Arts & Events

Review: Mort Sahl on the Debates & the State of Things

By Ken Bullock
Thursday November 08, 2012 - 02:37:00 PM

Minutes after the third and last Presidential debate- the one on foreign policy--was over on TV, Mort Sahl came onstage at the 142 Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley and opened his show by quipping: "What was the argument? Who is the best friend of the Jewish people! ... Either one of them would make a splendid prime minister of Israel. ... When he visited Israel, Obama went to the Holocaust Museum first. And Romney claims to be an intimate of Netanyahu. Romney wants to do what? Buy those countries in the Middle East--and consolidate them!" 

Ribbing the audience as if he were a wayward anchorman, Sahl commented, "If you tuned in late, Obama's from Chicago [a dry chortle] where he was a community worker who quickly moved up to the White House. And Romney's from the Caymans--last seen making a deposit!" 

Sahl, now 85, won his spurs as America's premier political satirist in stand-up in 1953, when he hit the stage at the hungry i in San Francisco's North Beach, wearing a red V-neck sweater in an age of "charcoal grey suits, because modern science has been searching for a color more somber than black," and carrying a newspaper, talking familiarly to an audience about the headlines. He became the first comedian to record a live comedy album--and win a Grammy--the first to make the cover of Time magazine, the first to appear on college campuses.  

Sahl's lived in Mill Valley for the last couple of years, after a lifetime in the Los Angeles area, declaring the Bay Area has always brought him luck. His show at the Throckmorton, where he presents movies and comments on them or drops in when younger comedians host showcases, seemed to be his only performance during the final heat of the campaign.  

Performing for well over an hour, easing fast observations about the current state of affairs in with longer stories, intercut with his signature asides, Sahl demonstrated his classic style, what could have been seen almost anytime over the past three or four decades with a few names and references switched around, leavened with a wry gag or two about not being able to jump around the stage so much anymore--or how a stroke he had a few years back "made me more kindly!" 

Joking about the role of religion in Presidential campaigns, Sahl recalled JFK's line: "It's not the Hereafter that bothers me, it's November 6th!" A little bit later, JFK was replaced as "the only Catholic ... by Jerry Brown--still a novitiate!" Speaking of Romney's pioneer Mormon lineage, he mentioned Brigham Young, declaring from the lead of the wagon train when it came to Salt Lake, " 'This Is the Place!'--and a couple dissidents a few wagons back said, 'But we're only an hour from LA!' " Denying Mormonism to be a cult, Sahl said Scientology was one, and that he was "so lonely at night, I'd join it--like guilt on the installment plan!" 

A few of Sahl's stories recalled his abrupt switch in career, when his participation in New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison's independent investigation into the JFK assassination led to a drop-off in club and theatrical bookings--Sahl, who Variety had named top paid solo performer, saw his income fall in one year from $400,000 to under $20,000. He then became a Hollywood script consultant and ghost and additional dialogue writer. But even these tales of the glitter business quickly came back around to social comment: "I'm still a writer at heart. And I have an idea for Arnold Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Bruce Willis--an 'Expendables' kind of thing--they're not going to wait for Social Security, but work for a living instead! A heist, where they break into Fort Knox--and Ron Paul is there, saying, 'I told you there was no gold here!' " 

And hearkening back to speech writing jobs he took, from JFK to Reagan, Sahl quipped that Obama's staff had called him for ideas when the President went to Cairo--and Sahl suggested "Have him say Moses was an Egyptian!" 

(Lifting a jibe he used on Reagan and redirecting it to the current Republican candidate, Sahl declared lately: "Washington couldn't tell a lie, Nixon couldn't tell the truth--and Romney can't tell the difference!") 

At one point during the show, Sahl jibed: "Obabma's trying to pass himself off as a liberal because he thinks it sells!" 

At an appearance a few years back, Sahl was asked where he fit in on the political spectrum. He answered immediately: "I'm an old Berkeley radical, not a Social Democrat, with avarice in their heart, talking about loving Humanity, unless it's from Haiti or someplace else that's unfashionable."  

That "obstinate rigor," as Leonardo Da Vinci called it, informed every quip Sahl tossed off during the genial and fluent course of his show.  

As he said, "Everything I tell you is true. But this is actual!" 

( --For more Mort Sahl oneliners: ... For the Planet's interview with Sahl three years ago: SF-s-Rrazz-Room-By-Ken Bullock-Special-to-the-Planet )