Mort Sahl’s America
By J.R. Jones
Two summers ago Mark Crispin Miller wrote a cover story for the Nation about the “national entertainment state,” which he identified as the ownership of America’s major news outlets by Disney, Time Warner, General Electric, and Westinghouse. This creeping monopoly of electronic and print media, he argued, has poisoned our democratic culture with sleaze, violence, and corporate propaganda, choking off informed dissent and turning our political process into a tightly scripted soap opera. “Two of these four corporations are defense contractors,” Miller pointed out, “while the other two are mammoth manufacturers of fun ‘n’ games. Thus…the news and much of our amusement come to us directly from the two most powerful industries in the United States.”
Since then the conglomerates have only tightened their grip on the national debate, further blurring the distinction between news and amusement, politics and entertainment. In most media markets ABC’s Nightline–whose July 27 segment on “the face of war” turned out to be a half-hour trailer for Saving Private Ryan–segues easily into the comedy show Politically Incorrect, on which random media personalities trade glib and ill-informed opinions on a variety of sexy social issues. That people accept either program as in-depth discussion shows how fuzzy our thinking has grown: the more politics becomes entertainment, the more likely we are to confuse entertainment with politics.
Mort Sahl, the brilliant satirist who broke through to American audiences when the TV industry was still gathering power, was one of the first mass-media entertainers to cross fearlessly into politics–and he learned the hard way how easily the war machine could draw the line between news and amusement. By 1960 Sahl was the hottest comic in America. He sold out nightclubs across the country, appeared regularly on network TV, and acted in films; he’d been nominated for two Grammys, cohosted the Academy Awards, and appeared on the cover of Time. During the presidential campaign he wrote jokes for John F. Kennedy, but when he lampooned the new chief executive, the doors in Hollywood began to swing shut, and after he began challenging the Warren Report onstage, his career evaporated. Since then Sahl has made a series of modest comebacks, but to make ends meet he’s worked as a Hollywood script doctor. On the new Mort Sahl’s America, he eagerly bites the hand that’s fed him, skewering checkbook liberals like Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, and Mike Nichols. But it’s pretty benign compared to the vitriolic attacks that brought him to prominence–and then brought him down. Like all of us, Mort Sahl is too easily seduced by the culture of celebrity.
At 71 Sahl has disappeared into a comedy landscape largely of his own making. “He changed the face of comedy the way Stravinsky changed music,” Woody Allen said in Woody Allen: A Biography. “He made the country listen to jokes that required them to think.” Before Sahl came Sid Caesar, Red Skelton, and Danny Kaye; after him came Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor. Instead of wearing a tuxedo and carrying a violin he wore a V-neck sweater and carried a copy of the day’s newspaper. Instead of setups and punch lines he delivered frenetic, looping monologues whose startling asides and frequent digressions were often as insightful as they were hilarious. His favorite targets were Eisenhower and Nixon, but he was equally wicked in his mockery of the beat generation that claimed him as its own. His observations were “truthful, not actual,” and he had an extraordinary gift for the put-on, spinning ludicrous scenarios out of current events. From Dennis Miller to Eric Bogosian to the Onion, his influence on American humor is so pervasive that he belongs in a class with Mark Twain and Will Rogers.
Like Rogers and Bob Hope, Sahl took jabs at politicians, but in the age of Ozzie & Harriet his cynicism was breathtaking. On the blacklist: “Every time the Russians threw an American in jail, the House Un-American Activities Committee would retaliate by throwing an American in jail too.” On the cold war: “Our dogs are affectionate and can fetch newspapers. Russian dogs don’t show affection, but they are all engineers.” After the Little Rock conflict in 1957 he reported, “They went to Eisenhower, and he said, ‘We’re going to integrate moderately.’ And then they went to Stevenson, and he said, ‘No, we’re going to integrate gradually.’ How about a compromise between those two extremes?” And he showed no mercy to dogmatists of any stripe: “I went to my dressing room between shows, and an attorney for the NAACP was waiting for me. He wanted to know why I don’t have any Negroes in my act.” He took pride in dishing it out left, right, and center. “Are there any groups that I haven’t offended?” was one of his favorite exit lines.
But for all his political humor Sahl was smitten with show business. He grew up in Los Angeles, and a 1960 profile in the New Yorker noted that while he devoured books and periodicals in general, he read entertainment news religiously; even as a starving bohemian in Berkeley he’d shelled out 25 cents a week for Variety. His second LP, Mort Sahl 1960, or Look Forward in Anger, features a spoof of Walt Disney that’s every bit as sharp in the Michael Eisner era. Sahl describes the newly opened Disneyland as “Sodom and Gomorrah in Anaheim” and the theme song of The Mickey Mouse Club as “this ritual in which they pay reverence to this rodent who is their leader.” He says that he stumbled upon the TV show after listening to a speech about nuclear fallout from Nevada; on seeing the kids with their enormous mouse ears he decided, “Maybe they ought to stop these tests after all.” His sketch of the ultraconservative Disney was decades ahead of the prevailing wisdom: “The only time he had any union troubles was in 1947 when they had a strike in the industry, and people were striking at his studios in Burbank. And his artists didn’t know how to strike because they were inanimate, so they went out and drew pickets on his wall, right? And then he went out and drew Burbank policemen beating them.”
That year Sahl violated his personal neutrality pact when he let Joseph Kennedy persuade him to write jokes for JFK. According to Sahl’s 1976 memoir, Heartland, he might funnel them to the young candidate via Pierre Salinger, Ted Sorensen, or Jack’s sister Pat Lawford, who was married to actor Peter Lawford; several of the one-liners defused the issue of Kennedy’s Catholicism. Sahl was friends with Adlai Stevenson, still a favorite for the Democratic nomination, but like the rest of America he was dazzled by Kennedy’s star quality. He was a sucker for anyone who could make him laugh, and the young senator’s abundant humor won him over immediately. But that didn’t keep Sahl from tearing Kennedy apart when he felt it was deserved, with zingers like “Kennedy’s father has put him on an allowance–don’t buy one more vote than is necessary.” He even had himself introduced at his nightclub appearances as “the next president of the United States.”
In those days Sahl liked to say, “I have only a few months to tell these jokes before they become treason,” but the line would come back to haunt him after Kennedy took office. Sahl went to town on the Bay of Pigs invasion; he pilloried Kennedy with no less relish than he had Eisenhower. In Heartland he remembers the president coming to see him at the Crescendo in Hollywood: “Kennedy was in the audience in the back booth. And I said, ‘I have a bulletin. Marilyn Monroe is going to marry Adlai Stevenson. Now, Kennedy can be jealous of him twice.’ And I heard a fist come down on the table and a voice in New England dialect saying, ‘God damn it.'” Sahl began getting reports through his agent, Milt Ebbins, that the Kennedys felt betrayed and wanted him to cool it. “They kept telling me that Utopia was here, that my people were finally in,” he told the Saturday Evening Post in 1964. “I don’t think my people are ever going to be in.” Finally Ebbins and Peter Lawford delivered an ultimatum from Joseph: “The ambassador says if you don’t cooperate, you’ll never work again in the United States.” Before long the offers began to taper off. Sahl remembers Shelley Davis, who’d just bought the Crescendo, warning him, “I’ve been told that the White House would be offended if I hired you and I’d be audited on my income tax.”
It’s a measure of our growing cynicism that conspiracy has become an entertainment genre, that Ray, Ruby, and Oswald are regulars on cable TV and the Kennedy assassination commands its own shelf in most bookstores. Ironically, Sahl’s alliance with Jim Garrison, the New Orleans district attorney who investigated the assassination and later became the hero of Oliver Stone’s JFK, may now be his most recognizable pop-culture credential to people under 30. At the time, though, no one wanted to hear that the Warren Report was a lie or that the president had been murdered by the CIA, certainly not from a stand-up comedian.
But as Sahl wrote in Heartland, paraphrasing Conrad, “When a man is born, a bullet is fired, his conscience–some will say his soul–and it ricochets off the events of his time until he is struck by it.” And when Sahl saw Garrison on TV in 1966, announcing that Kennedy might have been the victim of a conspiracy, he was struck. From 1967 to 1971 he lived in New Orleans, volunteering his services to Garrison; his annual income had dropped from $1 million to $13,000. Critics charged that he’d grown boring and strident, that the ugliness of the late 60s had outstripped his satiric abilities. His only record album from the period, Anyway…Onward, gets some mileage out of Johnson and Humphrey but steers clear of what Sahl later called “the terrible, awesome jokes of our time.” Judging from the material he recycled for Heartland and for TV interviews much later, they were terrible and awesome all right, but not very funny.
Evaluating Sahl’s humor after Dallas and New Orleans isn’t easy. Because he was no longer a hot property, his act was poorly documented, and because he accused the news media of cowardice or complicity in a CIA cover-up, what little journalism exists usually returns his hostility. Invariably he comes across as angry, bitter, and insufferably self-righteous, blaming the cover-up for the precipitous slide in his career. When sticking to safer topics, he’s still enormously funny; had he played his cards differently, by now he might have been hosting The Tonight Show or writing his own films instead of fixing other people’s. The “new comics” who emerged after him–Allen, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, Elaine May, Mike Nichols–chose their battles more carefully and all moved on to greater success in Hollywood. Worse yet, “his people” had deserted him at the barricades: once hailed as the voice of a generation, he woke up one morning to discover that he was only an entertainer after all.
Gradually Sahl did put his career back in order. Watergate gave him a chance to needle Nixon again, and the advent of talk radio in the late 70s provided a natural outlet for Sahl’s talents. In recent years few have written about him without noting a shift to the right, evidenced by his friendships with the Reagans and Alexander Haig, but Sahl’s ideals haven’t really changed much. In high school he was a martinet whose devotion to ROTC won him an American Legion award, and even during his left-wing heyday he was an unabashed materialist, blowing money on watches, sports cars, and other toys. Long before the Kennedys hung him out to dry he’d grown disillusioned with Hollywood liberalism, and the crucibles of Vietnam and the Warren Report convinced him that the Democrats were beyond redemption. During the Garrison years his bookings were confined to college campuses and Las Vegas; in these oases he was surprised to find ordinary citizens–the sort of squares he’d put down in the 50s–who still believed in the promise of democracy and were willing to hear him out. When he published his memoirs, the jacket featured the silhouette of a lone cowboy.
Sahl cemented the perception that he’d gone conservative when he agreed to write jokes for President Reagan, but once again he was reacting less to ideology than to charisma. Like Kennedy, Reagan had a good sense of humor and knew how to tell a story; unlike Kennedy, he had survived an assassin’s bullet. In a sense Kennedy’s love affair with show business had come full circle, to a chief executive trained by the Hollywood dream factory and skilled in manipulating the media. “You can’t lay a glove on Reagan,” Sahl complained to Irv Kupcinet in 1985, though he did his best. “Washington couldn’t tell a lie,” he pointed out, “Nixon couldn’t tell the truth, and Reagan can’t tell the difference.”
Mort Sahl’s America began as a one-man show that drew excellent reviews in New York and then moved to San Francisco and Los Angeles, packaging Sahl’s stand-up act for small theater audiences. Though he’s grown more avuncular with age, Sahl hasn’t lost his delectable sense of the absurd. At the Republican convention, he meets Jack Kemp: “He said to me, ‘I plan to be Dole’s right hand.’ So he’ll be carrying the pen for four years.” And at the Democratic convention he hears a speech by Jesse Jackson, “who they introduced as the moral successor to Martin Luther King–‘I have a scheme!'” The funniest part of the record is Sahl’s farcical account of how he exploited the “Mulholland Drive daisy chain” to forge a career as a Hollywood screenwriter. Robert Redford hired him to write dialogue for Ordinary People, and though they fell out during the picture, Paul Newman had heard that Sahl was working for Redford and hired him for another film; from there he continued to fail upward, scoring assignments from Beatty, Nichols, and Sidney Pollack although none of them had any proof that he could actually write.
But in the end, what may turn out to be Sahl’s valedictory recording is one of his least successful in exploring the strange netherworld where politics and show business intersect. The first half of the record includes priceless observations about celebrity politicians and TV personalities, but it shies away from real American horrors like the LA riots and the O.J. Simpson trial, both of which happened in Sahl’s backyard. And on the second half of the album he yields the floor to his old friend Eugene McCarthy, the Minnesota senator who ran for president against the Vietnam war in 1968. The octogenarian McCarthy is a funny, principled, and thoughtful man, and he offers some valuable insights into the media’s control of our presidential debates. But he’s no stand-up comedian, and his monologue dwells too long on the electoral skirmishes of the 60s and 70s.
Mostly absent from the album is Bill Clinton, a liar of Nixon’s caliber and the most accomplished president since Reagan at schmoozing a weary public. Clinton is exactly the sort of craven Democrat Sahl despises, but as with Reagan, he can’t seem to lay a glove on him. “I believe that you should take politics into the theater,” Sahl once wrote. “I’m not so sure that you should take theater into politics.” Unfortunately it’s already arrived–thanks in part to him–and Mort Sahl’s America now looks an awful lot like the one we’re fed on TV.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/AP-Wode World Photos; album cover.