George Santayana (the philosopher, not the guitarist) once wrote: “Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes.” As far as adages go, it’s one of the better ones… because remembering the past is key in almost every aspect of life… and most definitely in the world of comedy.
This “column” is going to be just that…an attempt to connect with the comics of old in order to truly appreciate the paths that the new guys are following. It’s gonna be random… totally dependent on my memory of stand-up that started as a wee lad being allowed to stay up and watch Ed Sullivan and Milton Berle; progressed through LAUGH IN and the talk shows; survived the televised improv/comedy club boom of the eighties and nineties; and finally lit on today’s world of websites, podcasts and CDs.
I’m going to start off with a guy I thought was something special when I first saw him and still quote to this day. His name is Mort Sahl and in his day he was brilliant. Typically coming onstage in a pullover V-neck sweater with a newspaper tucked under his arm, Sahl was one of the first true political comedians in the wake of Lenny Bruce. And his target was the political hypocrisies of the day.
Canadian by birth, his family moved to California when he was young. After a brief military career in the 40’s, he started doing stand-up at The Hungry I in San Francisco and the bug bit. He came to New York to try and make it as a writer. It was a varied career. He became friends with, and then wrote jokes for, President John F. Kennedy. Along the way, there was his obsession with the Kennedy assassination, a friendship with Hugh Hefner, a stint in talk radio, and a slow decline in popularity as comedy changed.
The obsession with Kennedy’s assassination hurt him. He took to reading from the Warren Commission report onstage. He got involved with Jim Garrison’s investigation. And he ranted onstage so much he began to alienate his audiences.
Still, Sahl is a pioneer and there were a number of “firsts.” He was the first comedian to record a live album. He was the first to perform on college campuses. Many credit him with the invention of the monologue, as opposed to the one-liner comedy that was prevalent when he first started.
Not that he didn’t fashion great jokes. Some classic Sahl lines:
“Washington couldn’t tell a lie, Nixon couldn’t tell the truth, and Reagan can’t tell the difference!”
“Liberals feel unworthy of their possessions. Conservatives feel they deserve everything they’ve stolen.”
“Reagan won because he ran against Jimmy Carter. If he ran unopposed he would have lost.”
These may seem mild or tame given the seemingly no-holds barred language that gets bandied about these days but in it’s time, this was considered cutting-edge political satire.
Sadly, his is a name not easily recognized these days, even while hitting the Comedy Central list of the all-time greatest stand-ups at #40. But he’s still beloved by many comics … rightly so…and deserves to be rediscovered, acknowledged and cherished by any student of today’s comedy.