Jewish Journal

The world according to Mort Sahl and friends

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Mar. 20, 2008 at 6:00 pm

Half a century after Mort Sahl packed in Berkeley undergrads and hip San Franciscans at the hungry i nightclub, the man who revolutionized stand-up comedy hasn't mellowed.

For instance, "Hillary [Clinton] is running on an entitlement ticket because she happened to be married to a president," Sahl observes during a phone interview.

"[Barack] Obama has a following because men and women want to escape that woman.

"Can you believe that after 4,000 American dead in Iraq, John McCain is running as a warrior? What warrior? Vietnam, a war that was never declared?"

Sahl will freely share his political insights when he appears at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills on April 6, although his topic is billed as "The History of American Jewish Humor."

He will headline an afternoon program of veteran funny men, including comic Shelley Berman and comedy writers Arnie Kogan ("Tonight Show," "Carol Burnett") and Howard Storm ("Everybody Loves Raymond"), collectively known as Yarmy's Army.

The group's name honors the memory of comic Dick Yarmy, brother of Don Adams ("Get Smart"), and all proceeds will benefit the Motion Picture Home in Calabasas.

Also on the program is storyteller Karen Gold.

At 80, Sahl still performs regularly, although he has also gone academic. He is currently a visiting professor at Claremont College, where he teaches one course on screenwriting, and another one titled, "The Revolutionary's Handbook."

The latter class focuses on Sahl's long obsession with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which Sahl is convinced was part of a covered-up conspiracy.

He enjoys his role as a newly coined professor, but, he laments, "most kids don't know the history of this country. They can't get it from television or the Internet, but they should really learn something before they become investment bankers."

As for his own political identity, Sahl defines himself as a populist, "like Huey Long -- I trust the people."

Although Sahl is frequently credited with fathering a generation of stand-up comics that included Lenny Bruce, Sahl doesn't acknowledge any paternity.

"Lenny was neither profound nor political," Sahl said. "Comics today look at humor as escapism. I look at it as confrontational."

The major Jewish contribution to American humor has been to "define irony," but a more basic Jewish legacy has also spurred anti-Semitism, according to Sahl.

"I asked my class why Jews were so widely hated, and when no one answered, I suggested that 'Jews fashioned a moral straightjacket that inhibits people from killing each other -- it's also called conscience.'"

His sardonic comments aside, Sahl maintains that he maintains a sunny outlook. "I still believe in love and justice," he said. "Without them, you're better off dead."

The April 6 event represents the third annual Gladys and Herman Sturman Celebration of Jewish Life, co-sponsored by Congregation Shir Ami and Temple Aliyah. The program starts at 1 p.m. at Temple Aliyah, 6025 Valley Circle Drive, Woodland Hills. Tickets, most of which have already been sold, are $10 each and can be purchased by phoning Clara Rosenbluth at (818) 348-1498, or Ellen Fremed at (818) 886-8853.

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