Simanaitis Says

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LONG BEFORE BILL Maher and John Oliver, even before Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, there was Mort Sahl. And there still is!

A recent Tweet from Sahl: “Executive Privilege is accepted in this government; if you don’t accept the government do you get your money back?”

Morton Lyon Sahl, Montreal-born 1927, American social satirist.

Mort Sahl, age 90, lives in Mill Valley, a San Francisco suburb, has his own website, his own Twitter account, @mortsahls, is on Facebook and his humor has kept topical: “I went to computer class with my Dell and I was bullied by a guy with a Mac.”

Sahl is also the subject of a new biography, Last Man Standing: Mort Sahl and the Birth of Modern Comedy, by James Curtis.

Last Man Standing: Mort Sahl and the Birth of Modern Comedy, by James Curtis, University of Mississippi Press, 2017.

The Orange County Register, June 2, 2017, had an article about Sahl chatting with biographer James Curtis. The article describes how Sahl came to deliver his standup satire with a newspaper in hand: “It actually occurred to me because I couldn’t remember the jokes, and I wrote them in the paper…. And then I couldn’t read the paper!” This set the stage for his improvisational brand of topical satire; coincidentally, Sahl was, and remains, a great jazz fan.

Here are some of my favorite Mort Sahl riffs, interspersed with bio details and my own recollections of his wonderful humor.

“There were four million people in the American 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?”

Sahl always had a strong patriot streak: He enlisted in the Army during World War II by lying about his age, 15 at the time. Sahl’s mom dragged him home once she caught up with him.

“Most people past college age are not atheists…. because you don’t get any days off. And if you’re an agnostic, you don’t know whether you get them off or not.”

Later, when of age, he enlisted again and served in Alaska with the U.S. Air Force. However, the discipline didn’t take: At one point, Sahl got three months KP duty.

Discharged (honorably, and likely happily) in 1947, Sahl went to Compton College, then to the University of Southern California where he earned a B.S. in traffic engineering and city management. Sahl started a masters program, but dropped out to become an actor and playwright.

Sahl’s first gig was at San Francisco’s hungry i nightclub, 1953. Image from his Facebook page.

This led to a move to San Francisco, a gig at its hungry i and a first marriage, 1955–1958. A second marriage lasted from 1967 to another divorce in 1991. He and third wife Kenslea, married in 1997, are separated.

“We would have broken up except for the children. Who were the children? Well, she and I were.”

Sahl and his fame as a standup comedian moved eastward, including club dates at Chicago’s Mister Kelly’s and New York City’s Village Vanguard and Blue Angel.

“I’ve arranged with my executor to be buried in Chicago. Because when I die, I want to still remain active politically.”

Sahl with his jazz mentor, Stan Kenton.

I share Sahl’s enthusiasm for Stan Kenton’s jazz, and I suspect I would have first learned of Sahl in reading Down Beat magazine’s jazz coverage in the late 1950s.

Sahl influenced later standup comedians, Lenny Bruce, for one. However, Bruce was an early shock-jock, and Sahl’s political commentaries have always been sans obscenities, though certainly not without barbs.

“Washington couldn’t tell a lie, Nixon couldn’t tell the truth, and Reagan couldn’t tell the difference.”

Time, August 15, 1960. The magazine referred to Sahl as “Will Rogers with fangs.”

Sahl was the first comedian with a record album, At Sunset, 1955; the first to make the cover of Time magazine, August 15, 1960; and the first Grammy nominee, 1959.

He was a supporter and friend of John F. Kennedy, and virulently disagreed with the Warren Commission’s findings following JFK’s assassination. Sahl’s outspoken commentary on this hurt his career, though he later said, “There’s never been anything that had a stronger impact on my life than this issue.”

On another matter entirely, Sahl had a great quip on car enthusiasm: “If someone were to ask me for a shortcut to sensuality, I would suggest he go shopping for a used 427 Shelby Cobra. 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.”

Sahl had fun with his Jewish background as well: “There’s so much Botox around now that you can’t tell when a Jewish girl is angry.”

He also said, “In the forties, to get a girl you had to be a GI or a jock. In the fifties, to get a girl you had to be Jewish. In the sixties, to get a girl you had to be black. In the seventies, to get a girl you’ve got to be a girl.”

On the other hand, politics have always been Sahl’s primary playground: “Reagan won because he ran against Jimmy Carter. If he ran unopposed, he would have lost.”

An equal-opportunity comic, Sahl noted more recently, “Now that Obama is at war in a third country, does that mean he has to give back his Nobel Peace Prize?”

He once said, “I found people looked better when they laughed.” To this day, I’ll bet Mort Sahl sees lots of good-looking people. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017

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