‘I’m not so much interested in politics as I am in overthrowing the government' | Andre Vincent pays tribute to Mort Sahl

‘I’m not so much interested in politics as I am in overthrowing the government'

Andre Vincent pays tribute to Mort Sahl

‘Is there any group here I haven’t offended?’

The political climate of the 1950s should have been ripe for comedy satire. President Eisenhower, the Cold War, the Korean War, the beginning of the atomic age, the Space Race: these were all perfect comedic targets. But then there was also McCarthyism, the anti-communist pursuit of political dissent which spread rapidly to include anything at all that could be construed as anti-American.

So the comedy of the time established itself as ‘good clean wholesome fun’. It was the golden age of televised humour which included Jack Benny, Lucille Ball and The Colgate Comedy Hour. Live stand-ups were kooky, knockabout clowns like Lewis & Martin and Abbott & Costello, or nightclub comics with one-liners about their ‘dumb wives’, such as Henny Youngman, Buddy Hackett, Joey Bishop and Shecky Green. Nobody rocked the boat; it didn’t seem the thing to do.

Then on Christmas Eve 1953, a young comedian gave a performance that was to break the mould forever. Standing on the folk music stage of the Hungry i in San Francisco was a young man dressed not in dinner jacket and black tie (the comedian’s ‘uniform’), but in a cardigan, preppy shirt, chinos and loafers. For this groundbreaker it was not what you wore that mattered, it was what you said.

‘Maybe the Russians will steal our secrets, then they’ll be three years behind.’

Nobody could have been further from the stock comic than Mort Sahl. His act contained no shtick, catchphrases or wacky personae. He simply ‘played’ himself, a performance characterised by a distinctive delivery that was hip, blunt and relaxed. Shelley Berman said at the time: ‘Comedians told jokes: good, one-line, strong jokes, with a set-up and a slam, good punchline. He wasn’t doing that, he was making commentary on our lives, on our social lives, and on our political thinking, making fun of us in some way, or showing us our silliness and the lies we were telling.’

Since Sahl’s standpoint has always been so consistently American (his parents being native New Yorkers), it is surprising to discover that he was actually born in Montreal, Canada. Even at an early age Sahl showed a theatrical bent and was encouraged by his mother while his father showed complete contempt for showbusiness. Harry Sahl was a failed playwright and attempted to share his bitterness with his son: ‘It’s all a fix. They don’t want anything good’ was regularly heard in the house.

The Sahl family moved to southern California when Mort was seven and the west coast way suited the boy. He would hang around local radio stations and rescue discarded scripts from bins, re-enacting them at home. His mother claimed that by the age of ten Sahl ‘spoke like a man of thirty’. He was a patriotic teenager during the Second World War and became an amateur marksman with a rifle. His father, who was now working for the FBI, tried to get Sahl into West Point Military Academy, but instead he was drafted into the 93rd Air Depot in Anchorage, Alaska.

It was this posting that caused the birth of the maverick we know. Service life did not suit Sahl at all: he grew a beard and long hair, refused to wear his uniform, and created a garrison newspaper called Poop From The Group. After an edition covering alleged military pay-offs, he won himself an eighty three-day ‘Kitchen Patrol’ sentence. Nearly three years later he was discharged from the army, still a private but an emphatic non-conformist.

In 1950 Sahl graduated from the University of Southern California where he received a Bachelor of Science degree. He then joined a masters program in Traffic Engineering but did not complete the course. He felt that college life was ‘Conformity City’ and preferred to use the time in other ways, such as going to all-night jazz joints and writing one-act plays: these were performed with friends in a rented theatre space they called Theatre X. Sahl also tried breaking into the Los Angeles comedy club scene as an impressionist under the name ‘Cal Southern’, but he hated the act even more than the audience did.

Sahl kept testing out his comedy legs wherever he could, from coffee shops on university campuses to performing for free between dancers at LA strip clubs. He was trying to find his voice and style but by his own admission was ‘ignored by managers, by the press, by everybody’. While in LA he met Sue Barbior, a leftist, atheist and jazz-lover, whose views pretty much ticked all the boxes for Sahl. He followed her to Berkeley, where she enrolled into the University of California while Sahl hung out with the students, debating politics, art, literature and music.

It was Barbior who suggested Sahl tried a spot at the Hungry i. The owner, Enrico Banducci was known to enjoy taking a gamble on something different but had yet to hire a comic. Barbior commented to Sahl, ‘If they understand you, you’re home free, and if they don’t, they’ll pretend it’s whimsical humour.’ When Sahl went to meet the less-than-enthusiastic Banducci, he took along his friend Larry Tucker to act as his manager. Playing on the owner’s sympathy, Tucker told him that Sahl had just been discharged from the veterans’ hospital with malnutrition and a ruptured appendix. Banducci was won over and offered Sahl $75 to perform, unaware that he’d happily have worked for free.

When he started performing at the Hungry i, Sahl was clearly uncomfortable in suit and tie and the conventionality it represented. One night he turned up in denim jeans, sweater and button-down shirt, more freshman then funny man. It worked - he was more relaxed, as was the audience. He started to find his stage style as well, influenced more by the jazz world and his favourite musician Stan Kenton, than by anyone in the comedy world. This showed in his delivery: riffing on ideas spontaneously, leaving stories and jokes unfinished while branching off onto new ones.

Sahl then added a daily newspaper to his act. Much more than just a prop, it was borne out of necessity, being used to note down his set list and key lines. Eventually the newspaper became a useful authority that he would turn to several times during the performance, telling disbelieving audiences that every subject he joked about had to be true because here were the words right in front of him in print. This little bohemian stage with 85 chairs facing it was now set to change the face of comedy.

‘I’m not so much interested in politics as I am in overthrowing the government.’

Within a few months Sahl was not just winning small local audiences. A whole new wave of comics were being captivated by his unique performance style with its free association, stream of consciousness, one-word punchlines and ad libs which could meander but never detracted from a structured routine. Woody Allen said of Sahl’s comedy at the time: ‘Everybody was ready for the revolution, but some guy had to come and be great. Mort was the one. He changed the rhythm of jokes, he had different content, but the revolution was in the way he laid down jokes…with such guile, he totally restructured comedy.’

Sahl didn’t just inspire Allen. A body of talent was waiting to be influenced by his comedy: Dick Gregory, Lily Tomlin, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, the Smothers Brothers and of course, Lenny Bruce. Without a doubt, Sahl originated many of the techniques that Bruce later used, but while Bruce was the patient exposing the audience to his problems, Sahl was the therapist telling the audience their own. The two comics once shared the Interlude Club - Sahl played the big room upstairs while Bruce worked a smaller crowd in the basement. One night Bruce exhorted his audience to shout ‘Lynch Mort Sahl’. Tthe chanting was loud enough to be heard by Sahl’s audience through the ventilator system, an event shocking for its time, but this was anarchy in the making.

‘I’m for capital punishment, you’ve got to execute people. How else are they going to learn?’

It wasn’t long before Sahl was in demand, opening for some of the biggest jazz musicians in the entertainment industry. For such a music fanatic, it couldn’t get any better, performing with the likes of Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and his idol, Stan Kenton. Sahl was the first comedian to cross into the musical arena, and as a result was awarded Entertainer of the Year three years in a row by Metronome Magazine. He even compered the newly-established Monterey Jazz Festival. In 1955, Sahl recorded Mort Sahl at Sunset, a performance with Dave Brubeck: this is considered to be the first-ever comedy album, and is a very rare find for collectors.

Broadway beckoned, and although it had a short run, The Next President firmly put Sahl on the map as an important, innovative voice. It was said that Richard Burton, who was performing in the theatre next door, would often miss his entrance cue as a result of listening too intently to the comic from the wings of the adjacent theatre. When the show closed, Sahl went straight to California for a four-week engagement at the Crescendo in Hollywood. He stayed for 88. Sahl remained edgy, never pulled his punches, and continually worried the management, but people flocked to see him.

‘I like to go out with actresses and all other female impersonators.’

During this period Sahl became a Californian playboy, dating many young starlets. He was close friends with Paul Newman, Steve McQueen and Hugh Hefner. He had made comedy cool and hip. He was branded ‘The rebel without a pause’ by his peers and became the first comedian ever to appear on the front of Time magazine. Soon he was under contract to both CBS and NBC television companies, but neither would actually risk putting him on any of their shows for fear of what he might say.

During the height of his career, Sahl was courted by the Kennedy administration to write for JFK’s presidential campaign. He received a phone call that began: ‘Hello, this is Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, I want you to write something for Johnny…’ Sahl was happy to help, as long as there was no expectation of candidate endorsement. The senior Kennedy wasn’t worried – he just wanted Sahl to accept the job. Soon, he was writing lines not only for the future president but also for others members of the campaign entourage, including Frank Sinatra.

However, once JFK took office, Sahl was quick to publicly lampoon the new President. The Democrats had assumed that the hippest comedy voice in America was one of theirs, but Sahl lived by his own code: ‘If you were the only person left on the planet, I would have to attack you - that’s my job.’ Despite the relative tameness of his presidential jibes, they were more than the party could take. After Kennedy Snr made a few calls, Sahl’s club bookings began to dry up. One morning, Banducci went to the Hungry I (seemingly the only place still booking Sahl) and found the doors chained and padlocked by the IRS in demand of back taxes.

But everything changed on November 22, 1963. The Kennedy assassination would affect Sahl in a way that no one could have predicted. He became completely obsessed with the Warren Report, that controversial 889-page transcript of the murder. He quoted huge chunks of it on stage, mocked its lack of logic, and berated President Johnson and Chief Justice Earl Warren for their deceit.

The whole subject consumed Sahl and he moved to New Orleans to work with District Attorney Jim Garrison, discrediting the report over a period of four years. This greatly damaged Sahl’s career progression: blacklisted by nearly every club, his annual income fell from $800,000 to about $20,000. One TV company completely banned his name from being mentioned in their offices.

One good thing came out of Sahl’s relocation. While in New Orleans, he started to perform in the local college and university campuses, not simply for the money but also for the access to a student audience who were keen to hear his comedy for its political accusations and tirades. Consequently, he became one of the first comics to play the now-enormous US college circuit.

Sahl’s diary in the 70s and 80s was filled with cancelled TV appearances, collapsed projects and few club bookings. His status took a nosedive but his spirit did not. Performing wherever he could, Sahl used his own obsession with the Warren report to make jokes about himself and the fixations that brought him down. This lightning wit combined with political insight can still be seen today when Saul performs. Most Thursday nights he is saving America at the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley, California.

‘They used to say that no-one is above the law. I know a lot of people above the law – and almost everybody is above a lawyer. But I believe no one is above humour. In that sense my work is never done.’

There is an old adage that satirists are like dogs. As young pups they sink their teeth into everything and bark constantly. As they age, they get lazy and lose their bite. Mort Sahl has never stopped howling; once his fangs are in place he will not give up his prey.

Published: 21 May 2014

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