Sunday, June 10, 2007

MORT SAHL HITS 80

PAUL KRASSNER - Mort Sahl is now 80 years old. He was a pioneer in stand-up comedy. He broke through the tradition of jokes about airplane food, Asian drivers and frigid wives, instead sharing his wit and insights about political hypocrisy, racism and monogamy.

I first met Sahl in 1953 when he was a guest speaker in a course I was taking at the New School for Social Research. I was inspired by his satirical approach to serious issues. "Every word I do is improvised," he once told me. "I don't rehearse anything. I start it on stage." In the beginning, though, he would write key words on a rolled-up newspaper, which became his trademark prop. In 1960 he wrote jokes for presidential candidate John Kennedy, and Sahl's picture graced the cover of Time magazine in August during the conventions.

When Kennedy was killed in 1963, Sahl endangered his career and was blacklisted as a result of becoming an associate of New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison in his investigation of the JFK assassination. In 1967, I was a guest on Sahl's TV show, which had been dealing outspokenly with contemporary controversies, so when his option wasn't renewed ostensibly because of a low rating, there was much suspicion. But Sahl also had a nightly radio show and asked his listeners to write in to KTTV. By the time 31,000 letters arrived, the channel's executives had conveniently discovered another rating service and the option was renewed.

On the program, Sahl had a blackboard on which he wrote things in chalk like "We Demand Faith in the Future," and the audience applauded faithfully. He wanted to have a mock trial on the show as a preview of the Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal, and he asked me to return and act as defense attorney. He wanted me to actually defend war criminals such as Lyndon Johnson, Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara. I agreed to do it, but the mock trial never took place. My plan had been to plead insanity.

This September, Sahl will teach a semi-weekly course in critical thinking at Claremont McKenna College. He continues to perform occasionally. At McCabes, he observed that, during the Republican debates, when the candidates were asked who didn't believe in evolution and a few raised their hands, and Sahl pointed out that, "If you watched the debate, you wouldn't believe in evolution either."