Satirist Mort Sahl: Stinging Reprise

By Charles Champlin

Among his several distinctions, Mort Sahl is probably the cleanest stand-up comic in the business. His idea of a double-entendre is a Republican masquerading as a liberal.

It is the least of his distinctions, of which the greatest is that he reintroduced political satire at a time when the staples of American comedy were mothers-in-law, money and sex, not usually in that order.

Mort Sahl: The Loyal Opposition, which airs tonight at 9 on KCET Channel 28, is the latest in the "American Masters" series of profiles on artists in various fields. Compiling the documentary has been a four-year labor of devotion for the young Los Angeles film maker Robert Weide.

The principal fascination of the program lies in the rare footage of very early Sahl that Weide was able to dig up: faded black-and-white film of appearances, for example, on the early "Tonight Show."

Then as now, Sahl's trademarks were a sweater and a newspaper and a delivery that suggested a spontaneous, unpremeditated stream of political consciousness.

"The first time I saw him perform," Steve Allen says, "I wondered what he did for a living." Another observer of Sahl's nonstop talk called him "Rebel Without a Pause."

Refreshingly, Sahl seemed to treat the audience neither as a mass of humanity, an adversary or a target, but as a bright companion across the table in a campus coffee shop. Over the years it has become clear just how adroit a humorist Sahl actually is, with a sharp sense of the shape and the pacing of his monologues. Despite their seeming randomness, they arrive at the punch line with timetable precision.

In the beginning, after he graduated in city management at USC and moved to Berkeley, Sahl wore coat and tie, called himself Cal Southern and did film-star imitations. His girlfriend of the time persuaded him that that wasn't the real Sahl and Sahl agreed.

Enrico Banducci (a lively interviewee on the program) gave him a break at his club, the hungry i, in San Francisco. Success came slowly until columnist Herb Caen caught his act and began to plug him.

Weide's film charts the rise of Sahl during the Eisenhower years, the record albums, a TV show of his own, a Time cover. Then the difficult period began -- surprisingly, in the Kennedy years. Sahl wrote material for the candidate during the campaign, but the Kennedy White House was less amused than Kennedy himself apparently was when the barbs began to strike a Democratic Administration. Sahl and Banducci say pressures were put on them for Sahl to back off.

Sahl's darkest years, well-documented in the narrative, began after the assassination, when he devoted much of his life and his monologues to challenging the Warren Commission report and its finding that Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole plotter.

For several years, Sahl was unhirable on television or radio and found few club dates, although he insists that he had not stopped being funny, however sardonic the laughs were. In that period, he worked mostly as a writer of film scripts.

Ironically, the Watergate scandal gave Sahl's brand of razor-edged commentary a new relevance. Today again he is on the road a lot, performing all over the country. Weide trails him to a night club in Redondo Beach and to a theater gig.

The early reading was that Sahl was surely a far-out liberal because his early targets were Republican. It has since become clear, and Sahl reaffirms it during his long interview with Weide, that he resists being labeled a liberal, or anything else.

Is he then a conservative? He was friends with the Reagans before their White House days, and enjoys the company of Alexander Haig.

The answer appears to be simply that Sahl is his own man, telling the truth as he sees it, no matter who feels the sting.

Asked about films he has most liked for embodying attitudes he admires, Sahl cites Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and, a bit surprisingly, One-Eyed Jacks, Marlon Brando's far off-trail Western about a man of independent mind. (There are clips from the seldom-seen film.) The choices are revealing.

Richard Crenna narrates Mort Sahl: The Loyal Opposition, which also includes interviews with TV newsman John Hart and Jim Garrison, the controversial New Orleans district attorney whose investigative team Sahl joined.

Sahl is no longer alone as a stand-up political satirist, but so far no one has overtaken him as the chief identifier of our follies and fallacies.

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