Inventor of American standup commentary, surrogate older brother to Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, forgotten uncle to Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks, revered godfather to Bill Maher and Jon Stewart and — before he decided to sacrifice the sharpness of his wit exclusively to the cutting of George Bush’s free gubment cheese — Dennis Miller, Mort Sahl squinted in the pristine, almost minty Bel Air sunshine while sitting outside a crowded Starbucks, the Halliburton of caffeine, and asked, “What’s wrong with America?”
Dressing as always like a 1950s grad student, in yellow ?V-neck sweater, black loafers and khaki slacks, Sahl still has that outraged intelligence in his eyes, only now they’re surrounded by delicately engraved, 80-year-old laugh lines. It’s a visual irony that makes his question hilarious in the most tragic sense of the word, as if he were a doctor looking down at a head lying before him on a tray and asking it, “Do you ever experience headaches?”
With no apparent mellowing of his disdain for political dishonesty and the cultural malaise that sustains it, he seemed to take no solace in having been right about so many things so much of the time and usually decades before everyone else. In 1960, for instance, he warned the audience at San Francisco’s hungry i that Israel was becoming something of a nationalistic bully in the Middle East. In 1963, he told Paul Krassner, editor in chief of The Realist magazine, that the Kennedy administration was “generally in agreement with the Republicans” and that it was “suddenly possible to be a Democrat and Republican at the same time.” Sound familiar?
Being reminded of the latter quote, Sahl laughed and attempted to clarify the point by making a distinction between how liberalism manifests itself among everyday people versus those who become part of the power elite. Of those lefties uncorrupted by plutocratic ideals in the highest seats of government, he said, “It’s almost as if there was a summit meeting and America was divided and the fascists got banking and world power and the liberals settled for music and movies and then they tried to pretend that music and movies had real political power.”
He stood to remove his sweater, the sinking sun being a little too generous with its Hollywood reputation for any real human being to tolerate. “Maybe the whole exercise of liberalism,” he said, settling back into his chair, “is to be noble publicly and to lose gracefully and to be the oppressed majority.” Meanwhile, at a nearby table an heiress who was skinny enough to X-ray with a flashlight held a tiny, vibrating Chihuahua puppy in the palm of her hand and nuzzled it mercilessly with itty-bitty moans.
“I get a lot of flack whenever I take on the liberals,” Sahl said, setting his loafer into the crotch of the iron table and hoisting his $5 paper cup of coffee, “because I think they’re way too self-satisfying. That’s why I can’t look upon them as any kind of savior. I keep hearing, ‘The Democrats are in trouble!’ In trouble? They’ve been in trouble since 1965, and what do they do about it? They just keep going to those meetings at Stanley Sheinbaum’s house to talk about electing more women into Congress.”
Despite the joyful confidence with which Sahl injected his absurdist buoyancy into the existential dread surrounding him, there was one subject that brought a wistfulness to his face, and that was his alignment, 40 years ago, with Jim Garrison, the Democratic district attorney of Orleans Parish, Louisiana, who is best known for his investigations into the Kennedy assassination during the 1960s. Because of Sahl’s close ties to the Kennedy White House and his public condemnation of the findings issued by the Warren Commission, Garrison made him a deputized member of the D.A.’s team assembled to expose the supposed cover-up of the real facts covertly surrounding the murder. Sahl then attempted to parlay the investigation and the controversial subject of conspiracy into his act, reading from the Warren Report and wondering aloud if the U.S. government might not be populated by homicidal maniacs. (Sound familiar?)
“When the murderers [of our social democracy] came along and people started talking about my paranoia, that was very disappointing,” he said. “I thought it was going to be like the movies. I thought I was going to run the rustlers out of town and the rancher would say to me, ‘Maybe you can stay here and be my straw boss and marry my daughter.’ And I’d say, ‘Sorry, I got to be riding on to the next town.’ But this town never got cured. I’m still here — and vastly outnumbered!”
Asked about his infamous friendships with Ronald Reagan, Alexander Haig and George H.W. Bush and whether such alliances compromised his reputation as a radical truth teller, he said, “I’ve written for a lot of politicians — the Republicans are the only ones who pay me!” He laughed hard. “It all comes down to whether or not you’re honest with yourself. A lot of people have no intellectual capacity and operate on this instinctual masculine fatalism. Right-wing guys are honest about who they are and liberals are honest about what they wish we all could be — that’s not being honest with yourself. If I talk to people today about John Wayne, for instance, and I mention TheSea Chase and James Warner Bellah or somebody they don’t like politically, they won’t acknowledge their art.
“Nowadays, you open up what’s supposed to be a left-wing newspaper and you get a cartoon of Dick Cheney with his fly open. Bush is supposed to be the bad guy and you’re supposed to be morally superior, and this is what you do? Come on! When all you do is label the opposition as the enemy, you run the risk of becoming sophomoric in your understanding of the world.”
Politely declining a roaming Starbucks barista’s offer of a hideously sweet hors d’oeuvre, he stood to leave. As Sahl walked away, literally into the sunset, his shoulders weary with the weight of knowing that a lifetime of truth-seeking had come to this, it’s hard not to wonder, as James Thurber did in 1958, if “perhaps Mort Sahl is the answer.”
Mort Sahl will be celebrated on the occasion of his 80th birthday at “An All-Star Sahl-ute: A Tribute to Mort Sahl,” hosted by Larry King and featuring Shelley Berman, David Brenner, Albert Brooks, Jay Leno, Richard Lewis, Bill Maher, Kevin Nealon, Paula Poudstone, Jack Riley, Drew Carey, David Steinberg, Jonathan Winters and Woody Allen (via film). Wadsworth Theater, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., W.L.A.; Thurs., June 28, 8 p.m. (213) 365-3500.