A man takes to a small stage and starts a long comic monologue encompassing current affairs, politics, issues of gender and race as well as some wry views on the world. He is casually dressed and holds a newspaper in his hand as a prop. This scenario is familiar most of us as we have seen a multitude of comedians. In fact, comedians have now become so familiar that they have entered almost every part of our entertainment world, hosting chat shows and game shows, commenting on politics and sport, writing for newspapers and publishing autobiographies before they are thirty. However, the ubiquity of comedians, and hence comedy, has meant that few jokes have teeth and those that do are rarely political. In contrast, when the young man on the stage refers to a new jacket called the McCarthy jacket which had a flap which buttons over the mouth, he draws gasps and muffled nervous laughter. Although a barely incendiary joke by modern standards, for its time it was audacious. The public naming and ridiculing of politicians, and powerful ones such as Eugene McCarthy who had ruined the lives and careers of many in the show-business world was daring and brave in a way that comedians today can never attain.
The man is called Mort Sahl and in the late 1950s in America he is single-handedly changing stand-up comedy. His style of comedy is now so ubiquitous that we take it for granted, however, when he started the only gig he could get was at a dive coffee bar in his home town of San Francisco and then only because the owner couldn’t find enough folk musicians to fill the bill. Before Sahl started most comedians were formally dressed, often in tuxedos. Their acts usually comprised of a stream of gags fired off in a machine gun-like style. If one joke didn’t get any laughs it was on to the next one so fast that the audience wouldn’t have time to notice. In the main, the jokes were not contentious, unless of course, you were female, black or from any other minority group. The role of the comedian was not to be challenging but rather to distract people from the daily grind of everyday life.
Dressed in an open-necked shirt, jumper and slacks, Sahl looked like what he was, a graduate student. More importantly he looked like his audience and his act further endeared him to them. His critics attacked him as a comedian whose audience needed a dictionary to understand what he was saying. One of his earliest jokes was about “a magazine of obscure poetry – called Whither”. It was this very cleverness that people liked. If you could go to a Mort Sahl gig and get all the jokes you were obviously clever, hip and with it. Sahl reinforced this by referring to his concerts as clandestine meetings held in secret to avoid Herbert Hoover’s FBI or as being held in a mineshaft.
He laced his act with psychological references at a time when psychiatry was becoming popular with middle class Americans and terms such as “group hostility”, “latent anger” and “mother complex” would all have resonated with his audience. Taken together with his intense attacks on the then current Republican government, Sahl soon became a darling of well-educated, liberal Americans. Sahl seemed to reserve his most stinging attacks for the then Vice President Richard Nixon. On Nixon’s visit to the Soviet Union Sahl commented, “He can’t call anyone a Communist and hurt their career over there.”
It wasn’t just what Sahl said that was different, it was the way he said it. He rarely told ‘jokes’ rather telling stories with funny moments. One of his early bits has a bank robber passing a note to a bank teller who is a philosophy student working part time. The note reads “Act Normal”, the bank teller writes back, “Define Normal”. It was this type of comedy that was to influence American comedians such as Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen (who would ‘borrow’ the bank teller gag), George Carlin (who started his career with a note-perfect Sahl impression), Shelley Berman, Johnny Carson and a host of others. He had a freewheeling style that was often likened to jazz improvisation, in much the same way that Lenny Bruce would be in later years. He didn’t rehearse so each evening would have different versions of the same bit, or entirely different bits altogether. One journalist recalls sitting with Sahl one afternoon watching him read the day’s newspapers only to see him use the news in his act that evening.
Anything was grist to the mill, cars, stereos, sunglasses, Disneyland, General Motors, typewriters and of course politics. In one bit he recalls going to Miami and looking out over the sea to get a glimpse of Cuba. “It’s over there,” he is told, “behind the aircraft carriers”. He would digress, start trains of thought and abandon them, say things such as “we’ll get back to that” and then not get back to it, “I want to say a few words” and then not talk about it, laugh at his own jokes, and pepper his monologue with words such as “Really?” and his favourite “Onwards”. He seemed less a man on stage telling jokes to distract people from the world than a sharp, witted friend talking to you about the real world and making you laugh at things that you had never thought were very funny.
Although he found an audience, not everyone liked his sense of humour. Enraged Republican voters would wait outside his gigs to attack him, or perhaps even worse, leave mid-set. However, what his liberal Democrat-voting fans didn’t realise was that he was an equal opportunities comedian. As he would say “Is there anyone here I haven’t offended yet?” After Jack Kennedy won the Presidency in 1961 his audience were not prepared for his anti-Kennedy jokes. “We thought this was what you wanted,” Sahl reveals Democrats as saying to him once they won the election, “You didn’t have to do it for ME!” he replies. Sahl once joked that Kennedy’s father had sent him a telegram stating “You’re not allowed one more cent than you need to buy a landslide”.
It was not, however, the election of Kennedy that torpedoed Sahl’s career but the President’s assassination. Sahl, in his autobiography, claims that his anti-Kennedy jokes cost him gigs as the Kennedy clan, in particular JFK’s younger brother Bobby (Sahl had made a joke about the young Attorney General, claiming that now ‘Little Brother’ was watching), put pressure on club owners and other entertainment executives to freeze Sahl out. However, once Sahl started to use the Warren Report as the basis of his act, in some instance reading long tracts verbatim, the work practically stopped overnight. In this regard, as in so many other ways, Sahl was ahead of the pack. As happened to Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory, the temptation to use the stage as a platform for lectures rather than comedy proved too great. Of course, who wants to go and see a comedian that isn’t funny, however, insightful their comments?
Mort Sahl is still alive and performs irregularly in the US, mainly in California. However, his legacy, other than his influence on comedians who went on to wider fame, rests on the recordings of his act released as comedy LPs. His autobiography, while barbed and witty, is not funny in the way his stage act was. His LPs are strange artefacts. His style of comedy means that one cannot easily pull out ‘jokes’ or edit them down. It is very much like listening to jazz in that regard. His routines are forever stuck in their time. If you are not up on the current affairs of late 1950s and early 1960s America, some of the jokes will fall flat. Who, particularly in the UK, knows or remembers Westbrook Pilger or Syngham Rhee? However, if you have a love of words and language, of sharp, fearless attacks on the establishment, of revelations of the hypocrisy and stupidity of elites, of the fun to be had at loving and laughing at the eccentricities of life then I cannot recommend Mort Sahl enough. As befits a slightly forgotten pioneer most of his best stuff is not available for download so search it out wherever you can.