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Generations of comics salute Mort Sahl on his 80th

by Hank Rosenfeld

August 23, 2007 | 8:00 pm

(Back row) Kevin Nealon. (Second row, from left) Richard Lewis, Jay Leno, Norm Crosby, Hugh Hefner, Ross Shafer, Drew Carey, Albert Brooks. (Front row, from left) Shelley Berman, Jonathan Winters, George Carlin, Sahl, Harry Shearer. Photo by Derek Goes

(Back row) Kevin Nealon. (Second row, from left) Richard Lewis, Jay Leno, Norm Crosby, Hugh Hefner, Ross Shafer, Drew Carey, Albert Brooks. (Front row, from left) Shelley Berman, Jonathan Winters, George Carlin, Sahl, Harry Shearer. Photo by Derek Goes

"Mort Sahl changed the face of comedy. Before his, that face was Marty Allen's."
-- Jack Riley


And if you get that reference, you would have loved the Mort Sahl 80th birthday celebration at the Wadsworth Theatre on June 28. What's not to like? Shelley Berman in a seersucker suit and saddle shoes doing his famous rotary phone call bit. Jonathan Winters playing slugger Leland Buckhorn: "Had four wives ... one liked hockey, another liked tennis, one woman just strayed in bars...."

"We are lucky to live in a time when Jonathan Winters was around," emcee Jack Riley says.

No kidding. That goes for the rest of this cockeyed caravan, too: George Carlin, Woody Allen, Drew Carey, Norm Crosby, Jay Leno, Bill Maher and other standout stand-ups offering "Sahl-utationals" to the pioneer in political satire. Sahl was the first with an LP, first on the cover of Time, and first to understand the Hollywood-D.C. axis as a comedy act.

Once called "the fourth branch of government," "Sahl was the revolution," wrote Gerald Nachman in his book, "Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s." "The mere idea of a stand-up talking about the real world was in itself revolutionary."

I remember my father putting on Sahl's "1960, or Look Forward in Anger" LP and how I didn't understand a single thing. References to Bobby Baker and Estes Kefauver? I was too young to get how great this guy was.

But now I'm here among all kinds of comedic all-stars who appreciate him. The Wadsworth event is a benefit for Sahl's Heartland Foundation, and what Harry Shearer calls, with his finest satirical twang: "Aside from Jay and Drew and Jonathan ... a tribute to a time when Jews did run comedy."

It's like a comedy theme park, with Tommy Chong on the red carpet with Kevin Nealon, Hugh Hefner, Dick Van Patten and Rob Reiner, and Paula Poundstone stands schmoozing the founder of the first Mort Sahl Fan Club (1956). Septuagenarian Jack Riley, who played Mr. Carlin, the depressed hypochondriac on "The Bob Newhart Show" says he's here "because I need a credit from this century."

Waiting for a urinal in the packed men's room, you can tell which comics have prostate problems.

Richard Lewis turns 60 today and George Carlin made 70 a day before Mort's birthday. Lewis kvetches brilliantly about the billing tonight: "I thought it would be Jay, then Christ, then me."

In his black Nehru shirt, Lewis says he looks "like Capt. Kirk's cantor."

His tribute?

"If not for Mort and Lenny [Bruce], I wouldn't have had 25 years of drug abuse and whoring."

Carlin tells us Sahl saw him in 1960 doing a Mort Sahl impression in a Hollywood coffeehouse between Cosmo Street and Ivar Avenue. Sahl recommended him to the "hungry i" (for "intellectual") in San Francisco, and "onward!"(a Sahl catchword) climbed Carlin.

"I was 21 when I first saw him," says Allen in a taped greeting. "And the minute I saw him, I just thought that there was nothing else that could be done in comedy, and he was just the best thing that I had ever seen."

But one comedian, Albert Brooks, takes the stage somberly. "I'm embarrassed tonight," he says. "And angry. I was told that Mort Sahl passed away."

So Brooks reads a eulogy.

"I remember the last time I saw Mort alive," he says, the laughter building now like something on a classic comedy LP: helpless, extended, tear-filled. "It was at a Starbucks near where I live. And now I wish I'd said the things that I really felt -- how much he influenced all of us here, while he was here. But I didn't. All that I think I said that day was: 'Are you gonna finish that latte?' This should be a lesson to all of us.... And I say, rest in peace my funny man. Rest in peace."

All around the Jerry's Deli spread afterward, are wonderful comedians who can't get smiles off their faces: Fred Willard, Mark Schiff, Rick Overton, Darryl Henriques, Wendy Kamenoff, Paul Krassner, Edie McClurg, Larry Hankin and Barry Diamond.

It was Bart Simpson, quoting the Talmud, who asked: "Who shall bring redemption if not the jesters?" I think of Jan Murray's and Morey Amsterdam's funerals and how fine it is that friends did this while Sahl -- who once said, "You haven't lived until you've died in California" -- is still alive.

"I've been very moved by everybody tonight," Mort told us finally. "I want you to know it really did knock me out. I also want you to know that I'll do it as long as they let me.... When I started this act, although I was just lonesome and looking for a family, in a larger sense I saw it as a rescue mission for America.... But I believe it more than ever, in spite of the odds, that the good guys'll win."

Onward!

Mort Sahl will teach a course in critical thinking at Claremont McKenna College in September.

Hank Rosenfeld assistant teaches at Roosevelt Elementary School in Santa Monica and has written a book with Irving Brecher -- who wrote for Milton Berle, Jack Benny, and the Marx Brothers -- coming from Ben Yehuda Press in 2008.

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Mort Sahl fan tribute

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