Mort Sahl discusses comedy, social satire, politics, and humorists
BROADCAST: Feb. 17, 1960 | DURATION: 00:36:35
Mort Sahl the comedian discusses comedy, social satire, and humorists. He discusses the difference between sick humor and social commentary. He discusses politics in America. Includes a speech by humorist Will Rogers towards the end of the program.
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Studs Terkel Now, much is being made of American humor today, the trend of humorous and much nonsense is being said these days, too. And of course, the name of one comes to mind immediately: Mort Sahl, who is if nothing else certainly provocative. Sahl's territory is not the usual one of--he's not a creature of gag men. The mother-in-law jokes, the divorce jokes or the TV personality jokes may be part now and then if he does use them, to integrate it as part of something. He comments on the scene. Mort, often you're asked the question, Mort Sahl is our guest this morning. And often the question is asked of Mort Sahl, I know one that he tires of much, I'm sure. You represent a new kind of humorist, and the misused phrase, "sick" is used here. It's as much of a cliché now as the word "Beat." What's your feeling when you're told you're a new kind of humorist?
Mort Sahl Well, you know, Studs, first of all, if I represent a new kind, where are the others? Let's get back to that. You know. If it's a new trend, I'm pretty lonely for a guy who's part of a movement. I just came back from Cuba, and when I was there I saw people who actually found a form of escape in sublimating [tape whirring] to a greater cause. In this country all we know is subjectivity. So, they know what it is not to be lonely. However, there's nothing new about this. It's an American tradition, and it's a pretty sad commentary on our time that anyone who pursues a traditional role is considered radical. You know, I mean from the norm. So it's traditional. My God, Mark Twain was doing it a long time ago. And better.
Studs Terkel Well, since you've brought up Mark Twain, it seems there's an old tradition in which the true humorist, and certainly you're in that category, chooses targets that are not clay pigeons. That is, the more formidable a target it seems, the more lasting the humor. Twain writing of Huck in a slave society really ripped the pants off slavery at the time through his boy Huck. Mr. Dooley at the time of the McKinley administration was ripping the heck out of expansion at the time.
Mort Sahl Well, you know, Studs, one of the ironies of our time, and I say this at the risk of sounding pedantic and I don't want to become too scholarly, but I go into this at this depth because I'm in a role of justifying myself perpetually. One of the ironies is that you can go on the stage and be spec--that is, to be generally cynical about the entire human condition and not even entertain hope for our future as human beings, and you'll be considered a good wholesome all-around red-blooded comedian. If you are specifically cynical about institutions that aren't worthy, you are then called "sick" and "negative," and it's always interesting if you accuse anyone of cynicism they always say, "I'm being realistic." One word can, you know, it's a conditioned response. But I--that's one of the ironies is that if you're--this extreme, I want to point out, you know people go from--you see people. For instance, I was just on the coast, and gag writers, who work in television, which they consider mass media and are turning out saccharine family comedy, had a stag dinner. When they went to the stag dinner, they all became profane. That was their degree of release. I mean, they didn't tell the truth, but their reaction against years of oppression is to degrade themselves rather than those who oppress them. So it means they went from a saccharine ignoring of the facts to the other extreme of obscenity. But they never once came in contact with the truth. So sort of a magnetic polarity.
Studs Terkel Interesting comment you're making here. This is to me a very telling one, that when a comic, so-called whether he's a creature of his writers or whether his stuff is original, is cynical all the way and almost his gag is somewhat sadistic, too. He's quite all right, is accepted, but as in your case when you pinpoint certain false values, you're called--you're put in the category of "sick," quote unquote.
Mort Sahl Yeah, then you're negative, see. In other words it's the same thing. A guy gets up and wastes your time for half an hour, a comedian. He talks about his mother-in-law, and he gives you all these fictitious situations: his wife makes him mow the lawn when he would rather be getting a cat-nap. And all these, these false situations in living and he is not--then, if anyone comes along and says something of any content, he says "They have a message." He has a message, too. Anybody who opens his mouth has a message. It's just that some messages are worthy than, more worthy than others. I would think.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking of this phrase, the phrase "sick," and I start thinking, you know, a lunatic sometimes, always thinks other people are nuts, you know. Isn't that so? And so people who use the phrase "sick" about a certain humor that's pungent, apparently their own values are the ones that are challenged, so we must suspect their values are somewhat sick.
Mort Sahl Well, of course, you know that goes back to, to any kind of smear. People start categorizing. They stratify where there's no category, which is unfortunate, but I've never--there's much, there's a different humor. You know, there's a difference between sick humor and social commentary, and social commentary, you know, one performer will open the doors of a church to expose what he thinks is exploitation of a people's faith, and another guy will open the doors merely to paint a mustache on a Madonna, because that's how he gets his kicks.
Studs Terkel I think that people would like to know, Mort, if not trade secrets, but your approach as a humorist. We speak of your newspaper. How do you--without giving away trade secrets. Is there an approach you use, say, each evening?
Mort Sahl Oh sure. It's a--I'll tell anything I know. I'm ignorant in a lot of these areas, too. You know, it's just a synthesis. I read as many papers as I can get my hands on, because of a basic curiosity, not because I'm well-disciplined in my work by any means. And then the jokes grow from night to night. It's liable to be anything, but it starts like--I'll tell you the way an area will grow, just as an example. Now, it started initially with perhaps one Republican candidate says that Jack Kennedy is a Catholic. And so the joke will grow, in other words, he comes out and he says, "Why doesn't Kennedy take a stand on birth control?" So I said to the audience, "Kennedy has not taken a stand on birth control, but I think there are more important issues than birth control that are facing us." So that got, you know, really nothing, but then that grew from night to night to a point where, in three weeks it had become this: this well-organized, oddly enough. It mushroomed to "Well, I see that one candidate said that Jack Kennedy is a Catholic. And he read other bulletins through the evening. Then he said, "Let's face the fact that being a Catholic will condition Kennedy's behavior." And then I pointed out to the audience that that wasn't necessarily true, because Vice President Nixon is a Quaker and it hasn't conditioned his necessarily. And then we go from that to the point that someone comes up to me and says, "What you think about birth control?" I say, "I don't think about that at all, I'm thinking about disarmament most of the time is a major issue." And then I point out that maybe ignoring the issue of birth control is a traditional role with men, so we can't relate that politically, and then if that doesn't go anywhere, I take a further avenue, you see it goes a million ways, that I'm thinking about disarmament. And when--I'm thinking about the hydrogen bomb, and a girl comes up to me and says, "Do you think a Catholic can be president?" And I say, "Oh sure, if we're here." And then I, you know, then we're off with the hydrogen bomb and then I finally wind it up with Kennedy saying, "Please accept me as a senator, not on the basis of my faith. In other words, as far as I'm concerned, the hereafter is taken care of, but November is driving me out of my mind." And it just goes on like that. You know, you can just go.
Studs Terkel So there's one basic idea. And from this you expand and sometimes the news of the day, of the following day may lead
Mort Sahl Or you may, you may hit a dead end. For instance, with this submarine off Argentina, I had a hard time because the audience does not seem to care about it. I realize they're taken up with Jack Paar and other anxieties. But I began to think that this submarine--what if the submarine turned out to be ours? Well, that got no laugh, but I finally resolved it last night, as a matter of fact, by saying that it certainly isn't one of ours, because our fleet is committed to Trujillo. And [laughs].
Studs Terkel I think the, the--it's the pungency of your comments I think that, that, to me will I feel give it a lasting quality. I suppose the question often asked you is the nature of heckling. This is every comic, comic as such, I call you a humorist--
Mort Sahl That's all right, I'm not insulted.
Studs Terkel No, I think there's a--as a comic artist, W.C. Fields let's say is a comic artist--
Studs Terkel Now, he's the, he's the character, whereas you are the commentator. Am I right in drawing this line?
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Mort Sahl You know, I haven't cultivated any skills as a comedian per se at all, you know.
Studs Terkel Yet you are acting. I think you are becoming--
Mort Sahl Yes, more and more. I'm freeing myself a little. With the help of Sandy Meisner and a couple of other people.
Studs Terkel Oh, you're studying what we call "the Method," I suppose. A much overused phrase here, too.
Mort Sahl I'm not really. You know, we had a meeting out on the coast, the Actors Studio is trying to raise funds and they recruited me along with some other people to help them. I thought it was a worthy cause, I went to the meeting and Lee Strasberg cautioned everybody, he said, "When soliciting funds," he said, "Please do not answer anyone who asks you what the Method is," he said, "You'll alienate them immediately." Well, not actually, but I th--getting back to what you were saying. I think that, yeah, there are hecklers. There aren't many, though. Golly, there aren't many. I'll bet there haven't been a half a dozen in a year. I think it's, it's essential to point out that a really conservative person does not heckle. What they do, what you get usually is a bigot. The kind of person who says, "Shut up" even if 400 people want to hear it. Minority rule, which is not foreign, foreign matter to a bigot. I would say this, though, about conservatism. You know, I was working on a script of a television show recently, and we were constructing my adversary in the script. I was sitting around with the writers, and we decided he should be everything that I'm not, he's of another generation, and he's an extremely conservative person and he's not a freethinker and he's narrow, but I wanted him to have some definition as a character beyond being against the hero, me in this case. I wanted, I wanted our lack of communication to reside in the fact that I think my way from my time and he can't understand it, but it's the only way I can live. And conversely, I can't accept him because he has grown up in a tradition of conservatism and it works for him. That's what he is, and that's the hard part for me to accept is that it works for him. I don't think it can work for the underlings, but it works for him, and I think that's important.
Studs Terkel There's something I want to come back to, something you've said earlier.
Mort Sahl Yes.
Studs Terkel The cynical approach that is accepted.
Mort Sahl Yeah.
Studs Terkel And so it is your call to send it--and yet you're not--but I like--well, I personally like about your approach is that there is affirmation underneath all this.
Mort Sahl Well, of course there is, and there's a--the same way, you know, someone talks about girls, and I talked about girls on Lee Vogel's show recently, you know the new Chez show, and we talked about women, and I--you know, the initial reaction is, everybody says I'm bitter. Why am I bitter? Because I am inundated by a literal sea of women and I can't find the one I'm looking for. I hope to, though, or obviously I wouldn't take the trouble. You know, it's like the nihilist who wrote the book, he must have cared about something or he wouldn't have written the book. A classic collegiate example. Of course, you know, you cannot--my affirmation is implicit. I'm happy to hear you say that, because I was attacked on NBC once by Van Doren. You know. The star of "The Price Was Right", who said, who said, that I'm against everything, I'm not for anything, and that's why I would never rank with Will Rogers. Well, I don't, I'm--all right, so I won't rank with Will Rogers, that's fine, but nevertheless, you know, if you're against, you know, bomb tests you must be for something. I think that's the legacy of the Eisenhower years. You're against segregation, but you're not necessarily for integration. You're in the middle. The man in the middle, you know? I'd use it, but it's probably a Graham Greene title
Studs Terkel You brought something up here. Affirmation and someone said you're not in the category of Will Rogers; to me, and I don't mean to denigrate the memory of Mr. Rogers, something of a--I think the legend should be separated from the fact. Will Rogers never really attacked targets that were--how should I--that were clay pigeons, really. His subjects as a record--I wish perhaps we could play part of this if Jim could get it here. Just as an example, and again without any purpose of destroying the legend, but I think the fact and the legend should be separated. His subjects were divorce, were prohibition, but he lived in a certain era that was full of a great deal of Twainy and Mr. Dooley kind of humor and yet never once did--
Mort Sahl Of course. In other words, when he said the United States is the only country that will go to the poorhouse in a new car or something, it's nice to laugh but it reminds me of--I don't know what it does socially as far as a corrective condition, it's like the people who say to me, I say, "What about the police scandal?" And people say, "Oh, you'll, you find that in every era," when people say to me, when they don't lament a condition; in other words, I don't expect them to go out in mobs in the street and riot, and I don't want anybody to recall the mayor. But when they'd, when they'd state a condition and they don't lament it, they don't exactly rejoice in it, but it's as if they were, they were looking for an affirmation, to use your word again, so that they can exist at that level. It's the same people who, even before the press attacked Castro, they said to me, "He's not so perfect. No one is." Because if anyone is, that will raise the level, and I will have to adhere to the new level. It's better to think that everyone is corrupt. It's easier than forcing the issue. That's very unfortunate, because when someone walks up to me and says, as they did last night, "It's a dog-eat-dog world," but they said it almost as if, "Well, now we know the rules. Now, let's go to work." Instead of saying it with some degree of lament. These kind of general arguments, you know, about--in other words, you make a joke about the fact that women are full of vagaries. Well, you know, you should be throwing your hands up or at least be a little frustrated, not just rejoice in it, because that's truly being a spectator.
Studs Terkel I don't want to leave this subject yet.
Studs Terkel You know, something you just said here about, people almost liking, you're hitting, I think, a key here to our malaise. People liking the little corruptions because their own lives then don't have to be altered or their values, except maybe cockeyed don't have to be changed.
Mort Sahl Remember, you know, people--people say, "Well, who do you meet?" You know they're kidding about I don't meet a cross-section of America, in other words, "Mort, you're looking for the perfect woman. Have you looked everywhere? You're really in the nightclub business," and to kid myself I say, "Yes, I've looked everywhere. From one end of the bar to the other." But the truth is that I do meet more than, than the people at the bar. I meet all kinds of people. These people go all the way from--you know, as we were talking about, you know, the McCarthyites all the way through the jaded ex-left wing. As a matter of fact, the man who attacked Castro the most vehemently was not his natural born enemies, which are the extreme right wing, of course, but a blacklisted writer in Hollywood who was convinced that the world has come to an end. And you know, I don't, I don't know what torture he went through. I can't imagine, because I'm not in his age bracket or his group, but I should think that you know, that there was a time when he would have looked at a guy like Castro as a guiding light. And today he's saying, "He'll sell out. Everyone does."
Studs Terkel So from one form of idealism to extreme cynicism.
Mort Sahl Well, sure, it's an unrequited idealism. So it went to cynicism, and boy, cynicism is the word, Studs, it's, it is all about us, except it's mislabeled. When someone says to Eisenhower at this press conference today, you know, "What are we going to do about the missile gap with the Russians?" he then says, "Don't be cynical about America. You know, we have to live in the faith that we can triumph." Well, you know, a lot of people forget things about this country. One of the opportunities that's being muffed I gather in Washington is that this is probably the only country in history which can straighten itself out, no matter what the calamity, without violent overthrow. We have a very flexible form of government which was set up by some pretty bright guys like, I suppose Jefferson and Paine, that group. There are probably more great men in this--more localized area probably since Greece. That many great men in one area. But I hate to see the opportunity blown, you know, it--I mean 'cause it's blown for all of us collectively. He's always talking about, you know, "We have to have faith," and, which is fine. It's on your postmark and everything, but that doesn't help. There's a--you know, anyway, the degree of corruption now relates to the word "survival," and it isn't a joke anymore. You can't--in other words, you can't be a spectator. You can't stand by and make jokes like these kind of jokes that, you know, that stereotype that congressmen talk but don't do anything. Everybody talks as if, "Well, they'll always do that." What about police corruption? "Well, they'll always be corruption." There is no always! And there is no second chances, Mr. Schulberg said many years ago. In "The Disenchanted". Africa asked for a chance and nobody gave it to them, so they're taking it now from what I read.
Studs Terkel What I suspected, Mort. You are a moralist. You are.
Mort Sahl I am? That's the first I've ever been accused of that.
Studs Terkel I was thinking, did you see--this is not unrelated. There was a play by the Swiss writer Durrenmatt, "The Visit". "The Visit" seemingly outwardly a cynical play, yet not. This man who spoke of the ease in which people, good people, are corrupted and live with it. Durrenmatt is a man of nobility. Here he is, he's saying it doesn't, shouldn't be this way, in the sense what you are saying. If I may--
Mort Sahl Yeah.
Studs Terkel Have, draw this conclusion. You are pinpointing some of our ailments and saying that it doesn't have to be corrupt. We don't have to kill each
Mort Sahl When I walk into a social situation and I have to apologize for saying, you know, I have to--I really have to defend remarks like "Man is a noble animal." When I have to defend that, then you know where we are, and you know, people are looking and nobo--I can't find anyone who thinks straight. They talk about, you know, they say--I was at a party Saturday night, a cocktail party. What was the purpose of the party? I don't know. Reminds me of when Herb Shriner used to say, "We held a party to raise funds for liquor for the next party." That's what it sounds like. That's a cocktail party and we're talking about Castro, and people say, He can't push the United States around." See, now they're talking nationalistically. All right, fine. They're going to go to war over what he said about America. They say. By the way, I feel that if they went to war with Castro he'll be in an even stronger position, because if the United States annexed Cuba, Castro could really criticize Eisenhower with impunity because he'd be a Southern governor. Right? I spoke Spanish, I'd tell him that. That's where the real freedom resides. But here, you know, and they say, ah, I'm--they say, "He can't say that about us." Then I say something about him, then they say, "Well, he expropriated the sugar plantations." Now they're talking in terms of economic determination, then they say, "If he's going to push us around," now they're talking as Americans again in a patriotic sense, "We should apply economic sanctions." Now, that's not very heroic for a person who's really angry about national pride. They're gonna to apply economic sanctions. So now they're talking that way again. Then, so I said to one of them, "Well, you know, find out how you're going to go down there. Are you going to go down as a Marine sending the flag, or are you going to go down as a, as a, an employee of the United Fruit Company? Decide, you know, where your values are." I mean, talk about one thing at a time, but the fact that no one can think on one track--you know, being single-minded isn't so bad. People say it as a kind of a criticism.
Studs Terkel So there's certainly a health, there's certainly a health that you exude, and an answer to those who use the word "sickness," and I want to ask something, I think this has, I hope it has a happy answer. Your most enthusiastic audience, is it among the young? Among students? I mean, is there, can you draw a line somewhere here?
Mort Sahl Well, you know I did that concert at Northwestern a couple of weeks ago and we had 8000 people who were really listening, but there were a lot of faculty people in the audience, too. And I wouldn't attempt to stratify the audience. I think that it's everywhere. Let's say that the kids have had more exposure, but it's a big kick to go into the Chez, you know, and have people, you know, who are not quotes "my people" react.
Studs Terkel Here's a point: I think you brought something new up now. You're at the Chez Paree. I think we should make this point clear: Mort Sahl is at the Chez Paree until when?
Mort Sahl Twenty-seventh until--
Studs Terkel Until the 27th. This is a club that by quote unquote "intellectuals" is not considered a center of great stimulation. Now, what--I know people in the trade, nightclub editors have been wondering what the reaction would be of people who have, have been accustomed to Jerry Lewis and Danny Thomas and Sophie Tucker.
Mort Sahl It
Mort Sahl It goes back to the same thing, Studs. They're not given a chance. Now, because of that, because of that cultism again. It's like, the last night I was interviewed by a kid who said to me, he has an FM show, and he said to me, "Well, you know, I didn't think people would understand you here, and all these remarks about the low level of taste," but not as a lament, remember, and not as a complaint, because after all he's removed from it. You know. So in other words, people are, according to him people are ignorant, the norm. He then told me he mentioned in one breath the recent scandals in Washington with the disc jockeys who were paid to play rock-n-roll, paid to build a Frankenstein monster. Then he said to me, "Well, you've got to cater to public taste. They were playing what people want." Well, why were they bribed? If people wanted. Why were they bribed to play certain records? They can't relate it to public taste. In other words, you know, they decide what people want and then they feed it to them arbitrarily. I decided what I thought they wanted, and I--my own theorem has always been that people don't want anything. If you're fighting anything, it's apathy, and you can bring them up as well as down. You can do anything you want. I always talk up to them. That's been my approach. And it works. I mean, they don't--they seem to be ready and more than ready. And the critics--it's amazing. I don't look down on the audience, but the critics do, which I think is significant.
Studs Terkel Often it's said of your humor, "We like Mort Sahl," as they said of a recent candidate for president not too long ago. "We like Mort Sahl, but they wouldn't understand him."
Mort Sahl Yeah, well, that's it, you know, that's a typical--I made a virtue out of that, see. Instead of a handicap. I've twisted that into a virtue, because it gets people in, they think they're the only ones who understand it. But it's unfortunate, because if a person is a true believer, they would want to communicate. When I first started following Dave Brubeck, I was an evangelist on his behalf. And when more and more people bought his records, I thought that was a triumph for taste. In this country it's immediately interpreted that he must have diluted his offering or he wouldn't be popular.
Studs Terkel Of course, you find--
Mort Sahl And this is a democracy. Let's remember. Let's announce that on the quarter-hour.
Studs Terkel Particularly in jazz. And since you mention Brubeck, you find the cultists, those who possess this man, and will not allow him outside.
Mort Sahl There's a good article in the "Downbeat" yearbook. There's a, well, if you can wade through it, there's a conversation between Bill Russo and some other people, but Russo makes a cardinal point here, and we should make this clear to the jazzniks, because there's a terrible thing going on in jazz now, which we ought to get into someday between the Jim Crow people and the Crow Jim people, there's a terrible gulf between the races. But there's a point which Russo makes in there. Now, just as the, as the so-called stand-up Borscht Belt comedians have accused me of being an egghead and not communicating with people and "Why don't you entertain people and don't give them messages?" This is a very interesting. Russo has been accused of formalizing composition and not playing for people. Now, he answered that by saying, instead of justifying himself and saying, "Yes, I may only be, you know, fall in the trap, say, I only play to a minority but they enjoy it." He didn't say that. He said, "Any work of art will communicate to all people." And he pointed out that no one was exposed to Michelangelo no matter how ignorant who didn't get something out of it. He said that the real cultists were these so-called commercial people, who lay down hard-and-fast rules and play for one another, but create a climate of social ostracism as a threat so that you are forced to accept what they're doing, which is a hostile message and has very little content. And I believe that to be true. They are the cultists and they discriminate on the worst basis of all: social ostracism rather than, you know, status-seeking rather than on a level of content. And he is correct, of course.
Studs Terkel And just what Bill Russo has said and done, but you are proving in this vast in this big nightclub Chez Paree--
Studs Terkel People of all, all backgrounds, no matter--they need no esoteric training here.
Mort Sahl Well, of course, you know, and there's--
Studs Terkel Communication.
Mort Sahl A certain validity to the truth. And believe me, I will discard it soon enough if it doesn't play on the stage, but let the audience be the jury. You know? It's just as arbitrary to have a disc jockey telling people what they can hear or a jazz critic, as to say that I should, you know, certainly Mr. Halpert doesn't ask me to type up my material for this evening and submit it to him. That's the funny part, that's become the freest form, Kenton said to me, you know, I just finished 11 weeks with Stan in California, and Stan said to me, he says, "You're doing what the churches should do." He says, "You're standing up there and you're preaching, and nightclubs have become the temples." Which is odd enough, isn't it? But if the people come, I would say that that qualifies.
Studs Terkel Again, this, this leads us back to the original question as to what is humor, humor is as you're practicing it today, that your humor is not new, it's just been discarded unfortunately, or not been practiced too long.
Mort Sahl No, of course not. You know, Americans--people used to think we can laugh at ourselves, but we've got a long way to disproving that lately.
Studs Terkel Touch on this point if you will, this matter of laughing at yourself. This--you--well, it's pretty obvious that we've lost a great deal of this capacity in the past 15 years or so.
Mort Sahl To laugh at ourselves? Well, the whole image is incorrect. You know that, for instance, when we don't admit any mistakes and when we do admit a mistake, it's admitted in that--we have a new stereotype in this country, it's you know that kind of ugly American kind of ambassador? It's kind of a fellow full of goodwill, but he just can't communicate with people. There's a good collegiate term, communique. Now that's a joke you can do for college people but wouldn't necessarily play too well anywhere else, is "Eisenhower said, 'I know more about missiles than anyone alive.' So the problem must be that he can't communicate." Right? That's--well, anyway. But here you've got--you know, this idea of the American ambassador's running around and he's kind of a naive young fellow with a barrel full of money and he helps everybody but they don't care about him because foreigners are cynical. That's ridiculous. In other words, it's more than a mistake. There are certain, you know, there are economic royalists in this country who put us in the jackpot we're in, and I don't--you know, I certainly don't go along with that, you know, "We tried and where did we go wrong?" What is that? I mean, you, you know where a marriage is going, you don't turn around to a woman after five or ten years and say, "What happened to us?" What is that? You know. You can tell.
Studs Terkel 'Way back I was about to start a Will Rogers recording here if we may, just, just to hear part of this. I think this deals with the traditional, not humor, traditional joke. Let's hear part
Will Rogers You know, these talking machines are great things. When you come to a theater or movies to see some of us, and you don't like our act, you just kind of out of courtesy you have to stick and see it through, but on one of these if you don't like us, you just stop the machine, take the record off, and accidentally drop it on the floor. Then the only annoyance we cause you is sweeping up. Now, folks, all I know is just what little news I read every day in the papers. I see where another wife out on Long Island near New York just shot her husband. Season opened a month earlier this year. Prohibition caused all this. There's just as many husbands shot at in the old days, but women were missing them. Prohibition's improved their marksmanship 90%. Never a day passes in New York without some innocent bystander being shot. You just stand around this town long enough and be innocent, and somebody's going to shoot you. One day there was four shot. That's the best shooting ever done in this town. Hard to find four innocent people in New York, even if you don't stop to shoot them.
Studs Terkel I think that just gives us an idea.
Mort Sahl Now, he is a wholesome commentator on the American scene and he made great levity out of people shooting one another. Lenny Bruce is supposed to be the dean of the sick comics. Two weeks ago in Miami, I heard Lenny say, "A despondent intellectual who thought the world was going to hell is on the ledge of a hotel." And Lenny went on to tell, how--this is considered prime sick humor today, was condemned for this, by the way. This guy's on the ledge and a policeman goes up to talk him out of committing suicide. And since this intellectual is quite a reasonable man and knows that the world is going to hell, he reasons with the policeman and soon the policeman joins him on the ledge, and soon he has all people out on the ledge, hundreds of them, and he's trying to keep them in line and get them organized and unionized and so forth. So I ask you, you know, there are your values. Sick humor. Joey Bishop and Jan Murray, who are both genuine comedians, wholesome fellows, critics of the new school, use terms like, "I hit one of those things in traffic the other day. What is it? A kid." Funny? And as far as that goes, Joey Adams, the president of our union, wrote a book and he's had a lot to say I understand over the years about sick comedians who shouldn't be irreverent about the president and the pope, as Lenny Bruce was I gather in one of his records, and so forth, and yet he entitled his book about comedians "It takes one to know one," and the connotation of that title is somewhat suspect. So you see, it's not so exclusive, is it?
Studs Terkel Here we come to this--an earlier question again of those who are quick to use the phrase "sick humor" about someone who challenges them. Someone who does not conform to the accepted pattern today. And then you wonder about the values of the one who uses the phrase "sick humor."
Mort Sahl Well, we're becoming a more responsible nation. There are a lot of people today, you know, and if you use political material, they say, "Well, I don't know what you believe in, but you sound a little bit like a little red to me." They'll say that or "A little pink." So we're more responsible. Ten years ago, they would have said, you know, "You are." But today they, you know--
Studs Terkel Progress!
Mort Sahl Today, yes. I think they're becoming more responsible as a group. But boy, it's, it's really--it's really kind of amazing. I mean, the fact that in some ways it's amazing and nothing has been done over the years, and in some ways it's amazing that anything has been done, you know. It's a double-edged--
Studs Terkel I know it's probably too soon to draw conclusions in regard to your audience, the nature of it, but I was thinking, I'm coming back again, you were at Northwestern last Saturday night. You said there were 6000 students.
Mort Sahl Eight.
Mort Sahl Eight thousand students. Yes,
Studs Terkel And I know that you're very popular in many quarters but especially on the campuses of the country. Do you feel--I don't mean this to be a leading question.
Mort Sahl No.
Studs Terkel Do you feel there's a note of hope in this?
Mort Sahl Oh, sure I do. I--you know, I, I say it to the kids, too. You know, I think it's essential that they have concern. They care about the world they're in, they think it's worth saving, and they're not being fed much, you know. I mean, don't forget that it's true that they're kind of apathetic, but they're not being given much and what are they asked to do? For instance, they're asked to go in the army when most people aren't going. It's not a general condition. It's not a rah-rah situation. And most of all, they don't have leadership. We had a thing, you know, when we went to war, even though I didn't know the values. If I were young, when I was, when the first time I went in the army I was 15, but I looked around and I saw, there was Roosevelt. And I thought to myself, you know, if the old man is angry about this, there must be something to it! They don't have that. You know, they don't, they--you know, like leadership! You know, it's a kind of a cliche, but there
Studs Terkel Some would even say passion. Passion is missing, perhaps. The bland. It's called the bland generation.
Mort Sahl You know. Well, it is. I mean, but you know, where are they going to--the thing I try to say to all of them is, you know, "Be your own man. That's what dissent means. Hang onto yourself. Don't give it away. Don't give it away to become, you know, a pre-med or to get married or to justify yourself to your parents," or, you know, in other words, a norm isn't worth joining. That's what I try to tell them. In other words, don't, you know, put your chin up and they say, "I bet you don't approve of fraternities, Mr. Sahl," they almost always say that to me wherever I go. Well, you know, don't, you know, say "I took a stand. It's going to be hard and I'm going to be lonely, you know, during rush week, but I'm not going to join because they discriminate." Don't do that. Just reason about it. Say, "It's very dull, and if I want to eat with somebody I'll choose them on another basis other than Greek letters," and that it's boring, and if it isn't boring, join it! But I mean, I try to get to them, you know, in a--I try to get to them in a very primitive--I mean, a prime sense, not on a high level of principles. In other words, that it is stupid to stay up all night and drive 600 miles to go to the game in another city. Like it, what is it worth? And if it is worth something, okay. I don't, I don't mind if their drives are even carnal, as long as they have some. You know?
Studs Terkel Mort
Mort Sahl It shouldn't be derivative.
Studs Terkel You know, you've just given us the core, I think, of your, of your approach. The phrase you used, "Be your own man." I think this, to me as we've been talking here, in a land of the rugged individual, you're saying "Be your own man," so I can't think of a humor that is more native than yours. And I'm happy to hear you say that you are affirmative. I suspected this. You are of course.
Mort Sahl I, listen, I'm, you know, very happy to talk about the things I am affirmative about, but you know, it's interesting how you get to--I was talking about sports cars on the stage one night, which are one of the things I'm affirmative about, prime values, but little things come up which may sound negative but they're just revealing. I was pointing out what a car means to a man. Now, this is where you get to an area where a joke really hits, but there's no reaction. Here, this is an anti-male joke I'm going to tell and the men think you've betrayed them, and the women hate a man who's perceptive. They really do, you know, because that's their province. You know, you're putting them out of work--
Studs Terkel You're anti-woman.
Mort Sahl It never occurs to them that I stole all lines from a woman anyway, but that's all right. It's like a--so you have nobody. That leaves nobody. It has to do with, I was waxing on about sports cars, I never did get to the joke, because this occurred to me. You know, the guy's talking about the suspension and the response of the steering and the acceleration and all the values of driving a car like that that really responds on the road, and after he gives it all in detail, he says, "How else are you going to get sexual satisfaction?" Which is very accurate.
Studs Terkel Mort Sahl. Humorist. I think that's the most apt phrase to, to use, and now at the Chez Paree until March--27th.
Mort Sahl Right.
Studs Terkel Wishful thinking on my part, I'm sure.
Mort Sahl One month's as good as the other.
Studs Terkel February 27th. And again if I may return to the phrase to describe--what is to me Mort Sahl's humor, "Be your own man." On that note, Mort, thank you for letting us have your thoughts and thank you for speaking your thoughts where you do.
Mort Sahl It's good to be with you, Studs. Back in the city again.