A Voice in the Wilderness -- Mort Sahl
If you were the only person left on the planet, I would have to attack you. That's my job.
Nobody saw Mort Sahl coming. When he arrived, the revolution had not yet begun. Sahl was the revolution, at first, although he had no such grand idea in mind. He wasn't plotting the violent overthrow of the conservative comedy government. He was never a rebel, deep down. In thought, yes, but rarely in deed. His secret desire-a pipe dream, really-was to work somewhere as a comedian. He had no experience and little idea where to go to be funny, other than parties and all-night campus hangouts, where he held forth in his motormouth manner.
Of all the great groundbreaking comedians of that era-which officially began with Sahl's inauspicious debut on Christmas Night 1953 before a friend-packed audience at a San Francisco folksinger haven called the hungry i-nobody could have been more different from the standard stand-up comic than Mort Sahl. Even the revolutionary comedians who followed him-Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Dick Gregory, Phyllis Diller, Shelley Berman, Jonathan Winters-were cast in a familiar nightclub comic mold; all but Allen, a writer, had worked as actors, or in radio, or as entertainers of some sort. Other comedians labored to find a stage persona, a voice, but Sahl's actual persona was eccentric enough, and his voice was loud and clear. He was a force of nature, a whirlwind whose ideas defined him; behind each joke lurked a sharply etched, cynical worldview.
Everything about him was candid and cool, the antithesis of the slick comic: his casual campus wardrobe (the signature cardigan sweater, slacks, loafers, rumpled hair, open collar, rolled-up shirtsleeves); his material (partly political but heavily laced with social commentary on fads, trends, and the American mind-set at midcentury); his consistently high level of original wit; and, to be sure, his conversational, in-your-face delivery. Unlike the comics of the day, he didn't attempt to ingratiate himself with the audience, yet he connected with them on his own terms. Often he didn't finish sentences-he spoke in a kind of shorthand and didn't worry about building to a finish or making logical segues; he didn't sing or dance. He was unlike any comedian who had ever been-except that he was stunningly funny. The mere idea of a stand-up comic talking about the real world was in itself revolutionary.
Sahl had "attitude" before it became trendy-and, much later, in the 1980s, before it passed itself off as a substitute for wit. Attitude comedy didn't stem from Steve Martin, David Letterman, and Dennis Miller. It started with Mort Sahl, whose audacious position was that, basically, the fix was in-that life in the 1950s, and politics in particular, was a joke and that he was simply reporting what went on in Washington.
That had also been Will Rogers's pose, but Sahl was citing chapter and verse, and was no benign, lovable, head-scratching cowboy philosopher. Sahl, it seemed, had never met a man he liked-or, as he cracked, "I never met a man I didn't like until I met Will Rogers." Sahl had read Rogers and concluded, "I'm not flattered when people say I'm the new Will Rogers. You read over some of the old things Rogers wrote and you find out he wasn't very funny." Sahl conceded that Bob Hope "works in some political material," but Hope had no political viewpoint beyond a glib patriotism. Of all the comedians of that time, his closest ancestor-and influence-was the bitter and acidic Henry Morgan, the iconoclastic radio satirist. "He really impressed me," said Sahl. "It was a great blow for freedom that this guy could get it across-it was a rallying point." Sahl was perhaps closer to H. L. Mencken than to any comic-in his ferocity, his lacerating wit, his language, his hyperbole, his imagery, and his impact.
For a time, when he was riding high in the early 1960s, he was almost a fourth branch of government-"the nation's only employed philosopher," said the Hollywood columnist Joe Hyams, and "almost certainly the most widely acclaimed and best-paid nihilist ever produced by Western civilization," wrote The New Yorker's Robert Rice in a 1960 profile. The press's careless comparisons of Sahl to Rogers and Hope were way off the mark. When Rogers or Hope did political material, their jokes weren't meant to wound or to make anyone squirm; Sahl's were, and did. "Will Rogers with fangs," he was labeled, or "the Will Rogers of the beat generation," "the surrealist Montaigne," and "a beat generation Cotton Mather." Sahl was, in fact, virulently anti-beat ("The beat generation is a coffeehouse full of people expectantly looking at their watches waiting for the beat generation to come on"). He said, "The beatniks don't want to be involved with society, which is the antithesis of what I do." Pre-Sahl, it was heretical, even career suicide, for a comedian to discuss politics, much less to cut up a sitting president onstage. Rogers and Hope were establishment figures, national heroes, but Sahl was completely out of the Washington loop when he began. Rogers used to say, "All I know is what I read in the papers," a posture close to Sahl's own, though Sahl's slant was that all he knew is what he didn't read in the papers.
Roger Ailes, the head of Fox Cable News, recalled: "I once sat with Mort Sahl in Mister Kelly's, and watched him read a paper in a booth. He got up onstage six hours later that night with forty minutes of new material. With no writers, he just did what he had seen in the afternoon papers. He was a genius." Later, Sahl would tell lengthy stories of attending White House dinners, heavily embellished, that depicted him as an outsider who had snuck in a side entrance to the West Wing when nobody was looking. He was no crony; he didn't hobnob like Hope or wish to be beloved like Rogers, both of whom emerged from vaudeville. Sahl was no show-business baby. He was a guy with things on his mind.
As he later wrote in his memoir, "Something was stirring in the late '50s in America even if people couldn't define it." Sahl defined it. Comics were utterly befuddled by him and what Ralph J. Gleason labeled "the new comedy of dissent." "Who wants a comic you gotta have a dictionary on your lap so you can figure out what he's saying, and even then he ain't funny," said Buddy Lester, a paid-up member of the comic rear guard. Other comedians, Woody Allen recalled, "became jealous, because Sahl was so natural. They used to say, 'Why do people like him? He just talks. He isn't really performing.' " Not performing in a traditional sense, but his mind did an astonishing tap dance across the front page.
Although Sahl clearly loved the attention and later even the friendship of politicians, he didn't seek their approval, only their attention. It cost him dearly when the Kennedy clan-although not John Kennedy himself-mistakenly assumed that, because Sahl had bashed the Eisenhower administration, he was the Democrats' boy. Mort Sahl was nobody's boy. Some took him for a comic hired hand because he had made the mistake of writing jokes for Kennedy during the campaign. Lenny Bruce liked to say, "I am not a comedian, I'm Lenny Bruce," but it was Sahl who truly was not the standard comedian.
Sahl was misjudged as merely a comedian just because he made his living in show business. He embraced fame and success, appearing on major television shows and rubbing elbows with celebrities and collecting all the trinkets of stardom, but he refused to play the logrolling celebrity game-and that conscious rejection would later come back to bite him. He was, like other great comics of that era whose careers skidded off course early, his own worst enemy. He was not just a political rebel, as his later sharp turn to the right revealed, but he had a rebellious personality that cost him friends, colleagues, club dates, managers, agents, wives, and girlfriends. Sahl still goes it alone, with a major ego that assures him he's superior to his fellow comedians. His deeply indignant, contrary streak fuels his passion and sparks his wit, but it also burns bridges.
The event that proved he could be as politically committed as, say, Dick Gregory or Lenny Bruce-someone willing to put his name and reputation on the line-was the Kennedy assassination. It scarred his career, and really his life, because his career was his life. In 1963, after blazing across the comedy skies in the 1950s and early '60s, Sahl all but fizzled out after JFK's death. The Warren Report so traumatized him that he never recovered his footing and still struggles against an ancient stigma that he's a head case.
Sahl was just gaining mainstream acceptance on TV when the assassination brought him down as clearly as it did Kennedy impressionist Vaughn Meader. Unlike Meader-a novelty item and a relatively minor talent-Sahl, with his boundless and resourceful wit, might be riding high even now if he hadn't got so immersed in the dubious findings of the Warren Commission that it damaged his objectivity. His major tactical mistake was in not maintaining a certain artistic distance, as a wit and commentator, from his material; and he failed, utterly, to recognize that this was how the public viewed him.
He miscalculated the fickle and perverse nature of show business and the copycat media, which hastily and wrongly wrote him off as a radical kook and, with cruel irony, as yesterday's newspaper. By 1966, only six years after he had appeared on the cover of Time-a stamp of approval that carried far more clout than it does now, the first true stand-up comedian so honored-and been profiled by The New Yorker two months later, Sahl was scrambling for club dates and trying to salvage his career. His fall from grace was Bruceian. To many he appeared to be preoccupied with the Warren Report, from which he read long excerpts onstage, and it was said that, like Bruce, he had stopped being funny. In fact, most critics felt he was still fresh and funny, but not enough people cared, and the rumor still hounds him. Sahl stalwarts stood by him and showed up religiously whenever he appeared, with decreasing regularity, but he had lost the precious traction that performers need, especially comics with small, hard-core constituencies. A film star or a pop singer has nine lives, a comic only one.
In 1983 Lawerence Christon wrote: "Mort Sahl has charted one of the most precipitous courses in American entertainment for the last thirty years and has gone from celebrity to internal exile. There was no precedent for what he did. There were no prototypes. He's a genuinely self-created man and a true existential in that sense. Once he passes from the scene, people will begin to lionize him and call him the great American and take to heart all the things he's said." Sahl is counting on that. It's what has kept him talking into the next millennium at seventy-five, fifty years after he first kicked the door down.
It's hard to imagine Mort Sahl as anything but a mature, adult cynic, but in his early recordings in the mid-1950s you can get a sense of the boyish Mort. While the material is richly sardonic, he doesn't sound as deeply cynical as he later became. His voice is lighter and higher than remembered, almost chipmunk-like as he delivers his most caustic cracks. He seems delighted with himself, enjoying his own performance, and his sporadic bursts of laughter are infectious yet not self-congratulatory. He sounds surprised when people laugh or applaud a line, and often he responds with a disbelieving "Really?" as if to say, You actually understand me! thus spurring him ever "Onward!"-his famous battle cry. The monologues were leavened with staccato good-humored guffaws, directed not so much at his own performance as at the general absurdity of American life. No matter how harsh and hostile his pronouncements, there was never any hostility in them. It was just that, as Sahl himself put it, "Everything bothers me."
He was born in Montreal as Morton Lyon Sahl (the middle name proved prescient, suggesting its owner's self-approving roar), the precocious only child of a Jewish couple who had moved from New York City to Canada, and finally to Los Angeles when Sahl was seven. His unlikely Canadian roots were quickly shaken off and he grew up a totally Southern California guy-wisecracking, movie-crazed, and, at twenty-three and just out of the service, the embodiment of what a new men's magazine out of Chicago would soon refer to as "The Playboy Man." Sahl was all of that-addicted to women, sports cars, jazz, hi-fi equipment, fancy watches, all the fifties talismans of young American manhood.
Although Sahl didn't come from a theatrical background, his father, Harry, was a leftist and a failed playwright from New York's Lower East Side, and Mort shared much of his father's contempt for show business, if not the entire system. "It's all fixed," Harry Sahl would say. "They don't want anything good." Mort's ebullient mother was "all enthusiasm." Both parents were radicals. His father owned a tobacco store in Montreal before settling in Los Angeles, where he worked as an FBI clerk, one of several low-level bureaucratic positions he held. After making it at the hungry i, Sahl moved his parents to Sausalito and, when his father died, Mort found clippings about Harry Sahl's thwarted career. "My dad was disappointed in his dreams and he distrusted that world for me,"
Even as a kid, Sahl was a precocious talker-standing behind a radio and delivering his own newscast, mimicking Gabriel Heatter and Walter Winchell; by eight, he was hanging around radio stations, fishing discarded scripts out of trash bins and reading them into a fake microphone he had built. His mother said that Mort was talking at seven months and, when he was ten, "spoke like a man of thirty." The young Mort was a teenage patriot during World War II, joining the ROTC in high school and winning a medal for marksmanship and an American Legion Americanism award. At fifteen, he left L.A.'s Belmont High School to join the army, but after two weeks in uniform his mother rescued him. "I was a martinet as a kid," he liked to say. His closest boyhood chum was the actor Richard Crenna. At thirteen, they would sneak into the KFI radio station and try to get on a show called Boy Scout Jamboree, but only Crenna was cast; Crenna recalls that Sahl was antiauthoritarian at ten.
Sahl's father tried to get his son a West Point appointment, but Mort was drafted and sent to the Ninety-third Air Depot Group in Anchorage, Alaska. There, his rebel instincts flourished and he grew a beard, refused to wear a cap, and edited a post newspaper, Poop from the Group, which won him an eighty-three-day KP sentence for editorials about alleged military payoffs. Thirty-one months later he left the service, still a private but a five-star rebel: "A few months under the heel of authority killed it for me."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Seriously Funny by Gerald Nachman. Copyright © 2003 by Gerald Nachman. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.