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Mort Sahl’s American Revolution
(A review of Sahl's performance at Magicopolus, in Santa Monica, CA, Aug. 2004)
By Gary Gordon
Published in the Santa Monica Mirror, Aug., 2004
“This is a revolution, dammit, we’re going to have to offend somebody.”
John Adams, 1776, in response to proposed deletions in
The Declaration of Independence
Mort Sahl, Icon and self-described Iconoclast, used to end his nightclub act by asking the audience if there were any groups he hadn’t offended. Although no one seemed offended at Magicopoulos last week, in the midst of enthusiastic response there were some audible hisses when he mentioned Ralph Nader, and there was palpable disappointment with the absence of a full-throated endorsement of John Kerry for president.
This belief that he’s supposed to be on “our” side has plagued him for decades, ever since Joe Kennedy and others got mad when he aimed his satire at JFK. (“We thought this was what you wanted,” say the JFK supporters in an old bit; “You didn’t have to do it for me,” Sahl replies.)
Sahl opened by dubbing Bush ‘the unknown soldier”, then quickly declared that Kerry “may get desperate enough to take a position on the Iraq War.” And he was off and running, older, a little slower, a little hard of hearing; he is still a revolutionary, in love with the American Revolution. He still takes no prisoners.
Much of his act is about who he is as much as about what he thinks.
For the unfamiliar, Sahl is the seminal wellspring of stand-up political satire since 1950, preceded only by Will Rogers and Mark Twain in a limited-membership pantheon of those who are truly independent, with truly keen, seasoned observations that really cut to the core of what motivates individuals and institutions. His terrain is politics and psychology, and he dominates it like a guard dog and explores it like Lewis & Clark, Einstein and Hawking.
To understand his politics you have to understand his admiration for Adlai Stevenson, Eugene McCarthy, and especially JFK (“the last liberal”). Like many artists who become gurus to some and targets to others, he is elusive to those who insist he be who they want; he doesn’t conceal his politics—Sahl hides in plain sight—but you must know the background.
Knowing of his affinity for John Kennedy, Sahl remarked, everyone keeps suggesting “you’ll like [fill in candidate name], he’s a lot like Jack.” Kerry (and Howard Dean) were the latest on this list, prompting Sahl to report when he once wondered aloud “who isn’t like John Kennedy?” a waiter answered, “Ted Kennedy,” to which Sahl footnotes: “Always trust the working class.”
Sahl’s the one who lead us out of the “Take my wife, please” and into humor that challenged authority. Like Fidel, whom he mentions while declaring the absence of a Left in America (“It ended with the blacklist”), Sahl has survived 10 presidents. He may be the only American who has known most of them—(he says President G.H.W. Bush once asked him who he would get to run the CIA, to which he replied: “Why don’t you get the guy who ran it when you were ‘running’ it?”), worked for several of them, and for several contenders; he’s done fundraisers recently for Kerry and did one for Nader and for Buchanan in 2000. (He credits his wife with the best line on Buchanan: after his 2000 GOP convention speech his wife noted “It sounded better in the original German.”). He’s certainly the only one who put his career on the back-burner and at risk to work with New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison on the Kennedy assassination investigation.
There was a period when “progressives” concluded Sahl was lost or had “gone conservative” in the 80s and 90s, it’s not a stretch to conclude that he thought and still thinks it’s the “progressives” who were lost.
Known for coming onstage with only the day’s New York Times, Sahl has introduced a new element to his act: a display board of the political spectrum (Left, Social Democrats, Right) because “you can’t rely on newspapers anymore.”
Placing cut-outs of Marx, Lenin, Stalin (“Lenin’s Cheney”), Fidel, and Che on the far Left, he denounces those he places on the Far Right (the Bushes, Cheney-- “The only living heart transplant donor”, “Wolfowitz of Arabia”, et al) as fascists, but focuses his vitriol on the right wing of the Social Democrats, whom he defines as domestic policy liberals and foreign policy fascists; here he places Clinton, Gore, Ted Kennedy, Kerry, and—because of their support for Kerry: Dean and Dennis Kucinich. Nader (“ a non-emotional Arab”) he puts on the left wing of the Social Democrats.
Noting California’s governor’s praise of Hitler’s leadership skills and Kurt Waldheim’s presence at their wedding as evidence of the Arnold’s affinity for Nazis, Sahl zings: “Schwarzenegger often observes he grew up in Austria watching what the Russians did, but he forgot why the Russians were there in the first place.”
Of a Bush fundraiser he was invited to at Al Haig’s house in Palm Beach, Sahl notes the president declared his primary mission was to fight terrorism “because it’s what you elected me to do,” to which Sahl says he replied, “We didn’t elect you that much.”
During a Q. & A. period—another new element to his act, he was asked about right-wing talk radio: “Liberals were too indefinitive, the Right stepped in,”; prisons: “Candidates haven’t chosen to make it an issue. You haven’t seen Kerry asking Jesse Jackson on stage with him,”; and Skull & Bones: “A real fascist outfit…. JFK broke with his class, was ready to break with the Church and, more important to me, was ready to break with his father.”
He insists that among the qualities that set him apart from other political comics and from so many of the politicians he barbs are their failure to recognize the promise of America, their lack of passion, and their failure to have “the best interests of the people at heart.”
“To be driven only by profit and not by destiny or country seems like a bad idea… America is too good an idea to go under, but now nobody has an idea.”