the pulse

Still giving them hell after all these years

Mort Sahl is the undisputed godfather of the political comedy movement, having started his stand-up career during the Eisenhower administration and skewering the ruling class pretty much nonstop ever since. He influenced Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen, poking fun at presidents long before it became fashionable, as a razor-sharp trailblazer of biting wit and social satire. He grew big enough to merit the cover of Time magazine on Aug. 15, 1960.

But we don't hear a lot from Sahl anymore. Which is a shame. As he approaches his 80th birthday on May 11, the man remains as erudite and engaged as ever. While his tone is undeniably mellower than in his raging youth, Sahl still has plenty to say but tragically few public opportunities to say it. He still plays a monthly gig at McCabe's in Santa Monica and does the occasional appearance at colleges and arts centers. But as far as TV and the larger showbiz community is concerned, he is very much a forgotten icon.

All of that, however, may be about to change. Several of Sahl's friends are organizing a massive tribute/entertainment extravaganza in recognition of the milestone birthday and to honor a comedy legend with an overdue acknowledgment of his enormous impact.

The event is still in the planning stages but is poised to be held on or around Sahl's birthday in a large theater and is being pitched to HBO for a special. Several big names reportedly have committed.

It's hoped that this new attention will help fuel a Sahl resurgence that returns him to his rightful place in the American consciousness (and, equally important, living room). "I'd like more circulation, of course," he admits, "especially when I have an idea that isn't being done. I like to work, because I need the audience to develop my material."

To be sure, Sahl is a true American original, having burned his way onto the comedy map for his refusal to pander, in tandem with a distinctive delivery that blends free association, nervous digression, jazzy improvisation, stream-of-consciousness commentary and abundant ad-libs. He has always embraced controversy, sometimes to his detriment.

Sahl's memorable one-liners are legion, including such observations as, "A yuppie is someone who believes it's courageous to eat in a restaurant that hasn't been reviewed yet" and "Liberals feel unworthy of their possessions, while conservatives feel they deserve everything they've stolen."

What consumes Sahl today is the notion that courage is in far too short supply in our political leaders and the media, that no one is inspired any longer to challenge the status quo. "The first presidential candidate who actually tells people the truth will be accepted as a messiah," he believes. And yet Sahl remains, as he emphasizes, "optimistic in spite of the facts."

One of those facts is his observation that the populace appears to harbor precious little hope for the future. And that, Sahl believes, supplies the most logical explanation for why movie attendance has slipped over the past several years.

Sahl also finds that comedians are too often overly fearful of offending.

"Laughs are getting harder to come by every day," he notes. "So we have to mine every laugh we can. Otherwise, we'd cry. Because think about it: There were 4 million people in the colonies and we had Jefferson and Franklin. Now we have over 300 million, and look at our leaders. What can we draw from this? Darwin was wrong!"