The Man Who Invented Comedy
Mort Sahl has no HBO specials, he has no lifetime achievement awards from the Academy and he has no streets, theatres or statues to his name. But this 88-yearold Canadian-born satirist introduced many of the taken-for-granted basics of modern standup. Casual clothes. Using a conversational voice. Poking fun at politics: these all started with Sahl.
Mort Sahl has always drawn a politically minded crowd, and it’s telling that his first big laugh of the night is when he mentions the Israeli prime minister and one of the Republican Party’s largest donors.
“Netanyahu was here, and he spoke to the Congress, and at the end of it he said, ‘I’d like to thank Sheldon Adelson for the use of the hall.”
The 87-year-old comedian is performing his weekly show, by donation only, to an enthusiastic crowd of about two dozen in the front room of the Throckmorton Theater, a small community venue located just north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
A mild stroke has slowed down Sahl’s speech and left him with a right eye that occasionally closes on its own, and he is helped into the room by theatre owner Lucy Mercer. But his mind is still just as quick as it was in the Eisenhower era, and he insists on standing for the first few minutes of his act.
It was a rocky road that led Sahl here, to Mill Valley. His only son, 19-year-old Mort Jr., died of a drug overdose in 1996. His recent marriage to a Delta Air Lines flight attendant fell apart in the 2000s. By his early ’ 80s, he was in L.A. with no family, few close friends and in rough health when Mercer invited him to start anew in the Bay Area.
She set him up with an apartment, gave him a weekly show, and Sahl journeyed north in search of “political asylum,” as he calls it.
Asylum, maybe. But this isn’t charity. Because this is the man who invented modern standup comedy.
British legend John Cleese has described Sahl with the same reverence the Beatles once reserved for Elvis Presley. In a buttoned-down postwar England where it was taboo to joke about the prime minister, Cleese was “immediately interested” by the brash American with the guts to criticize politics.
It was also Sahl who inspired an 18-yearold Woody Allen to become a standup comedian. Said Allen of first seeing Sahl in 1953, “it just completely changed the history of comedy, if one could use the cliché, it changed the face of an art form.”
The first time Sahl mounted a stage, comedy was dominated by G-rated routines and one-liners that carefully avoided any mention of sex or politics.
By contrast, last month at the White House press correspondent’s dinner, comedian Cecily Strong stood only a few meters away from the president of the United States and quipped that the Secret Service was “the only law enforcement agency in the country that would get in trouble if a black man was shot.”
It’s a joke that would have been inconceivable only a generation ago, and Sahl was the first step in the comedy revolution that allowed it to happen.
Sahl was born in Montreal in the same generation as Oscar Peterson and Mordecai Richler, although his family moved to Los Angeles when he was only four years old.
His father Harry was a civil servant, but harboured secret aspirations as a playwright. It was only when the elder Sahl died that Mort found a box filled with his writings.
Out of high school, Sahl spent a short period stationed in Alaska with the U.S. Air Force, he got an urban planning degree from the University of Southern California and spent two years unsuccessfully trying to break in as a comedy writer in Los Angeles.
But 1950s San Francisco was more fertile ground for Sahl’s unorthodox comedic sensibilities, where he got a job for $75 a week at the hungry i nightclub, whose practice of putting comics in front of a red brick wall would soon be imitated across the United States.
Lenny Bruce, another storied pioneer of American comedy, worked just down the street. On the frequent occasion that Bruce was arrested for profanity, Sahl would take over his gig and use the proceeds to bail him out of jail.
It was at the hungry i Sahl invented many of the aspects of modern standup comedy that comics now take for granted. He dressed in casual clothes. He used his regular voice rather than leaning on a comic persona. He strode onstage with a newspaper and discussed uncomfortable political topics. He delivered long, intellectual speeches instead of leaning on punchlines.
And unlike earlier generations of Jewish comedians, he kept his real name.
Sahl is not modest about any of this. Once, when asked how he got his start in comedy, he replied “Well, I went in and started it.”
The kid in the red sweater was a bolt from the blue in the uptight Eisenhower era, and Sahl was soon a superstar.
A bootleg copy of one his performances from this era, At Sunset, is now preserved in the U.S. Library of Congress as “the first recording of modern standup comedy.”
Sahl hosted the first-ever Grammy Awards in 1959, and that same year was an emcee at the 32nd Academy Awards. When Jack Paar left the Tonight Show in 1962, Sahl briefly subbed in as guest host. View- ers could also see him on What’s My Line and the Ed Sullivan Show.
And he spawned a whole generation of comedians who saw him as their godfather.
On George Carlin’s fourth comedy album, Class Clown, he included an extended impression of Mort Sahl, nailing the comedian’s stream-of-consciousness delivery. Even old-timers gave Sahl his due. Milton Berle — one of the kings of the comedic era that Sahl had helped to destroy — said in 1974 that he was “perhaps one of the greatest political satirists of all time.”
But the moment at which Sahl’s career screeched to a halt was in November, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Sahl, who had written jokes for Kennedy, lost a friend, and his obsession with the killing would colour the rest of his life.
In the mid-1960s, Sahl fell in with Jim Garrison, the New Orleans district attorney who became famous for charging that Kennedy had been killed by a CIA-led government conspiracy.
Sahl had been sent to Louisiana to interview Garrison for television and became enthralled with the man who, in his words, had “the goods” on who actually killed the president. The comedian signed up as an investigator, moved south and spent the next 10 years as the “No. 3 guy” in Garrison’s office.
Today, Garrison is best known as the hero of the 1991 Oliver Stone film J.F.K., where Kevin Costner portrays him as a dedicated investigator unravelling a deep government conspiracy.
But Garrison also had a history of mental health troubles. Magazine reports from the era said that he spent much of the 1950s under psychiatric care and had been kicked out of the army for “a severe and disabling psychoneurosis of long duration.”
And oddly, while he eventually concluded that Kennedy was killed by a CIA plot, Garrison told a Saturday Evening
Post reporter that one of his first suspicions was that Kennedy’s death had been the result of a “homosexual thrill killing.”
In 1969, Garrison ordered the arrest of Clay Shaw, a gay New Orleans businessman he charged for conspiring to murder Kennedy. But after a high-profile trial, Shaw was acquitted by the jury in only 30 minutes.
“At the conclusion of the trial, it was evident that none of the state’s evidence was believed by the jury,” Louisiana lawyer Peter Abadie, a witness to the Shaw trial, told a Reddit AMA in 2013.
In the meantime, Sahl had used his influence to get Garrison a spot on the Tonight
Show with Johnny Carson — spawning one of the most tense and bizarre moments in late night television history, and it played out in front of an audience of millions.
Over the course of 50 minutes, Garrison haughtily flipped through reams of photographs and documents with the fervour of a 9/11 truther, and told the studio audience that Kennedy was killed by a secret squad of seven gunmen and that the whole operation was covered up on the direct orders of President Lyndon Johnson.
“For what possible reason?” asked a baffled Carson, his arms folded.
“Why don’t you ask him, John?” replied Garrison.
Perhaps understandably, Carson never listened to Sahl again.
And from that point forward, Sahl has claimed, his career went into a tailspin. “I made a million dollars a year. I emceed the Academy Awards. Then I made just about nothing a year,” he wrote in his 1976 autobiography, Heartland.
But if Sahl claimed Hollywood made it their business to blacklist him as a troublemaker, Hollywood countered that he committed career suicide through bizarre behaviour such as appearing on stage with the Warren Commission report.
As The New York Times wrote in 1978, “the talk shows stopped wanting to hear him go on about the grassy knoll, the two autopsies, the washed-out limousine, Lee Harvey Oswald’s marksmanship, Jack Ruby’s friends. He wasn’t funny.”
While his assassination obsession may have denied him the superfame of contemporaries like George Carlin, though, Sahl was never completely consigned to the comedic wilderness. Viewers could see him on a 1969 edition of the
Smothers Brother Comedy Hour, where Sahl was already a Beatnik-era elder on a roster filled with the likes of Steve Martin, Joan Baez and the Who. In the 1970s, he appeared on the Helen Reddy
Show to discuss Watergate while dressed in a flower shirt and suede jacket.
A decade later, his attire was a grey business suit as a star-struck David Letterman declared on a 1988 episode of the Tonight Show that Sahl’s irreverent comedy had “changed our political system.” He had his own T.V. show, Mort Sahl
Live, in the early 1990s. At the age of 60, he launched a one-man show on Broadway. During the drama of the 2008 election, MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann called Sahl into the studio to get his thoughts on McCain and Obama.
And when I sat down with Sahl in California, he had just got off the phone with Woody Allen. Seeing an aging comedian perform can be a painful thing.
Despite Groucho Marx’s legendary wit, some of his last public appearances were on the Dick Cavett Show, where the 79-year-old would appear in bizarre golf hats and tell rambling stories about the old days.
Bob Hope lived long enough to become cringeworthy. At the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1986, he joked at the Statue of Liberty’s centenary celebrations that the monument had contracted AIDs from the “Staten Island Fairy.”
But Sahl-as-octogenarian still keeps current. He watches Al-Jazeera, he tweets, he cruises the web. While his act contains no shortage of 1970s-era jokes about Richard Nixon, Senator Eugene McCarthy and Jimmy Carter, he can still deliver current affairs jokes that wouldn’t be out of place on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update.
“You know Jeb Bush is running for president. Under what principle? No child left behind,” he quipped on stage.
Or, “the army should be happy that Bradley Manning’s a woman, since they can now pay him less.”
Naturally, Sahl’s act also carries a kind of Forrest Gump quality. The old man in Mill Valley has been close to almost every major political event of the last 50 years.
When he was still a teenager during the Second World War, he hitchhiked a ride from actor John Garfield, who warned him not to enlist unless he could articulate “why we’re fighting in Germany.”
Ronald Reagan invited the comedian to the White House. Sahl hung out at the Playboy Mansion in the 1970s and married China Lee, the magazine’s first Asian-American playmate. He knew George W. Bush when he was just the governor of Texas.
“He said to me ‘I used to be a real hellraiser, but I stopped drinking … I was born again,’” he joked in his act. “In the unlikely event that you’re allowed to be born again, why would you come back as George Bush?”
And he’s seen Bill Cosby’s Shakespearean arc from struggling comic to Jackie Robinson-esque legend to social pariah.
“He didn’t just drop that stuff in girls’ drinks in the last couple of weeks. He carried that stuff when I knew him — and that goes into the ‘60s. It’s Quaaludes.”
“Do you know any entertainer who has trouble meeting girls besides him? Just asking,” he says to awkward silence from the Throckmorton crowd.
While Sahl acknowledges that he flung open the door to a comedic revolution, he would heartily disagree that any comedians followed him. Today’s comics, he says, are “playing it safe.” They may have adopted his informal dress and informal style, but “I don’t think they’re that dedicated to rocking the boat.”
On the Tonight Show in 1968, Jim Garrison warned that “the honour of this country is at stake, and if we don’t do something about this fraud, we will not survive.”
It’s this exact apocalyptic scenario that Sahl believes has taken place. In his words, “the country’s finished.”
Sahl is angry at the fascist forces of darkness that he believes murdered his friend in broad daylight. And he’s almost as angry at the left for watching Oprah instead of stopping the takeover by the Military Industrial Complex.
Young people “want to get a quicker phone, but they don’t want to get [Edward] Snowden out of jeopardy,” he says.
But for an 88-year-old who genuinely believes that America is entering her sixth decade of fascism, Sahl comes off as surprisingly pleasant.
When he takes a microphone at the Throckmorton, he is a grinning satirist, rather than a man who has bitterly lost all hope in American liberty. When he mentions the word “fascist,” the crowd laughs, thinking it’s a hyperbolic quip.
Mind you, Sahl has admittedly settled in one of the worst places in the United States to convince people that the country has been taken over by fascists.
Mill Valley has a spit-polished European-style downtown overhung by misty green Northern California hills. It’s a place where middle-aged gay couples walk home with paper grocery bags filled with artisanal bread and fresh herbs, and where even the skateboarding teenagers are clean-cut and respectful.
There are lots of seniors in Mill Valley, but seemingly everyone over 60 is impossibly fit and beautiful.
It’s comfortable here. Local restaurants know Mort’s favourite seat and his favourite dishes. And at the Throckmorton, he has a regular room full of people with which to scratch his itch to perform. “It was full last night, it’s full every week,” he says.
And he’s got Lucy Mercer, the entrepreneurial mother of five who is among Sahl’s biggest champions and staunchest defenders.
“She’s the best person I know,” says Sahl.
Where other venues gingerly avoid mentioning Sahl’s investigation of the JFK assassination, the Throckmorton gives a lengthy explanation of his Jim Garrison days on its website. “In the land of the free, and the home of the brave, Mort was silenced, and vilified,” it reads.
To Mercer, Sahl is a heroic figure alternately brimming with history and loaded with contemporary wisdom that America still desperately needs to hear.
Every week there seems to be another comedian forced to deliver a lukewarm public apology after one of their jokes spawns a storm of online outrage. Sahl, on the other hand, once regularly ended his sets with a boastful “is there anyone here I haven’t offended?”
He spent decades martyring himself to a seemingly ludicrous theory. But to Sahl, there can be no higher virtue than going against the grain, no matter the consequences.
“One of the problems in America now is that everybody’s looking to join up,” he told The New York Times back in the 1980s. “I thought everybody could survive and have his own opinion, but there aren’t many people today who are adventurous about being individuals.”