BARK <i> AND</i> BITE : For Nearly Four Decades, Mort Sahl Has Been the Voice of Social Satire; Don’t Expect Him to Back Off Now
During his rise to fame in the 1950s, a time when most stand-up comics were doing mother-in-law jokes, Mort Sahl was deftly skewering President Eisenhower, Vice-President Nixon and Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
Time magazine anointed the hip satirist with a cover story, dubbing him “Will Rogers with fangs.” Another observer, referring to his stream-of-conscious, anti-Establishment delivery, called him the “Rebel Without a Pause.”
Sahl now maintains a lower profile than during his heyday in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but 39 years after making his debut at the hungry i in San Francisco, he’s still dispensing his biting brand of social satire, leaving his home in Beverly Hills several times a month to perform around the country.
At 65, Sahl has no intention of hanging up his trademark V-neck sweater and bowing out of the spotlight, although he jokes that nowadays instead of carrying a rolled up newspaper on stage he should be carrying a laptop computer.
“I’m going to follow Hope’s lead,” Sahl said in a phone interview from his home last week. “From Will Rogers to Bob Hope, that’s the lineage. I think the country needs it. The thing is, the country could use 50 social critics.”
With the wry, self-amused laugh that punctuates his punch lines on stage, Sahl added: “It’s like those Old West things where they say, ‘I’m heading out of town now.’ I’ve been trying to head out of town, but there’s never been an opportunity because, first of all, nobody is coming along to do the job.
“I’d be glad to relinquish the reins and go on and do something useful, but I can’t seem to clean up the town.”
The humorist, who has been absent from the club scene recently--he mostly performs in theaters and college auditoriums--checks into the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on Saturday for what is billed as “An Evening With Mort Sahl.”
What we can expect, Sahl said, is his 90-minute “concert presentation”: no warm-up acts. Just Sahl.
“I usually talk about three things: politics and a lot about movies nowadays and a lot about women,” he said.
“That,” he wryly adds, “takes in all problems.”
Sahl, whose monthly cable “variety” show on the Monitor Channel ended in May after eight segments when the channel went off the air, said his concert act “is not that nailed-down-talk at the microphone. I wear a body mike and move around trying to get people into the world I inhabit. If possible.”
Sahl’s world is one that is formed by perusing up to 11 newspapers a day, watching news from around the world on his 258-channel satellite receiver and tapping into his well-placed sources on the Washington grapevine.
Naturally, he’s been keeping a close eye on the presidential race:
“The actors up here are very suspicious of Perot: a guy who loves his wife, has children who like him and gets a haircut every week. I mean, how can they forgive that? . . . All of Hollywood is lined up behind Clinton because Dan Quayle hurt their feelings. He suggested that maybe the product they’re sending out isn’t moral . . . (laugh).”
Sahl can’t remember a time when Americans were so disappointed with the way the country is going.
“When George Wallace was around, some people were fed up. When John Anderson was around, some people were fed up. But not like now,” he said. “Boy, all you had to do is look at (the Republican and Democratic national) conventions. They didn’t represent anybody. I think Perot is terrifically appealing (and) plain talking.
“It’s a dirty trick: They brought in an American to run against Bush and Clinton! He’s the real thing. At least he looks real to me. The Republicans are afraid of Perot, but the Democrats positively hate him because they brought in that element they have been ignoring for 50 years: He’s American--that poor victimized group that buys the tickets and sits out front and waits for the movie to start.”
Although he sounds like a Perot supporter, Sahl says he never publicly endorses any candidate.
“I take them all on,” he said. “It’s a better idea, I think (laugh). It’s easy to be impartial this year.”
Although he was friends with Adlai Stevenson and Eugene McCarthy and wrote jokes for John Kennedy, Sahl is chummy with the Reagans and recently had breakfast with former Secretary of State Alexander Haig (“an old pal of mine”).
So is he a Democrat or a Republican these days?
“I consider myself a radical,” Sahl said. “I’ve got to say it’s a confused situation. The only guy that sounded like a Democrat at the (Democratic national) convention was Jerry Brown. He appeared to be the conscience of the party.”
Sahl quickly notes that he has given Brown “plenty of lumps” in the past. “I used to say he was the first American in space. . . . And (at the convention) in New York he started to solve the re-entry problem.”
Sahl acknowledges that the country has had serious problems in the past, “but there were some good guys pulling on the other side. When the (Vietnam) war was on, there were guys trying to end it. And people weren’t as confused as they are now. They don’t even know who the enemy is now.
“They used to say at the math department in Berkeley that the first step in the solution of a problem is to state it correctly. You won’t hear that on any of the debates. All I keep hearing about is Clinton was in Moscow. And I didn’t even like him in Arkansas. . . .”
As for the vice-presidential debate, Sahl says: “We all envy (independent retired Vice Adm. James B.) Stockdale: We wish we could turn our hearing aid off.”
Movies also are a big preoccupation with Sahl, who socializes with many of Hollywood’s key players and has written screenplays through the years (he recently wrote additional dialogue for the remake of “Born Yesterday”).
He is not, however, a fan of most of today’s movies.
“They’re all about guys losing their virginity in Tijuana on Easter weekend. They don’t reflect anything about the morass the country is in,” said Sahl, who tells “a few stories” in his act “about the (Hollywood) guys I’ve known, what they are and what they represent.”
“In great measure, hopelessness,” he said. “When’s the last time you saw an upbeat picture? If Dickens were writing at Warner Bros., he’d be saying, ‘It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.’ ”
Sahl nevertheless remains optimistic about the nation’s future.
“Sure,” he said. “Except for the death of romance, justice and optimism, everything is terrific. . . . But don’t say that too loud because Clinton will say: ‘I have a plan. I will appoint a task force as soon as I’m sworn in.’ ”
Who: Mort Sahl.
When: Saturday, Oct. 24, at 8 p.m.
Where: The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.
Whereabouts: San Diego Freeway to the San Juan Creek Road exit. Left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is in the Esplanade Plaza.
Where to call: (714) 496-8930.