On October 26th fans of stand-up comedy mourned the death of Mort Sahl, perhaps the most influential stand-up in history, who passed away at 94. When Mort began performing in 1950, most comics were doing tired “mother-in-law” or “take my wife, please” jokes. Through insightful political and social satire Sahl proved you could be a great comedian without telling jokes.
With Veterans Day being yesterday, I’m reminded Mort was an army vet. In fact, via the G.I. Bill, he graduated USC with a B.A. in “City Management.” On stage, handsome and fearless, Mort, instead of a suit wore slacks, and a red v-neck sweater and carried a rolled-up New York Times with pasted notes for his act.
In 1957 New Yorker magazine described Mort’s fast-paced routines as “A cross between a philosophy paper and the argot of modern jazz.” Sahl’s style and meteoric success revolutionized the art of stand-up and inspired comedians for generations. (Including Woody Allen who idolized him.)
In August 2004, Mort was performing in Santa Monica at McCabe’s Guitar Shop. That’s where I had the honor of interviewing him though, as you will soon see, where the interview took place wasn’t exactly elegant.
I was put in touch with Mort by Jeannine Frank who booked him around the country from 1994 until he left L.A. in 2008. Jeannine’s many talents include being a comic lyricist, creating terrific song parodies for award shows and special events.
Jeannine was also one of the producers of the sold out “Sahlabration” celebrating Mort’s 80th birthday at the Wadsworth V.A. Auditorium. The show featured: Jonathan Winters, Shelley Berman, Albert Brooks, George Carlin, Jay Leno, Bill Maher and Paula Poundstone and taped appearances by Woody Allen and Don Rickles, all paying tribute to Mort, the reigning King of Comedy.
In 1960 among Mort’s legion of fans was JFK who was running for president. Mort wrote him jokes that were big hits on the campaign trail and led to their friendship. However, when JFK was elected Mort satirized his presidency to the chagrin of Joe Kennedy Sr. Mort explained. “I’m just doing my job” but Joe Sr. never forgave him.
I was nervous calling Mort, a living legend, as they say be careful meeting your heroes. But Mort couldn’t have been nicer. Unfortunately, however, he was so busy that when we agreed on a time for the interview Mort often had to reschedule.
Thankfully, I had befriended Mort’s wife, Kenslea who suggested that since the show was already sold out and there was no need for advance publicity, I should come early to the concert and she would arrange for my time with Mort. Excited, I borrowed a friend’s mini tape recorder to memorialize the interview but when I showed up Mort was mobbed by fans. Yikes!
Luckily I spotted Kenslea who waved me over. She confided that before shows Mort often rehearsed and that there I could do a quick private interview. That sounded great until she told me where Mort did this meditative thought gathering… the bathroom. “The bathroom?!” I exclaimed to which she nodded knowingly like everything would be fine.
Frankly I had hoped my interview with Mort would be deep like Dick Cavett’s. (Though I can’t imagine Cavett doing an interview where the set included urinals.) Sure enough, when I went into McCabe’s men’s room Mort was pacing and getting his thoughts together.
With all due respect, Mort, who was 77, wasn’t the young, handsome and high energy comedian I revered from his appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” or the Mort Sahl who so elegantly graced the cover of “Time Magazine” in 1960. Mort actually reminded me of my beloved old Uncle Irving. (Except Uncle Irv was bald whereas Mort had a great head of hair.)
I got two excellent quotes from Mort, thanked him and excused myself so I could get in my seat near the front. But then the most amazing thing happened. When Mort came on stage, I don’t know how he did it, but he looked terrific,as though he had shed twenty-five years. And his set was brilliant as he eviscerated Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. (“George Bush has been born again raising the inevitable question: If you were given the unusual opportunity to be born again, why would you come back as George Bush?”)
In 2008 Mort moved to Mill Valley in Northern California and continued performing into his 90’s, even from a wheel chair when need be. Though Mort’s career was perhaps a loss to some city in dire need of “management,” in his long, rich life he won four Emmys, three Grammys and the Mark Twain Prize For American Humor. That said, I will always remember him from that magical night at McCabe’s when he turned back time. Mort Sahl, R.I.P.