The legendary standup comedian Mort Sahl died at his home Tuesday in Mill Valley at age 94. Prior to his relocation to northern California in 2008, he and I would meet every other Tuesday at a restaurant in Bel Air to exchange ideas about why we believed the world functioned and dysfunctioned as it did and what, if anything, we should do about it. I published a book last year called “Nobody Left – Conversations with Famous Radicals, Progressives and Cultural Icons about the End of Dissent, Revolution and Liberalism in America” and dedicated an entire chapter to those encounters. Here is how I will remember my friend.
The first time I met Mort Sahl was in the spring of 2007, a month before he turned 80 and 2 months before he and I started hanging out every other Tuesday to diagnose what we believed was either the disease of modern politics or the lobotomizing cure for the pesky annoyances of Enlightenment thinking. I had been asked by the LA Weekly to interview him and to find out why so many comedians considered him to be the Ardipithecus of all the baboons currently claiming the moniker of social satirist. This is what I said:
Inventor of American standup commentary, surrogate older brother to Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, forgotten uncle to Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks, revered godfather to Bill Maher and Jon Stewart and — before he decided to sacrifice the sharpness of his wit exclusively to the cutting of George Bush’s free gubment cheese — Dennis Miller, Mort Sahl squinted in the pristine, almost minty Bel Air sunshine while sitting outside a crowded Starbucks, the Halliburton of caffeine, and asked, “What’s wrong with America?”
Dressing as always like a 1950s grad student, in a yellow V-neck sweater, black loafers and khaki slacks, Sahl still has that outraged intelligence in his eyes, only now they’re surrounded by delicately engraved, 80-year-old laugh lines. It’s a visual irony that makes his question hilarious in the most tragic sense of the word, as if he were a doctor looking down at a head lying before him on a tray and asking it, “Do you ever experience headaches?”
With no apparent mellowing of his disdain for political dishonesty and the cultural malaise that sustains it, he seemed to take no solace in having been right about so many things so much of the time and usually decades before everyone else. In 1960, for instance, he warned the audience at San Francisco’s hungry i that Israel was becoming something of a nationalistic bully in the Middle East. In 1963, he told Paul Krassner, editor in chief of The Realist magazine, that the Kennedy administration was “generally in agreement with the Republicans” and that it was “suddenly possible to be a Democrat and Republican at the same time.” Sound familiar?
Being reminded of the latter quote, Sahl laughed and attempted to clarify the point by making a distinction between how liberalism manifests itself among everyday people versus those who become part of the power elite. Of those lefties uncorrupted by plutocratic ideals in the highest seats of government, he said, “It’s almost as if there was a summit meeting and America was divided and the fascists got banking and world power and the liberals settled for music and movies and then they tried to pretend that music and movies had real political power.”
He stood to remove his sweater, the sinking sun being a little too generous with its Hollywood reputation for any real human being to tolerate. “Maybe the whole exercise of liberalism,” he said, settling back into his chair, “is to be noble publicly and to lose gracefully and to be the oppressed majority.” Meanwhile, at a nearby table an heiress who was skinny enough to X-ray with a flashlight held a tiny, vibrating Chihuahua puppy in the palm of her hand and nuzzled it mercilessly with itty-bitty moans.
“I get a lot of flack whenever I take on the liberals,” Sahl said, setting his loafer into the crotch of the iron table and hoisting his $5 paper cup of coffee, “because I think they’re way too self-satisfying. That’s why I can’t look upon them as any kind of savior. I keep hearing, ‘The Democrats are in trouble!’ In trouble? They’ve been in trouble since 1965, and what do they do about it? They just keep going to those meetings at Stanley Sheinbaum’s house to talk about electing more women into Congress.”
Despite the joyful confidence with which Sahl injected his absurdist buoyancy into the existential dread surrounding him, there was one subject that brought a wistfulness to his face, and that was his alignment, 40 years ago, with Jim Garrison, the Democratic district attorney of Orleans Parish, Louisiana, who is best known for his investigations into the Kennedy assassination during the 1960s. Because of Sahl’s close ties to the Kennedy White House and his public condemnation of the findings issued by the Warren Commission, Garrison made him a deputized member of the D.A.’s team assembled to expose the supposed cover-up of the real facts covertly surrounding the murder. Sahl then attempted to parlay the investigation and the controversial subject of conspiracy into his act, reading from the Warren Report and wondering aloud if the U.S. government might not be populated by homicidal maniacs. (Sound familiar?)
“When the murderers [of our social democracy] came along and people started talking about my paranoia, that was very disappointing,” he said. “I thought it was going to be like the movies. I thought I was going to run the rustlers out of town and the rancher would say to me, ‘Maybe you can stay here and be my straw boss and marry my daughter.’ And I’d say, ‘Sorry, I got to be riding on to the next town.’ But this town never got cured. I’m still here — and vastly outnumbered!”
Asked about his infamous friendships with Ronald Reagan, Alexander Haig and George H.W. Bush and whether such alliances compromised his reputation as a radical truth teller, he said, “I’ve written for a lot of politicians — the Republicans are the only ones who pay me!” He laughed hard. “It all comes down to whether or not you’re honest with yourself. A lot of people have no intellectual capacity and operate on this instinctual masculine fatalism. Right-wing guys are honest about who they are and liberals are honest about what they wish we all could be — that’s not being honest with yourself. If I talk to people today about John Wayne, for instance, and I mention The Sea Chase and James Warner Bellah or somebody they don’t like politically, they won’t acknowledge their art; they don’t like that they wrote that Americans aren’t sorry for themselves and aren’t sentimental about Indians, which leads us to the question that everybody dreads, which is: can we forgive our failings?
“Nowadays, you open up what’s supposed to be a left-wing newspaper and you get a cartoon of Dick Cheney with his fly open. Bush is supposed to be the bad guy and you’re supposed to be morally superior, and this is what you do? Come on! When all you do is label the opposition as the enemy, you run the risk of becoming sophomoric in your understanding of the world.”
Politely declining a roaming Starbucks barista’s offer of a hideously sweet hors d’oeuvre, he stood to leave. As Sahl walked away, literally into the sunset, his shoulders weary with the weight of knowing that a lifetime of truth seeking had come to this, it’s hard not to wonder, as James Thurber did in 1958, if “perhaps Mort Sahl is the answer.”
The last time I saw Mort Sahl was in the summer of 2008, just before he separated from his wife and moved, brokenhearted, to a friend’s guest house in Northern California, where, like the wine corked, crated and shipped from the vineyards surrounding him, his depth and complexity would slowly become only meaningful to a fistful of connoisseurs who would keep him in their basements, beneath the ground like Lazarus, and only take him out as a miraculous blessing to share with their dearest and most cherished friends. This is how I talked about our last meeting together for Truthdig:
If legendary comedian Mort Sahl felled his one-millionth diseased tree of cultural lethargy and political disingenuousness in the vast and ever-expanding forest of American megalomania and Wikipedia wasn’t there to acknowledge it, would anybody know to give a crap?
To quote Ambrose Bierce, an inventor is “a person who makes an ingenious arrangement of wheels, levers and springs, and believes it civilization.”
So then what does it mean to our concept of civilization when our primary source of information gathering, the Internet, informs us through its preeminent encyclopedia, Wikipedia, that Mort Sahl deserves an entry that is roughly the same size as those for Miracle Whip and Joe Piscopo and only half the size of the entries for flatulence and hard-boiled eggs?
This, after all, is Mort Sahl, the Hugh Hefner of political satire and social commentary. If journalism is the first draft of history, he has proven with his public eviscerations of the national news for 50 years (and counting) to be one of history’s most invaluable and dedicated proofreaders. It means that civilization is more or less anything we do and the monkeys don’t. In other words, if evolution were really the process of our retaining only those characteristics most useful to the betterment of the species and the disregarding of all that is useless and nonsensical, then there would never have been the emergence of the Atomic Age, “Godfather III,” a Caucasian Jesus, breech-loading weaponry, compassionate conservatism or the pubic toupee.
In fact, it has been argued that any conclusion we make about the world comes to us at the moment when we get tired of thinking.
Tired of thinking several Tuesdays ago, I sought out the company of somebody who I knew would be willing to do some thinking for me; somebody who had previously, both in person and on LP, taken hold of the other end of the piano, so to speak, and helped me move it into a brighter room. A real honestagoodness player whose music drifting out my window made me considerably more beautiful to the world.
Sitting at Fabrocini’s Italian restaurant in Bel Air, I try to wipe what turns out to be an existential fog from my glasses with the hem of my T-shirt while ordering a spinach salad and a triple espresso from a beleaguered waiter. Sitting across from me is Mort Sahl, whose eyes are as bright as freshly sharpened pencils and whose eyebrows are perpetually knitted as if life were an impossibly itchy sweater that needed to be unraveled and turned back into yarn and returned to the sheep. He drinks water and glances through the New York Times.
Mr. Fish: I was listening to your 1960 recording “Mort Sahl at the Hungry i” on my way over here and I was stuck by how, when you were talking about the FBI infiltrating protests at college campuses and posing as students in order to disrupt what might otherwise be orderly gatherings, the audience seemed shocked and unsure as to whether or not you were joking.
Mort Sahl: Sure, I remember.
It was fascinating because nowadays, with agencies like the NSA, everybody automatically assumes that they’re being spied on, that we don’t even have to leave our homes anymore to be infiltrated by the FBI. The shock today might be that the government isn’t listening in on you.
You know, [General Michael] Hayden used to be NSA, now he runs the CIA—he was going to be on Larry King and all week long they ran promos during the day (impersonating Larry King), “Michael Hayden and your phone calls!” (Laughs) I bet, I’m sure.
See, that’s what I mean—that’s such a great joke, a good inadvertent joke. Where is satire today? How does a satirist get work when all you have to do to create satire is report the news with a straight face?
You have to see it as a joke, that should be the first thing—you have to recognize the humor of the situation, plus you need to perceive the irony of why it’s funny. Liberals see the irony, but they’re too self-righteous to laugh about it. They’d rather remain serious about it because they prefer tragedy to humor.
Because tragedy has political application, while humor can’t be used as a hot potato to throw in the other guy’s lap. Both sides do it.
That’s right. But the Democrats have to start doing something other than just to repeat over and over that they’re not Republicans. They feel powerful now because they think the Republicans have painted themselves into a corner and [the Democrats] are the only ones we can vote for.
Are you at all frustrated by [Barack] Obama’s recent public displays of toughness, his willingness to bomb Pakistan and Iran, etc.?
Obama is a black guy made in the lab by white guys. Again, it’s about [Democratic] virtue, “We’re going to nominate a black man.” Look who they pick—they didn’t exactly pick Paul Robeson or Malcolm X. Or it’s like with Hillary Clinton. She says, “Believe me, I won’t let the war go on!” What reason is there to believe her? She’s running on the entitlement ticket. It isn’t enough that we had [Bill Clinton], now we have to have her? Has everybody forgotten that he went into Kosovo and that he bombed civilians in Yugoslavia? I mean, his presidency wasn’t exactly a high time in America—maybe for the stock market. But getting back to Obama, Bill Bradley just the other day referred to him as a rock star. What kind of an appraisal is that? It’s not even a good parallel—how often do rocks stars have anything to do with music, not the music industry, but music? It’s vaudeville.
Maybe [Bradley] was exactly right, then, that Obama is good vaudeville. I mean, isn’t there such a thing as the profession of “celebrity?”
Remember Ambrose Bierce? He said in his book of definitions that a celebrity is a person who’s famous for being well known. And that’s the extent of their influence—celebrity trial lawyers, celebrity charity givers. Do we really want a celebrity president?
There’s another point to be made about spying, getting back to that for a second. When the FBI infiltrates the left, it’s doing so because the power elite doesn’t understand the language of dissent—dissent that is born out of victimization, right? And if that’s the case, aren’t we all suspect when the power elite views everybody they subjugate with suspicion for fear of revolution? It’s like a butterfly collector who infiltrates a meeting of stamp collectors to understand why they prefer stamp collecting to butterfly collecting—absolutely nothing can be learned by such an exercise.
Intelligence agencies do log a lot of overtime in the area of suspicion and it does encourage them to find a lot of pigeons. But, you know, Hoover and McCarthy were never after communists. They were after nonconformists who might want to resist the fascist tendencies of big government. If you look at that whole blacklisting period, Judith Copeland was acquitted; Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury, not spying. Most of the government cases fell apart when they got to court. They were never looking for communists—they never found any. Sure, the country is in real danger of losing its soul, but it’s not because of a group of dedicated nonconformists.
Right—it’s conformity that is the backbone of totalitarianism, not nonconformity.
Yeah – and who are the nonconformists today? Who do they consider the leftists now? Arianna Huffington? She’s on all those cable shows talking about fighting the system—it’s been pretty good to her. (Laughs)
Well, since you were at the center of all that blacklisting stuff in the 1950s, maybe you can tell me: What exactly was so wrong with communism? I mean, forget about what the government was saying about it, it seems that a lot of intellectuals condemned it, too. If you look at the definition of communism in the dictionary—
Sounds like Jesus, doesn’t it?
Yeah, I even wrote it down in my notebook because I wanted to ask you about it. It’s defined as: a theory advocating elimination of private property and a system in which goods are owned in common and are available to all as needed.
When they couldn’t sell that as a threat to capitalism, they started calling it Godless communism.
Which is also amazing to me—it seems that if you’re looking for some hardcore evidence for what might be a political philosophy that ruins people’s lives and devastates the environment, probably irrevocably, you’ll find it more with capitalism than communism. What’s that Upton Sinclair quote? Fascism is capitalism plus murder.
Capitalism needs a war always to bail it out because it can never pay for itself, I agree. You have to wonder about all that philosophically. With all the privilege of the [American political elite], the Dulles brothers, the Bushes, Sullivan and Cromwell, Brown Brothers Harriman, all that Ivy League pedigree—Fidel led the life he wanted. He did for 50 years. These other guys are like ferrets trying to keep the bank open any way they can.
And why is this not part of our public discourse? Wasn’t that part of the promise made by you and the counterculture, that serious discussion about what we are as a species and what we might become should happen much more freely?
People refuse to connect the dots. Nobody will look seriously at how violent the CIA has been—they killed Lumumba, they killed General Rene Schneider in Chile, they killed Allende, 600 attempts on Fidel. What about the kidnapping of Chavez? Why has the violent side of the agency never come up in a serious way?
People, I think, will only be interested in seeking the truth if they feel they can apply their findings. But getting back to the thing about capitalism—it’s a system that’s incompatible with the human equation; both are based on completely different value systems. Capitalism is based on an accumulative value system where the more capital you have, the more value you have and human beings are supposed to be a constant value system that doesn’t fluctuate, everybody’s right to exist being equal. But with the value of capital and accumulated wealth being what it is, it will always be able to supercede the intrinsic value of a human being and, therefore, humanity itself, which is why extinction of the species is possible, because it might make sense on paper.
Yeah, no question.
Well, where’s that conversation? There are a lot of conversations about different non-economic ideologies and what their pros and cons are, but there never seems to be any conversation about economic theory and the viability of a system of government based solely on a tyranny of ascending and descending numbers.
I know what you mean. Look at clubs today—just compare the ambiance of the Hungry i with the Laugh Factory. A comedian today is anybody who can stand up and talk about nothing endlessly.
Who’s to blame there, the artist or the audience? Is the artist unable to do good work or is the audience ill equipped to recognize good work when they see it?
I think the artist is only that good. I don’t think it’s a broker’s decision to even try to meet the audience’s needs. A comedian nowadays is there to accommodate the audience’s materialism. They don’t have anything on their minds. [A comedian] will get up there and talk for an hour about women like they’re aliens, and that’s his act. I was in New York and I saw Judy Gold and she was complaining that CNN runs that line of headlines at the bottom of the screen—is that really what’s wrong? I just don’t think there’s any cultural depth perception anymore. Even the guys at “The Daily Show” aren’t making fun of the worst of [political wrongdoing]. Maybe they should just do more of what the real news doesn’t do. Those guys at CBS really ended [the Vietnam War]—Rather, Morley Safer and John Hart—by showing us what was going on. Everyday we hear that a bunch of American soldiers got killed, but we don’t see anything. You will on Al-Jazeera.
What is it that Amy Goodman says?: CNN shows us where the missiles are launched and Al-Jazeera shows us where they land.
She’s good, very impressive, although you have to wonder about Pacifica [Radio]. They play her twice a day but they got rid of Marc Cooper, who was pretty good.
So, getting back to what we were talking about: What will it take for people to demand authenticity from their existence? Do people need role models to emulate—role models that are genuine and honest and not afraid to dissent and challenge the government? I started doing cartoons because I wanted to be John Lennon, or Norman Mailer, or Kurt Vonnegut. Who is there to emulate today? I feel like I’m stuck in your past. (Laughs)
Role models, right. Well, the culture now mostly just asks people to settle for second or third best. The people who voted for Kennedy would never vote for Hillary Clinton. They wouldn’t even let her into the convention. They knew they did something wrong when they denied Dean and embraced Kerry; they knew that wasn’t truthful. And when their kids get drugged out and play ersatz black music on their iPods and act like gangbangers when they live in Bel Air, they all know that’s a lie. There’s not much resistance to these bourgeois notions. People don’t fight it very hard.
Do they need the fight demonstrated for them to pick it up or can they teach themselves? Isn’t it a kind of heroism if nobody’s doing it? If it is heroism, then it has to be demonstrated by somebody to be emulated by everyone, right?
What they do to deter heroism in this country is they keep you on the defensive. It’s a strategy. They try to tie you up, get you defending yourself all the time, [where you’re] trying to prove you’re not crazy. People just have to remember what we’re all here for: to find our way home and to search for justice and romance along the way. Heroism is just learning how to listen to your better angels.