If it’s true that inside every cynic beats the heart of a disappointed idealist, then that pretty much perfectly describes groundbreaking satirist Mort Sahl, who passed away on Oct. 26 at 94 years old. Mort’s work was totally of its time and yet his impact on comedy can be felt to this day in a way that few others could claim. And it was my great honor to have occasional access to his restless and rebellious brain.
Earlier this year, I was excavating treasures from Jonathan Winters’ personal scrapbooks for a project and discovered several clippings from when Jonathan and Mort appeared together at the Blue Angel nightclub in 1954. It had been Mort’s first booking in New York. Excited, I phoned Mort in Northern California to tell him of my finds. Sharp and feisty as ever, Mort not only remembered the gig, he was also still pissed off because they added dates and shorted him on the money. As always, it was a fun and lively conversation and Mort kept me on my toes, covering a wide range of topics, including the pandemic and politics. It was also the last time he and I spoke.
In reading those reviews of his early performances, it’s clear how revolutionary of a comedian Mort was right from the start. Both in style and substance. One write up said, “He has a murderous tongue and he will have to stay off politics unless he wants to be investigated.” Laudatory to be sure… but loaded coming just on the heels of the red scare and the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. And perhaps also prophetic. And still, as improbable as his success may have been, he shot past the previous generation of tuxedoed tummlers to become one of the leading lights in a new class of comics who would reinvent stand up forever.
In June 2019, I interviewed Mort on camera for the recently released documentary Live at Mister Kelly’s. He rolled in on a walker, looking slight and frail. His eyesight and hearing were pretty much gone. But even then at a rough 92, he was all there. We spoke about how his primary artistic inspiration was jazz. He said, “Stan Kenton is more influential to me to this day than Myron Cohen.” Mort went on to rhapsodize about Kenton, adding, “The sheer courage of it. Playing chords nobody ever played before.” That really resonated with me because the cadence and the rhythms of Sahl’s comedy were unlike anything that came before him.
Mort not only eschewed the aesthetics of his predecessors, opting for the more collegiate style of his trademark open-collared shirt and red v-neck sweater, but his presentation was loose and conversational, and never jokey. Llike a great jazz virtuoso, he improvised wildly with only his wit and that day’s newspaper under his arm to draw upon. Later in our interview, Mort recalled walking into the legendary jazz club Birdland when the great bebop pianist Lennie Tristano called to him, jokingly, “Hey Mort, you wanna sit in, man?” Playing along, Mort replied that he couldn’t because he didn’t bring his “axe.” (The hip musician’s lingo for instrument.) Smiling from ear to ear, Mort then shared how he was delighted when Lennie responded by reaching into his piano and pulling out a newspaper. “It knocked me out.”
The comedy and modern jazz music of the mid-1950s shared stages and sensibilities. Further validating Mort’s credentials in that universe, he was signed for management by jazz impresario Norman Granz, who was best known for representing Ella Fitzgerald. Granz believed that a spontaneous art form like jazz could only truly be captured in front of a live audience and thus pioneered producing his Jazz at the Philharmonic records. So when Granz founded the jazz label Verve, the first comedian he pressed on vinyl was naturally Mort. And while it has been erroneously asserted that Mort made the first live comedy record (Johnny Standley, Andy Griffith, Victor Borge and Redd Foxx all did live comedy records before Mort) what must be recognized is that the format took shape and definition thanks to Granz and Mort. Then Mort championed both Shelley Berman and Jonathan Winters to Granz, thereby forming a holy trinity of prestigious comedy stars on the label, leading to their trumpeting the slogan, “The jazz of America is on Verve; the wit of America is on Verve.” However, during our interview, in a rare moment of deference and modesty, Mort remarked, “All these albums, they outsold mine. Mine are like the intellectual book at the back of the store. I didn’t have any best sellers. I just started the form.”
One of the other rising change-makers in comedy at that same time was Mort’s friend, Lenny Bruce. Not only were they contemporaries, they also shared a certain stature as satirists. While Mort was more overtly political, Lenny was more personal and sociological. Lenny too was very much a jazz artist, with his first few albums released by Fantasy, a rival jazz label. And Lenny appeared at many of the same venues as Mort. “I used to get him out of jail when he worked at the Crescendo,” Mort shared with me, referring to the Hollywood nightclub and Lenny’s frequent busts for obscenity. “The cops would come in and wait for him to swear and they’d arrest him. Then I’d go up and finish his shows and then we’d go down and bail him out. Gene Norman, the owner, and I.” Ultimately, Lenny was persecuted and prosecuted until his death by accidental overdose in 1966. And while that heartbreaking tragedy assured his stature as a First Amendment martyr, he was hardly alone in taking heat for his art.
Mort’s approach to political humor was akin to no other comedian before him. He pursued his targets with an unforgiving ferocity that was unlike the gentle jibes of Bob Hope or Will Rogers. And along the way, Mort’s pointed barbs made him some fast friends and some even faster enemies. On both sides. You see, although Mort was often presumed to be a leftist, he remained defiantly unaffiliated. Over his lifetime, he enjoyed close relationships with Democratic presidential hopeful Governor Adlai Stevenson, who he described as “the dearest man I ever knew,” and Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State, General Alexander Haig.
In 1960, at the height of his success, Mort was at the William Morris Agency in Beverly Hills with actor Peter Lawford and met Joseph Kennedy Sr., who Mort always derisively called “the old man.” He arranged for Mort to write some jokes for his son Jack during his presidential campaign against Richard Nixon. Around that same time, Mort came to meet Nixon, who counseled, “You gotta remember what your job is. You’re Will Rogers today. You gotta keep a blow torch under Jack’s ass and mine.” And sure enough, once Kennedy took office, that’s exactly what Mort did, much to the consternation of “the old man.” Mort maintained that the elder Kennedy pulled strings behind the scenes of Hollywood to impede Mort’s professional pursuits. As Mort was quite the conspiracy theorist, I have no idea whether that was true or not. But ironically, after JFK’s death, Mort spent five years as a deputized volunteer working for Jim Garrison investigating who was really responsible for the assassination. And like Lenny Bruce reading from his court transcripts onstage when he was on trial, Mort spent many years citing long passages from the Warren Commission reports during his shows. So whether there were powerful forces working against him or audiences grew tired of his shtick, or both, Mort’s career went into a decline from which it never really recovered.
Ultimately, Mort never lost his drive and continued performing and poking at the powerful right up until the end. Towards the end of our 2019 interview, I asked him what is the job of the satirist. Not just the comedian but the satirist. Without hesitating, Mort landed on the perfect, pithy answer. “Tell the truth… and make it funny.”
Dan Pasternack and Mort Sahl, 2019.
Dan Pasternack is a producer, a programmer, a professor and a preservationist who loves alliteration and comedy. Check out his Obsessive Comedy Disorder audio documentaries on SiriusXM.