After decades skewering the powerful and corrupt, the Mill Valley
comic has a seat at the legend's table...
by Jill Kramer
April 30, 2010
To the generation that remembers where they were when JFK was shot,
Mort Sahl is a living legend. At the peak of his fame, he occupied
that nexus of power and glamour where the Kennedy administration met
Hollywood, writing jokes for the president while hobnobbing with the
likes of Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe. His art was stand-up
comedy, his beat was politics. He'd bound onstage in his trademark
V-neck sweater with a rolled-up newspaper that he'd unfurl, read off
a headline and start riffing, pointing up the absurdities of the day.
His face would register gleeful incredulity, as if to say, can you
believe what these lunatics are doing? He'd punctuate his
observations with an explosive, staccato laugh. He had fun onstage.
At age 82he turns 83 on May 11Mort Sahl is still having a ball
onstage. Lately he's been teaming up with another elder statesman of
political humor, Dick Gregory, whose bailiwick back in the '60s was
the civil rights struggle. They've done several joint appearances
around the country in the last two years, packing the house
repeatedly at 142 Throckmorton in Mill Valley.
Mort Sahl got his start in San Francisco in 1953 at the hungry i and
lived for a time on a houseboat in Sausalito. After a few lean years,
he became a familiar presence on the TV talk shows and comedy formats
of the day. In 1960, he landed on the cover of Time. His career took
a dive in the late '60s, when he immersed himself in the
investigation of Kennedy's assassination conducted by New Orleans
district attorney Jim Garrison. Convinced of a conspiracy between the
CIA and the Pentagon, Sahl's sense of humor turned sour.
When the comedy gigs dried up, he began writing. He published a book,
Heartland, in 1976, a free-form collection of musings that range from
the funny to the paranoid. He's worked on a number of screenplays
since then. Recently, he taught two courses at Claremont College
outside of Los Angelesone on screenwriting, the other on the
Garrison investigation. At the end of last year, he moved back to
Marin. He turned up at a screening at the Rafael Film Center of the
Marx Brothers movie Animal Crackers that was presented by Harpo's son
Bill Marx and Dick Cavett. Cavett, who had hosted Sahl many times on
his old talk show, pointed him out from the stage, saying, "What's
wrong with this picture? We're up on stage and Mort Sahl, one of
America's greatest comedians, is in the audience!"
These days, he's a regular at Piazza D'Angelo's, down the street from
where he lives in Mill Valley. He sits at a table by the window next
to the bar and waves to passersby. I found him there one afternoon in
March, nursing an iced cappuccino and wearing one of those trademark
red V-necks. He still loves to talk, his pale blue eyes widening. And
he still has that instantly recognizable, delighted laugh.
You were always considered a darling of the left. So I was amazed to
read that in '88 you supported [former Reagan administration
Secretary of State] Al Haig's presidential campaign.
Yeah, we were very good friends. Very close. Colin Powell once asked
him, what have you got in common with Mort? He said, Mort's in on the
joke. [laughs] I loved him. Great guy. Good sense of humor. I don't
hear any humor from this president. Didn't hear any humor from the
other one. Haven't heard any since Reagan.
I read that you also campaigned for W.
No. That's a mistake. I know him. And the old man asked me to help
him. Says he has no humor. And I know the old man very well. But I
wasn't in that campaign.
Are you a Republican these days?
Or course not. I'm a radical! I was happy in Berkeley! [laughs]
So what did you like about Haig politically?
I liked the fact that whatever anybody said about him or whatever
they did, he'd just incorporate it as another wound. Because he was a
combat officer. He was decisive and funny and vulnerable and he was
great to me. He really is an example of leadership. He's the kind of
guy you'd follow through the door of the airplane. But I think a
worthy examination would be what happened to the Democrats. Because I
had great friends there. I started as a writer for Kennedy. I was
very close to Gene McCarthy. Adlai Stevenson. And this guyhe reminds
me of a professor, which is what he was.
You're talking about Obama.
Yeah, this guy sends 100,000 people to Afghanistan. There was an
antiwar motion in Congress [in March] from [Rep. Dennis] Kucinich.
They got about 40 or 50 votes. The rest all voted for [the war]. That
means that it's exactly the way it was with [President Lyndon B.]
Johnson and Vietnam.
So you think we should pull out of Afghanistan?
Yes, It's absurd. It hasn't been justified. There's a big lie
involved here. The liberals are a poor substitute for the radicals
that are needed. But they've diverted everybody. They're busy with
gay marriage and all this irrelevant stuff.
Did you like Hillary any better than Obama?
No. I just thought she was a maneuverer. She looks to me like a woman
nobody loves. That's a part of her that's missing. Her husband
doesn't love her. He's scared of her. I think Obama gave her the job
of secretary of state just to torture her. But I thought for a minute
there that she was going to win. The real question is, why didn't
she? All those books that have come out about the campaign, you don't
see anything about what really went on. Who decided who's going to
run? Who was acceptable to the established order?
They all rallied around her at first.
That's what it looked like. It doesn't matter because nothing was
interrupted. The Pentagon has still got all the money and nobody's
working. Except in China.
Isn't that the result of what W. did, and Clinton before him?
Yeah. But of course this guy [Obama] says he's not going to be like
them. He said, "Yes I can."
It takes time to turn things around, doesn't it?
Well, I don't know that he wants to. Guantanamo isn't closed. Now he
wants military trials for the [terrorism] suspects. Well, who's
calling the tune that makes him voice it? You know, Winston Churchill
said an elite cabal drives the world.
Is that what you think?
What would you do if you were president?
Stop bankrupting the country with military expeditions. Who ever
heard of closing schools and opening countries? Closing
schoolspsychoanalytically, that means you don't believe you have a
future! I remember when this guy Schwarzenegger came in, he was going
to change everything. Nancy Pelosi isn't much like her family,
either. They were really doers, tough guys. [This interview took
place before Pelosi's healthcare reform victory.] That's how she got
into it. John Burton coached her. Now it's the art of the compromise.
As speaker of the house, don't you have to compromise?
I don't think so. You don't get anything done. I don't think [former
Speaker Sam] Rayburn did much compromising. Look at Johnson when he
was majority leader. He didn't compromise. I knew him. He was the
kind of guy nobody loved.
But it's true, he got things done.
Oh, boy. I hope to tell ya. But I don't think this group is bent on
doing anything. Except surviving. We don't have a third party
anymore. The death knell was when the League of Women Voters said
that [Ross] Perot couldn't do the debates. Or [Ralph] Nader. That's
the death knell. There can't be an idea that's too dangerous to voice
in America. The two greatest guys running last time were Mike Gravel
and Ron Paul. Then NBC took them off the debates. Gravel was greathe
helped McCarthy stop the Vietnam War.
Have you ever thought about going into politics?
No. I'm not cut out for that. I've been around them a lot, though.
What got you into show biz?
I just had a yearning. I was around jazz a lot. And I just thought
that comedy could innovate a little more than it did. And I hung
around the joints and got started. But it took a long time.
In college you majored in city management, right?
We all do that. We all go to school to keep our parents happy. I had
the GI benefits from a long time in the Army. I had an appointment to
West Point, too. But it wasn't for me.
Your dad must have been a pretty conservative guy. I read that he
worked for the FBI.
Yeah, he did clerical work. But he was a writer. There was a whole
dreamer side of him, too. He put an ad in Poetry magazine: "Is there
a woman out there who still wants to meet a dreamer?" And my mother
answered it. There weren't any jets then. So she took the train from
Montreal to L.A. They were married 72 hours later.
Amazing. How long did they stay together?
Wow! Were they both poets?
No, she was just intellectually very curious. She'd go to the library
and read all the magazines we couldn't afford to buy. Then when I
began to make some money in show business I staged a kind of rescue
operation and brought them back up here.
To San Francisco?
Sausalito, actually. I was living on a boat over there. Then I got a
lot of work outside so I got a house down in Beverly Hills and worked
out of L.A. But I was on the road all the time. Most of the guys I
started with really didn't like the loneliness of the road. It's very lonely.
You were married for a long time to a Playboy bunny.
Yeah, over 20 years. Thirteen guys in show business married
Playmates. She was a Playmate in the magazine.
Did you meet her at the Playboy Club?
Yeah, in San Francisco. [Hugh] Hefner asked me to open the club for
him. So I met her there. Playboy is not the phenomenon it's supposed
to be. But nothing is.
Are you still friends with him?
Yeah, I saw him a couple of weeks ago. He's kind of figuring out what
to do. I think he's going to sell the magazine. I don't think things
are going so well, I have to check the stock price. The magazine may
be kind of irrelevant now. When it came along, of course, it was a
very Protestant culture. And there was a lot of sexual repression.
Well, it celebrated an image of the swinging bachelor and the
glamorous life that he led, which is no longer in vogue.
No. The girls, as smart as they are, kind of painted themselves into
a corner when they took up the banner of "who needs it?" Well, we all
need it. In the name of equality, the women renounced their
superiority. So everybody's trying to raise kids and nobody's home.
We're busy trying to get homosexuals married, but nobody else wants
to get married. I don't understand any of that. But this is never
probed by any of the comedians. There's kind of a post-puberty thing
with the comedians. They still prefer the company of guys and
watching the game. They talk about women like they're a foreign
species. I think we need them. I know I do!
Are you married now?
You were married three times, right?
And the last marriage ended when?
Pretty recently. And I regret it. It would be really great to have a
friend through all this. I've seen five French movies this week. They
seem to understand men and women, but the Americans don't. They talk
about it like it's a political party or something. The French have
come to terms with their humanity, their vulnerability. Look at Edith
Piaf. Why did you cry when Judy Garland sang? I've never cried when
Barbra Streisand sang. And I'm big with music. It's my favorite
thing. Mostly around jazz. That's where I met all those girls. But
that's romantic music, basically.
Who do you listen to these days?
Mostly my records. There's nobody working. I was very close to [jazz
pianist] Stan Kenton, [saxophonist] Paul Desmond. I knew all those
guys. They were at the Black Hawk when I was at the hungry i. I
worked with [pianist Dave] Brubeck last year at Monterey. I emceed.
But it was very corporatized. Sponsored by Verizon. And bad music.
None of the white musicians talk to the black guys and none of the
guys from New York talk to the guys from L.A. It's all polarized.
Your stage style is a lot like jazz. You get up there and just riff.
Yeah. And you trust it. They were the first guys to encourage me to
do that, to break loose, don't come prepared. But be totally prepared
by your continuing interest and absorption.
That must have been pretty scary when you first started out.
Yeah, it was awful. And the audience thought it was awful, too. It
was a long haul.
But when you made it, you were huge.
When it broke through, it was OK. But until then, it was grim. It
busted through when Time put me on the cover [August 1960]. And then
all the work for Kennedy. Then it sort of opened up. I started in '53
and then around '58, guys started to imitate what I was doing and
they started to write about it in magazines. Then the natural heat
took over. And you look around now and it's like it never happened.
But that's revisionist history. Like all the stuff you read about
Lenny Bruce. None of it was accurate. They made him into a saint
because it served their purpose. He wasn't preoccupied with telling
the truth, he was preoccupied with working. We all were.
His trajectory was similar to yours. You became preoccupied with the
Kennedy assassination. He became preoccupied with censorship and his trial.
Well, he was not very intellectualized. When he tried to be profound
it came off as pompous. He'd read those court transcripts. I was with
him through all of that.
You were a friend of his?
Yeah. We were contemporaries and we kind of relied on each other. We
worked in that same club in Hollywood for months and months. Nice
guy. I think the most gifted guy I worked with was Jonathan Winters.
By far. An American original. We worked at the Blue Angel together in '56.
In your book, 'Heartland,' you wrote that JFK's father was offended
when you made jokes at the president's expense and he tried to punish
you by getting you blacklisted.
Yes, he did. I took Kennedy on head-to-head because I thought that
was the job! And a lot of people who said they loved Kennedy didn't
want me to bring up who shot him. Where were his friends? He didn't
have any then. He had Jim Garrison [the New Orleans district attorney
who investigated the assassination] and me. That was about it. But
the old man [Joe Kennedy] was murder. Really tough.
It seems like you came out of retirement to do these shows with Dick Gregory.
I never voluntarily retired. I was doing live dates all the time. And
then an agent decided to put us together...because we knew each other
and trusted each other. I've known him since the '60s in Chicago. It
was a very segregated town and he was at a black club. And the guy
who ran the Playboy Club got the idea to bring him uptown and call
him "The Black Mort Sahl." That was the billing. In those days you
smoked Camels and drank Jack Daniels on the stage and told jokes. All
the political stuff came later. As a performer, Dick is a
straight-arrow guy. He doesn't bring up any threat to the status quo.
He's a feel-good comedian. Like Bill Cosby. It's safe. The so-called
American family values. I don't understand what [comedians are] doing
now, anyway. It's mostly guys walking up and down and fomenting.
Cursing. They're remarkably apolitical.
There's Jon Stewart and Will Durst. They're political.
The Daily Show is politically pretty lame, I think. It's standard
Clinton liberalism. A lot of mugging and moral superiority to the
Republicans. The liberals are predictable. I think when you get up
there [as a performer] you express a point of view about it. It
doesn't mean you convert the audience, but the act has to be about
something. I've been through eight elections and about 11 presidents
and I've seen what it means for America to win a war and to lose a
war and how it affected the culturethat is, the movies and
relationships between men and women. We came out quite damaged out of
How have relationships been damaged?
We've got a 70 percent divorce rate. Nobody believes the dream
anymore. I think that's the price of pushing a democratic country into fascism.
You were teaching screenwriting recently at Claremont College, right?
For two years I taught screenwriting, I also taught the Garrison
investigation. But in the screenwriting class, everybody used a lot
of profanity. And I asked why and they'd say, for shock value. Well,
you can't shock anybody with that. It's banal. Writing is mostly
about what people want and what they'll do to get it. Those are the
best movies, I think.
What have you been doing since then?
I was on the road a lot last year. I was in Palm Beach and New York
and Chicago, Washington.
When did you move to Mill Valley?
About seven months ago. Everything was falling apart in L.A. It was
getting like...I didn't know anybody.
I saw a show you did two years ago, when you announced that you had
just had a stroke the day beforewhich just stunned everybody in the room.
That's right. I had it in my eye. Scared the hell out of me.
Didn't seem to slow you down a bit.
Well, I worry about it. If it had gone to my heart or my headgoodbye!
How has your health been since then?
Not bad. I lost vision in my right eye. I woke up one morning and it
Can you still travel?
Yeah, but I notice a lot of people passing me in the airport.
[laughs] I lose my balance on the stage sometimes. I can't run around
like I used to. I used to be all over the stage. But once you get out
there and people are fixed on what you're talking about, it doesn't
matter. And if you're not talking about anything, it doesn't matter, either.
Have you been writing much lately?
Yeah, I just finished the outline of a screenplay. I wrote a 35-page
treatment. In a sense, it's an old-fashioned movie in a modern-day
setting. It's about what we've been talking aboutthe romance, the
background music of the movies, how it formed our appetites and our
romantic nature. It's about life as it should be. I can't bring
myself to write an unhappy ending. Even though I may have an unhappy
ending. But I'm doing another book now. Because that was 34 years ago
that I wrote Heartland. And you've got to explain to people why this
is not America anymore. There's no turmoil.
Here are a few of the classic lines that have been attributed to Mort Sahl:
A yuppie is someone who believes it's courageous to eat in a
restaurant that hasn't been reviewed yet.
Nixon's the kind of guy that if you were drowning 50 feet offshore,
he'd throw you a 30-foot rope. Then Kissinger would go on TV the next
night and say that the president had met you more than halfway.
Liberals feel unworthy of their possessions, while conservatives feel
they deserve everything they've stolen.
A conservative is someone who believes in reform. But not now.
Washington couldn't tell a lie, Nixon couldn't tell the truth, and
Reagan couldn't tell the difference.
You haven't lived until you've died in California.
People tell me there are a lot of guys like me, which doesn't explain
why I'm lonely.
I'm not a Liberal, I'm a radical!
If you can't join them, beat them.
To Otto Preminger about his 220-minute film Exodus: "Otto, let my people go!"
Email Jill at email@example.com.