Not much to update here...last big article on Mort was the Nachman piece a few years back.


Mort did not go to Italy for the premiere of "Max Rose." Jerry Lewis is shown here, on the arm of co-star Kevin Pollak. So far no stills of Mort and Jerry have emerged.
Below, the noble experiment of streaming to the Internet. A lot of Mort fans are still used to reading a newspaper, and might not be on line yet!


It's been a while since there's been a major write-up on Mort. He seemed to like this one from 2011, although his lawyer has pointed out that describing Mort as being "on a rocky uncharted course -- old age" and "a little fragile" doesn't exactly help with selling him to nightclubs or to late night talk shows. (Yet it's so proudly on display at "Mort Official." Go figure.)

Comedy’s Lion in Winter

By Gerald Nachman 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 na´ve." 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




Amy Kaufman's Interview with Mort. L.A. TIMES Oct 17, 2008

Mort Sahl stands before a classroom of college students, his eyes widening as he watches images of old Hollywood. He walks in front of the movie projector for a moment, his shadow interrupting a fiery on-screen embrace between Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen.

"This is probably the best love scene I ever saw in a movie," he said, shaking his head.

Yes, Sahl, 81, the legendary stand-up comedian and writer who famously skewered the politicians of his time with his trademark cranky outrage, has a new gig -- trying to convince Gen Y to believe in love.

"I just want to teach those kids about the kind of thing that Jimmy Stewart represents -- decency," he said. "If you stick with it, you can save America and get the girl. That's really what I'm teaching. It might be a lie, but it's the only reason I get out of bed every day."

Since last fall, Sahl has been a visiting professor at Claremont McKenna College, where he teaches screenwriting -- in which he screened the original "The Thomas Crown Affair" recently -- and a course titled the Revolutionary's Handbook. Content for the latter includes tales from Sahl's own experience during the investigation of President John F. Kennedy's assassination led by New Orleans Dist. Atty. Jim Garrison.

From the outset of his career, Sahl approached humor differently than most other comedians. He went onstage with a newspaper in hand and spoke to his audience about the most pressing issues affecting his era -- events including the McCarthy hearings and the early tremors before the Cold War.

It would seem that with the impending election, there couldn't be a better time for one of America's leading political satirists to be at the helm of the classroom. Many see Sahl as the predecessor to figures like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who target politicians with the aid of humor. But Sahl finds the comparisons between himself and the Comedy Central stars unflattering, drawing stark differences between their methods of delivery.

"You have to have a point of view, sift everything through it and look for the irony," said Sahl, who still does comedy gigs on weekends at local clubs. Even the recent "Saturday Night Live" phenomenon surrounding Tina Fey's impression of Sarah Palin is more parody than satire, Sahl believes.

"The other day, Palin spoke at the Home Depot in the parking lot in Carson. So you could say, 'She's the only one in the parking lot I wouldn't hire.' And you'd be right at the joke," he said.

Sahl spent his own collegiate days at USC, where he gained a degree in urban planning to "try to keep my father happy." Soon after, he moved to San Francisco, where he got his start performing stand-up at the hungry i club. There he began a longtime friendship with Clint Eastwood, whom he still sees frequently.

"He was very hip," Eastwood recalled in a recent interview. "Nowadays, a lot of comedians try to satirize politics, but they don't do it as well as he did. He played straight out to the audience."

Later in his career, Sahl was a speechwriter for many politicians, including Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Ross Perot. "I'd say, 'If you kid yourself, it'll humanize you to the press.' There's nothing divine about them, they can all take a little kidding," Sahl said, chuckling.

If he had the choice, he'd rather work for Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama than for Republican John McCain, who he believes "comes across as Mr. Magoo," though he's still not sure who he'll vote for, if at all.

Before his screenwriting class, Sahl was camped out at the school's student center, sipping from a coffee mug and sifting through the day's newspapers. The generation gap between him and his students, he said, can be frustrating. "The first thing I try to get them to do is read the [New York] Times and be curious," he said, sighing. "And they say things like, 'How easy is the website to navigate?' I ask a kid a question in class and he looks at the Apple [laptop] instead of me."

Sahl approaches his classes in a way similar to his comedy acts -- with no preparation. His teaching style is straightforward -- just go in and tell them the truth, he said.

"You can really tell how passionate he is about what he's teaching," said Steve Pontius, a junior who has taken two of Sahl's courses. "He doesn't guard himself or seem elitist. He ... really tries to relate to the students -- he likes them and believes in them, sometimes at his own expense."

Mostly, Sahl just wants his students to believe in something. In his screenwriting class last year, he says, the students wrote "some terrible screenplays." They wrote what they thought could be commercial material -- one story, he recalled, was about a bunch of people who were competing on an "Apprentice"-style show to work for the Lakers.

"My students haven't seen women like Grace Kelly in a long time. Everybody's running around here in sweat pants. The men are like peacocks -- they don't think about saving up to give something to a girl for Christmas," he lamented.

"I just want to encourage people to follow their own heart and listen to their conscience -- to be that free," he said. "I don't feel like any kind of legend, really. I just want to find a place to drink some coffee and read the paper."




Mort Sahl: Improvising a new life

Paul Liberatore   Marin Independent Journal  (MARINIJ.COM)









Posted: 08/09/2010 09:05:12 PM PDT


Legendary comedian Mort Sahl became a star in the 1960s with his barbed political humor and insights. (Special to the IJ/Jocelyn Knight)

Mort Sahl, one of the all-time greats of comedy, was nursing a cup of afternoon coffee the other day in a booth at Piazza D'Angelo, an Italian restaurant and occasional celebrity hangout that has become his place of choice for interviews in Mill Valley, his new hometown.

The 83-year-old grandfather of political humor left Southern California a year or so ago and moved into an apartment in Mill Valley to get back on his feet after the breakup of his 10-year marriage, his third.

"I wish it had worked," he said sadly, describing his recent divorce as "acrimonious."

"When I met her, I had such a devout wish for it all," he sighed. "But that doesn't make it come true. It's very elusive, very elusive."

Sahl met his now ex-wife at a time of terrible sorrow for him. He was on a plane, flying home from a wake for his 19-year-old son, Mort Sahl Jr., who died in 1996, "another young victim of drug addiction," as columnist Army Archerd reported in Daily Variety at the time.

"He had a great sense of humor," Sahl said, smiling at the memory. He was a musician. His big thing was Guns N' Roses. It wiped me out when he died. I withdrew."

Sahl was married to the mother of his son, China (pronounced Chee-na) Lee, the first Asian Playboy centerfold, for 27 years. They divorced in 1991.

"When they interviewed her once, they asked her if I was a romantic, and she said, very disdainfully, 'Mort is in love with love.' What a criticism."

A decade and a half after the emotional devastation of losing his only child, Sahl is recovering from the heartbreak of a divorce and the lingering physical effects of a minor stroke.

Age and frailty aside, he's kept his post-collegiate look and image. He had on his trademark V-neck sweater, this one a handsome turquoise. He still has a full head of hair, once dark, now pewter.

And in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, he stays on top of current events, just as he did in the 1950s and early '60s, when he was revolutionizing stand-up comedy with a new brand of irreverent contemporary humor, stalking the stage with a rolled up newspaper in his fist, ripping into friends and foes alike.

"Mentally, he can run circles around people," said Lucy Mercer, founder and director of the 142 Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley, where Sahl will perform Aug. 14. "He's always current."

Sahl graciously credits her with helping him find a place to live, and giving him a place to perform. She's booked him frequently at her downtown theater, both solo and pairing him with cohort Dick Gregory.

"Whenever I've had him here, he sells out," she said. "Audiences are very positive. They tend to be people who remember him, and they tend to be pretty intelligent."

Sahl may have paved the way for hip topical comics like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but he finds their humor "kind of soft." They don't draw blood like he did in his heyday, he complains. And when reverential younger comics ask his advice, he tells them to "take more chances."

He's a regular at Mark Pitta's Tuesday comedy night at the Throckmorton Theatre, and cringes at some of the X-rated language and explicit sexual material that is a staple of much contemporary comedy in the era of cable TV.

"I was over at the theater last night, and it wasn't especially dirty, which I appreciated," he said. "But those guys in their Big 5 clothes aren't very adventurous. They're in neutral sociologically. More comedians, less humor."

Back in the day, Sahl got his start in San Francisco, breaking through nationally while working at Enrico Banducci's Hungry i in North Beach and living for a time in Sausalito.

A year or so ago, he heard about the Mill Valley theater through his friend Woody Allen, who performed there with his band. It would become his sanctuary from the turmoil of his life in Southern California.

"Everything was falling apart for me in L.A. professionally and personally, too," he said. "I lived in the same house in Beverly Hills for 43 years, but L.A. has gotten out of reach. So I came up to where I could talk to people. It was lucky for me here the first time."

Sahl hangs out with Robin Williams, who lives in Marin, and stays in touch with lifelong friend Clint Eastwood, but most of his old friends are "on the other side of the ground," as he puts it, and he's now faced with living alone in a new town.

"I had four dogs in L.A., but they all went on to their maker," he said. "They were the best. Every day I go to the pet adoptions in the back of the IJ and ask myself, 'Am I gonna make a commitment?'"

Saul considers himself a "radical" politically. And unlike most of his Marin neighbors, he did not support Barack Obama. When he points out what he sees as the disappointments of the Obama administration, Throckmorton audiences sometimes have a hard time laughing.

"The last time I was at the theater for Lucy, I went out there and opened up, saying, 'No, he can't.' But they weren't going to acknowledge it. It was like being in a church. There wasn't a sound."

By and large, though, Marin has embraced its newest celebrity resident, respecting his legendary status in the world of comedy.

Asked how he likes his new home so far, he didn't miss a beat.

"You can't not like it here," he said. "Everybody is pretty civilized. Anyway, what you think you don't like is stuff you don't like in yourself. It's not in your surroundings."

Dean Johnson, concert review, THE BOSTON HERALD

What better way to start a month-long political comedy series than with a living legend?
That seems to be the logic behind Mort Sahl's five-night stand at fellow comic Jimmy Tingle's Somerville theater. Sahl is serving as the table-setter for the venue's "Unconventional Comedy Convention," a July event that includes Barry Crimmins, Lewis Black and Janeane Garofalo among others.
Sahl is the godfather of the political comedy movement, and even now at 77 he managed more hits than misses during his 70-minute set.
He walked out in a trademark (pink) V-neck sweater and talked non-stop without so much as a cue card. Sahl made his mark over the years by walking onstage with the day's newspaper and skewering most of the people in it.
He had a certain New York newspaper with him last night but never opened it or even referred to it. Instead, Sahl riffed on politics, politicos and religion.
Sahl wasn't especially au courant with all his bits. Within 10 minutes, he'd mentioned Richard Nixon, Eugene McCarthy, Dave Brubeck and George Romney, all indicative of a set that included names being dropped and scattered about like so much grass seed.
He also rambled a bit and took several side trips to share an anecdote or story. But Sahl still has his A game, even if it isn't always with him. He recalled a recent meeting with the president when Bush told him, "This is a dirty job, but that's what you elected me to do." Sahl's retort: "We didn't elect you that much."
Some more of Mort's mots: "If you had the opportunity to be born again, why would you come back as George Bush?" Referring to a recent Kerry speech where the candidate said, "I see a new day. I see shining cities," Sahl remarked, "I think he saw Switzerland."
Tingle opened the night and also followed Sahl with a brief set and left no doubt he's part of Sahl's comedy progeny. Tingle spoke about government waste and asked, "Do you know how many houses you can build with a billion dollars?" After a perfect pause, he said, "Three houses in Newton!"

Bruce Weber, concert review, NEW YORK TIMES

"Mort Sahl was riffing on the military record of President Bush the other night from the stage at the Village Theater, where he performed many times in the 1950's and 1960's, when the place was known as the Village Gate. He could only imagine, he said, the version of the conversation Mr. Bush had with his daughter Jenna that so many fathers have had with their children.
"What did you do in the war, Daddy?" Mr. Sahl, as Ms. Bush, asked. Then, assuming a presidential manner, he answered himself:
"I started it."
The choir to which he was preaching guffawed. Not that Mr. Sahl is any fan of Mr. Bush's presumed opponent, Senator John Kerry, whom he calls a Social Democrat. That's the political category Mr. Sahl disdainfully fills with a whole range of self-labeled liberals, from Hollywood to inside the Beltway to the Upper East Side, who "domestically are sentimental and internationally are fascists."
"Liberals aren't liberals, not the way Roosevelt and Kennedy used the term," he said. "Kerry doesn't even want it. I know he hasn't earned it."
Mr. Sahl himself (is) an unregenerate skeptic, not so much a liberal as a radical, a perch that keeps him above the run-of-the-mill political fray, allowing him, as ever, to lampoon the insensitivity of Republicans, the smugness of Democrats and the self-interest of all of them. It's not politics he talks about so much, he says, it's truth; that's what makes his work abrasive.
"That's what the truth is for," he told the crowd. "It's supposed to be a high colonic."
Mr. Sahl has been shocking the system for half a century...A challenger of audiences as well as the powerful, a pained citizen, a romantic, an idealist, he is a complicated guy who resists labeling, even by himself.
"I work as a disturber," he said after the show in a dressing room interview in which he also referred to himself as a populist, a Puritan and a dreamer.
From the beginning, he said, "I thought of myself as an attorney for the audience, because everybody was going to discriminate against them and give them their worst � and in many cases they have."
Mr. Sahl may not be the lean, sly fox of a man he once was. Physically he looks a bit like Jerry Stiller these days...but he still carries the same old facial expression onstage: incredulous, anguished, impassioned, the look of a professor in despair for his students, the look of someone who feels he should be preaching to the converted but is afraid he has lost them. The largely gray-haired members of the audience, appreciative and nostalgic, also seemed to Mr. Sahl to have lost their edge.
"The act was about conformity then, and it still is," he said. "That's what I was trying to tell them tonight. I wanted to say: `You felt good when you worked for the left wing of the party. Don't you want to feel good again?' I wanted to remind them of that."
Wearing his trademark pullover and holding, as ever, a rolled-up newspaper in one hand, he has kept his stage persona remarkably intact since he first appeared at the Hungry I nightclub in San Francisco on Dec. 23, 1953, a debut that effectively changed the course of stand-up comedy....
It wasn't so much politics that Mr. Sahl brought to comedy as it was iconoclasm... He has always been less a comedian than a comic commentator, less often provoking gut-busting laughs than thoughtful chortles. Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Tom Lehrer and Mark Russell were all in his debt.... "

Mort's Village Theatre booking in NYC (Apr 21-May 2) was a tremendous success, near-capacity crowds at every show. Guests in attendance on opening night included Woody Allen and Dick Cavett, and at the final show, Sunday matinee, Bob Costas, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara.

At that show, Jerry Stiller raised his hand during the audience question and answer session. He said, "Mort, in the New York times review by Bruce Weber, he said 'Mort Sahl today looks a little like Jerry Stiller.' I just had to say -- I always thought you were a pretty good looking guy!"


Dave Shulman for the L.A. WEEKLY, August 2006

Will Rogers . . . used to come out with a newspaper and pretend he was a yokel criticizing the intellectuals who ran the government. I come out with a newspaper and pretend I'm an intellectual making fun of the yokels running the government.

Mort Sahl

On one of recorded history's hottest Monday afternoons, 79-year-old icon of post World War II North American political satire Mort Sahl sits patiently, for the moment, in the alcove of a corporate caffeine emporium in the upper hills of Bel Air. I sit beside him. We're waiting for his friend Patrick to join us, at which point the three of us will go next door, to the deli, for a quick lunch. While we wait, Sahl and I discuss the current state of standup comedy. Sahl says most of today's comedians are lazy, sticking to safe, inane observations while the world around them grows ever more bleak. They're not doing their jobs.

I must agree. And hope that someone will soon emerge to fill the void left by the late Bill Hicks in 1994. Man, if only he hadn't died . . .

"He was a good one," says Sahl. "Did you get to see him?"

"Not live, no. I didn't know about him until about a week after he died."

A man alone at the next table rotates our way, opens his wallet, extracts and displays a ticket for Sahl's upcoming show, Saturday night at McCabe's.

"Just bought it this morning," he tells Sahl."I'm very much looking forward to it."

He introduces himself, and he and Sahl shake.

Almost immediately, another fan appears and extends a hand.

"Thank you," says fan.

"Thank you," says Sahl, rising to receive the hand.

"No," says fan. "Thank you for everything. You're great."

"Wow. Thank you." Sahl sits and they wave goodbye."You have to like that," he tells me. "Spontaneous combustion."

Patrick arrives at last. It's been 45 minutes. Patrick says a quick hello, downs an iced coffee with a cigarette outside, ducks back in, says a quick goodbye and leaves.

But Sahl figures it's too late for lunch now anyway. As we pack up to leave, Sahl talks of the act of writing, and what a lonely activity it can be.

"Unless you're on a mission," he says. "That keeps you from being lonely."

"Are you on a mission?"


"Which is . . . ?"

He spreads a smile and shrugs. "Save the world!"

* * *

Saturday night, Mort Sahl's about to take the stage in a backroom at the eastern edge of Santa Monica. McCabe's Guitar Shop, one of L.A.&'s finest destinations of any kind since 1958. Since the '60s, the backroom here, with its walls hung densely with guitars, has hosted hundreds of America's finest minds and musicians.

Tonight's show is sold out. What must be about 150 patrons; mostly middle-aged, mostly on the pale side; talk quietly in their lightly padded brown steel foldout chairs, some washing down oversize cookies with bottled water or fresh hot coffee. Fringed wicker hanging lamps add to the atmosphere of a town-hall meeting in a town that really has a town hall. Not many seats left. Bill and I slip into the last row, Bill in front of a Blueridge BR140 dreadnought, and I beside a Martin Alt 2 resonator. Bill confirms that we are in the presence of an unusually high number of bald men with ponytails. Lest we judge: They are all with escorts, where Bill and I are just with me and Bill.

Onstage, front and center, an enormous white write-on/wipe-off board awaits Sahl's attentions. Four large uppercase letters have been drawn across the top of the board, dividing it into three sections: L, SD and R; Left or Liberal, Social Democrat and Right, I guess. Below each section head are three subheads: L, M and R. And below each subhead is lots of space.

Sahl takes the stage to warm applause, as if from a group of grateful students receiving a favorite professor's final lecture before summer. Professor Sahl wears the uniform that has served him through six decades of performing; V-neck sweater over a button-down and casual slacks; and bears his traditional prop: a current newspaper. He also has a manila folder filled with . . . something. Sets it on a stool, for now.

"Tonight's source material," he says. "The New York Times." Sahl calls it "the most liberal newspaper in the world," and, to make the point, reads the alleged headline: "World Ends. Nuclear Holocaust. Women and Minorities Hit Hardest." He segues into the world's hatred of Jews having its roots in the disproportionate influence of Jews on the philosophy of the Western world (Moses, Jesus, Marx, Freud and Einstein), then goes through some one-liners ("The only way to get young people to be against the war is to tell them that their parents are for it." "When the Democrats form a firing squad, they stand in a circle") before turning his attention to the big white board.

The chart, he says, is here "to help you determine if you're a liberal." With that, he opens the mystery folder and produces the head of Karl Marx, just slightly smaller than life-size and magnetized on the back. He places this in the top position of the board's far left. Beneath and slightly overlapping Marx he adds similar renditions of Lenin, Stalin;Kind of a Dick Cheney character, Vladimir Putin, Che Guevara ("The guy on T-shirts"), Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.

Then we're all the way to the right, where Sahl picks up speed: "Hitler; remember him? If you don't, and you have cable, you can turn on the History Channel. He's on there a lot." The head of Hitler goes up top, under the rightmost R. Below (and slightly overlapping) him go Mussolini, Mel Gibson ("a right-wing fascist";), Bruce Willis ("a right-wing fascist";), Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. To the immediate left of these, beneath, he adds Saddam Hussein ("Cheney said today that Saddam Hussein is a leftist!") and Osama bin Laden ("Cheney calls bin Laden a leftist!"). And to their immediate left go Clint Eastwood ("in the left wing of the right wing of the Right";) and our Governor Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger ("a left-wing fascist posing as a right-wing fascist").

That leaves the chart empty between the leftmost leftists and the leftmost rightists. Citing a need for further evaluation, Sahl adds Hillary Clinton's head to unmarked turf above SD, the Social Democrat midsection. Bill Clinton tops the center's right, and below him go Al Gore, Dixie Chicks, John Kerry ("Remember him?";) and Howard Dean.

And that's that. The rest of the chart; the middle of the left to the middle of the middle; remains headless.

House lights come up. Questions from the audience. Someone wonders how old Sahl is. What he thinks of Kucinich. Wonders if he might be using the term fascist a bit too cavalierly. If he's had a "most useful or favorite" politician over the years.

"They're all pretty good," Sahl replies to this last. "Comedians are lazy. They all call Bush dumb. I've met Bush, and I didn&'t find him dumb. He's stubborn. He's valiant, in a way.

"And if you met his mother, you'd know why." Sahl makes an extremely disturbing face.

THE DAILY NEWS NOVEMBER 23rd, 2001 by Patricia O'Haire

There's No Party Loyalty In Mort Sahl's Jokebook

"In the interest of national unity, I'm going to back the President publicly and credit him with the annihilation of the Democratic Party," said Mort Sahl, the satirist who has been making humor for almost half a century by pointing out the absurdities of life � especially political life.

Sahl, 74 and full of vinegar, is back in town for a three-night run beginning Sunday at Joe's Pub on Lafayette St.

Woody Allen got him the gig, he said by phone from his Los Angeles home, and the filmmaker will introduce him Sunday.

Sahl ran into Allen during a West Coast promotional tour for Allen's "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion."

Come back to New York, Allen told him. I don't have a club, Sahl said. Don't worry, I'll find you one, Allen promised.

"He's a great agent," said Sahl. "Imagine that," he said. "Here's a guy who hesitates to go out in public on his own behalf, but he's doing it for me!"

It has been a half-dozen years since he appeared here. He plays various places � college towns, "a lot of organization stuff," he said.

As long as there are headlines to talk about, he goes on.

"Don't you love the way liberals take defeat?" he said, laughing. "First they said electing Mark Green was crucial, then when it didn't happen, they said it didn't matter anyway."

That's vintage Sahl, needling all sides of the electorate.

Sahl was the first standup comic to release a comedy album, in the late '50s, and was the first to win a Grammy. He headlined at the Copacabana in 1959, when that was a big deal, and made the cover of Time magazine in 1964. He wrote speeches and jokes for political figures of all persuasions � John F. Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Alexander Haig.

But is it okay to poke fun at decisions being made now, when the nation is at war and even the suggestion of criticism directed at Washington is seen as verging on treason?

"Absolutely," he said. "What's awful is nobody laughs if you say, 'If this be treason, make the most of it.'

"Funny, but these days, comics are not very subversive," he said. "None of them are particularly political. Somebody has to say something � right now, there's no debate.

"It's as if you question anything, somehow it's your patriotism that comes into question."