Waiting for him to take the stage, the audience was reminded that the person they had come to see is literally a living legend. A slide show projected on a home movie screen flashed pictures of the young comedian talking politics in front of a crowd of ‘50s hipsters in San Francisco’s iconic Hungry i cabaret, another image of him on the "Tonight Show," and the first Time Magazine cover to feature a stand-up comic.
Before Jon Stewart and the "Daily Show," before "Weekend Update" on "Saturday Night Live," before Robin Williams or Gallagher or even Lenny Bruce, there was Mort Sahl. Beginning with Eisenhower in the Oval Office, Sahl has been aiming his iconoclastic wit at the shenanigans in Washington and the world, and the foibles of the common politician. And, for two bright nights in Seattle’s ACT Theater, October 8 and 9, he was at it again.
Sahl came out carrying a copy of the day’s New York Times, which he introduced as the source material for the evening’s act, "not that your papers aren’t funny."
He is no longer the young man in the slide-show pictures. His hair is grey, his posture more bent than the youthful slouch he used to affect. And his stories, still sharp and often bitingly funny, stretch back over the years to connect the present day situation with the eras of Clinton, Reagan, Nixon, Kennedy, Albert Einstein, Karl Marx and Moses.
"There’s a lot of Jewish people who have an influence on Western philosophy, disproportionate to their numbers," he said, digressing from placing a magnetic head of Karl Marx on a white board. "Moses invented the law because everybody used to pillage and steal everybody’s cattle. But nobody wanted to obey. Then after him, Jesus, also Jewish - he invented forgiveness, in case somebody’s broken the law. That didn’t work, nobody wanted to do that. They cared too much about their cattle."
Next came Marx, "who said," according to Sahl, "if you can’t obey the law and you can’t forgive those who transgress against you, could you share with them?’ People hated that. They were appalled by the idea."
Next in the lineage was Freud, who Sahl said, proposed that people "at least understand" each other, again with a negative response. The last great Jewish thinker in Sahl’s list was Einstein, who wrote a letter to FDR saying they had figured out a way to build a bomb that could blow up the world. "That," he said, "caught on."
Sahl began his Saturday night engagement with pot-shots at both candidates at the previous night’s Presidential Debate. First on Kerry:
"In his plans for the future for all the things we don’t have in this country, Sen. Kerry kept saying I have a plan for that.’ That’s his plan: to look into all these things that have been wrong for 200 years."
Then right on to Bush: "The President, of course, had been accused, literally, by the New York Times, of having a wire up his back. He did have a wire there, but they got tired of not having anyone at the other end."
The Times had reported on Web blogs saying Bush had a suspicious bulge in his back during the debate that some speculated was a small talkie-talkie to feed him answers.
Continuing on about the Presidential campaign in general, Sahl said he "always knew Vietnam would get discussed in this country at some time."
He went on to say that he was unconcerned about what either Bush or Kerry had done during the Vietnam War "because all the heroic guys that I knew went to Canada."
Sahl surprised some audience members with the admission that he has raised money for both Democrats and Republicans and that he is a friend of Gen. Alexander Haig. He reminisced about a Republican fundraising party at the Haigs’, drinking with Richard Nixon in Los Angeles and working with former New Orleans prosecutor Jim Garrison to expose what he still believes was the conspiracy to assassinate Pres. Kennedy.
Sahl was born in Montreal, Quebec and lived in Los Angeles in the years after World War II. He graduated from the University of Southern California in 1950, where he studied city management and traffic engineering. He wrote for Hollywood studios and even acted in a few films before his girlfriend pushed him into going to the Hungry i, launching a stand-up career and an entirely new approach to live comedy.
Before sitting down to answer questions from the audience, Sahl described going to a restaurant to see Woody Allen, who had once said that Sahl had changed his life. When he was blocked by Allen’s bodyguard, Sahl told the man to tell Mr. Allen that "the man who changed his life" was waiting to see him. He said his answer came back from the table - "Ask him if he can change it back."
Mort Sahl’s visit to the Puget Sound was sponsored by Foolproof Performing Arts’ "American Voices" speakers’ series, which also features Michael Moore, Garrison Keilor of "Prairie Home Companion" fame, comedienne Paula Poundstone and Robert Kennedy, Jr.