May 21, 2013
Mort Sahl and Mr. Fish on Clinton, Communism and Heroes
Posted on Sep 9, 2007
By Mr. Fish
If legendary comedian Mort Sahl felled his one-millionth diseased tree of cultural lethargy and political disingenuousness in the vast and ever-expanding forest of American megalomania and Wikipedia wasn’t there to acknowledge it, would anybody know to give a crap?
To quote Ambrose Bierce, an inventor is “a person who makes an ingenious arrangement of wheels, levers and springs, and believes it civilization.”
So then what does it mean to our concept of civilization when our primary source of information gathering, the Internet, informs us through its preeminent encyclopedia, Wikipedia, that Mort Sahl deserves an entry that is roughly the same size as those for Miracle Whip and Joe Piscopo and only half the size of the entries for flatulence and hard-boiled eggs?
This, after all, is Mort Sahl, the Hugh Hefner of political satire and social commentary. If journalism is the first draft of history, he has proven with his public eviscerations of the national news for 50 years (and counting) to be one of history’s most invaluable and dedicated proofreaders. It means that civilization is more or less anything we do and the monkeys don’t. In other words, if evolution were really the process of our retaining only those characteristics most useful to the betterment of the species and the disregarding of all that is useless and nonsensical, then there would never have been the emergence of the Atomic Age, “Godfather III,” a Caucasian Jesus, breech-loading weaponry, compassionate conservatism or the pubic toupee.
Tired of thinking several Tuesdays ago, I sought out the company of somebody who I knew would be willing to do some thinking for me; somebody who had previously, both in person and on LP, taken hold of the other end of the piano, so to speak, and helped me move it into a brighter room. A real honestagoodness player whose music drifting out my window made me considerably more beautiful to the world.
Sitting at Fabrocini’s Italian restaurant in Bel Air, I try to wipe what turns out to be an existential fog from my glasses with the hem of my T-shirt while ordering a spinach salad and a triple espresso from a beleaguered waiter. Sitting across from me is Mort Sahl, whose eyes are as bright as freshly sharpened pencils and whose eyebrows are perpetually knitted as if life were an impossibly itchy sweater that needed to be unraveled and turned back into yarn and returned to the sheep. He drinks water and glances through the New York Times.
Mr. Fish: I was listening to your 1960 recording “Mort Sahl at the Hungry i” on my way over here and I was stuck by how, when you were talking about the FBI infiltrating protests at college campuses and posing as students in order to disrupt what might otherwise be orderly gatherings, the audience seemed shocked and unsure as to whether or not you were joking.
Mort Sahl: Sure, I remember.
Mr. Fish: It was fascinating because nowadays, with agencies like the NSA, everybody automatically assumes that they’re being spied on, that we don’t even have to leave our homes anymore to be infiltrated by the FBI. The shock today might be that the government isn’t listening in on you.
Sahl: You know, [General Michael] Hayden used to be NSA, now he runs the CIA—he was going to be on Larry King and all week long they ran promos during the day (impersonating Larry King), “Michael Hayden and your phones!” (Laughs) I bet, I’m sure.
Mr. Fish: See, that’s what I mean—that’s such a great joke, a good inadvertent joke. Where is satire today? How does a satirist get work when all you have to do to create satire is report the news with a straight face?
Sahl: You have to see it as a joke, that should be the first thing—you have to recognize the humor of the situation, plus you need to perceive the irony of why it’s funny. Liberals see the irony, but they’re too self-righteous to laugh about it. They’d rather remain serious about it because they prefer tragedy to humor.
Mr. Fish: Because tragedy has political application, while humor can’t be used as a hot potato to throw in the other guy’s lap. Both sides do it.
Sahl: That’s right. But the Democrats have to start doing something other than just to repeat over and over that they’re not Republicans. They feel powerful now because they think the Republicans have painted themselves into a corner and [the Democrats] are the only ones we can vote for.
Mr. Fish: Are you at all frustrated by [Barack] Obama’s recent public displays of toughness, his willingness to bomb Pakistan and Iran, etc.?
Sahl: Obama is a black guy made in the lab by white guys. Again, it’s about [Democratic] virtue, “We’re going to nominate a black man.” Look who they pick—they didn’t exactly pick Paul Robeson or Malcolm X. Or it’s like with Hillary Clinton. She says, “Believe me, I won’t let the war go on!” What reason is there to believe her? She’s running on the entitlement ticket. It isn’t enough that we had [Bill Clinton], now we have to have her? Has everybody forgotten that he went into Kosovo and that he bombed civilians in Yugoslavia? I mean, his presidency wasn’t exactly a high time in America—maybe for the stock market. But getting back to Obama, Bill Bradley just the other day referred to him as a rock star. What kind of an appraisal is that? It’s not even a good parallel—how often do rocks stars have anything to do with music, not the music industry, but music? It’s vaudeville.
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