For half of the last century and on into the next one, Mort Sahl, 78, has been the comedic conscience of America. Since 1953, when he debuted at San Francisco’s legendary Hungry-I nightclub, he’s been walking onstage in his trademark V-neck sweater, a newspaper tucked under his arm, serving notice to every pundit and politician from Eisenhower through Bush that there was nowhere to hide.
He was the original truth-teller, pioneering a new kind of stand-up — barbed bipartisan political humor — paving the way for everyone from Lenny Bruce to Woody Allen to Chris Rock.
In 1958, he co-hosted the Oscars. In 1960, Time magazine put him on the cover, calling him the most notable American political satirist since Will Rogers and “the patriarch of a new school of comedians.”
Woody Allen, speaking in Robert Weide’s PBS American Masters documentary, “Mort Sahl: The Loyal Opposition,” said his own training as a stand-up comic “came largely from watching Mort Sahl.”
In Allen’s view, Sahl “made the country listen to jokes that required them to think. He was the best thing I ever saw. He was like Charlie Parker in jazz. There was a need for a revolution, everybody was ready for a revolution, but some guy had to come along who could perform the revolution and be great. Mort was the one.”
What follows is Sahl’s stock-in-trade lacerating humor with a twist — instead of simply critiquing our society and our political leaders, Sahl has turned his attention to the entertainment business and Hollywood, the place he’s lived and worked and tried to believe in for most of his life.
The Depression — optimism vs. reality
The movies were all cotton candy. Shirley Temple and everything like that. Then, somehow, we went from the saccharine to the profane without crossing home plate. That’s what’s wrong now; now it’s hopeless. During the Depression, there was still hope. There was still optimism. Sure, we saw a lot of formulaic junk that wasn’t true. But we had a place to hang our hopes.
WWII — heroic dreams
World War II was the last time I was in the majority, and I’ll tell you what, I liked it, I really liked it. I volunteered for the service, I wanted to be a hero. I wanted girls to admire me for it. We were gonna make a great trade-off. We were gonna be brave because the brave win the fair, and the fair, their reward is to be loved.
And I believed all that because I saw it in the movies. In other words, the movies dreamed well back then. I’ll tell you how well they dreamed — I was in the ABC movie “Inside the Third Reich,” the Albert Speer story, and I remember when we were doing research for it we found out that Hitler was watching
Astaire and Rogers every night.
Holocaust & the movies
Well, Hollywood has never really stopped talking about the Holocaust. But that’s the easy way out. It’s easier to be a good Jew that way than it is to have what your grandfather told you was a real Jewish conscience. A conscience would mean standing up to the threat now, not 40 years ago.
Remember “Mephisto”? That picture shows you what happens to guys who cooperate with the devil. It lets you know that it’s tempting, but they get you in the end.
There’s another movie called “Birgit Haas Must Be Killed,” made by Laurent Heynemann. In that picture, Philippe Noiret and Jean Rochefort not only show you what the Secret Service actor we have, Sean Connery, is not an American.
Peckinpah was great. Get him together with (Steve) McQueen, he could do no wrong.
Sam’s films were violent because he thought that we were hypocrites and that we were presenting another face to people than what we saw in the mirror. And that’s the reason that in “The Wild Bunch,” Bill Holden gets up at the prostitute, sees the baby crying and it’s literally, “cut to suicide.” He’s had enough of himself. And you see it. Most Westerns, most movies, don’t present that kind of complex hero.
Sam was wild. He’d strike terror in people’s hearts. I brought him to Newman I brought him to Eastwood. They were plenty scared. He was a great man. And he was nuts. And he had his own way of looking at things.
He went to shoot a picture in Vegas once and a guy from Variety said to him, “Do you gamble?” And he said, “Yes, I get up every day.”
He was a real American. A real one, and with McQueen, it was the best combination you could find. They got it down to the bare-bones truth.
Musical chairs & the fountain of youth
I don’t know the studio chieftains now. You know, they’re gone before you get to know them. It’s been an amazing development. They don’t become institutions anymore, they become prisoners of an agent’s hysteria, too.
I think that started with CAA packaging everything. That probably started 30 years ago, with those guys that came out of the Morris office. And the Morris office didn’t want to do anything. If you were on “The Andy Griffith Show,” they wanted to let you die there.
Now it’s all about the youth, the whole idea of youth. Only youth will support the movies. Well, they won’t support anything very long. They’re good and they’re generous, but they’re fickle. You drop off the side of the mountain, the youth don’t come look for you. They don’t miss you.
Women in showbiz
You open up a magazine and it says, “The new women who are the new story editors at the studios.” And they show a bunch of skinny chicks in black pantsuits whose fathers were agents. And they’re all sort of equine-looking at a distance. There was a time when comedy would have been savage enough to take that on, you know, not only “The Sun Also Rises,” but the daughter also rises.
Instead of that, they’re telling you it was an even competition.
I mean, did it help women for Sigourney Weaver to be a spaceship commander in “Alien?”
Activism & Arnold redux
Politics in Hollywood has become about going to the Hollywood Bowl wearing those ribbons so that Norman Lear or somebody like him will see that and know they’re a good person who deserves a job.
Take Schwarzenegger. Who’s going to run against him? Meathead? Rob Reiner is going to run against him? Warren? Who’s going to run against him? Those guys are good for about one dinner at the Beverly Hilton, but that’s it.
Nets, the King of Pop & Baretta
All three networks have gotten rid of any kind of foreign news coverage. You don’t even have real honchos like (CBS founder Bill) Paley anymore. I don’t think their shows are about anything. Now they’re gonna make “E-Ring.” You don’t really believe Dennis Hopper thinks the Pentagon is virtuous.
I just don’t know why more people don’t take a chance. Something that would touch your heart instead of all three networks having a guy that comes on at 11:30 and ridicules Michael Jackson and Robert Blake for a year and a half. That’s some kind of town.
There are some very talented actors in this town. There’s Kevin Kline and William Hurt and Laura Linney and some others, but look, if Jack Nicholson had made pictures like “About Schmidt” at the beginning of his career, he never would have been Jack Nicholson.
Wesley and Moore
Latin America has Che Guevara and we have Michael Moore. When Moore finally found a presidential candidate he approved and endorsed General Wesley Clark, a guy whose greatest political statement was to advocate the bombing of the bridges on the Danube, Moore’s political position became clear; he’s on the left-side of the fascist wing.
Belting the ‘bible’
On my TV show years ago, Jack Riley walked on the set and saw me reading Variety. He said, “I’m surprised to see you reading that publication!” I asked him why and he said, “Because I thought you had more of a world perspective than that.” I said, “If there’s no world news in Variety this week, that just means the president didn’t buy an ad.”
Morality & action movies
All you have to do is look at the movies and you can feel the bankruptcy. Instead of trying to change the world for the better, Americans are saying life is a bowl of mud. We went from a time when we couldn’t address anything of substance to where we go to a movie now and treachery is a given. Everybody’s shooting everybody. It seems we’ve convinced the American public that truth is darkness. Once you buy into that, then the war’s over.
Hope against hope
Where have we come? Where the hell are we? I don’t expect young people should have any hope, based on what they’ve seen, but I’m cursed. I saw something better.