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Mort Sahl isn't the household name he used to be, but he's had a direct and profound influence on many of the dominant figures in the last 50 years of American comedy, from Lenny Bruce to Woody Allen and countless others. His act, in which he'd walk on stage with a newspaper and improvise stories without standard set-ups and punchlines, was the first of its kind, and it made him a major star in the '50s and '60s. During his heyday, Sahl released what's believed to be the first-ever comedy album (1955's At Sunset), graced the cover of Time, won the first non-music Grammy, and rubbed elbows with (and wrote jokes for) presidents from Eisenhower on. Fiercely iconoclastic and inclined to attack the Right and the Left with equal fervor, Sahl will forever be associated with John F. Kennedy: Though he was Kennedy's friend and joke-writer, Sahl became increasingly controversial for criticizing the president in his act. Kennedy's assassination in 1963 devastated Sahl personally, but its impact on his career was even more crippling. Convinced that there was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy, Sahl wouldn't stop attacking the Warren Commission and its lone-gunman theory, and was increasingly ostracized for his obsession. Since then, Sahl has appeared on stage periodically, written the occasional book, and launched a successful career as a script doctor in the movie industry. Earlier this year, Sahl's work was thoroughly examined in Gerald Nachman's book about rebel comedians, Seriously Funny–"I didn't cooperate with that guy at all, and he still gave me 100 pages," Sahl says–an indication that the 76-year-old comedian is beginning to experience the popular appreciation that has long eluded him. On Dec. 4, shortly after this interview was conducted, Sahl received the fifth annual Alan King Award in American Jewish Humor, another sign of renewed acceptance. Still, most of Sahl's best-selling LPs remain out of print, and only two (1960's classic At The Hungry i and 1997's Mort Sahl's America) have ever even been released on CD. In a recent interview with The Onion A.V. Club, Sahl discussed the state of comedy, the state of the world, how the two are connected, and more.
The Onion: Laugh.com recently reissued At The Hungry i, and Mort Sahl's America came out a few years ago, but nothing else has even been released on CD. Is there any plan for a reissue campaign, or maybe a box set?
Mort Sahl: No. No, most of those labels, I've never heard from them. It is, without being self-serving, kind of a history, and I don't know why they never got behind it. They never even gave me a copy of Mort Sahl's America.
O: There hasn't been any talk of putting them out again? It's strange, because you seem like prime box-set fodder for someone like Rhino.
MS: No, absolutely not. You know, it's still as much of a grind to get stuff out as it always was. It would be a lot of fun to get it out there. It's a good thought. I made the first comedy record in the country–the first one we made, the illegal one, the one called At Sunset, with Dave Brubeck.
O: Why was it illegal?
MS: Nobody told us they were recording it. They just recorded it and put it out.
O: Any idea why there hasn't been any interest in reissues?
MS: I don't know. Nobody has shown much enterprise, and it's awfully hard to talk anybody into anything. I guess that's why I kept working live. You could always get a quorum and go for it.
O: In the beginning, what led you to get on stage and do comedy without telling jokes?
MS: Well, I was a writer, I couldn't sell anything, and the comedians were among the dumbest people I had ever met. They'd all say to me, "The average man won't understand it." You know, they're superior to the average man. [Laughs.] Nobody would do it. So I went up there very timidly, swallowed my Adam's apple, and did it. I had a place in San Francisco, the Hungry i–it'll be 50 years ago in a couple weeks–where I could woodshed and get in there and do it. And 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.]
O: How important do you think it is for a comedian to have a viewpoint?
MS: Viewpoint is everything, because you filter the events through it. Otherwise, their stuff is trivial. You know the magazine American Prospect? A guy called me from there, and he wanted to talk about Nov. 22 . I was in the hospital, and I said, "I'm not gonna make any comment about that. I'm in the hospital." So he prints it as an interview, and he headlines it "Grassy Knoll Theory #847." Which is really a sad service to those of us who struggled and stuck our necks out. I mean, I used to read the Warren Report on stage. I didn't think that anything is beyond humor–not profane humor, but a good, honest approach to humor. To do what humor does best: plant a seed of doubt in this country, as they're in self-congratulatory orgy.
O: How much of what you've done on stage has been improvised?
MS: Most of it, and I never emphasized that, because of two things: I have this kind of intellectual straitjacket, in which I think that untalented people talk about improvisation all the time, and it smacks of no discipline. Emotionally, I drew away from stating that. But most of it I found up there–I rehearsed in front of the audience and then filtered it out, kept the stuff that worked, and extended it. It was a real high-wire act with no net. It'll start with a joke, and a story will start to embroider itself. That's always worked for me. It was an extemporaneous act with a lot of free association and politics. I find now, of course, that what they talk about as improvisation is all nailed down. It's even stratified: the only comedian with cerebral palsy, the only Greek comedian, the only terrorist comedian. [Laughs.]
O: You're accepting an award soon...
MS: Yeah, I'm gonna go in and get that next week–theoretically, anyway. [Laughs.] The Jewish thing is amazing, with their charities. I just did one in Chicago, for an organization that raises money for Israel. They sent out an invitation that said, "For $50, you can spend an evening with Mort Sahl. For $100, you can have coffee with Mort. For $200, you can have dinner with Mort." And I kept thinking, "For $1,000, he'll forgive you." [Laughs.] What is it with the Jewish people, that they have to do good? Why don't they just take the check and go home? Yeah, they're going to give me an award. It's about time! Fifty years! And that's 50 years paid. I'm not including my apprenticeship, which started in '51.
O: They've been turbulent years, to say the least.
MS: Yeah. Well, the country went down to its knees and was gasping for breath, and it went fascistic, and you had to find a way to talk to people. I remember the Hungry i, they closed when Kennedy was killed. When Robert [Kennedy] got killed, they started mourning again, and going home, and being led in communal crying by Walter Cronkite. I opened the club. I went in there and said, "Let's start talking about this." The crying is the easiest part. I remember getting into an argument at a coffeehouse up there–some guy got mad at me and led the restaurant in singing "God Bless America." He said to me, "Are you a real American?" I said, "Singing is the easiest part." As Ralph Nader can tell you. That breast-beating and everything, I mean, look where we are now. My God. The liberals are still making fun of this stuff as if it's a personality defect of John Ashcroft, rather than addressing fascism. I suppose they're all afraid they're going to Guantanamo. In this field, how do you make that stuff funny? You have to have, as you said earlier, point of view, and then go from there. 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? If that. I try to sneak up on it. It's interesting: In the act over the years, the audience could never accept Reagan as guilty of anything, and they could never accept Nixon as innocent of anything. They wanted the Warren Commission to be bungling bureaucrats instead of confidence men. They really let you know, you know? It's like having a conversation: If you really listen to the audience, they'll let you know where the limits are. That's why they're more trustworthy than other comedians. Bill Cosby said once that the comedians are talking to other comedians in all those clubs. It's its own bourgeois–which may be the only worthy thing he ever said, I might add. [Laughs.] You know what his cash-in was: that if the blacks were going to move in next door, thank God it wasn't Dick Gregory. He's safe.
O: We did an interview a while back with Berke Breathed, the cartoonist who did Bloom County. He did a big run of strips about animal testing, and he was talking about how they were effective and got their point across, but they weren't funny because he was so mad–and that the hardest thing to do is be funny when you're mad. What do you think of that?
MS: Yeah, it means he was serious because he was mad, but it's kind of like putting potatoes in and getting vodka out: After your heart is broken, then you can do the material. 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. Just like they never go after women. They won't do it. Women will laugh if you've got them down cold. Here's an example: The other night, a guy said to me... He loves jazz and he's a young guy. I said to him, "How are you going to find a chick that will listen to jazz with you?" So he said, "It's very difficult. I don't think women like jazz." I said, "They might like it, but that's immaterial. They don't think it will lead to anything." [Laughs.] That's where the joke is, isn't it? Their mothers taught them to make capital of the moment, and you can approach that a hundred different ways. I've had plenty of trouble on stage talking about women. My good friend Woody Allen likes that better than anything I do–the man/woman quandary, and the fact that with the liberals in the saddle for 50 years, things have never been worse between men and women than they are now. [Laughs.] They didn't come up with any solution. Woody is still a good pal of mine. A good guy. He has no self-aggrandizement. He says to me, "Work gives you the illusion that your life has some meaning. And sex gives you continuity." [Laughs.] I'm pretty much a Victorian, but even discussing sex... The fact that sex is nature's joke on man and love is nature's joke on women is worth exploring. You have to hold people's feet to the fire, and the joke will come out of unusual places. What I'm getting back to is what [Breathed] said about being mad first. I'm mad at the lack of realization of the lack of romance, and I'm sad about it. And then I try to get... Because I've worked so many years, I now know that to make the man the victim, and to characterize him as not always the winner, you'll be able to sneak in your message rather than just nailing them.
O: How much resistance do you get on stage?
MS: When I did the stuff on Kennedy, that's as much resistance as I ever got. Someone said to me, "Instead of appearing to be biased and letting everyone put their guard up, take the Warren Report out and read it. Even though it's committed to memory, you read it, so you're as much of a victim as they are of the bureaucracy and the lie." That's the way I'm doing Bush now: I do it like Candide. Is this the best of all possible worlds, President Bush? And he tells me, and I'm bewildered. And meanwhile, you defoliate him, if you're any good. 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?
O: What comedians do you enjoy?
MS: Jonathan Winters.
O: There's a young up-and-comer.
MS: Yeah, no kidding. [Laughs.] There are good guys out there, but you have to be suspicious when there's an abundance of anything. There can't be that many good... I have a good affinity for young people in comedy, but more of them are writers than performers. These guys standing up and doing 10 minutes of other people's riffs... My heart is mostly with jazz. I do go out for that, almost every night. But there's a different standard operating there. Whenever they tell you, "We're going to have 50 new comedians tonight," you really have to wonder. Again, there's no assertion of anything individual. Yeah, young up-and-coming... How old is Jonathan, 77? [He's 78. –ed.] You know, we were going to have a tour this winter. Bill Dana put together a tour with Winters and me and Dick Gregory and Shelley Berman and Dick Cavett, but they got hung up in the business issues, with venues and all that crap. Winters is a wild man, but, significantly enough, he's a conservative. But he's anti-authoritarian. He's the most original guy I've ever worked with. You know, there are talented people along the way, although very few come to mind. They're not very daring. Part of the problem is that comedians don't want to overthrow anything. They want to join it. Is any one of those guys going to go on a show and attack Letterman? I was always biting the hand that fed me. It was compulsive. Kennedy was very good to me, and I attacked him as soon as he was elected. I attacked him before he was elected. [Adlai] Stevenson was a great friend of mine, and I attacked him. But the big guys can take it. The big guys get the joke. The English language is our friend, because we're writers. I don't know that the comedians are so much in love with language. And there's a phony magnanimous thing about everybody mentioning everybody, although it's loaded with envy. You know, Churchill said, "Of all the virtues, the greatest is courage, because it makes the others possible." Well, of all the sins, the worst is envy, because it permits all the others. They all want Robin Williams' career. The critics want it, too, it looks like. [Laughs.] But one thing I've noticed that the people in the business have not realized is that the audience has gotten smarter. I used to go to two movies every week for the Saturday matinee when I was a kid. Now, with television, everybody's seen everything all day. They're more sophisticated than they're given credit for. And it may be that more guys aren't daring because they can't... What they need is a combination of rebellion and irreverence and disrespect for authority, with a respect for universal law.
O: You've written jokes for Kennedy and Stevenson, but also Reagan and Bush and Al Haig and others. People have said you've shifted to the right over the years...
MS: That was prompted by my going after the liberals. I decided that they had become the left wing of the Republican Party. So they accused me of betraying the trust, which was a con job. It was a total distortion: I was never a liberal. I'm a radical, and I always have been. When I wrote for them... I started with Kennedy, and I was one of the only writers over there. Then I did a couple of favors for Reagan and Bush and Bill Bradley. Reagan had a pretty ready sense of humor, although they were basic jokes–anti-Communist jokes and all. So I just found it easier... I thought it would make them honest if the liberals had a conscience, so I started to go after them, because they were the ruling party, especially in L.A. And look what they produced. You know what [Eugene] McCarthy said about the liberals: The way they go into combat is to first surrender and then shoot the wounded. [Laughs.]
O: You've interacted with many of the people you've satirized. Do you ever find that that mellows your attacks in any way?
MS: No. It's tempting, but when you get on the stage, it's a different language. When I talk about any of the movie stars or the directors, I pretend that I'm a true believer and then show their excesses. I tell a story where I'm driving along in a car with [director] Sydney Pollack, and we see bag people after the Beverly Hills stores close. And I say, "My God. What's happening to the economy? I never saw that in Beverly Hills." And Sydney looks over at me and says, "You know, Mort, sometimes I envy them." And I say to him, "I'd be interested to know what times those are." [Laughs.] And he says, "Well, they don't have to come up with a hit movie." You kind of take them on deftly and hope that they see what the pretension is. There is a satirical way that will go to the core of what they are, and if it's any good, they'll laugh. Reagan laughed a lot at himself. I did the White House Correspondents Dinner some years ago with him, and one of the jokes involved his walking out on a movie, which turns out to be Places In The Heart. When the drought hit and Sally Field had no crops and no income, the bank had to foreclose on her farm. And when Reagan saw that, he thought it was a happy ending. [Laughs.] He laughed at the joke. Bush, the old man, is enough of a politician to lead the laughter–that's the Yale part, the intellectual, but it's also that he's secure. Because I used a rough joke with him, where he says to me, "You're a big critic. Let me talk to you hypothetically: What if you were the president? Who would you appoint as the head of the CIA?" And I scratch my head and say, "The same guy who ran it when you ran it." And he led the laughter. He could afford to: Look who I am, and look who he is. These guys are global, universal figures. It's a good question to think about, whether you're betraying them, but I think you're making them honest.