Older and Wiseass

mortsahl.jpgComedian and free-range provocateur Mort Sahl is interviewed by Stephen Thompson in this week’s Onion A.V. Club (which may or may not be a reprint of an older interview). Having recently watched the 1989 documentary Mort Sahl: The Loyal Opposition as part of Trio‘s “Uncensored Comedy Month,” I was expecting some great insights from the man who pioneered radical political humor fifty years ago at a time when most comics were still wearing tuxedoes on stage and asking us to please take their wives. (You can watch a Quicktime clip of him in action here.)
With his everyman uniform, relaxed posture, and ever-present newspaper under his arm, Sahl was the living embodiment of Norman Rockwell’s painting Freedom of Speech, questioning, mocking, and needling pieties of the Right and the Left. As shown in the documentary, Sahl sort of went off the rails after JFK was killed, reading lengthy excerpts from The Warren Commission Report onstage. Eventually, he retreated into a satellite-TV equipped fortress of solitude where he continues to read dozens of news magazines a month, keeping up on current events but keeping his opinions mostly to himself.
Unfortunately, The A.V. Club interview is sort of slow going and, in some passages, a bit incoherent. I’m not sure whether this was due to difficulty editing down a long interview, or if Sahl’s thoughts ricochet at such odd trajectories that following them is impossible. Also, Sahl repeatedly contradicts himself: despite Thompson’s admirable attempt to nail Sahl down on why he’s written jokes for Ronald Reagan and George Bush (it’s not specified if they’re talking about Bush 41 or Bush 43), he somehow wriggles free and never quite answers the question. (“Reagan had a pretty ready sense of humor, although they were basic jokes—anti-Communist jokes and all. So I just found it easier…”)
Reading the whole thing, though, I was able to pan a little gold. Here’s Sahl talking almost directly to his closest contemporary progeny (both in intellectual and linguistic nimbleness and political Rightward slouching), Dennis Miller:

I dare say that if most comedians today, the gifted ones, were to sit down and write, they’d learn more about their craft. But what happens is they get out there before they learn what their viewpoint is, if any. They’re all sort of pseudo-Republicans. In case they make money, they’re Republicans. In the unlikely event they’re successful. [Laughs.]

And here’s Sahl talking to Conan O’Brien, Tina Fey, and David Letterman:

You’ve got a society that not only isn’t courageous, but even the apprehension of discomfort makes them roll over. Three years later, the late-night comedians are still making fun of George W. Bush being dense, right?
When people write comedy from neutrality, it just gets kind of silly. A lot of the guys are invested, like that Saturday Night Live crowd, in rebellion against authority, and that makes them indiscriminate. They only hate a guy because he’s in leadership. But they don’t really pin the fact that he’s a war criminal on him.

One last thought from Mort before he disappears back into isolation: “The relentless liberalism of the comedians is awful, too. We could use one good Leftist instead of all those liberals. [Laughs.] Or one good Rightist, if he had a sense of humor. The righteousness is what kills me in a lot of these people. They’re so right about everything, and so pious. Where did the fun go?”

2 replies on “Older and Wiseass”

If you’re interested in Sahl and his era, you really should pick up Gerald Nachman’s book Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, which was issued during the summer.
My review of it is here.

Seriously Overrated, I’ve always thought, the sort of sixties media-friendly faux-edginess which would actually help get you on Steve Allen or Johnny Carson, hell even Ed Sullivan.
His incoherence is not episodic, and he’s also rather pious in his needling of pieties. Once in awhile he does say something good, but ohh the wait.

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