Friday, May 15, 2009

Feast of Saint Mort

My Fellow Comedists,

This week saw the feast day of Saint Mort. Mort Sahl turned 82. He was the pivot point about which comedy turned from the slapstick gags and schticks of Vaudeville to the hip, smart, topical, observational humor of today. In the early 50s, he began to do political humor in San Francisco, performing at the legendary Hungry i. Armed with a newspaper, he performed jazz-like improvisations on the headlines of the day, his insight and wit coming through in rambling discussions instead of punctuated set-ups and punchlines. He was the "rebel without a pause."

We take for granted today that comedians are part of the political landscape and that politicians are the targets of comic monologues, but that all owes its existence to Mort Sahl. Will Rogers may have pioneered the American form at the turn of the century, but it was Mort Sahl who resurrected it and presented it with its contemporary edge.

"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."
His jokes were so sharp and on target that politicians felt the need to respond and taking seriously the old adage to keep your friends close and your enemies closer, he found himself on stage with the very power brokers he was lampooning.

The Cold War needed him. The horrors of WWII needed the insanity of the Marx Brothers, but the anti-intellectual insanity of McCarthy, required a comic antidote quite different. He caught fire and stepped out of the coffeehouses, becoming a major force. In his autobiography, Woody Allen says that seeing Mort Sahl changed his life. Lenny Bruce took inspiration from Sahl. He recorded albums which became a standard comic practice. He truly changed the landscape of American comedy. In a 1997 routine looking back, he said that most comedians would write down to their audiences believing you had to work stupid to get laughs, but that he "always treated you like you had a Ph.D." He was smart and funny and his material would be the same. It would be edgy and sharp and it set the stage for so many that came after.

A few classics from the master:

"Liberals feel unworthy of their possessions. Conservatives feel they deserve everything they've stolen."

"Washington couldn't tell a lie, Nixon couldn't tell the truth, and Reagan couldn't tell the difference."

"Nixon's the kind of guy that if you were drowning fifty feet off shore, he'd throw you a thirty foot rope. Then Kissinger would go on TV the next night and say that the President had met you more than half-way."

"I took a course at Cal once called Statistical Analysis. And there was a guy in the course who used to make up all his computations and he never used Sigma. He used his own initials. 'Cause he was the standard deviation."

"A conservative is someone who believes in reform. But not now."

Happy birthday, Mort Sahl and thanks for the laughs.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve