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Mort Sahl Saves the World
By Dave Shulman
First published in L.A. Weekly, August 9, 2006.
“Will Rogers . . . used to come out with a newspaper and pretend he was a yokel ?criticizing the intellectuals who ran the government. I come out with a newspaper ?and pretend I’m an intellectual making fun of the yokels running the government.”
On one of recorded history’s hottest Monday afternoons, 79-year-old icon of post–World War II North American political satire Mort Sahl sits patiently, for the moment, in the alcove of a corporate caffeine emporium in the upper hills of Bel Air. I sit beside him. We’re waiting for his friend Patrick to join us, at which point the three of us will go next door, to the deli, for a quick lunch. While we wait, Sahl and I discuss the current state of standup comedy. Sahl says most of today’s comedians are lazy, sticking to safe, inane observations while the world around them grows ever more bleak. They’re not doing their jobs.
I must agree. And hope that someone will soon emerge to fill the void left by the late Bill Hicks in 1994. Man, if only he hadn’t died . . .
“He was a good one,” says Sahl. “Did you get to see him?”
“Not live, no. I didn’t know about him until about a week after he died.”
A man alone at the next table rotates our way, opens his wallet, extracts and displays a ticket for Sahl’s upcoming show, Saturday night at McCabe’s.
“Just bought it this morning,” he tells Sahl. “I’m very much looking forward to it.”
He introduces himself, and he and Sahl shake.
Almost immediately, another fan appears and extends a hand.
“Thank you,” says fan.
“Thank you,” says Sahl, rising to receive the hand.
“No,” says fan. “Thank you — for everything. You’re great.”
“Wow. Thank you.” Sahl sits and they wave goodbye. “You have to like that,” he tells me. “Spontaneous combustion.”
Patrick arrives at last. It’s been 45 minutes. Patrick says a quick hello, downs an iced coffee with a cigarette outside, ducks back in, says a quick goodbye and leaves.
But Sahl figures it’s too late for lunch now anyway. As we pack up to leave, Sahl talks of the act of writing, and what a lonely activity it can be.
“Unless you’re on a mission,” he says. “That keeps you from being lonely.”
“Are you on a mission?”
“Which is . . . ?”
He spreads a smile and shrugs. “Save the world!”
Saturday night, Mort Sahl’s about to take the stage in a backroom at the eastern edge of Santa Monica. McCabe’s Guitar Shop, one of L.A.’s finest destinations of any kind since 1958. Since the ’60s, the backroom here, with its walls hung densely with guitars, has hosted hundreds of America’s finest minds and musicians.
Tonight’s show is sold out. What must be about 150 patrons — mostly middle-aged, mostly on the pale side — talk quietly in their lightly padded brown steel foldout chairs, some washing down oversize cookies with bottled water or fresh hot coffee. Fringed wicker hanging lamps add to the atmosphere of a town-hall meeting in a town that really has a town hall. Not many seats left. Bill and I slip into the last row, Bill in front of a Blueridge BR140 dreadnought, and I beside a Martin Alt 2 resonator. Bill confirms that we are in the presence of an unusually high number of bald men with ponytails. Lest we judge: They are all with escorts, where Bill and I are just with me and Bill.
Onstage, front and center, an enormous white write-on/wipe-off board awaits Sahl’s attentions. Four large uppercase letters have been drawn across the top of the board, dividing it into three sections: L, SD and R — Left or Liberal, Social Democrat and Right, I guess. Below each section head are three subheads: L, M and R. And below each subhead is lots of space.
Sahl takes the stage to warm applause, as if from a group of grateful students receiving a favorite professor’s final lecture before summer. Professor Sahl wears the uniform that has served him through six decades of performing — V-neck sweater over a button-down and casual slacks — and bears his traditional prop: a current newspaper. He also has a manila folder filled with . . . something. Sets it on a stool, for now.
“Tonight’s source material,” he says. “The New York Times.” Sahl calls it “the most liberal newspaper in the world,” and, to make the point, reads the alleged headline: “World Ends. Nuclear Holocaust. Women and Minorities Hit Hardest.” He segues into the world’s hatred of Jews having its roots in “the disproportionate influence of Jews on the philosophy of the Western world” (Moses, Jesus, Marx, Freud and Einstein), then goes through some one-liners (“The only way to get young people to be against the war is to tell them that their parents are for it”; “When the Dems form a firing squad, they stand in a circle”) before turning his attention to the big white board.
The chart, he says, is here “to help you determine if you’re a liberal.” With that, he opens the mystery folder and produces the head of Karl Marx, just slightly smaller than life-size and magnetized on the back. He places this in the top position of the board’s far left. Beneath and slightly overlapping Marx he adds similar renditions of Lenin, Stalin (“Kind of a Dick Cheney character”), Vladimir Putin, Che Guevara (“The guy on T-shirts”), Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.
Then we’re all the way to the right, where Sahl picks up speed: “Hitler — remember him? If you don’t, and you have cable, you can turn on the History Channel. He’s on there a lot.” The head of Hitler goes up top, under the rightmost R. Below (and slightly overlapping) him go Mussolini, Mel Gibson (“a right-wing fascist”), Bruce Willis (“a right-wing fascist”), Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. To the immediate left of these, beneath the R’s M, he adds Saddam Hussein (“Cheney said today that Saddam Hussein is a leftist!”) and Osama bin Laden (“Cheney calls bin Laden a leftist!”). And to their immediate left go Clint Eastwood (“in the left wing of the right wing of the Right) and our Governor Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger (“a left-wing fascist posing as a right-wing fascist”).
That leaves the chart empty between the leftmost leftists and the leftmost rightists. Citing a need for further evaluation, Sahl adds Hillary Clinton’s head to unmarked turf above SD, the Social Democrat midsection. Bill Clinton tops the center’s right, and below him go Al Gore, Dixie Chicks, John Kerry (“Remember him?”) and Howard Dean.
And that’s that. The rest of the chart — the middle of the left to the middle of the middle — remains headless.
House lights come up. Questions from the audience. Someone wonders how old Sahl is. What he thinks of Kucinich. Wonders if he might be using the term fascist a bit too cavalierly. If he’s had a “most useful or favorite” politician over the years.
“They’re all pretty good,” Sahl replies to this last. “Comedians are lazy. They all call Bush dumb. I’ve met Bush, and I didn’t find him dumb. He’s stubborn. He’s valiant, in a way.
“And if you met his mother, you’d know why.” Sahl makes an extremely disturbing face.