All-Star Salute to Mort Sahl
Albert Brooks was furious last Thursday night "and angry. And I'm confused. I don't know the people that produced this show at all. But I would strongly suggest that when they do an event like this again, they spend a little extra money and hire a real publicity firm to disseminate the information correctly. I was told that Mort Sahl passed away. So you can imagine my shock, my dismay, and quite frankly my disappointment, when I arrived here this evening and saw him standing there."
Despite having learned otherwise Brooks decided to read the "eulogy" he had written for Mort Sahl, who was at that moment looking up at him with a smirk from the second row of the Wadsworth Theatre near the campus of UCLA in Brentwood, CA.
This was same Mort Sahl who could always pull a politically pithy quote seemingly out of nowhere (or possibly out of the prop newspaper he kept under his arm as he performed). Here's and old favorite:
"Liberals feel unworthy of their possessions. Conservatives feel they deserve everything they've stolen."
Draped in his traditional red v-neck sweater, sans newspaper, Sahl looked on as one A-list comic after another took to the stage to honor the man some say invented political stand up comedy.
“Every comedian who is not doing wife jokes has him to thank for that. He really was the first,” says Brooks, “even before Lenny Bruce, in terms of talking about stuff, not just doing punch lines.”
And he was political. Long frowned upon in comedy circles because of its fragile topicality, political comics were considered schmucks by the Borscht Belt veterans who ruled the roost in the 1940s.
“I remember seeing him on television at 12 or 11,” claimed comedian Richard Lewis. “I didn’t know what to make of this guy. He was introduced as a comedian but he just seemed to look like a tennis pro."
Billed as a benefit for the newly formed Heartland Comedy Foundation, the All-Star Tribute to Mort Sahl did not sell itself short. With the opening act being none other than Jonathan Winters, how could you go wrong? Especially when he is followed by none other than the immortal Shelley Berman, doing one of his legendary mock phone calls and the jumbling verbiage of Norm Crosby.
Mort Sahl, one of the first comics to receive a recording deal, is celebrating over 55 years of doing political comedy. Starting in the Eisenhower years he became a gag writer for JFK while he was running for the White House and then turned on him after he ascended to power. Despite being threatened by Kennedy's father, Sahl continued to use the Kennedy Administration as the butt of his jokes just as he had with the previous administration. But his underlying love for JFK new no bounds.
As Sahl told me during a 2003 interview:
"Kennedy was the ultimate class act. He didn't need any writers. The reason people still remember him is because he's a metaphor for what they were capable of. And the reason they hate Nixon is he's the metaphor for what they became."
Kennedy's assassination devastated Sahl, who went on to rail publicly against the Warren Commission and even went so far as to give up a lucrative day time show on local Los Angeles television and join New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison in his hunt for Kennedy's killers (He was even deputized by Garrison). It would ultimately destroy his career.
Sahl claims he was dosed with LSD filled cookies by the CIA that lead to a horrific traffic crash. He knew they meant business. His public persona in tatters, Sahl retreated into the Hollywood Hills to write novels and screenplays as well as act in an occasional film.
In the 70's he would become the model for the character "Howard Beal" in the groundbreaking film "Network" written by Paddy Chayefsky. Based on Sahl when he had his own show on Channel 11 in Los Angeles, Beal (played by Peter Finch) ranted and raved his way into cinematic history.
"I'd read the Warren Report, and people said don't do it, and then I took out my SAG card and tore it up on the show."
Mort had nothing to prove to anyone on this night. After a video message from "number 1 son" Woody Allen, the evening was left to rest of his showbiz offspring. George Carlin provided a mind bending word rant that would probably impress rappers from Compton to Harlem and then showed a film clip of his impersonation of Sahl circa 1960. Bill Maher, who probably owes his career to Mort Sahl, knows what it's like to speak truth to power and pay a price for it, followed with some contrarian material of his own.
Drew Carey and Jay Leno, delivered Paris Hilton jokes and both seemed strangely out of place on this night. The former with his trademark crew-cut and the latter dressed in an expensive suit and tie decorated with a not-to-easy-to-miss American flag pin in his lapel.
Both Paula Poundstone and Kevin Nealon were hysterical as only they can be. Poundstone back on the beam after some legal and drug problems was in top form. Nealon, as surreal as he ever was on Saturday Night Live, performed on a lysergic level that would make Wavy Gravy proud.
But this Night at the Opera belonged to none other than Richard Lewis who turned 60 just as he took the stage. Lewis, who had somewhat disappeared into sitcom obscurity years ago, only to be resurrected by playing a version of himself on Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," has hit his comic stride entering the free form worlds of both Lenny Bruce and the under appreciated Lord Buckley. Groovin' high, and dressed in a zippered black suit possibly designed by the mistress of the Dali Lama, the 'Prince of Pain' came to compete. Melting the house and forcing grown men to weep openly Richard Lewis bombarded the crowd from one obtuse comedy angle after another. If this was the comedy World Series, Lewis was the King in his Court.
For nearly twenty minutes he induced non-stop howling by every living, breathing thing in the house.
Jack Riley, the host of the evening brought the guests to their feet with the introduction of Mort Sahl himself to close the show. Mort delivered some classic political lines:
On the immigration bill:
"My grandfather came from Lithuiania, but Lou Dobbs tried to stop him."
On presidential candidate Mitt Romney:
"You know why Mormans have sex standing up? So people will think they're dancing."
"I know George Bush. I've met him and spoke to him a number of times. He told me he had stopped drinking. When I asked him how he did it he said he was born again. I said, you were born again? WHY WOULD YOU COME BACK AS GEORGE BUSH???"
We have all suffered untold slings and arrows in the past few years. Many bloody and some deadly. We have no idea where we are headed politically or socially in this country. We are in the darkest of woods fighting for our very lives as citizens. But on this night, this one cool, southern California night, we were truly victorious - the good guys had finally won.
Mort Sahl is NOT dead at 80.
A screenwriter/producer/journalist based in Hollywood, California, Mark Groubert is the Senior Film and Book Reviewer for CrooksandLiars.com. As a filmmaker he has produced numerous documentaries for HBO. Groubert is also the former editor of National Lampoon Magazine, MTV Magazine and The Weekly World News. In addition, he has written for the L.A. Weekly, L.A. CityBeat, Penthouse, High Times and other publications. He is currently at work on his memoirs...or so he says.