Mort Sahl: The Loyal Opposition

by Joe McBride

Robert B. Weide's superb new documentary, Mort Sahl: The Loyal Opposition, is a ringing demonstration of how badly this country needs to hear more from the gadfly satirist.

Part of the ''American Masters'' series, the program airs Sept. 25 on KCET in L.A., which ironically was one of the stations in the 1960s that tried to muzzle Sahl for his tendency to deal with what KCET g.m. James Robertson called ''open wounds'' in his political humor (Daily Variety, Nov. 4, 1964).

Weide's focus in this empathetic and sophisticated portrait is Sahl's evolution from a media darling in the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras to a pariah in later years for his outspoken attacks on the corruption of the American political system.

The watershed for Sahl was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, about which he wrote in 1976: ''We lost our innocence in America when the opposition turned out to be disloyal.''

Sahl's insistence that the U.S. intelligence community killed Kennedy led to a lengthy period of blacklisting in showbiz, and a lingering wariness toward him even today.

It's hard to quarrel with Sahl's assessment of his career problems, which he is now able to discuss more dispassionately than he did in the past, feeling vindicated in his dark view of modern American history by such events as the Vietnam War, Watergate and Iran/Contra.

If there is a major flaw in this otherwise topnotch program, it's that all of the interview subjects are friends of Sahl's, so the bad rap against him is learned second-hand.

It would have been useful to hear directly from his ex-agent Freddie Fields whom Sahl quotes as having told him during his ostracism, ''No agent can help you in the position you're in'' or from some of the TV exex he jousted with for using material that KTTV program director Jim Gates termed ''repetitious and lacking in entertainment'' (Daily Variety May 16, 1967).

To Sahl, such blasts were obvious code words for wanting him to stop mocking the Warren Commission for its fiction that Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald.

Sahl in that era would come out and get laughs simply by reading from the Warren Report, or by holding up a picture of Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby and commenting, ''Here's a photo of Oswald being shot while he was being guarded by 123 members of the Dallas police force -- or 124, if we count Ruby.''

Times comedy critic Lawrence Christon says Sahl was ''like a dog with a bone, because he was outraged and he was incensed, and he couldn't in his heart understand why people just wanted to let it go.''

It was America, not Sahl, that wasn't so funny anymore, as this show makes clear with news clips placing him in the context of an unrelenting public nightmare. Sahl was the messenger who was forcing conservatives and liberals alike to face up to the bad news.

''The social democrats in this country have a lot of guilt,'' Sahl tells Weide. ''They didn't stand up to Vietnam. They didn't stand up to the encroachment of the intelligence community. And they walked away from Jack Kennedy.

''The most they could come up with after he was shot in the street like a dog was to say. 'He wasn't that good a president anyway.' Yeah, let me tell you, he had a strange group of friends. Remarkably absent when he fell.'''

Sahl's Camelotism is echoed in his romantic identification with the Jimmy Stewart character in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes To Washington -- ''I'm great with lost causes,'' Sahl proclaims -- and in his idealization of Capra himself, a closet reactionary masquerading as a liberal.

But Sahl's illusions are inextricably bound up with his strengths. They are part of his unabashed commitment to an ideal America whose destruction has made him seem more cynical than he really is.

One consequence of the political amnesia Sahl decries has been the almost total vacuity of today's humor, with its determined lack of consequence and commitment.

Hearing Sahl's barbs and watching the sparkling clips from bygone Steve Allen, ''Playboy After Dark'' and Smothers Bros. shows makes one yearn for more of his kind of withering satire on the tube today.

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