Mort Sahl in 1960. (Photo/JTA-Getty Images)
Mort Sahl in 1960. (Photo/JTA-Getty Images)

Humorist Mort Sahl brings one-liners and sharp wit to Bay Area

Editorial note, Oct. 27, 2021: We re-shared this article, which was originally published in 2004, on the occasion of Sahl’s death. Readers should be aware that Sahl makes racially insensitive comments in the article.

Those lifetime achievement awards are starting to roll in for Mort Sahl. True to form, the 76-year-old comic is not happy.

Last year, Sahl won the fifth annual Alan King Award in American Jewish Humor (given by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture). It was meant to honor the man for nearly 50 years of uncompromising comedy, and for having helped pioneer the art of modern standup.

“I tried to talk them out of it,” laughs Sahl from his L.A. home. “These awards are absurd. I’m still trying to find out if I got it right.”

By now, there are at least three generations of fans for whom Sahl always gets it right. Dressed in his trademark V-neck sweater, Sahl has wielded a rolled-up newspaper like a sword, ever ready to do battle with America’s pompous political elites.

If this is the lion in winter, he’s still got the heat turned way up.

“The culture is in tatters,” he says. “People don’t demand anything. I’d like to go on TV and do the news every night.”

Given the Botox brigade sitting at America’s news anchor desks, that isn’t too likely. But Sahl is still the man to beat on stage. He brings his myriad and sundry observations back to the Bay Area with an upcoming appearance on Saturday, Feb. 28, at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center.

What will Sahl be talking about? He promises “the usual: women, movies and politics. But I’ll be doing more graphics. I’m bringing the blackboard.”

It’s just like Sahl to diagram the problems of the world. He’s actually a friendly man, with a ready laugh, but so much about the state of the union gets him steamed that he can’t wait to take the stage and kvetch unreservedly.

Where to begin? Oh, how about Mel Gibson’s new movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” which Sahl has seen (though he’s sorry about it now).

“Terrible movie,” he rails. “Two hours of unrelieved sadism. But the Romans are nice! I think everyone’s second nature is anti-Semitism, so all the anxiety [over the film] is justified.”

And what about Sahl’s take on the current political season? Don’t get him started.

“They say [Massachusetts Sen. John] Kerry is electable,” he says. “If they’ve got nothing better to say about the guy, I wouldn’t vote for him.”

President Bush and the missing WMD? “I knew if he cost us money, he’d be in trouble.”

Hip-hop: “They de-politicized black people, and figured they could get them interested in materialism. Now, blacks have been blunted as a political force. I’ve been told [rap] is the new folk music, but I sure hope not. There must be someone out there with a guitar.”

Like he says in a banner across the homepage of his Web site, “Is there any group I haven’t offended?”

Sahl has been letting ’em have it ever since he broke wide open in the mid-’50s. And much of his early success he credits to extended runs in the Bay Area.

The Montreal native lived in Berkeley for a time, and was a staple at the hungry i when it was the club for rising comedians. He went on to enjoy enormous success in the ’60s, though a long obsession with the Kennedy assassination proved a career speedbump.

He rebounded in the ’70s, working in standup and also as a writer of books, films and television.

He was, in his own intellectual way, a king of one-liners. Among the classic Sahl bon mots posted on his Web site: “I’ve arranged with my executor to be buried in Chicago. Because when I die, I want to still remain active politically.” And “Liberals feel unworthy of their possessions. Conservatives feel they deserve everything they’ve stolen.”

Around the late ’70s, Sahl’s political emphasis shifted, and some felt he’d lurched to the right, especially considering his close friendship with former Vietnam Gen. and Secretary of State Al Haig (a friendship he maintains to this day).

But Sahl disagrees, maintaining his independence of political labels. “I’m weightless to the right,” he says. “The devil never made me an offer.”

Throughout his career, Sahl hasn’t made much of his Jewish roots, though he never disavowed them. “I never stressed it,” he says, “because I didn’t have those kinds of parents. I grew up in a homogenized neighborhood, and was a kind of a mail-order, cardboard Jew.”

Today, however, he considers himself a proud Jew. But that’s still not the main thing in his act. Mostly he tries to follow John Kenneth Galbraith’s sage advice: Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and do it with style.

“Performing is the only thing I enjoy,” he says. “It’s like playing jazz. Up there on stage, I’m free.”

Mort Sahl appears 7:30, Saturday, Feb. 28, at the Osher Marin JCC, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. Tickets: $12.50-$25. Information: (415) 444-8000 or marinjcc.org

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.