Mort Sahl, 1927–2021: The Comic as Social Critic

Mort Sahl, 1927–2021: The Comic as Social Critic

Mort Sahl, 1927–2021: The Comic as Social Critic

Sahl diagnosed the disease of America in 1967 as “right-wing social democracy,” an ideology that is fine with war.


Mort Sahl died on October 26, and the news brought back memories of the 1960s and early ’70s and what it was like to grow up in Los Angeles, where he lived and worked. Sahl’s career was unpredictable and vagrant from the start; he joined the ROTC at 15 to escape the boredom of high school and eventually went into the Army Air Forces.

Charged with insubordination and demoted to KP duties, he dropped out of the armed forces and put himself through college at the University of Southern California. After kicking around odd jobs in LA, he followed his girlfriend to Berkeley and became (by his own account) a habitué, brooder, and holder-forth at the local coffee houses, until his break came and he was paid a modest fee to perform his stand-up act at the hungry i nightclub in San Francisco. His fame peaked early, in 1960, with full-length appreciations in Time and The New Yorker.

It was common, in later years, to hear Sahl put down as a slow-motion, pale imitation of Lenny Bruce, but the truth is that Sahl got there first and Bruce was the follower. Apart from being Jewish and touching on “topical” social issues, they had little in common. Bruce was a stand-up comic to the bone. He had begun his career in the Catskills and did shtick that bore a family resemblance—however embarrassing in retrospect—to Milton Berle and others of an older, tamer, shallower tribe. Lenny Bruce opened the cage door and prowled at liberty. He was called “sick” for routines that were a conscious offense against good taste, like the one about Jewish talent scouts who come across a painter (with a few other tricks up his sleeve) named Adolf Schicklgruber. This guy, says one of the agents, has possibilities but the name is no good; still, he could be “a hit… hit… Hit-ler. Adolf Hit-ler… That’s it!”

Bruce could seem encyclopedic, but his perceptions came from the surface of culture: old movies, showbiz, celebrity scandals, and forbidden practices. His monologues went fast, were delivered in a thin, high-pitched voice, and relied on a sort of cartooning done by ventriloquy instead of pictures. Sahl, by contrast, was not so much a stand-up comedian as a walk-around conversationalist. His main subject was politics; secondly movies, entertainment, the general culture; but also, occasionally, himself—with interjections dark or bright in which self-love was (to say the least) not a conspicuous note. His only prop was a rolled-up newspaper, whose contents made a pretext for the satirical probing and random associations that followed.

Sahl’s relation to his audience was entirely consistent—yet peculiar to himself. They were mostly college-educated, young, and skeptical—an alloy, unreproducible now, of bohemian attitudes and libertarian principles. Words like “sellout” and “establishment” were as real to them as “career” and “family.” Sahl had a historical sense equal to the education of his listeners—centered mostly on the 20th century, but it could reach back when suitable to the Civil War, Napoleon, or even Neolithic man. References to Freud or Marx were not infrequent, and not skimmed from the top.

He emitted an occasional chuckle, as he strolled about the stage, and sometimes a short laugh before an improvised joke. The reflections, judgments, anecdotes, were rounded by a sort of muttering to himself—“So, where was I, oh yeah”—or sometimes to the audience, nudging, “See what I mean?” The stage was his natural habitat, a social setting congenial to a not particularly sociable man.

Someone must have played me one of his records, because I knew who Mort Sahl was before he took a slot in the weekday lineup of evening talkers contracted by Metromedia television, which included the equable and innocuous Les Crane and the civil rights journalist Louis Lomax. Besides Sahl, easily the most picturesque of the group was Joe Pyne. A Marine Corps veteran, with a Purple Heart from the war, Pyne was far right in politics, cocksure and brutal in approach, and he welcomed audience members to step up to the “Beef Box” and lead off with “My beef, Joe, is this—.” If Pyne didn’t like the cut of their jib or their question, he would dismiss them: “Go gargle with razor blades!” Yet it was Pyne, of all the weekday talents, who came to Mort Sahl’s defense when he was threatened with firing once for having gone too far with a joke or a borderline slander.

The dimness of President Eisenhower, and the creep and caution among liberals in the face of the anti-communist paranoia, were Sahl’s bread and butter in early days at the hungry i. But he went after the Kennedy administration with equal relish and was an unsparing critic of the Vietnam War from Johnson’s first escalation. His best stuff was in routines that would last 40 minutes or a bit longer; you can obtain a decent impression from the live performances on LPs. These usually comprise a sustained (but digressive) account of things he actually did and witnessed: a comedy tour in Las Vegas and Miami; a trip on a plane with President Kennedy and his entourage; a visit to the Johnson White House at the height of the anti-war protests. Things that happened were mingled with things said, or possibly said—the difference was hard to tell, and that was part of the fun.

Sahl diagnosed the disease of America in 1967 as “right-wing social democracy,” an ideology that is fine with war. Democrats like President Johnson and Senator Henry Jackson epitomized the stance, as did the head of the AFL-CIO, George Meany. Sahl’s favorite magazine was I.F. Stone’s Weekly, which I learned from him you could buy at the newsstand on Las Palmas Boulevard. He took an early interest in Ramparts and admired the all-purpose recklessness of The Realist.

He will not be remembered for one-liners, though the imagined advice of JFK to his father will probably last: “Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary.” Or maybe this about the Cuba panic in the summer of 1960—Sahl on a Florida beach: “Everybody says it’s only 90 miles away, but I can’t see it.” Friend: “It’s right behind that aircraft carrier.” A nonstop irritant, he followed the method of the gadfly. He saw the thing in front of your nose and told you what it meant.

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