At 73, Mort Sahl has influenced virtually every topical comedian working today -- a distinction he neither claims for himself nor appears to take much pride in. He calls Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher "a guy trying to pass himself off as a Libertarian"; he bristles at Dennis Miller's reliance upon profanity ("I'm pretty much a Victorian in that way," he concedes); and he thinks that the political material deployed by Jay Leno and David Letterman consists mainly of "references -- that's all. And the idea is to draw blood."
These observations imply that Sahl is bitter, which he gives no indication of being. But given the twists and turns of his lengthy career (he got his start in 1953), such a reaction would be more than justified. He was the first standup to record a comedy album, and by the early '60s, he was famous enough to land on the cover of Time -- the magazine dubbed him the most notable American political satirist since Will Rogers -- and to host the Academy Awards. But after the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, for whom he once wrote jokes, Sahl became a believer in the conspiracy theories espoused by Jim Garrison, the former New Orleans district attorney lionized by director Oliver Stone in 1991's JFK, thus spurring his slow but steady fade from the public consciousness. In the intervening decades, Sahl's been well paid for writing screenplays that haven't been produced, and Mort Sahl's America, a one-man show, did a good business on Broadway and in select U.S. cities. But mention his name to most folks of a certain age and they'll likely ask, "Is he still alive?"
Indeed he is, and he's in notably good spirits: Every thirty seconds or so he cuts loose with a belly laugh capable of rattling the rafters. He takes particular delight in skewering liberals, be they elected officials or members of the entertainment industry -- something that may come as a surprise to those who still associate him with Kennedy. Yet Sahl denies that he's grown more conservative with the years, describing himself as "a populist, but one who's uncomfortable with the majority. They worry me -- probably because they're usually wrong."
Sahl is very much in touch with the past. He still peppers his conversation with allusions to the Warren Commission, the Hollywood blacklist and Vietnam, and he enjoys sharing unexpected memories of leaders he's encountered. For instance, he insists that the supposedly thin-skinned Richard Nixon shrugged off his critiques, telling him, "You've got to keep the flame beneath everyone's bottom." But Sahl also takes pride in remaining up to speed when it comes to current events and current politicos. Last year he lent his wit to Democratic presidential challenger Bill Bradley, and after Bradley faltered, he did the same for George W. Bush, about whom he speaks with casual familiarity: "I know him -- and I know his dad better." He's also chummy with Alexander Haig, onetime secretary of state for President Ronald Reagan, another of Sahl's former clients. After mentioning that he performed at an anti-drug benefit at Haig's Florida home in March, he says, "One of the few guys I know who can take it off the page and make it come to life is General Haig. He's got a great sense of humor."
With buddies like that, Sahl doesn't need to tour to pay the rent, but he still enjoys interacting with audiences, who help him stay sharp: "Things really go to hell if I don't work." And despite his occasionally caustic remarks about America's youth ("I'm bewildered by a country where students don't have any identification with revolution"), he shows no fear of the future. "What did Mark Twain used to say -- 'I'm optimistic regardless of the evidence'?" he asks. "That sounds about right."