“Mort Sahl changed the face of comedy. Before his, that face was Marty Allen’s.”
— Jack Riley
And if you get that reference, you would have loved the Mort Sahl 80th birthday celebration at the Wadsworth Theatre on June 28. What’s not to like? Shelley Berman in a seersucker suit and saddle shoes doing his famous rotary phone call bit. Jonathan Winters playing slugger Leland Buckhorn: “Had four wives … one liked hockey, another liked tennis, one woman just strayed in bars….”
“We are lucky to live in a time when Jonathan Winters was around,” emcee Jack Riley says.
No kidding. That goes for the rest of this cockeyed caravan, too: George Carlin, Woody Allen, Drew Carey, Norm Crosby, Jay Leno, Bill Maher and other standout stand-ups offering “Sahl-utationals” to the pioneer in political satire. Sahl was the first with an LP, first on the cover of Time, and first to understand the Hollywood-D.C. axis as a comedy act.
Once called “the fourth branch of government,” “Sahl was the revolution,” wrote Gerald Nachman in his book, “Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s.” “The mere idea of a stand-up talking about the real world was in itself revolutionary.”
I remember my father putting on Sahl’s “1960, or Look Forward in Anger” LP and how I didn’t understand a single thing. References to Bobby Baker and Estes Kefauver? I was too young to get how great this guy was.
But now I’m here among all kinds of comedic all-stars who appreciate him. The Wadsworth event is a benefit for Sahl’s Heartland Foundation, and what Harry Shearer calls, with his finest satirical twang: “Aside from Jay and Drew and Jonathan … a tribute to a time when Jews did run comedy.”
It’s like a comedy theme park, with Tommy Chong on the red carpet with Kevin Nealon, Hugh Hefner, Dick Van Patten and Rob Reiner, and Paula Poundstone stands schmoozing the founder of the first Mort Sahl Fan Club (1956). Septuagenarian Jack Riley, who played Mr. Carlin, the depressed hypochondriac on “The Bob Newhart Show” says he’s here “because I need a credit from this century.”
Waiting for a urinal in the packed men’s room, you can tell which comics have prostate problems.
Richard Lewis turns 60 today and George Carlin made 70 a day before Mort’s birthday. Lewis kvetches brilliantly about the billing tonight: “I thought it would be Jay, then Christ, then me.”
In his black Nehru shirt, Lewis says he looks “like Capt. Kirk’s cantor.”
“If not for Mort and Lenny [Bruce], I wouldn’t have had 25 years of drug abuse and whoring.”
Carlin tells us Sahl saw him in 1960 doing a Mort Sahl impression in a Hollywood coffeehouse between Cosmo Street and Ivar Avenue. Sahl recommended him to the “hungry i” (for “intellectual”) in San Francisco, and “onward!”(a Sahl catchword) climbed Carlin.
“I was 21 when I first saw him,” says Allen in a taped greeting. “And the minute I saw him, I just thought that there was nothing else that could be done in comedy, and he was just the best thing that I had ever seen.”
But one comedian, Albert Brooks, takes the stage somberly. “I’m embarrassed tonight,” he says. “And angry. I was told that Mort Sahl passed away.”
So Brooks reads a eulogy.
“I remember the last time I saw Mort alive,” he says, the laughter building now like something on a classic comedy LP: helpless, extended, tear-filled. “It was at a Starbucks near where I live. And now I wish I’d said the things that I really felt — how much he influenced all of us here, while he was here. But I didn’t. All that I think I said that day was: ‘Are you gonna finish that latte?’ This should be a lesson to all of us…. And I say, rest in peace my funny man. Rest in peace.”
All around the Jerry’s Deli spread afterward, are wonderful comedians who can’t get smiles off their faces: Fred Willard, Mark Schiff, Rick Overton, Darryl Henriques, Wendy Kamenoff, Paul Krassner, Edie McClurg, Larry Hankin and Barry Diamond.
It was Bart Simpson, quoting the Talmud, who asked: “Who shall bring redemption if not the jesters?” I think of Jan Murray’s and Morey Amsterdam’s funerals and how fine it is that friends did this while Sahl — who once said, “You haven’t lived until you’ve died in California” — is still alive.
“I’ve been very moved by everybody tonight,” Mort told us finally. “I want you to know it really did knock me out. I also want you to know that I’ll do it as long as they let me…. When I started this act, although I was just lonesome and looking for a family, in a larger sense I saw it as a rescue mission for America…. But I believe it more than ever, in spite of the odds, that the good guys’ll win.”
Mort Sahl will teach a course in critical thinking at Claremont McKenna College in September.
Hank Rosenfeld assistant teaches at Roosevelt Elementary School in Santa Monica and has written a book with Irving Brecher — who wrote for Milton Berle, Jack Benny, and the Marx Brothers — coming from Ben Yehuda Press in 2008.
Mort Sahl fan tribute
It’s a funny thing trying to arrange a stand-up comedy show in Israel. I had gotten the idea last summer when I was visiting Israel and a social worker friend of mine half jokingly suggested I put on a show for the runaway teenagers she works with. As enticing as it sounded to do stand-up comedy for a a bunch of angry kids, I was on vacation; it was only when I returned to the United States that I realized it wasn’t such a bad idea. Not to perform for the rebellious teenagers, but for the general English-speaking community. That way, even the angry teens could come. I got in touch with a promoter in Israel and he thought it was a great idea.
“We could use some laughs over here.”
No kidding. We tentatively agreed on dates and venues in Israel, and that only left one thing to do: find comics who were willing to go. I personally had no problem going; as an Israeli raised in the United States, I believe it’s an obligation to visit Israel when times get tough. But finding other people to go now is another story.
I began to float the idea around town to gauge reaction. Almost all the comics thought I was nuts.
“I can’t do it, Liberman. I’m doing two weeks in Baghdad during that time.”
OK. I get it. You’re not interested. I promised myself that if it took me months, I’d find some people who were. Yet I wasn’t looking for just anyone, but top-quality comedians; comics who had done “The Tonight Show,” Letterman, etc., to ensure a good show.
Months is what it took, but I finally found two friends in Los Angeles — Wayne Federman and Gary Gulman — and Dan Naturman in New York. All three had done a lot of television, so the quality of the show wasn’t going to be a problem.
Now it was just a matter of logistics: When could everyone come in? How many shows would we perform? Who would our audiences be? After months of aggravation, when I used so many calling cards for Israel that I could have just flown there myself, we finally settled it. (As much as it sickens me to say, the whole process gave me a newfound respect for what agents have to deal with. I only hope mine doesn’t read this: It will go straight to his head.)
When we finally arrived in Israel last June, we learned that one of our shows was canceled, and a few had been moved around. Fine with us — that gave us extra time to kick around in Tel Aviv. Wayne and Gary had never been to Israel before, and Dan had last visited Israel when he was 10. They all fell in love with the country (as most people do). Gary is even convinced he wants to retire there. We were all having such a good time that we nearly forgot why we were there in the first place: Showtime!
Our first show was in Ra’anana,which has a large English-speaking community. There were about 225 tickets sold and suddenly, I got nervous. Not because of the crowd, and not because I didn’t think we could pull it off. I just really wanted the audience to have a good time. I felt a greater responsibility to provide some joy for these people who have suffered through so much terror. If didn’t, I would have felt like I let everyone down.
Before I knew it the show was on and so was I:
“I don’t know if you go to shul normally in your life,” I told the audience, “but when you’re on El Al, you’re going. ‘There’s a plane full of Jews, but we specifically need you.’ The amazing thing is, I was still late…”
The other comics chimed in with their own local jokes:
Dan discussed his frustration at being in Israel: “I was surprised at the number of good-looking girls everywhere…but I can get rejected by hot girls back in the States! What do I need this headache for?”
Wayne summed up the religious conflict perfectly: “When I got to Israel I saw that there are all these different levels of Judaic observance, but one thing I realized is that anyone right above where you are is crazy, and anyone right below you is not really Jewish.”
The show went well, and for a minute it seemed like any other great gig, not a special tour in Israel.
Then one woman came up to me and said something which erased all the stress, worry and aggravation of putting it all together. “I just wanted to thank you. I haven’t had anything to laugh about in over a year,” she said.
Every now and then you’ll walk into a comedy club and hear the other comics say, “So-and-so Big Shot is here. If I can just make him laugh ….”
Well, after years of trying to impress “So-and-so,” it was in Israel that I had my big break. Everything I had ever done in entertainment, and maybe ever will do, were completely dwarfed by her words. Maybe they won’t get me a sitcom, a deal or anything else that we’re supposed to strive for in stand-up, but I didn’t care. I had achieved what I wanted.
So now I’m planning another stand-up tour in Israel, to ensure that this woman — and others like her — don’t have to go another year without an opportunity to laugh.
I know there will be lots of stress and aggravation again in planning this tour, but I also know I’m guaranteed a great payoff.
The comics will reprise their Israel tour at The Pacific Design Center on Dec. 6 at “A Night of Comedy and Soul,” a benefit for The Young Israel of Century City. For more information contact (310) 273-6954, or to find out about the “Israel Comedy Art Fund” email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Avi Liberman can also be seen on Comedy Central’s “Premium Blend” on Dec. 26th.