by Andrew Wantuck
Mort Sahl was arguably the most important comedian of the 20th century. At a time when most comedians were talking about mothers-in-law, Mort created a routine that stretched the boundaries. He single-handedly created an art form with a scope and impact far beyond mere slapstick and gags. His biting social commentary constantly challenged the status quo and dared the audience to think about our nation’s actions and subsequent consequences.
Sahl's conversational style, with rolled up newspaper in hand, forever lifted stand-up comedy from its double entendre beginnings to a powerful tool for the oppressed majority.
In the process of pioneering this act, he influenced (among others) Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Woody Allen and Jon Stewart.
I interviewed Mort on his 80th birthday. We spoke about how he got started, who assassinated JFK, and his 1950s prophecy coming true.
Andrew: How did you get your start in comedy?
Mort: Well, I went in and started it. I went in to the Hungry I. There weren't any comedians, everybody sang, I but went in and started to do political humor in San Francisco. Ran about 15 years there. It was generally recognized in the business as kind of a revolution.
Andrew: Why was it considered a revolution?
Mort: I think if you look back, I was the only one talking about relevant current events. Nobody had ever done that before.
Andrew: Who was in office when you first got on stage.
Mort: Eisenhower. There was a lot of resistance. There were a lot of people that didn't want you to talk about important people; to bring up the black list, to talk about Senator Joe McCarthy in an unfavorable way.
Andrew: What kind of reaction did you get early on?
Mort: Well, a lot of tough ones at the beginning, but eventually, as Adlai Stevenson used to say, “There is an oppressed majority out there that agrees with you.” You know Freud says that an artist has to express what's on the unconscious mind of the audience. That's what makes a poet. The reason that a lot those guys (comedians) you see working can't be convincing is because they don't believe it. It's not point of view. Comedy is not escapism, it’s facing the facts (laughs).
Andrew: You are credited for influencing most of the comedians of the last 50 years, including Lenny Bruce. Did you ever meet Lenny Bruce?
Mort: I was a very good friend of his. We worked together at the Crescendo in Hollywood for six months. There were two clubs there; the Interlude and the Crescendo. He worked upstairs. All those guys came after me. In other words, we changed the flow.
Andrew: Was there ever a time when politicians tried to silence you? For example, did McCarthy ever try to name you on any “black lists”?
Mort: No, but he had a lot of champions. A lot of people out front who thought that was absolute authority. Nothing is above humor. There are a lot of things above taste (laughs), but nothing is above humor. We talked Vietnam, we talked about the Kennedy assassination. I read parts of the Warren report on the stage.
Andrew: Tell me about your working with Jim Garrison, the controversial prosecutor who investigated the Kennedy assassination (Kevin Costner played Jim Garrison in the movie “JFK” by Oliver Stone).
Mort: Yeah, I was down there (Texas) 10 years. I was an investigator in the office, and I did press stuff for him. I got him a Playboy interview, a Johnny Carson interview, and so forth. That was very important; all the unraveling of the country comes after that. That's the water's edge when you kill the king.
Andrew: Why did you to go work for him?
Mort: I was on television then for Metro Media and they sent me down there to interview him. Then I saw the opposition he faced and he needed as much help as he could get.
Andrew: Who killed John F. Kennedy?
Mort: The CIA had a large hand in killing the president. (Pause) Did you see the movie?
Andrew: I did.
Mort: Okay. That covered about 3 percent of what happened. Garrison had a very, very strong case. He was the bravest man I ever met. And there was a lot humor down there. There was kind of a black humor that the DA office developed.
Andrew: What do you mean?
Mort: I mean, you show a picture of Ruby shooting Oswald. You say here is Oswald being killed while he is being guarded by 24 members of the Dallas police force, or 25 if we count Ruby (laughs).
Andrew: This may be my own curiosity, but I feel like there was a lot that wasn't reported on RFK's assassination as well.
Mort: That's correct.
Andrew: I feel that because it was never caught on film, it never got the attention it deserved, also because he wasn't the President.
Mort: He was killed because he wanted to stop the war.
Andrew: I think it was Eisenhower that first coined the phrase “military industrial complex.” He explained how it can be dangerous when war is a private industry for profit.
Mort: That's correct; that's his departure speech.
Andrew: Is what he warned us about 50 years ago exactly what is happening today?
Mort: I think you are quite right, Andrew.
Andrew: I feel like we are repeating history.
Mort: There is no way for anybody to learn because when young people turn on television all there see is gossip. Paris Hilton going to jail. The press is the hand maiden of the government, as they are now.
Andrew: Do you think there are people at the top who are forcing those stories upon us, or is it just the dumbing-down of society and just what we want to see and talk about? Maybe it's just easier that way than facing reality of war and genocide.
Mort: Well, it's not what we want, that's the last thing that we want. They have a position and they don't want to rock the boat. Most people don't have to be told what to do, they know what to do, and they will stay with the established order.
Andrew: Is that what inspired you to get on stage, to go against the established order?
Mort: No, I just wanted to get into show business. I wanted to be a writer and most of the comedians I met were so dumb they didn't understand the material. So then I conquered my own fear, which is no small item, and got up and did it myself (pause) and it caught on.
Andrew: Who would you say inspired you?
Mort: Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Fred Allen, Herb Shriner, people like that. George Bernard Shaw (laughs) -- the guys you don't forget. (pause) And a lot of movies. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “12 O'clock High,” “The Searchers,” “It's a Wonderful Life.” Did you know I am going to be teaching a class in the fall at Claremont McKenna College?
Andrew: What kind of course?
Mort: The course is called the Revolutionary's Handbook. How to keep people from being “corporate-tized,” and remain being individuals. Non-conformity is life. Conformity is death. The group isn't worth joining is the point. It's like everybody is swearing now because everybody else does (laughs). It's lost its power, if it ever had any.
Andrew: Can you please expand on "the group isn't worth joining"?
Mort: Your individuality is your strongest point. Somerset Maugham wrote about this his whole life. It isn't worth joining because you have to make compromises politically to get along in the group. It will eventually reach a level of mediocrity. I mean, look at the Washington press corps. The group learned to keep its mouth shut didn't it? With the exception of a few guys like Seymour Hersh and other people like that. Generally speaking, it's all the same. I mean, when you go down and watch those comedians, how many are individualistic? The group demands that you don't become adventurous. You are going to get in trouble if you go too far. Well, first of you have to think to go too far. An individual is as important as a group, at least. The American Revolution is all about individualism. Creating a place where a man can be free.
Andrew: What are your thoughts on this upcoming election?
Mort: (Laughs) After watching the Republican debate, I decided they are right, there wasn't any evolution (laughs). The whole thing is absurd. Democrats are running a woman and all they demand of her is that she act just like all the men that have run before her. That's why she smiles from the mouth down. Did you see the first debate? …Look at Mike Gravel, who used to be a senator from Alaska. Look how the audience comes to life when he speaks the truth. The rest just pass out that home grown propaganda about how they are going to change the terrorists, all that stuff.
Andrew: Back to the current state of comedy: Are there any comics out there today that you really enjoy?
Mort: There is always talent around, it's America, but I'm not really a reviewer. I have enough trouble doing what I do (laughs). I will say the most creative I ever worked with is Jonathan Winters. He's above all the others.
Andrew: What was the job that you found most professionally rewarding?
Mort: I was a writer for President Kennedy.
Andrew: I have read that you were criticized when you went on stage telling jokes about President Kennedy.
Mort: Anybody is fair game.
Andrew: Tell me something about President Kennedy that I haven't read.
Mort: He had a great sense of humor, and he was an intellectual, and he was a peacemaker. That's enough to kill him right there (laugh).
Andrew: Changing gears again, I feel like Jon Stewart has a job today because of the road you paved. Would you agree?
Mort: (Laughs) I would, and I thank you for that. He's a Clinton Democrat. He thinks Republicans are stuffed shirts, but it was Ralph Nadar who pointed out that Republicans are people too (laughs). I mean, have you ever seen a joke about women on that show?
Mort: No, and you never will. Even an unjust joke; you understand that a lot of jokes are stereotyping, but you won't ever see them do that. It's interesting how I can talk about some of the things I talk about on stage, but if I do it in somebody's living room they get mad.
Andrew: How many presidents have you met?
Mort: Ten. Ike, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, George W.
Andrew: So you have met George W. Bush?
Mort: Yes, and I know his father very well. George Sr. has a great sense of humor, although his son is taking it a little far (laughs). He is really testing us, our goodwill.
Andrew: Did you go to college?
Mort: Yes, I went to West Point and USC. I wasn't a very good student. The problem is your age; I would be fine now. You shouldn't read Moby Dick when you’re 15.
Andrew: What did you learn from the army?
Mort: I learned that good officers are like good fathers, and that over all it was good experience. Spiritual.
Andrew: How was it spiritual?
Mort: Comradeship in foreign lands is powerful. The aurora borealis. Also, we were part of a great crusade; we saved the world. WW2 stopped fascism, for a while (laughs). You see there was a time, before Bush and Cheney pointed a bayonet at everybody, when America led by example. Everybody loved America! Even Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro looked up to us. Now, everybody hates us, thanks to the leadership. As far as the election that you mentioned earlier, the Democrats aren't giving us much of an alternative. It looks like a fight staged by Don King.
Andrew: Any final comments?
Mort: I started working 54 years ago, and I predicted fascism and now we got it. So, I'm good with the crystal ball even if the comedy wasn't so great (laughs). What I really believe is that the audience is very smart, and most of my fellow performers don't think so. I think the audience is very smart. At some level they know what's going on.