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Mort Sahl discusses comedy, social satire, and politics

DURATION: 00:36:44


Mort Sahl discusses comedy, social satire, and politics. Sahl discusses the topics of Communism, Fascism, the Kennedy assassination, and show business.


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Studs Terkel You know, this morning's guest is introduced before he hits the platform of Mr. Kelly's, where he'll be for two weeks in the, in the semidarkness by what seems to be a teenybopper's voice saying, "And now, America's conscience, Mort Sahl." It's an incongruous setting for someone who in a sense might be America's conscience, and is certainly one of our I think most perceptive social critics, though he works, rather than using a column of a newspaper works from the stand of a nightclub and did for a long time over television. That's the story perhaps he could talk about. Mort Sahl. It's about 10 years ago, Mort, that I first met you when you came to Chicago, roughly about 10 years ago, and the question I remember vaguely asking you was, social criticism, political criticism, is the air more free? This is about 10 years ago. I think you replied yes, it was, if I remember it correctly. More free. McCarthy just about was dying.

Mort Sahl Well, that's right, Studs. The -- I saw something curious in Los Angeles, by the way. I saw a man on television say that "McCarthy is dead and we now live in the most exciting era of our time, it has more free speech and everything is wonderful under this administration." The man, Herbert Biberman, who decided everything's all right, he got his movie distributed, "Salt of the Earth," and he decided that everything is wonderful now, which in my eyes is a betrayal of every young man who gets drafted for no good purpose. It's like making a down payment on a house you never live in. What did he go to jail for? You know, today with all those guys -- it's interesting. You not only have this -- the Left is scared to death, Social Democrats are corrupt, and the right is hideous and overbearing. The ex-Left in Los Angeles is really interesting in the industry. They're back. They were repatriated. The price? Not to tell the truth to the audience. I used to get up on the air. You know, one of the things I did, Studs, on my show out there, I used to say to them, "I'm here alone, you all know what's happening to America. You know it's a drastic situation. I need help. I'm up here two hours every week. I need help. Let me know. Where are you?" And we heard from the dean of the Hollywood Ten. He told his daughter, who is very interested in who killed President Kennedy, he said that the Kennedy assassination was a bore. That's what happens to -- those are our radicals.

Studs Terkel So if we can talk perhaps about just the climate today, at -- ten years ago, the feeling you did have, at least I felt that, and maybe I have, is that the air was clearing a little. There seems to have been a turn in the other direction.

Mort Sahl Yes, and it all came from liberals. It's never been worse. They were worth a little bit. They had a little value when they were outside because they could monitor the excesses of a right-wing administration, but not now. They are a right-wing administration, and they'll do anything through a mutuality of interest in the press, etc., the media, and the government to perpetuate this madness. It's never been worse. There is -- if you had President Goldwater, you'd have senators fighting it. You don't have anybody fighting this, and the excesses become worse. I have never seen anybody approach totalitarianism with greater relish than liberals, and the road to fascism is paved with liberal bricks. For everyone out there who says to me, "Well, what about Reagan? What about Nixon?" All those diversions that you present, I say that they were brought, they were brought to us by the liberals deserting us, by them offering the people no alternatives. As I told, I told a fellow today, I did a show with a guy in town today, who said that -- what did he bring to me? He tried, he had another distraction for me. Oh, communism. I said, "I want to thank you for promoting communism, for bringing it faster than it ever would have come, by suppressing people and giving them no hope, and ignoring them, and ignoring their needs around the world and accelerating communism." Fascists have always done it. They incubate their own overthrow.

Studs Terkel You know, Lenny, as you're -- Lenny. That's a very interesting slip. I said Lenny, of course, Lenny Bruce obviously; that's another story. Mort Sahl, the comment you're making obvious to an audience quite strong, and it occurs to me these are the comments you make on the stage, and this is a nightclub audience, perhaps you are the best judge of these audiences, yet persistently there's reaction. There's enthusiastic, there's humor. Could you explain this?

Mort Sahl Yeah. It's because they basically have very decent instincts. They're Americans. And I'll tell you how it works. The tradition of this country is so strong that they can't sell it. I'll tell you something else which is a strong statement, but I'm prepared to document it. Hitler had Germany in his hand for 12 years and he produced the Hitler Youth. Certain fascistic elements in this country have had control of our purse strings and our foreign policy for 22 years since FDR's death, and they can't sell it. They can't sell fascism, because Tom Paine left too strong an imprint in this country, and so did Jefferson, and so did Washington. They just can't swing it. And the irony of our time is symbolized by Vietnam, the stalemate. We're not winning and they're not winning. Just sits there.

Studs Terkel So here we have something very fascinating, 20 years of obviously Cold War seems to be at the core of what this horror is that we seem to be in, this absurdity, and yet you say there's something else here, there's this element of laughter throughout that would be, if anything, non-fascistic, the fact that this laughter.

Mort Sahl Yeah. Well, it's the best parts of the people which are rarely appealed to. It isn't that they lost it, it's just dormant most of the time. There are no entertainers who appeal to that. The basic attitude of most Americans including entertainers is, "I wanna get mine." I don't know who told everybody it's a free ride in this country.

Studs Terkel I'm curious though about, coming back specifically, seeing you now two nights, and by the way, may I suggest to the listeners that this the sharpest I think political, social criticism I've seen, heard, witnessed in a long time, and the audience reacts, you know, very vociferously, and the audience I'm sure many of them would think wholly differently than you do. But there's something about what you do with the feeling they have, as though were in a rudderless, on a rudderless ship in a way.

Mort Sahl The reason for that, Studs, is that a lot of people like me and a lot of people don't like me, but everybody believes me, and I would say to the people who are trying to suppress me, and they are powerful, you're really stupid, because you started 10 years after I started my romance with the American people, and therefore it is not a flirtation. I'm as much in the folklore of this generation as Davy Crockett was in this country, and they can't -- in other words, I am symptomatic. The reason I talked about employment suppression on the air, it's not one guy and whether he builds a bank account, it's symptomatic of the country. My fate is intertwined with that of America for the same reason that the Kennedy death is intertwined with the destiny of all of us. It's symptomatic of what's going on. You can't turn your back on it, not unless you don't want to live your life. And there's some evidence of that. The audience believes me. Now, I tested it on a television show out there. I used to do straight stuff. I did straight speeches.

Studs Terkel And now I think we're coming to something now here, the audience, even though they may disagree with what you're saying, in fact some might say, "Gee, this guy is saying things that are terrible," they believe you are telling the truth. In other words, there's a cynicism here, and probably a resentment of that cynicism that makes it so therefore there's a laughter that's a freeing.

Mort Sahl Yes, and you get it -- you get a tremendous -- you see, I'm expressing what they don't dare to think about, I'm saying it out loud. I'm expressing what they suppress. And when they see the crystallization of their courage, it's a real flight of fancy fot

Studs Terkel For example, this flight of fancy that may be a reality. You said, you speak of your encounter in the White House with the president. At the very end you're saying, "It may not be actual, but it's the truth," and basically this is it, isn't it? The situation is absurd. The line between the real and the surreal is no longer there.

Mort Sahl No, the line is obliterated. I agree with you.

Studs Terkel And so this encounter, which may or may not have taken place, is true.

Mort Sahl Yes. And I think that they recognize that. It has a legitimacy about it. But you're o-- you see that the people are terribly guilty and they have a, they have a -- they don't hear from anybody, because when I come off the stage I see they're suffering from a case of severe overstimulation. I can't turn the people off. They chase me up the street. Then when I hear one of the geniuses of the network talk about "not reaching people," people stop me in Los Angeles and they say, "God bless you." Now, that's not what you say to a comedian.

Studs Terkel Now, perhaps you should be more specific about this. For some time now, you had a show on television in Los Angeles, and one of the criticisms of Mort Sahl has been in the past, and the criticism has been that "He's really a cerebral comedian."

Mort Sahl Yes.

Studs Terkel That "He's good for the few, us few. They don't quite dig him." That's been the criticism levelled at you, hasn't

Mort Sahl That's right.

Studs Terkel Now, why don't you, suppose offer your experience on TV. Your past experiences.

Mort Sahl Well, we had more than an audience there, we had an army. My, I was fired out there and the station got 31000 letters in three days. You had people who truly believe, but just see, you can be misled by living in a show business climate. When I broke with the establishment, I was, I got a lot of trouble within the business, but my audience was huge. I had the number one rated radio show out there, evening radio in Los Angeles, far and away ahead of the rock-n-roll stations, the Top 40. It comes from, I believe the root, is that the audience -- Well, I'm going to see what the best way to say this. Nobody, nobody talks to them and everybody discounts their intelligence and their degree of dedication. I don't discount any of those, plus their guilt and their fear. Living in America now, 1967. The, the show was concerned with their future, whether they're going to live out their years. And so they felt a kinship with that program. You know, they felt I was one of them. So I was never closer to being a special person than when I was with the people. Now, if you got up in the Congress and you broke with your party and said, "End the war," the other senators would ostracize you, but you'd probably have a larger electorate. I'm sure you would. So you can't be misled. A lot of people in show business don't want me to work and see to it that I don't, but I've never been closer to the audience. It's got to be my finest hour, although the most painful.

Studs Terkel Well, let's expand on this a bit. And the reason we will ask about this matter of the blacklisting, which appears to be the case, the reason then you're off is not that you reached too few people, that reached too many perhaps.

Mort Sahl That's right. That's when you become dangerous. I tell you that if I had gotten on a network with the same show I had, I could probably elect someone president. I could see it coming with the audience, because nobody has taken a bite of the apple. They're all asexual, amoral grifters looking to make a buck and retire. That's who on television. I got up and I took a deep breath and told the audience where it's at. And they responded.

Studs Terkel Well, your program then dealt with what might be called what, the unpopular side of major issues, is that it?

Mort Sahl Well, that wasn't all of it. I had, I had four actors, I was a doing sociological political review every week, 40 minutes of sketches usually, had a lot of guests on. But it's true. Mario Savio was on that program, not on the others, and Hoffa's case was considered on my show, not Bobby Kennedy's case, and the assassination? We had Pen Jones, Sylvia Mahr, Mark Lane, Harold Weissberg and eventually Jim Garrison were on my program. So that's the way we went.

Studs Terkel Well, definitely a, definitely it's what you might call this a non-establishments position. Now, you're talking about people in this phra-- I like that phrase, "show biz." Of course, I think the word "business" is the key word there, isn't it? See, "show business," quote unquote, then your -- you say your colleagues in this field would rather you -- why? What is their vested interest? What, why were you a threat to them?

Mort Sahl Well, for one thing, the fantasy of everyone keeping their mouth shut while America's shipped away in a casket in front of them. It's okay if everybody's corrupt, it has a uniformity. These people are so corrupt, I'm the one major entertainer who said, "Wait a minute. That's the same as looking at a desert and when a tree starts to grow, if it offends you, you're like the people in show business: chop down that one tree." The audience in Los Angeles, I mean the show business audience sees me as Moses. Every time they're having a party, you know, Sodom and Gomorrah, I arrive with the scrolls and tell them they're violating the commandments, and they can't stand it. I am their conscience, and they don't like their conscience.

Studs Terkel But as you're talking, though, you said the audience then, then your discovery during your years of a TV show is that you think that audiences have been underestimated, that it is ready for adulthood.

Mort Sahl Of course, and that's why they keep you off. Nobody would be interested in keeping me off if I didn't connect. And they've made a great effort as a result of which now you sort of.

Studs Terkel As a result of which now you sort of -- you work as a free, a freelance man in every respect, then [unintelligible].

Mort Sahl Solo. Alone.

Studs Terkel Maybe the word "free" is the key word here, too.

Mort Sahl I hope so, Studs. It's, it's a battle.

Studs Terkel Mort, can I ask about now -- not one of your secrets in humor: details. In -- when, I'm sure a great many of the listeners will come to Mr. Kelly's, he's here for two more weeks until a week from next Saturday night. Is that right?

Mort Sahl Sunday.

Studs Terkel Sunday night. The encounter in the White House is -- of course, it's hilarious but biting and truthful as you say, though not actual truthful. The details, how do you -- you mind

Mort Sahl More than you know. As a matter of fact I was just kidding the audience when I said "Not actual." I don't think they could live with that. What about the detail?

Studs Terkel How you work on details. I mean, it's the thing, is the -- everything's the vividness in -- I'm asking you now, a humorist's -- it's not comedian, a humorist's secret. It's details, a key thing that makes it come alive, isn't it?

Mort Sahl Yeah. And the big lie is that you could get together a quorum of any comedian who comes to this town and the first thing they'll tell you is, "I'm a college boy with a diploma in my back pocket, and I don't know anything about the humor." The so-called pros have not mastered that. I tell you they're fakes. They're picking the people's pockets. They're not doing the job, and the business is full of them. Every channel is full of them. Every club is full of them. They are corrupt, and I tell you the old Jewish proverb, you know: "The fish stinks from the head" is a literal translation. It's the leadership reflected. The young people have nothing to model themselves after, and show business is possibly the worst group of all. They're really something. When the net dropped on me, you should have seen the cowardice in Los Angeles. All my good friends stopped talking to me. Afraid they'd get in the line of fire. When the question is, what is the net? What's the capital crime? Telling the people the truth.

Studs Terkel So something happens here to people again. I like that word "show business" very much, I mean the, I like that word. Then it's a business. It's not so much entertainment

Mort Sahl -- It isn't as genuine as a business. Capitalism connotes a genuine transaction. This is not value received here. This is people trying to sneak by with minimal gifts. And I have no tolerance

Studs Terkel We come back to what makes Mort Sahl, too, this is now, we're talking now about Mort Sahl's situation and his stand on issues, now we come to Mort Sahl the social -- obviously, it seems clear that the social critic has less room than he's had before.

Mort Sahl It's never been worse. This is much worse than McCarthy, because no one will come to your defense. The Ed Murrow who helped John Henry Faulk is no longer available. There's nothing here. There's nothing to stop them from taking you out and sterilizing you. There's no conscience. You, when you bring logic to people, and they say, "I can't accept that," I knew America was going insane. The Kennedy case is a splendid example of our time. I can't accept that that could happen, therefore it didn't? I want to remind the listeners that Kennedy had to accept it. He didn't have our option.

Studs Terkel What do you mean, he didn't have our option?

Mort Sahl I mean that when the conspiracy acted to kill him for reasons best known to itself, that he couldn't stand up in the car and put his head back together and say, "Well, nobody would want to kill the president. It was a lonely fellow in the school book depository." I come to all the liberals now and I tell them the evidence I found in this case, and they say, "Well, come on, I can't believe that" -- it always, that's the preface, "I can't believe." A man stood up in New Orleans, the district attorney, he took his oath of office seriously, and he said, "I'm going to move regardless of the consequences," and for taking on the federal government, he was called an opportunist and it was said he was crazy, and everybody got it -- right in line. Who did? "The Washington Post," "The New York Post," all the liberals. If I had one request left to me today in my cell, I'd say, "Send me a Republican who wants to do business. They're the last honest men." The -- you know, because the middle and the left in this country are a joke and a hideous one on the people.

Studs Terkel You know, as you listen, the audience, to Le-- there again, you see, to Mort Sahl speaking, I think of Lenny Bruce. I hope you don't mind the comparison. Two different humorists entirely, and both had one thing in common. Each one was speaking a truth in his own way. In the case of Bruce, there were other problems of course, but nonetheless there was a little crucifixion that took place because, not because of the words so much as a certain truth he was offering. In your case, your approach is different than his, yet you both, you're saying the same -- it seems to be you're on the, on the same length that he is, generally. Talking about morally, you see and as a result of which you have to find yourself alone, don't you? Or do you have to find

Mort Sahl Well, you've got the people, you know, you never, you'll never be alone in that sense. But you know, people are going to have to line up with me or they better start digging their graves, because I tell you all, you've got to save America. There is no place to hide. And while it may be suspect, I'm afraid I'm going to have to quote Stalin, who said, "There's no land on the other side of the Volga. You must hold Stalingrad, you've got to hold it here." There's no place to go. You can't go to England or Cuba. You've got to live here, and you've got to save this. It takes a peculiar kind of genius to ruin this, because this is almost a foolproof idea, this country. But it ain't a free ride. Got to do something to reinforce it.

Studs Terkel So the material you use then is the material of life, of the newspapers that you see, obviously speaking a half-truth and then the people you meet or you find are saying something you feel has an aspect of truth to it, and this is your material on stage, which [gives you?] a wholly different kind of -- and we call it entertainment. It's interesting. The fact is, it is, isn't it? The fact is it is to the audience that listens

Mort Sahl Well, the irony is that it's funnier than anything else. You know, the funny thing is that I became a comedian, that's the most hilarious part of all of it. But, the comedians aren't funny. But they all do know something about me in this business that they will not own up to. Last night I watched a television show, Allen and Rossi were on it, and they said, "You know why Mort Sahl is in trouble?" And they volunteered the premise, "Because he went too far politically and he only showed one side." Well, how do they know I'm in trouble? What have they heard? When the net dropped on me, nobody warned me, now, you know there's a lot of guys I don't like, but if a tractor were heading their way, I think I'd warn them. But there are a lot of people who profess to like me, and nobody warned me, and nobody stood up. Nobody. You know, from Marlon Brando to Bill Cosby, all groups included, nobody wanted to say a word. There are very powerful forces in this country that want to silence me, and I warn everybody that what goes with me is a heck of a lot more than me. It all goes if I go, 'cause I'm the last soldier in this, in this particular fray. And the last American in Los Angeles, I can tell you that. I am, it's amazing that when they try to devour the country, these forces I refer to, the irony is that they choke on guys like me who repeat back to them syllable for syllable what they handed to me cynically, which are the speeches on the Fourth of July. Well, I believe them. They always choke on that guy who believes what they said about America. They were merchandising it, and I took it seriously. I think the country's better than some of the people that are manipulating it.

Studs Terkel This last thing you just said is int-- and this, explain the, even though this is an audience that is of a certain economic bracket generally that comes to a club, the audience saw you on TV was broader. You feel that the audience itself, or the people of the country are much more, much more hip than they're given credit

Mort Sahl I always thought that. And they've never let me down. I've been working for 14 years on that premise. They must, they must -- well, of course the role of the artist in society could be an hour by itself. But I think we're in a drastic time, I think we're really in a war here, and I don't know whether we're going to make it. I just know that everybody has got to try. You know, the big thing is you've got to get involved, and you've got to get involved with your brother's problems. And as Jim Garrison told me, you know, Eichmann is not a monster. He's the monster next door. It's all too common. And he said that should there be a nuclear holocaust and we look around and we see a skull on the street and a rat climbs into the eye socket and rummages around where the gray matter once was and takes his turn at evolution, what will they say about man? Will they say, "Where is your infinite jest and where is your splendid indifference now?" Or when I hear people say ridiculous things like, "Well, everyone's too affluent and fat to care," they're -- it's not, that's not too, too accurate. It -- this thing isn't going to go on forever. Three people in the world aren't going to go hungry so that your wife can go to the doctor with a weight problem.

Studs Terkel You know what? You're just touching on something that may be the, also part of that core of that apple that you're biting into, the forbidden apple in this instance, is the banality. You know, the weight problem there. Banality. This has become part of the order of the day, isn't it? As a result of which everything else becomes secondary, doesn't it? Or everything equals in insignificance to that. A life, a program, say, of life and death, an occasional program with a commercial in between.

Mort Sahl Well of course,

Studs Terkel Makes the

Mort Sahl Yeah. And of course that condition is the legacy of the way we've been living our lives. Now, I talked to a girl last night, and she said to me, she talked to it like, "Politics are my abberation. Like, that's my hobby." She's not interested in that, she's interested in men. There aren't any men. And I reminded her there are no men because they kill them every year. So actually there's no separatism. Politics are very much her business, because they're doing away with her future. I'm surprised that more young ladies don't want to know why they're shipping away the eligibles to Vietnam, why they don't protest it, because their life is what's at stake. And I don't think the cloak of patriotism fools too many people, being the last refuge of scoundrels.

Studs Terkel That's -- I'm coming back to this banality. I don't know how else to -- I know what it is. Mort, Mort Sahl, the subjects that cause humor and laughter would never have done this 15 years ago, maybe not even ten years ago, the subjects you choose are pretty grim subjects, it would seem, and yet there is incredible laughter. How would you explain that?

Mort Sahl Well, it's a chance to sum it up and strike back. Don't forget, each man is a slave. They think these things and they don't dare to say them. This is a great country for double-think, you know. Hubert Humphrey is a success in our society. What does that mean? It means that he works all day at things he doesn't believe in. Everybody knows. You say, "I think we should be in this war," and at home you plot how to beat the physical so you won't be drafted. Everybody wears two hats in this country, and I suggest to you that it's renting them apart. It's tearing them in half, like the wishbone, because they don't believe what they're doing. They're all operating at two levels. What they think is acceptable and what's in their secret crevices of their heart, so their hearts. So that's why when I say it on the stage, they recognize it, there's something compelling about art and about truth. I don't have just virtue on my side, I have some skill even though they want to take that away, too. They want to confiscate that along with my rights.

Studs Terkel That said, let's -- before you rest up at least five minutes before you go out again down below, there are two programs, two shows a night at Mr. Kelly's, a little vital statistic might be in order here. I want to ask you about the art for a moment and the connection with your life. It's two shows a night. It's dark when, on Monday nights?

Mort Sahl Never.

Studs Terkel Never. Oh, seven, so -- it's seven nights a week, two shows a night, one at nine and later, until the 30th. To see Mort Sahl. Now, art, and you -- you've been talking about you yourself and, and life in the mid-20th century in America, this most affluent of all societies, Great Society. Yet you would not -- you would not be what you are unless there's a certain skill here, and if we could just dwell on this for a moment. The skill that you have. It's every, everything you read or hear in a sense becomes grist for your comical mill, the hysterical mill.

Mort Sahl Yeah. And you know, because of the difficulty I've had the last couple of years, I've been forced into a kind of warlike position. I think we're in trouble here, and we're going to fight. So you know, as I approach you and say these things, it may sound like I've abandoned the art form, but I'm like a guy who you meet in the war. We're both in the war and so you know, "Captain, I'm Sergeant So-and-so, and I operate a flamethrower, but at home I was a student. Well, of course I'm really a comedian at home, but I kind of picked up a gun because we're in a war, and I hope to win the right if we're victorious to go home and be funny again." Yeah, it's all grist. I read the papers and I digest them and I talk about it, and the fact that I've raised so much hell that people discuss me continually, they do, you know, obsessively, especially in California, proves how far we've strayed, because there should be 100 guys like me, and it should be recognized as a tradition. There's nothing that unusual about me. Twain wasn't unusual. I, when I watch a guy like Suskind presenting Twain and patting himself on the back for it, Suskind runs from me like a thief, scared to death. But of course he bought in, too. He's in the establishment. He talks a lot about Negroes learning the word "patience," and there's nothing wrong with killing Indonesians if it stops communism, and Lyndon Johnson is a great man, and all the things that he told me he didn't believe once.

Studs Terkel Well, then we come to banality again, if I may, just if we could dismiss what he represent -- I think "banality" may be the word here. But back to, Sahl. The audience. Have you sensed this in 10 years? Is your audience a younger audience? I'm curious.

Mort Sahl They didn't seem like it tonight. We get a lot of kids. The kids are great. They are not corrupted yet. It's happening earlier and earlier, you know. I can find corrupt people at 25 now. New sophistication.

Studs Terkel Happens quickly, huh? Quick sophistication.

Mort Sahl Great Society, it's going around killing -- it's eating its young. And you know the only social comment we have? Marshall McLuhan. He comes along with a bunch of obscure remarks about communication, and people consider that a 20th century philosopher, which says a great deal.

Studs Terkel When this program is over, I'll tell you a McLuhan story that is too long for now, I have to [unintelligible] in this conversation. But coming back to the young, though, do you find -- it's interesting, though corruption comes earlier, you also find a new development there, too, among the young, don't you? A morally

Mort Sahl Well, they're not allowed to dream. It's a big luxury, Studs, they don't get that anymore. There's a shock of recognition immediately: that is, that their parents are a joke. That's their first recognition. They don't want to join up, they're not activists, a lot of them. I don't blame them. Would you want to join this? I sure wouldn't.

Studs Terkel And so it's a dropping out deliberately to form their own world, whatever it might be. You're talking now about hippies.

Mort Sahl They haven't done anything yet, it hasn't been crystallized, God knows.

Studs Terkel Isn't it both, isn't, isn't, aren't the young both a minority of some kids who are activists, anti-establishment, as against the great many. Haven't you observed this in California? A great many who don't take an interest either way, and then those who are the

Mort Sahl Yeah, that's the interesting thing, see, that -- we don't produ-- we're not psychologically -- well, no. We're not culturally prepared to produ-- you know, it's not an ordered society like the Germans. We can't produce Fascists. We produce people who don't believe in that or this. They're all mixed up, they're having a nervous breakdown, because they taught one thing and then they're asked to become something else. They don't really go to Vietnam with a vengeance. They go 'cause they have to. So it's, I would say the society is very inefficient. If in 22 years you can't sell militarism.

Studs Terkel Well, this is one of the good aspects, isn't it?

Mort Sahl Yeah, but we don't give me credit for that. Tom Jefferson does. I liked

Studs Terkel Where does that leave us now?

Mort Sahl We have to save America, man. We have to save America. This is it. You've got to make a decision for America. If your parents sent you through school, you would pay them back and they'd have your gratitude. You've got to do something for America, now you had, Miss Liberty is having a tough night. She's running a fever, and you got to sit up with her because you owe her that. That's what it's about.

Studs Terkel You know this is interesting, this is, this is Mort Sahl just as ascerbic as he was 10 years ago, perhaps sharper, I'd say, considerably sharper, but there's one big difference in this ten-year interval, in the conversation that I've seen you between and once or twice. And that's perhaps it is your experience and this television program you had that has made you all the, how can I put it? All the more --outspoken isn't the word, more, more sharp perhaps, more keen.

Mort Sahl Well, I had a lot of, I had a lot of exposure to the people that -- but I've been denied so many ways, you know, I have to hang on to my sanity because I was famous and they told me I was obscure, and I'm gifted and they told me I had no talent, and I'm successful in reaching other people in a common cause and I was told that no one cares, even when I hear people yelling for help on the other side of the wall, and I have to hang on, and I hung on by saying, "They need me, they need me, those kids need me. Somebody's got to talk to them." That's how I hung on. And before I was fired on the radio out there, I said to the kids the night before, I said, "I'm here as long as you need me. It isn't easy to work here, but if I disappear, it will not be voluntary." And then the station with its customary brilliance fired me. But I'll tell you, there's more of us than there are of them, and if they arrest us, they're going to have to keep arresting us because there aren't enough jails to arrest everybody who sees through this sham. The truth is the truth, and that's all there is, and you can't rationalize and you can't be flippant and/or facile and work your way out of it. It will come out, and I hope that there will be a groundswell of public opinion as these facts emerge in this country that will make us clean house and give the country back to the people. It's as plain as that. The value -- I'll give you an example. The value of the New Orleans trials based on my, what I witnessed down there when I met the D.A., is that Kennedy will serve in death as he served in life. That is to say, the -- when people see what has happened to their country, how far it drifted away from them, they will take it in hand and then they will give their kids a boost up, they'll give them a chance to grow up as the [Irishman?] himself says, to grow up in the country you were born in. Which is not guaranteed at this time. It's not a free ride and you can't delegate it to your legislator.

Studs Terkel As Mort Sahl is talking, the audience might say, "Well, where's the comedian here? Where's the humorist?"

Mort Sahl Yeah, I guess they could, Studs.

Studs Terkel See, this is no, this is the moralist talking. But the fact is maybe the line of demarcation when someone who is a true wit and humorist as Twain is, that he is also a moralist, certainly this case of Mark Twain. Perhaps the difference between say, someone like Twain or Mort Sahl, whose technique is oral rather than written, and say Will Rogers, Will Rogers was never really anti-establishment.

Mort Sahl He was one of them. You know, Studs, that, you know that question that used to stop that show dead out there. I'd look at guys sometimes and I'd say to them, "What do you believe in?" And that question would stop the conversation. I guess it isn't put to people very often. Obviously. I don't know how you make out here personally, I don't know if you have a lot of people to talk to, but there aren't too many people to talk to out there. I have a very tough time, and I can almost tell when I'm close to the truth, because they put their hands over their ears in effect, symbolically, they say, "I don't know what you're talking about. You're a malcontent." Well, that's not true. That's when I know I'm getting closer. You know, there are two kinds of people in our society: there are the ignorant, and you've got a good chance with them, because kids come into school ignorant, you can open their eyes. That's your job as a teacher. And then there are the willfully blind: "I can't accept what you're saying. Are you suggesting? Well, Mr. Sahl, if what you say is true," which means that, you know, they hope it isn't, but their hoping ain't going to do it. Won't turn the trick.

Studs Terkel Perhaps they come back to what Mort said earlier during the conversation, that even people may be shocked by what he says and disagree, there's laughter because they know basically what he says is true. Anyway, but although there's been very little laughter during this conversation, there is laughter at Kelly's, quite obviously

Mort Sahl One of the problems in getting some laughs, Studs, and I say this by way of passing, I've done several interviews here in town and I've noticed that the interviews aren't funny. My contribution. There also has to do with the dialogue. The guys aren't funny with me. I've noticed that part of this era of so-called information and controversy and expressing yourself means that Americans, who are guilty about killing people in other countries, have insulated themselves not with the principles in this country, but with a set of slogans, bumper stickers if you will. "Stokely Carmichael is a malcontent." "We've got to stop the communist conspiracy." "The Israelis we should borrow a leaf from them, we should stand up and fight for what we believe in, too." All of the free world. A series of slogans. It's like wearing a paper shirt. It won't help you against the elements. It's madness. And when people hit me with that, then of course I feel I'm obliged to refute it, because we're better than that, man. America is better than that. At least those of you who have a good memory can bear me out.

Studs Terkel Well, it's a conditioned cliche that Mort Sahl opposes, and something very unconditioned and very uncliche is here at Mr. Kelly's suggest that listeners attend, and, and the laughter comes strangely enough, the laughter out of truth. Well, that -- everything. Mort Sahl, thank you very much. Anything else you'd care to say before you wash up for your second show tonight?

Mort Sahl Let's see.

Studs Terkel Any -- last -- when I say "last words," I don't mean final words. Last words [unintelligible].

Mort Sahl Yeah, I'd like a cigarette and a blindfold. I, well, gee I guess we really hit them kind of hard, didn't we? We really laid people out. But I almost talk to you that way, you know, when I see you, because I consider you a pure guy, you know, and I feel I can, I can tell you what I think, and you know, what's particularly on my, on my mind, because people don't generally converse with me, they come to me with a set of defenses. You know, most people are terribly loyal to their neuroses. They look upon it a necessary appendage, you see, you know, "This is what I'm hung up with, and don't you dare take it away from me." "You really wouldn't miss it if you got rid of it." But it's -- Freud was partially right. But it's -- when I was in Los Angeles, like to tell you t his. When I was in L.A., they had a Cedar Sinai doctors got together and a doctor got up from Loyola University, is a Roman Catholic of course, and he talked to the Jewish doctors and he said, "I look at you and I wonder where are our Oppenheimers, our Salks, our Einsteins and our Moshe Dayans." I'm sorry that a general is considered in that company, and it proves once again that any nation can be bitten by that virus. The fact of the matter is, our country has a lot of Moshe Dayans, we have General LeMays and General Westmorelands, we got more than we need in my opinion. It's too bad, but it'll show you that the Germans aren't genetically inferior, merely insane for a period in history.

Studs Terkel I think that's a, that's a good sign. I like that. Talk about the man in the Hathaway shirt. I think that's good that [way? we?] -- thank you very much, Mort Sahl.