Mort Sahl proved you could be a great comedian without telling jokes.
Sahl’s reminder about that bit of truth didn’t totally overhaul comedy in the 1950s and early 1960s, but it snipped the ribbon for a road taken by the likes of Woody Allen, Jonathan Winters, Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, right up through Dave Chapelle. And okay, maybe Mrs. Maisel.
Sahl, who died Tuesday at the age of 94 in his Mill Valley, Calif., home, would climb on stage and start talking as if he were the next-door neighbor who caught a whiff of charcoal and stopped in to join your barbecue.
He’d talk about how he walked the dog this morning, or what he read in the paper, or some random thought about the universe that occurred to him in the middle of the night.
Nowhere would there be a “Two Irishmen walk into a bar” intro. The funny parts were threaded into the story, less as punchlines than as simple observations on the cluelessness, obliviousness and general blockheadedness endemic to much of the human race. Especially those members of the human race who don’t realize it.
Sahl, who was born in Montreal but should have been born in Brooklyn, told stories that were interesting all by themselves, making the humor feel like a bonus.
It was a radical enough approach that it took him years to get anyone to pay attention. He spent the early 1950s offering to play nightclubs for nothing, daylighting as a used car salesman, opening a failed theater, writing an unpublished novel and otherwise saying “Notice me!” to a world that didn’t.
By 1953, then as he approached his mid-20s, he had a discharge from the Air Force and a college degree in traffic engineering and city management. He moved to Berkeley and for three years slept on and off in the back seat of a friend’s car.
So he clearly had the qualifications for a career in comedy, and when he was given a shot by Enrico Banducci, owner of San Francisco’s Hungry i nightclub, this time he caught on.
For the better part of the next decade, a golden age of standup comedy that included the likes of Winters, Dick Gregory, Shelley Berman and Bob Newhart, Mort Sahl was always on the list. He played clubs that had never booked comedians. Jazz club owners said his comedy was like a spoken version of jazz, which not incidentally Sahl loved. He co-hosted the Oscars and late-night TV shows.
He didn’t have a polished act that he repeated every night. He improvised, and some nights the laughs were fewer. That happens. But audiences trusted that somewhere along the way there would be lines that were keepers.
“There are Russian spies here now. And if we’re lucky, they’ll steal some of our secrets and they’ll be two years behind.”
“Liberals feel unworthy of their possessions. Conservatives feel they deserve everything they’ve stolen.”
“We would have broken up except for the children. Who were the children? Well, she and I were.”
“I’m for capital punishment. You’ve got to execute people. How else are they going to learn?”
“People tell me there are a lot of guys like me, which doesn’t explain why I’m lonely.”
His show almost always had a political component, and he was among the few performers who actually did target both sides.
“Washington couldn’t tell a lie, Nixon couldn’t tell the truth and Reagan couldn’t tell the difference.”
“Kennedy is trying to buy the country and Nixon is trying to sell it.”
“If you were given the unusual opportunity to be born again, why would you come back as George Bush?”
“Obama says his recreation is reading the Constitution … looking for a loophole.”
“There were four million people in the Colonies and we had Jefferson and Franklin. Now we have over 200 million and the two top guys are Clinton and Dole. What can you draw from this? Darwin was wrong!”
Naturally he was criticized for this, often by those who felt he had been on their side and then suddenly was betraying them.
“If you were the last person on the planet, I would have to attack you,” he said in response. “That’s my job.
“I was always biting the hand that feeds me. It was compulsive. Kennedy was very good to me and I attacked him as soon as he was elected.”
His point: No one does everything right, and declining to criticize someone because he or she is part of your team is disingenuous. More to the point, it betrays comedy.
“Comedians have to challenge the power,” he said. “Comedians should be dangerous and devastating — and funny. That’s the hardest part.”
Sahl forgot that last point himself for a while, and it cost him his spot on the A-list.
After President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Sahl became, by his own admission, obsessed with who did it. He was convinced that the Warren Commission, which concluded Kennedy was killed by lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald, was complicit in covering up a wider, more sinister truth.
His stage act began to focus on the assassination. He would read Warren Commission report excerpts on stage. Not surprisingly, this decreased the show’s humor component and by the late 1960s Sahl had largely written himself out of the national comedy conversation.
He would return in the 1970s with his moment mostly passed, but his chops intact. “A Yuppie is someone who thinks it’s courageous to eat in a restaurant before it’s reviewed,” he might remark, or “Those who the gods would make rich and famous on TV, they first drive mad.”
In the end, Mort Sahl avoided the fate of Lenny Bruce, who drove off the cliff. He lived to appreciate what he had accomplished and what he meant to the wider world of comedy.
He did that, it could also be noted, without ever using a four-letter word.
“Too much comedy today is vulgar, not clever,” he said in his cranky old man years. “I say that as a comedian and a consumer.”
You get to say that when you slept in the back seat of cars instead of rewriting your act into sex jokes or “Two Irishmen walk into a bar.” When you trusted humanity to create the laughs.
“If someone were to ask me for a short cut to sensuality, I would suggest he go shopping for a used 427 Shelby-Cobra,” said Mort Sahl. “But it is only fair to warn you that of the 300 guys who switched to them in 1966, only two went back to women.”