My Surreal Encounter With Mort Sahl

Mort Sahl died this week, at age 94.  Many will have forgotten him, of course, but Mort Sahl, arguably, was the greatest political humorist in history. More than Lenny Bruce, more than Will Rogers.  I got to know him pretty well.

I first met Mort in a little jazz club (maybe, 60-70 people, max) in Hollywood, in 1985.  He was booked Thursday to Sunday.  We attended Thursday night, positively loved him, then tried to return on Friday, but Mort refused to perform unless a minimum of 20 people showed up, so we went to see him on Saturday.  Don Rickles gets 800 people in Las Vegas, but Mort Sahl can’t even get 20 people to show up!!?

While he was waiting to do his act on Saturday, I took a chance.  With him sitting in a pantry among the canned goods and booze (this man, this comedy legend, didn’t even have his own goddamn dressing room!), I busted in on him…literally.  Not expecting him, Mort was visibly startled when I entered.

Once I introduced myself, I basically talked non-stop.  It was embarrassing. I told Mort that I and a couple other guys had more or less memorized all of his material—all of it, every one of his albums, from top to bottom. And to prove it, I asked Mort if he remembered the bit where Steve Allen was talking about Albert Einstein.  He didn’t recall it.

So, unbelievably, I took over.  I related the entire routine!!  I knew EVERY word, EVERY pause, EVERY nuance.  And when I delivered the punch line (after maybe two minutes?), Mort actually burst out laughing!  I got Mort Sahl to do Mort Sahl’s own material, courtesy of yours truly, and then got Mort himself to laugh.

The word “surreal” doesn’t come close to describing it.

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at