During the production and research phase of my film The Great Standups, I became fascinated with Mort Sahl. He is one of those artists whose impact on his field is so great that he influenced the work of virtually everyone who came after him, the same way Charlie Parker had such a seminal influence on jazz. Other than Will Rogers -- who practiced a good-natured folksy brand of political humor in the 1920’s and 30’s -- standup comedy prior to Sahl really had its roots in burlesque and vaudeville.
Comedians typically came out on stage wearing tuxedos and were surrounded by leggy chorus girls. (Not that I have anything against leggy chorus girls.) A comic's jokes usually covered how bad his wife's cooking was or how fat his mother-in-law was.
Mort looked like a college student, eschewing the tuxedo for a V-neck sweater. He took the stage in 1953, carrying a newspaper under his arm and talked about the news. An early target was Joseph McCarthy and the Communist witch hunts conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee: ''HUAC’s enacting a new policy,'' Mort would say. ''For now on, every time the Russians throw an American in jail, we throw an American in jail.''
He also discussed the latest in fashion, the McCarthy jacket. ''It's a lot like the Eisenhower jacket except it’s got one extra zipper that goes over the mouth.''
Simply put, Mort Sahl reinvented stand-up comedy.
Mort's popularity mushroomed like an Atomic cloud during the 50's. Starting out at Enrico Banducci's folk club ''the hungry i'' in San Francisco, Mort pioneered a circuit of jazz clubs, bringing comedy into such places as Mr. Kelly's in Chicago, the Village Gate in New York and the Crescendo in Los Angeles. In doing so, he opened up the door for the next wave of smart comedy which included Lenny Bruce, Nichols & May, Second City, Shelly Berman, Dick Gregory, Woody Allen, the Smothers Brothers and countless others.
During the Eisenhower/Nixon administration, many people perceived Mort to have strong liberal leanings because of his jokes about the Republicans. But when John Kennedy was elected president in 1960, Mort held his post and targeted the new administration in his humor.
Many of Kennedy's followers perceived Mort to have switched allegiances. When Mort was confronted by Democrats saying, ''We thought you’d be happy now,'' his stock response was, ''Hey, you didn’t have to do it for me.'' (For the record, Mort was an Adlai Stevenson man, but came to like JFK and became a friend of his, occasionally writing for him.)
Ironically, when Kennedy was assassinated, a lot of his followers wanted to ''put it behind us,'' but Mort became extremely interested in who was really involved in the assassination. (Come on, does any reasonable person actually believe the Warren Report? That is, any reasonable person who's actually read it?) When Mort hooked up with Jim Garrison (the New Orleans D.A. who headed up the conspiracy investigation leading to the trial of Clay Shaw) and actually became a deputized member of Garrison's investigative team, some people wrote Mort off as having gone off the deep end. After all, who would put aside a lucrative career telling jokes in order to find out who killed the president of the United States? Mort started to read some of the more ludicrous passages of the Warren Report in his act and many accused him of ''not being funny anymore.'' The problem may have been that the nation lost its sense of humor, not Mort.
Sahl's popularity started to rise again in the wake of the Watergate scandal. He continues to work, but without regular television exposure, younger audiences tend to be unaware of his historical significance and his continuing comedic chops. I believe that pound-for-pound, Mort is still the funniest standup working today. But his dance card deserves to be much fuller than it is these days. How guys like Bill Maher or Jay Leno can be thought of as our current political humorists when Mort is still alive and kicking is beyond me. But I digress.
Mort Sahl: The Loyal Opposition is my love letter to the man who brought comedy into the 20th Century.
Unfortunately, because of licensing costs and clearance issues, I was unable to get the film distributed after its initial run on PBS' American Masters series in 1989.
But for those of you who reside in L.A. or New York, you can view the film at the Museum of Television and Radio. Also, look for used copies of his book, Heartland (out of print) and hunt down his L.P.'s on e-bay and at your local used record stores. His most recent recording, Mort Sahl's America is available on CD.
And while you’re at it, if Mort appears live within an eight-hour drive from where you live, do yourself a favor and go see him.
And for those of you who wrote Mort off for ''going to the right'' because he's so hard on the liberals, I remind you that you don't have to be coming from the right to goad today's liberals. It's possible to attack from the real left. (But why give away trade secrets?)