Post-mort on the Mort Sahl tribute


I wanted to like the Mort Sahl 80th birthday tribute event Thursday night at the Wadsworth Theater much more than I did.

The biggest problem was that most of the comics who moved through the turnstile Thursday night didn’t offer anything close to political humor in the spirit of Mort. And that really shouldn’t have been a surprise — it’s not as if Drew Carey, Jay Leno, Kevin Nealon, Richard Lewis and Paula Poundstone are known for their incisive social commentary. Neither are Jonathan Winters, Norm Crosby or Shelley Berman, but at least they were funny, particularly Winters, who trotted out his Leland Buckhorn dumb-baseball-player persona.

Lewis’ time on stage in particular felt like a small eternity of jokes all about himself — parts of himself that I’m guessing no one in the room wanted to hear that much about. George Carlin was funny with his now-familiar buzzword-rap routine, and he brought along a great clip of himself doing a Mort Sahl imitation from a CBS variety show in 1962.

Bill Maher at least felt like he belonged at a Mort Sahl tribute, with a few good Bush-bashing lines and the observation that among the GOP presidential heat, the only contender who isn’t on his second or third marriage is Mitt Romney, the Mormon. But Leno and his not-funny jokes about Africa and obesity, Mel Gibson and Michael Jackson just fell flat, as did Carey and his “Paris Travel Lodge” schtick. (Maybe that was the point, to highlight how vapid most of standup comedy has become since the days when Sahl was riffing on Nikita and Ike, the arms race, civil rights, voting rights, etc.)

For me, Albert Brooks delivered the all-around funniest performance with his “I was told Mort Sahl had died” routine, complete with a eulogy that he delivered anyway. Emcee Jack Riley (aka “The Bob Newhart Show’s” Mr. Carlin), who subbed for Larry King, had a good line about needing to do the event “to get a credit from this century.”

By the time, Sahl came up on stage for the obligatory “this has meant so much to me,” even he was underwhelming, red sweater and all. His best bit was noting the causal connection between subpoenas being delivered to key Bush administration figures and Dick Cheney’s visits to the D.C. area hospitals.

“They’re reconstructing Cheney, a Halliburton corporation,” Sahl quipped, “and they’re overcharging!”

In closing, audience members — a crowd that included Hugh Hefner, Tommy Chong, Rob Reiner, Larry Gelbart, George Schlatter, George Shapiro, Fred Willard and Dick Van Patten — serenaded Mort with “Happy Birthday” (never mind that Sahl’s 80th was seven weeks ago). Event raised more than $100,000 for the Heartland Comedy Foundation, which aids older comics who have hit hard times financially.

Pictured above, back row from left: Richard Lewis, Jay Leno, Norm Crosby, Kevin Nealon, Hugh Hefner, event organizer Ross Shafer, Drew Carey and Albert Brooks. Front row from left: Shelley Berman, Jonathan Winters, George Carlin, Mort Sahl and Harry Shearer.

Photo credit: Derek Goes/GOES PHOTOGRAPHY

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  2. Howard Burns says:

    Thanks to Cynthia for writing about this event. Mort Sahl was a groundbreaking comedian in his day and the kind of insight he brought to his monologues is needed more now than ever. I’m glad to see that Bill Maher was there for he is one of the few to have taken the baton from Sahl and is running with it. For anyone interested in learning more about Sahl, Jonathan Winters, Shelley Berman and the other great comics of their day, there’s a fine book I recommend from the author Gerald Nachman called “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s.”

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