When he was packing houses and punchlines at San Francisco’s hungry i nightclub 29 years ago, political satirist Mort Sahl could deftly bounce a gag off an Eisenhower or a McCarthy, needle himself and the audience simultaneously, and squelch a heckler—all while drawing more smiles than blood. These days Sahl’s easy grin is still there, and at 55, a decade of semi-obscurity hasn’t lessened the bite in his barbs.
For instance, ask Mort about the cut-and-slash humor of Saturday Night Live. “I was offended by the show the first time it came on the air,” he snorts. “They’ve got the conventional liberal bias of Jewish kids in New York and L.A. They write a kind of hate letter to America. They’re merciless to the working class. I’m tired of these smart kids. Their material trivializes the American experience. They’ve never fought anything seriously beyond acne. They’re elitists, and it just won’t wash.”
Okay, Mort, but what about Robin Williams or Steve Martin? “I don’t think they’ll be around 30 years,” he predicts. Aykroyd and Belushi? “They made bad movies that are destructive and anarchic. There’s a bankruptcy of hope.” George Carlin? ” ‘Gee, did you ever notice that your nose is in the middle of your face?’ That’s what Carlin’s got to say.”
Little wonder that Sahl is known for closing out his nightclub routine with the line, “Is there anyone out there I haven’t offended?” And in the past 10 years he’s continued to do just that, though his nettles are not winning the notice they used to. He has survived on the lounge circuit while writing screenplays that have not been produced, TV proposals that were inked but never aired, and a book (Heartland) that underwhelmed the market.
Was Sahl finally silenced? Not at all. Now he is reemerging in the five-hour TV version of Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich (ABC, May 9-10). In it, Sahl vividly portrays Werner Finck, a 1930s German-Jewish satirist who was sent to a concentration camp for his anti-Nazi views. Sahl was chosen for the show by its writer-producer, E. Jack Neuman, who also happens to be a friend of Mort’s. “My whole life has been like that,” Sahl says. “I get a hit in the bottom of the ninth.”
In his 1950s heyday Sahl raked in more than $1 million annually from record, nightclub and TV dates and cut nine comedy discs. He made his name flaying the Establishment with his co-medic friend Lenny Bruce. “When I got to San Francisco and made a joke about Joe McCarthy,” he remembers, “the hoodlums who didn’t like me came by and rolled garbage cans through the glass doors of the club, and people were trying to beat up on us. My nature is that the next night I would make twice as many jokes.”
Brought up in L.A. as the son of an embittered unsuccessful playwright who wound up as a government clerk, little Mort felt born to the mike and was imitating news broadcasts by age 2½. His dad fought to talk him out of showbiz. “They don’t want anything good,” he warned.
Mort won an appointment to West Point. But, not wanting to wait to join his class, he enlisted in the Army and wound up in Alaska, where his salvos in the post paper got him 83 days of KP. Mort finally got a B.S. in public administration from USC in 1950, bummed around Berkeley for two years, then hung around Bay Area coffeehouses until he got hired at the hungry i. Lenny Bruce was working the nearby Purple Onion. When Lenny was in jail, Mort would do his own act, then run down the street and sub for Lenny. One night a conventioneer stopped Sahl. “Hey, kid,” he said, “there’s a guy down the street at the other club doing all your material.” Today Mort is miffed that stories about him are always stressing his link with Bruce. “Lenny died, and it’s the best thing the liberals could have,” he says. “I won’t die, and they’ll never forgive me. It has to do with their love affair with martyrdom.”
Sahl was married to a college sweetheart in the ’50s and in 1970 wed China Lee, a 1964 Playmate in charge of training Playboy Bunnies around the country. They split in 1974 but rewed a year later. Now she’s his manager. He’s painfully amused about moviemakers (“elitists”) and the failure of his grouchy 1976 autobiography (“I didn’t get a paperback deal, but enough people hate me to buy the book”). He has been invited to the White House by President Reagan, and his friends include the cerebral likes of John Chancellor. Sahl still wanders down to a newsstand daily to comb the papers and magazines for his topical gags. “I’ve always believed there are solutions,” he says, “and that the good guys are going to win.” As long, that is, as there’s still someone left for him to offend.