The humorist sees little hope in current small-is-beautiful zeitgeist

Surveying the field of best picture contenders, Mort Sahl whips out an irreverent riff: “Can you imagine this crowd having the guts to make ‘Brokeback Mountain’ if John Wayne were alive?”

Like Jon Stewart, Sahl is one of the few political satirists ever to serve as an Oscar host. But in Sahl’s eyes, the comparisons end there. Forty-seven years ago, when he co-hosted the Oscars, there were crowdpleasers among the best picture nominees, Hollywood was a fraternity of movie-star royalty, and humor was more innocent.

With his articulate irony, Sahl represented what historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called “a revolt against pomposity.” But Sahl suggests that Stewart and other political satirists are irreverent just to be irreverent. “They don’t love anything.”

“The question is: Can you bring a guy from television to interest an audience into going back to the movies?” says Sahl, 78. “I doubt it. That whole thing about youth is absurd. Johnny Carson was successful on the show, and so was Hope. And it wasn’t about youth. It was about class.”

Demographics didn’t matter then. Sahl, who was then 32, was among six co-hosts along with Hope, David Niven, Jerry Lewis, Tony Randall and Laurence Olivier in NBC’s 1959 telecast that ran a brisk one hour and 45 minutes. Legends from Maurice Chevalier to Cary Grant to Jack L. Warner populated the telecast, which ended with a mix of nominees and presenters ballroom dancing to the music of Lionel Newman.

Even so, compared with the genial one-liners of Hope, Sahl was regarded then as a new breed of comedian, with a style that Time magazine compared to “a jazz musician on a flight of improvisation.” On Oscar night, introduced by Sophia Loren and Dean Martin, he chucked his trademark cashmere sweater for white tie and tails.

“Well, we just lost the college crowd,” he said, referring to his formalwear. “All over America, they are saying, ‘Sellout.’ ”

He did run his material by the show’s producer and writers, and remembers being challenged by the crowd.

High anxiety

“It was glamorous,” Sahl says, but “these people (the nominees) were distracted. They had a lot of anxiety. You had to be very professional to get them to focus on the subject matter, because they were pretty much looking at one another.”

His routine that night was quick and went over very well, but he still landed in hot water. Hedda Hopper took exception to his riffs on the Actors Studio (“They all have integrity. These are bright guys. All have been through analysis.”) as well as Gen. Douglas MacArthur (“There was a rumor in our outfit that he actually planned to walk on the water, but President Truman interfered.”), and she tried to have him fired from future work.

And even then, there was concern that with the topical nature of some of the best picture nominees — “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “The Defiant Ones” and “Separate Tables” — that the Oscars had gone too heavy. During rehearsals, Hope quipped to Sahl: “There is a movie about homosexuality. There is a movie about child molesting. And there is a movie about incest. Something for the whole family!” In the end, the crowdpleaser “Gigi” won.

Sahl contrasts that with this year’s crop. All but “Munich” come from a specialty label. “They are giving awards to movies that nobody has seen, and if anybody tries to show you a DVD, Jack Valenti is going to come over and arrest you.”

H’wood’s disconnect

“I don’t see much that is funny,” he adds. “I don’t know what they are going to put on. The real humor, if I were writing the show, would be that the movies have missed the audience. The real approach is: What happened to the town? This was the town of Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra and Gary Cooper. It was something. It was a great fraternity out here. But what happened last year? Sean Penn had to defend Jude Law.”

Sahl even challenges the notion that today’s comics are that daring.

“They are kind of safe,” he says. “Jon Stewart isn’t going to come out and say, ‘I just saw Bush’s press conference. And when reporters looked at him, they looked like a crowd holding a rope.’ … They think he is supposed to be dangerous, but remember this is a town where nobody wants to lose what they have. They are standing around giving each other awards, and Rupert Murdoch is shaping society.”

So how does he next plan to shape comedy? “I am serious,” he says. “I may go to the Washington bureau of Al-Jazeera.”

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