regard Rush Limbaugh as if he held higher office. If I don’t listen to him, I see him on Keith Olbermann anyway! It’s all so apparatchik.”
During the presidential campaign last year, Sahl was asked his opinion of current political comedy. He replied that it was parody; he practiced satire. Pressed for examples, he said Tina Fey impersonating Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live was parody, whereas—after seeing a newsphoto of Palin speaking to a crowd in a WalMart parking lot—“I could say, ‘she’s the only one in that parking lot I wouldn’t hire.’ I don’t know if that’s good, but it’s satire.”
Reminded of that, Sahl made one of the quick about-faces that characterize his style as much as the asides that overtake his jokes, sometimes throwing listeners used to what A. J. Liebling would call the “On the Other Hand” ploy of commentators: “The way liberals ridicule Sarah Palin shows a class prejudice: ‘How dare this woman from the wrong side of the tracks ...”
Speaking of contemporary entertainers, Sahl reflected, “I don’t think many guys working today have any politics. Stephen Colbert went to Iraq to entertain those guys over there. What’s the difference between him and Bob Hope? Jon Stewart doesn’t have much. And Larry King’s politics are to decide with the winner, a deference to the powerful. Most so-called topical humor is like gossip twice removed. Steve Allen said to me that the talk shows were presided over by people who can’t talk. Every guy’s the same, pretending something just happened to him. They’re all inventing their own bourgeois.”
Sahl continued: “It’s a decision comedians have to make, to provide escapism instead of confronting real situations. And it’s kind of infinite. Since they can’t make politically incorrect jokes, there’re ways they get around that with certain groups. Instead of making jokes about women, they might phrase it, ‘Four Jewish girls go to lunch, and the waiter says, “Is Every Thing All Right? ...”’ It’s wrong with individuals, but en masse it’s okay! The country has set the standards very low.”
Sahl was born in 1927 in Montreal; his family moved to Los Angeles, where he graduated from the University of Southern California. Asked if he had gone to school in the Bay Area (both UC Berkeley and Stanford have been cited as alma maters), Sahl said, “That’s part of the mythology. It worked in the club. I could’ve, but as it happened, I didn’t. I chased a girl up to Berkeley. And met some really good people.”
August 1960 saw Sahl’s picture on the cover of Time magazine. His career rose to a high-water mark. When Kennedy was elected, Ed Sullivan banished Sahl from his popular TV show, to keep Sahl—a JFK supporter—from making jokes about the president.
After Kennedy’s assassination, Sahl was deputized by New Orleans District Attorney James Garrison for his independent investigation of the killing.
“Some people were fearful of it, didn’t want to hear it,” Sahl said of their questioning of the Warren Report. “Garrison planted a seed of doubt; nobody believes it now. But nothing was done about it. They don’t have to execute anyone else; they did a frontal lobotomy on the nation.”
It was said Sahl had lost his sense of humor. “I never proselytized on the stage; I made it funny. But tough. Talking about Oswald being shot, I’d say: Twenty-four members of the Dallas Police Force were standing by; twenty-five, if you count Jack Ruby.” (Sahl was quoted as saying, “According to [the] Gallup [Poll], 88 percent of the American people don’t believe in the Warren Report. I certainly wouldn’t want it on my conscience that I disturbed the faith of the remaining 12 percent.”)
Sahl reflected on those years: “I wanted to save America. I thought people were really noble, that it would liberate them, giving them facts the mass media ignored. And they did nothing. They were distracted, scared. Not any worse than the people of any other generation, just no practice at rebellion. The Foundering Fathers!”
Sahl found it hard to get bookings. His income plummeted from over $400,000 a year to $19,000. He ghostwrote screenplays, wrote “additional dialogue.” The past two years, he’s taught at Claremont McKenna College, in Southern California: “Two classes: ‘The Revolutionary’s Handbook’ and ‘Screenwriting.’ They wanted screenwriting. It’s all a facade; I really talk about the same thing. I try to bring them a fresh perspective to those stones unturned about American history.” He joked about the student body “running around with an Apple under their arm and an i-Phone in their hand, not understanding they’re carrying the instruments of divisiveness.” He won’t be returning this fall. “Two years is enough. Claremont’s too isolated. I’ve had a call from the University of Chicago, another from UCLA. Time to move on, do something else.”
Sahl said he and Dick Gregory have worked together “many times, very successfully, from Mill Valley to West Palm Beach. Dick Gregory calls it the way he sees it.”
Both Sahl and Gregory have exerted a profound influence on the comedians who followed them. Woody Allen once said Sahl’s effect on comedy was like Charlie Parker’s on jazz.
“I was touched when Woody wrote in his autobiography that the first time he saw me on stage it changed his life,” Sahl said in the years scandals rocked Allen’s career. “Then the other night he called me and said, ‘Can you change it back?’”
Asked last year about Sahl, Allen asserted he still had his sense of humor, that Sahl had told Allen he’d been offered a course to teach on the Holocast, but turned it down: “I want to see first how history judges the event.”
Speaking of the comedians who influenced him, Sahl mentioned “Fred Allen, Syd Caesar, Herb Shriner, Mark Twain, Henry Morgan ... you don’t start anything yourself.”
Reminded of his old tag line—which he completed, laughing—that Will Rogers pretended to be a yokel making fun of the intellectuals in Washington, whereas “I’m pretending to be an intellectual, making fun of the yokels in Washington!”—Sahl remarked that Rogers was “in that tradition ... but I can tell you—in my university days, nobody referred to me as an intellectual!”
He summed up the relation between his material and his audience: “The reason I succeeded is that they all had that on their mind; I crystallized it.”