Mort Sahl is now 80 years old. He was a pioneer in stand-up comedy. He broke through the tradition of jokes about airplane food, Asian drivers and frigid wives, instead sharing his wit and insights about political hypocrisy, racism and monogamy. On June 28, there will be a tribute to Sahl -- a benefit for the Heartland Comedy Foundation with tickets ranging from $100-$200 -- at the Wadsworth Theater in Brentwood. The roster of performers includes Bill Maher, Jay Leno, Paula Poundstone, Woody Allen (on tape), Richard Lewis, Albert Brooks, David Steinberg, Kevin Nealon, David Brenner, Shelley Berman, Jonathan Winters, Drew Carey and Jack Riley; Larry King will emcee. For information: (213) 365-3500 or ticketmaster.com/artist/1126875.
I first met Sahl in 1953 when he was a guest speaker in a course I was taking at the New School for Social Research. I was inspired by his satirical approach to serious issues. "Every word I do is improvised," he once told me. "I don't rehearse anything. I start it on stage." In the beginning, though, he would write key words on a rolled-up newspaper, which became his trademark prop. In 1960 he wrote jokes for presidential candidate John Kennedy, and Sahl's picture graced the cover of Time magazine in August during the conventions. When Kennedy was killed in 1963, Sahl endangered his career and was blacklisted as a result of becoming an associate of New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison in his investigation of the JFK assassination.
In 1967, I was a guest on Sahl's TV show, which had been dealing outspokenly with contemporary controversies, so when his option wasn't renewed ostensibly because of a low rating, there was much suspicion. But Sahl also had a nightly radio show and asked his listeners to write in to KTTV. By the time 31,000 letters arrived, the channel's executives had conveniently discovered another rating service and the option was renewed.
On the program, Sahl had a blackboard on which he wrote things in chalk like "We Demand Faith in the Future," and the audience applauded faithfully. He wanted to have a mock trial on the show as a preview of the Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal, and he asked me to return and act as defense attorney. He wanted me to actually defend war criminals such as Lyndon Johnson, Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara. I agreed to do it, but the mock trial never took place. My plan had been to plead insanity.
This September, Sahl will teach a semi-weekly course in critical thinking at Claremont McKenna College. He continues to perform occasionally. At McCabes, he observed that, during the Republican debates, when the candidates were asked who didn't believe in evolution and a few raised their hands, and Sahl pointed out that, "If you watched the debate, you wouldn't believe in evolution either." Sahl's targets have always included liberals and conservatives alike. As a news junkie, his material still has a sharp point of view, as opposed to so many current comedians who rely on easy-reference jokes about celebrities.
However, a friend of mine was recently having his caffeine fix at a Starbucks in Los Angeles. He happened to be seated right near Mort Sahl and recounts the following incident. A young woman who had just finished her coffee stopped to chat with Sahl. It was apparent that they knew each other. Then, as she started to leave, Robert Blake walked in. Sahl, loyal to his buddies, had been the only one to visit Blake when he was in jail. Now, Sahl said to the young woman, "Do you know my good friend, Bob Blake?" Blake looked at her and said to Sahl, "She looks like a very nice person. She looks like she sleeps well at night." Sahl paused for a couple of seconds, then said to Blake, "Well, she's got a clear conscience." And then there was a moment of awkward silence.