Mort Sahl’s Punchline


On May 11, 2007, Mort Sahl turned eighty. He was a pioneer in stand-up comedy. He broke through the tradition of jokes about airplane food, Asian drivers, booze and frigid wives, instead sharing his wit and insights about political hypocrisy, racism, marijuana laws and monogamy. I first met Sahl in 1953 when he was a guest speaker in a course I was taking at the New School for Social Research. I was inspired by his satirical approach to serious issues.

"Every word I do is improvised," he once told me. "I don’t rehearse anything. I start it on stage."

In the beginning, though, he would write key words on a rolled-up newspaper, which became his trademark prop. In 1960 he wrote jokes for presidential candidate John Kennedy, and Sahl’s picture graced the cover of Time magazine in August during the conventions. When Kennedy was killed in 1963, Sahl endangered his career and was blacklisted as a result of becoming an associate of New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison in his investigation of the JFK assassination.

In 1967, I was a guest on Sahl’s TV show, which had been dealing outspokenly with contemporary controversies, so when his option wasn’t renewed ostensibly because of a low rating, there was much suspicion. But Sahl also had a nightly radio show and asked his listeners to write in to KTTV. By the time 31,000 letters arrived, the channel’s executives had conveniently discovered another rating service and the option was renewed.

On the program, Sahl had a blackboard on which he wrote things in chalk like "We Demand Faith in the Future," and the audience applauded faithfully. He wanted to have a mock trial on the show as a preview of the Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal, and he asked me to return and act as defense attorney. He wanted me to actually defend war criminals such as Lyndon Johnson, Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara. I agreed to do it. My plan was to plead insanity.

On June 28, 2007, the Heartland Comedy Foundation, which sponsors fundraisers and assists comedians, honored Mort Sahl at the Wadsworth Theater in Brentwood. When my wife Nancy was sixteen, she listened over and over to Sahl’s first album until she memorized it, just as she had done with the score of My Fair Lady. Now we we were sitting two rows behind Sahl, watching him enjoy and appreciate one tribute after another by a gaggle of comedians.

There were the original gang members: Jonathan Winters (in character as an aging baseball star); Norm Crosby (master of malapropism); and Shelley Berman (doing his classic rotary-phone call, still dialing a number rather than pressing buttons).

And there was the newer breed: a surprise appearance by George Carlin (his set piece on contemporary schizophrenic man followed by a film clip of his 1962 impression of Sahl); Jay Leno (fat jokes); Richard Lewis (dick jokes); Drew Carey (referring to the bus driver who told Rosa Parks to move to the back of the bus as "the father of the civil rights movement"); Harry Shearer introducing Kevin Nealon; and Bill Maher re-introducing political incorrectness.

Woody Allen and Don Rickles sent their good wishes via video. The program mentioned that "Comedians scheduled to appear are subject to personal availability." Thus, David Steinberg and David Brenner were no-shows, and Larry King was replaced as host by Jack Riley, one of the patients in Bob Newhart’s TV group-therapy ensemble.

Paula Poundstone, the only female comic there, resorted to her forte, asking an audience member, "What do you do for a living?" He was an attorney–giving her the opportunity to talk about her own problems with the law–and he turned out to have started the first Mort Sahl fan club in 1956. She asked if all the members of his fan club wore those cute red pullover sweaters like Mort did.

Although all the performers topped off their regular schtick with praise for Sahl’s comedic breakthrough, Albert Brooks was the most original and unique to the context of this occasion.

"I’m embarrassed tonight," he began. "And angry. And I’m confused. I don’t know the people that produced this show at all. But I would strongly suggest that when they do an event like this again, they spend a little extra money and hire a real publicity firm to disseminate the information correctly. I was told that Mort Sahl passed away. So you can imagine my shock, my dismay, and quite frankly my disappointment, when I arrived here this evening and saw him standing there.

"I worked very, very hard on this eulogy–and unlike other comedians tonight, I don’t have a current act, I just can’t pull ten minutes off the top of my head–so I do this, or I have nothing. I asked myself, ‘What would the late Mort Sahl say?’ I think he would have said, ‘You do it.’ Nobody appreciated a turn of a phrase, a beautifully-written sentence, as much as he did. But then again I say, to the people that produced the show, ‘If you don’t wanna spring for full-blown publicity, please get someone who will talk to the talent."

And he started to read aloud:

"Mort Sahl–1927 to 2007. Mort? We hardly knew you. I remember the last time I saw Mort alive. It was at a Starbucks near where I live. And now I wish I’d said the things that I really felt. I wish I’d said how much he influenced all of us here. How brave he was. I wish I’d have told him how much of an innovator he was. I wish I’d have told him how much I loved listening to his records. While he was here. But I didn’t. All that I think I said that day was, ‘Are you gonna finish that latte?’

"This should be a lesson to all of us. If you see someone that you love, don’t ask for their food. Tell them how much they mean to you. Do you know what? On a night like this, I think we need to look on the positive side. From what was told to me, Mort didn’t suffer. He died as he lived. In his sleep. It’s at times like these that I think of what the great Alexander the Great said to his brother in the middle of a fierce fight. He said, ‘I’m going home. I don’t wanna fight anymore. You can take over. And try not to die.’

"If only I’d said that to Mort Sahl! That day in Starbucks. But I didn’t. Actually I think, along with the latte comment, I also asked him if he were going to eat the scone. But you know what? I’m sure he knew what I meant. I’m sure he read into that freeloading comment, the fact that I loved him…."

Finally, Sahl himself took the stage–wearing, of course, his signature red pullover sweater.

"I’ve been very moved by everybody tonight," he said. "And I had a good time laughing. I want you to know it really did knock me out. And I also want you to know that I’ll do it as long as they let me. I didn’t want this to be a retirement party, you know. I’m still in business. And to reference that business–when Bill Maher came down to so graciously keep us company, was talking about the Bush administration–you know, I know the president, and he told me that he doesn’t drink. And he said, ‘I don’t need it, because I’ve been born again. And what occurred to me in the moment was: If you had the rare opportunity to be born again, why would you come back as George Bush? … Cheney went to the hospital. Got an aneuryism in the right knee. You know, the one that replaced the left knee. Also he’s had four heart attacks and also a pacemaker. They’re reconstructing Cheney, a Halliburton corporation. And they’re overcharging him."

At one point, someone shouted, "Hey, Mort! You avoid 9/11 in your act. You always talked about the Warren Commission. You were all over it!"

"You hear that?" Sahl asked the audience. "It was something to do with the Warren Commission. Well, you know that’s how I went out of business for about twelve years. But I stuck to my guns, because I remember something [Bobby] Kennedy said: ‘To all you with the guns out there. You may be able to slay the dreamer, but you haven’t slain the dream.’ I came to this because I really thought I was an American and really had the capacity to dream. You all know that if you watch Turner Classic Movies. That’s what the movies were about–it was a dark place where people could fall in love and moral issues could be resolved. My grandfather came from Lithuania, although Lou Dobbs tried to stop him….I dreamed that dream.

"When I started this act," he concluded, "although I was just lonesome and looking for a family, in a larger sense I saw it as a rescue mission for America…but I believe it more than ever, in spite of the odds. That the good guys’ll win….I tried to get to your funny bone and get into your head, but apparently I also got into your heart."

* * *

Currently, Sahl is teaching a semi-weekly course in critical thinking at Claremont McKenna College. And of course he continues to perform regularly. At McCabes, for example, he observed that, during the Republican debates, when the candidates were asked who didn’t believe in evolution, a few raised their hands, and Sahl pointed out, "If you watched the debate, you wouldn’t believe in evolution either." Sahl’s targets have always included liberals and conservatives alike. As a news junkie, his material still has a sharp point of view, as opposed to so many comedians who rely on easy-reference jokes about celebrities.

Recently, however, he adroitly poked fun at the public perception of a celeb. A friend of mine was having his caffeine fix at a Starbucks in Los Angeles. He happened to be seated right near Sahl and recounts the following incident. A young woman who had just finished her coffee stopped to chat with Sahl. It was apparent that they knew each other. Then, as she started to leave, Robert Blake walked in. Sahl, loyal to his buddies, had been among those show-biz folks (including Quincy Jones, Sally Kirkland, Anthony Hopkins, Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters) who visited Blake when he was in jail. Now, Sahl said to the young woman, "Do you know my good friend, Bob Blake?" Blake looked at her and said to Sahl, "She looks like a very nice person. She looks like she sleeps well at night." Sahl paused, then said to Blake, "Well, she’s got a clear conscience."

PAUL KRASSNER is the editor of The Realist. His books include: Pot Stories for the Soul, One Hand Jerking and Murder at the Conspiracy Convention. He can be reached through his website: http://paulkrassner.com/

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