Mort Sahl discusses his career in comedy and paranoia in politics
BROADCAST: Aug. 11, 1983 | DURATION: 00:51:34
Humorist and commentator Mort Sahl talks with Studs Terkel on the roof of Sahl’s Chicago hotel. The two briefly discuss Lenny Bruce’s legacy, but Sahl is quick to discuss a topic he brings up frequently in this interview: American’s criticism of “paranoia” and the U.S. government’s power to persuade. Sahl criticizes his young audiences for being uneducated and discuss the United State’s involvement in the Vietnam War. He also speaks briefly on liberals in Chicago, calling them weak for supporting Daley. Women’s liberation is debated, and Stahl criticized women for calling men the enemy, while Terkel corrects him for pushing the blame on women. They discuss the ups-and-downs of Stahl’s career and how his political beliefs often alienate his friends and audiences. At the end, Terkel previews his next interview with British novelist Doris Lessing.
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Studs Terkel This is a, an early program, the one you're about to hear, one of the early conversations with Mort Sahl during his appearances, one of his appearance, in Chicago a good number of years ago. And so Mort Sahl's reflections in a moment after this message. [pause in recording] You know, seated on the roof of the hotel where Mort Sahl is staying at the moment while appearing at Mister Kelly's, I couldn't help but think that the play Lenny is a smash in New York. It's about Lenny Bruce, but Lenny Bruce is dead. It's tribute to him, but when he was alive, there was little tribute to him.
Studs Terkel Mort, in a sense, though their approaches are wholly different, the outlook may be somewhat similar. Are your thoughts, I know about live humorists and dead humorists, and some being safe and some unsafe.
Mort Sahl Well, Studs, you know the -- James Whitmore is coming back to recreate Will Rogers for us. And then, of course, there's Cliff Gorman doing Lenny, there's a movie about Lenny called Dirty Mouth, another, yet another memorial in heavy italics. And then there's a, a, there's Hal Holbrook doing Mark Twain, except wouldn't -- we know as much about the way Mark Twain sounded as we do Howard Hughes, but all of this is at arm's length, and it's often produced by people who will not let anyone talk about the contemporary scene. They openly censor people who talk about the contemporary scene and they only want to go along with the power structure, which is evanescent these days in America. And I, I remember that we couldn't get Lenny Bruce a job at the Gate of Horn in Chicago because he offended the judges, so -- and not to speak of the police, the sensibilities of the police because of profanity. I think that there are a group of self-serving liberals who have chosen to, to eulogize him for themselves and not for him. He, he was not about profanity. What he was about was a sham. He was not a prophet. He was a comedian. I mean, there's nothing prophetic about remarks like "There's a disparity between how we idealize our parents and what they actually are." I mean, most of us know that when we're 15 or at the end of a psychoanalysis at the latest. But that hardly seems like insight. Lenny Bruce would have a tough time today keeping up with a college audience.
Studs Terkel Yeah, I'm thinking as you're talking about changes. Let's come back to Mort Sahl, we'll come back to changes in a moment, yourself and college audiences. Since your comments are as sharp as ever, there has to be a way of putting someone down with a sharp -- as often you've been accused of sharp comments [laughing]-- the word "paranoia," see, certain people suspect certain things happening would say, "Well, he's paranoid," and this phrase has been used, obviously in reference to you. Paranoia. What, what does that mean when people use that word?
Mort Sahl Well, I personally will take credit right now. This is the only accolade I want on my headstone, is that I have, I erased the word paranoia from the dictionary. I think America in general, could do with a good deal more paranoia. I think that the greatest trick that was pulled off by the Central Intelligence Agency was to thoroughly exercise thought control in America and to establish themselves as a force in the media, as the dominant force, and yet to masquerade as an espionage agency in the service of the very people they control. I remember that when Bertrand Russell said there were massacres in Vietnam perpetrated by Americans, he was called paranoiac in 1961 during the so-called pacification program, something that Daniel Ellsberg took part in. He -- they say he was in the pacification program. I gather that means he worked for the Central Intelligence Agency. It's a euphemism. Pacification, in other words, to subdue, to kill if necessary in order to convert. Not much different from the Crusades, and just about as beneficial. Paranoia. The first time I went to New Orleans, assigned by Metro Media Television to find out what the district attorney, Jim Garrison, had to say in 1966, and I brought back a favorable report, I was the only member of the press who did, I was then called a paranoiac. But today we find that 88% of the American people do not believe the Warren Report. The district attorney of Los Angeles does not believe that Sirhan Sirhan was, was the sole assassin of Robert Kennedy. We find that, Ellsberg says, we are not to believe the government, and the government's only answer is to classify papers, which are largely illegal, and which reflect on their usurping of authority which is not legitimately theirs. And we're called -- we're told, so I would say that there's been a closure, as the surgeons say, between my paranoia and the facts. All I'm worried about is not whether I'm called paranoiac, but whether the American people find out in time to save this country. I can't believe that the dream of Valley Forge is going to end like this, with a bunch of people throwing up their hands.
Studs Terkel You're a humorist. You are very funny. By the way, there's a great deal of laughter in, for an hour and a half or so Mort Sahl holds forth on the stage of Mister Kelly's, and for the hour and a half where everyone's enthralled, there's a great deal of laughter, at the same time, the laughter suddenly stops, you know.
Mort Sahl Yeah, well, the, the laughter, of course, is a skill I developed over the last 18 years to produ -- to provoke the laughter. And that's my, that's my essential job. It's the primary job. But the fact is, there's something going on in America, the people are being bombarded. And before they're driven insane or insensible, they're pretty desensitized now, for that matter, they've got to, I just want them to take a good look around them and assess the situation to decide whether they want to die or not. And not altruistically, very selfishly, because I think that just might save the country before the American dream becomes a complete nightmare, you know, because they've done everything for a buck, and as the man said, as Scratch says in The Devil and Daniel Webster, when the guy says, "I have everything, but I'm not happy," he says, "Well, nobody said anything about happiness, Mr. Stone."
Studs Terkel So we're talking, not so much happiness as about sanity, too, aren't we? We're talking about the acceptance of something. Let's go back. It's your 24th appearance now in Chicago at Kelly's, and in those 24 appearances, much has happened. You said if Lenny Bruce were to come back today, of course he naturally, he would have be -- would have been developing himself. The changes that have occurred, you play campuses a great deal.
Mort Sahl Yeah, almost universally now. I do the nightclubs in the summer when school is closed. The kids don't use the word paranoiac, by the way, they don't talk about that. They of course, are in danger, too, of being anesthetized. I'm sure all those people get out of law school, they're gonna join up. The question is, will there be anything to join? Because the Achilles' heel of this society is its economy. If there are riots in the streets in America, they won't be Black men rioting. They'll be white men from the aerospace industry in hard hats with American flags on the side kicking in the windows of television stores, taking what they think is theirs, their rights because they've had a party for 25 years while the rest of the world has been raped. In a sense, this has been Berlin until the Russians arrived which is fascinating, except we did it to ourselves. It's an inside job here. We let too much power be deposited in Washington in the hands of the military and domestic intelligence agencies. The state and the local, the community level has no meaning to people in terms of their day-to-day lives in America. They have no power over their own destiny. In fact, I dare say we don't live in the same country we were born in. Now, Theodore Sorensen, the venerable aide to John Kennedy and recent attorney for General Motors, defending them against Nader's action, which, of course, was settled out of court, Ted Sorensen says there's been too much power in Washington. He blames it on Roosevelt. That's because he thinks he can be elected that way. I think that Sorenson as an example of the corruption. I think that Sorenson and perhaps four out of 10 aides to Ted Kennedy are parts of the warfare state. When I talk about the warfare state I'm talking about various industries. I have a map at home, it doesn't say Seattle, it says Boeing. It doesn't say Los Angeles, it says Lockheed. It doesn't say Fort Worth, it says [Ling Temco Vott?]. As part of the warfare state, they purposely misadvised him, and they decided that he would not make a president. When Daniel Ellsberg comes on The Dick Cavett Show and tells the American people on 200 television stations or more that Rostow and Bundy told Kennedy to go into Vietnam, they don't add that Kennedy refused to, and that he died, and he died with 14,000 men in Vietnam, and his successor put in 550,000. They don't ever mention that. They don't mention that beyond the Pentagon Papers, all the papers having to do with his death that show that Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon deeply involved remain in the archives, that they could be released by a new president.
Studs Terkel Now Mort, I know that you show a deep, you have a deep feeling for Kennedy. I know this, you know, and if I may just, for the moment, slightly disagree with you, you know, that what Ellsberg is showing, not of what many of us have known, that the whole war in Indochina began with Truman. That Kennedy was not guiltless, either. This is the point. Now, the guilt was compounded as it went along, you know. Maybe he would -- perhaps this is the point, if I could, if I could just use, since you knew him, was it that he himself now was seeing, toward the last days before assassination, that something was wrong, and it was that seeing that something was wrong that got the CIA mad and
Mort Sahl Studs, President Kennedy was the only roadblock in the 25-year, 25 years of madness of the Cold War which culminated in a, a major land war in Asia. When he saw where they were taking him, he resisted it. In the October 2nd Pentagon Paper, Kenneth O'Donnell says in his presence that he told Secretary McNamara to remove everyone from Vietnam. He would -- his execution was ordered because he would not go along, and I think it's one of the great ironies of our time that the men who squeezed that trigger had more in common with his father than they did with the son. He opposed that war and he was murdered for it. And I will want to document this before we, you know, we spend all our time speculating. Garrison's book from Putnam and Son, which was published at the request of Bertrand Russell, it's called The Heritage of Stone, and details the president's involvement in trying to de-escalate the madness along with Khrushchev, who also was removed by generals. I want to use that as documentation, and I also want to use O'Donnell's forthcoming book, although no one will rise to defend the president, I think that people will see that in detail, although we prob -- we probably can't telescope it here in the time we have. The president was an obstacle to the land war, and he died because of the finest thing he ever did, which was not to be seduced by the madness. Fourteen thousand men to 550,000 men. He said France was, he, and to me in the presence of Elmo Roper, he said, "France is -- well, not only we'll not aid France, France is both morally and financially corrupt, but the important part is morally." He said, "It is their war." He summoned the South Vietnamese ambassador to his office, and he said, "I can't justify to the American people supporting gangsters." Two weeks ago on the Today show, S. L. A. Marshall, General S. L. A. Marshall, told Hugh Downs that after the Bay of Pigs, the military were intent upon recapturing their honor by going into Asia. Although the president did not agree. Robert Kennedy told Khruschev on the hotline, "We're going to have to say abusive things to you over the Cuban missile crisis, or the generals will take the country away from my brother." That's a quote.
Studs Terkel Well this, by the way, is something that I remember, I know that I.F. Stone has also referred to, this question of it being a political venture, rather than a military venture. The whole Cuban missile crisis, the very nature of it. An election was involved, too.
Mort Sahl But was used, was eventually used to de-escalate. That's why the president was booed by the anti-Castro Cubans in the stadium in Miami, and that's why Cubans were used in his -- were used actually to execute
Studs Terkel In getting back to yourself, I was about to say Lenny Bruce, isn't that funny? Mort Sahl, getting back to Mort Sahl, yourself as a commentator, humorist dash commentator on the American scene. What do you sense an audience to play to -- well, there are two different audiences. There's a nightclub audience and there's a campus audience. Do they have something in common?
Mort Sahl Yeah, of cour -- well, what's happened is the, the people are being radicalized by the revelations that are coming, and they're coming. Make no mistake about it. It's not Germany yet. It's coming down. But the, the campus audiences of course, they're not as threatened as the other audiences, because they have nothing to lose. They have no property. I don't know how long they'll be that way. I hope a long time. But they're very humanistic. They're very humanistic. They're extremely worried. They're also -- they have their shortcomings. They're ahistorical. They don't know anything. They're not taught anything in our schools. They don't know the difference between the presidents that were their friends and the presidents that weren't. They're not told anything. There are very few of them that know anything about American history. They don't know who Tom Paine was. They're not sure who Washington was, or his role, or
Studs Terkel How'd this break come about? That's the whole point of -- I can speak as far as the Depression is concerned because of the work. Didn't it? But this break, it's not just the Depression, it's almost every -- some, ev -- it's almost every generation that preceded theirs, something unknown. You -- I know you find this in jazz, you find it in rock, you find it in folk, and they don't know who these other guys were.
Mort Sahl No, there is no continuity, you see, and I excuse their, their pessimism, you know, because they have terrible cynicism. You know, it's not very becoming at 18, but I think one of the major problems is that they have no models. When Gene McCarthy and Bob Kennedy went to those campuses, those kids weren't nearly as salty as they are now, and there was no gap. Even though Gene McCarthy was 52 and Bobby was 42, because they looked like they meant it. There was a degree of hope, even if it hadn't been documented yet. As of now, they don't respect anybody in the next generation, so their clothing and their music and their humor run to mockery. They don't see anything worth following. You know, there ain't anybody like Roosevelt around.
Studs Terkel So I'm thinking about yourself now, you then as this commentator yourself, because many of your stories are very personal. And, no you, that is, those, you've been part of something. You've been there at the moment something -- and those stories are almost metaphorical. They're funny stories, but they tell us more than what happened at that moment, too. And also you, as you talk, and I've seen you talk about this, the free association. And you always come back to the theme. This has always been your approach,
Mort Sahl Well, yes, you know, you know, Studs, I don't think that any of the events, and this may be the important, most important thing we talk about today, I don't think any of the events are isolated. In other words, when I introduce the assassination into this subject, I mean into this conversation, I did it, the first assassination, because I believe it was a tributary to a major land war. It resulted in a land war. In other words, I don't think one man died. I think optimism died in people who weren't born yet, and I think that untold millions died of starvation in Asia. I know that 700,000 South Vietnamese died, and I believe about 85,000 American boys died. They would not have died if there was a president there who had stopped that war. There also wouldn't be a lot of money in the bank for the warfare state, which is a euphemism I use for the so-called military industrial complex because it's become a cliche. Except unfortunately, as Harold Dickey's pointed out, you know, there's great truth in generalizations. At any rate, the, these aren't isolated events. When we look and we see drug addiction, those people are not members of a free society working to legalize pot. What they really are, are casualties, who can't stand to hear the sounds of their time. Every time we read of a 19-year-old suicide, and there are far too many in the major cities, especially these days, those people are casualties. Choice was taken away from them. Life didn't look like it was worth living. In other words, it's taken its toll of all of us, and I ask the audience, "Was it worth it?" "Was it worth it?" Because look about you. As Thomas Wolfe said, "The enemy is blind compulsive greed, and if you don't believe me, look around you and see what he has done." There it is.
Mort Sahl Those are the ones you got to be careful of, especially the spontaneous, the spontaneous friends. You know, consistency counts for a lot. That's why I have a lot of respect for you. You know, you don't revolve. You don't take polls and change your position. You know, your humanity is, is pretty constant.
Mort Sahl Well, yeah well, listen, that's all right. You know, stubbornness in this case, you know, I've seen loyalty become a fault in people because it's done them in fatally. But stubbornness and righteous indignation are, are wholly justified, and I think they're keys to survival. After all, you've preserved your state of mind. You're not easily shaken by the bombs that go off around you. And you're quite an unusual man in that respect. The book was great, by the
Mort Sahl And Garrison's book are the three books of the year for me. I was really, really amazed. I was amazed about Chicagoans with Mike's book, by the way. You know, they say to me, liberals generally, they say, "Well, there's really nothing new there, except somehow no one ever put it down before." [laughing]
Studs Terkel Many of them of course, and many of those very same ones voted for him for the fifth term, saying, "Well, he keeps this city going," that's, you should be aware, since Mike's book was written at the time, Mike knew this of course, the, all four newspaper editorials came out in favor of the re-election of Daley, and the invariable sentence in the editorial was, "he keeps things going," or "the trains run on time." Rather than
Studs Terkel And the truth is, they don't run on time anyway. I don't know if they did under Mussolini, but it's rather interesting, the phrase "he keeps it going," and things go on time, which I think is interesting, isn't it?
Mort Sahl Well, I -- the fact that he has survived and, as a matter what, what propagated, I mean this is a good sign. I haven't found anybody like him in the rest of the country, and I've been everywhere. Most of them are very programmed, and yet the newspaper men I find much better than the television newsmen. They're unbelievable.
Mort Sahl Yeah.
Mort Sahl Yeah.
Mort Sahl Well, we'll work out, eh? Work outside from the core of the apple. Well, first of all, here, of course, the -- all the liberals I've seen in the North side, the Near North, those people who were living in those one-room apartments waiting to be completed, moving into those apartments before they move to Evanston. Those people who were working in advertising agencies and worried about buying contemporary furniture on Oak Street and used to patronize Second City and applauded every time Second City hit the target, which was often then, sociologically. In other words, the dilemma of metropolitan man. Well, they went through a change. When Kennedy came along he was like a movie star and he politicized the atmosphere for them. But their staying power was not too great. I find that when a man is killed, they are frozen. This, by the way, with the exception of Cesar Chavez, this is all movements. Chavez has a great legacy. He can be killed and the movement will go on. It's in, genetically in every person in the movement, and I really think he's a genius to bring that about. Of course, he's only fighting on one front. A president fights on many. These people went from being progressives, really worried about minority groups in a humanistic way, to supporting the mayor because he can control the Black population. If you believe you can put a, a lid on Mount Etna as it's about to erupt. But they don't say anything about improving the lot of their fellow man. In other words, in 17 years, they've come up with the answer when you say, "Well, I hear the same cries of anguish. They're almost magnified." They say, "Well, have you tried putting your fingers in your ears?" That's what they have come -- that's how they've developed. They now say they -- they've drawn within themselves. They go to art galleries now. They appreciate visual art, and they have, they're not -- they talk about -- what they do is they discredit their own side so that they will not be called upon to be warriors. In other words, if I go into the Solomon Cooper drugstore, one of them will stop me inevitably, and instead of telling me something about Nixon, which he normally would do, they're normally Democrats, at least they claim to be with Mayor Daley. And he claims to be. They turn around and they say to me, "Boy, did you see Teddy Kennedy cop out?" And of course, if Teddy Kennedy is not a worthwhile leader, then there's no reason for them to do battle for him. In other words, you could be a deserter from an army that isn't worth belonging to. He's the czar and they are Russian soldiers in 1917, and their taste of course has changed in the arts, too. If we see the motion pictures that they subsidize, we've gone from the militants of John Garfield and Paul Muni to the impotence of Woody Allen, Elliot Gould, Richard Benjamin and other people who would have you believe
Mort Sahl No, your point's well, your point is well-taken. The point is, it's the romance of the great American road, but by God, the Beat generation at least wrote a few books. These guys don't even burn them. I mean, they just keep running. They just keep running. And they seem to be driving in their motorcycles in concentric circles. They make a wonderful argument for women's lib, much better than the women can make. They show the men as being impotent. And when I say impotence, of course, Studs, you know, I'm using it in an amplified sense, not as sexuality. But the fact that the man will not leave a male imprint on the world, because a man was made to change the world and make it a better place.
Mort Sahl [Laughing] Well, you know, I thought our role really was that we would fight the world when the bell rang and they would stay in our corner and take care of us. In that sense I'm a traditionalist, but let's say something about women's lib, can we?
Studs Terkel Sure.
Mort Sahl All right. I believe that women, and I really believe this. We've got a very tough situation on our hands here in my generation. We were conditioned for them to ride in the back of the bus. They object to this, and I think they're quite right. But instead of coming to the front of the bus, where I will be glad to teach them to drive because I think they're capable, and I'd like them to be paid the same as me. They are wresting the wheel from my hand, and I'm afraid in the ensuing struggle we're all going over the cliff in flames.
Mort Sahl I'm not saying to girls, I know it sounds like it, deceptively, like, you know, "Can't you learn the meaning of the word patience? Go back to your ghetto. Well, it's not their ghetto, it's ours, because we're the landlords for one thing. No, What I'm saying is, I'm not telling girls to be patient. What I'm saying is -- righteous
Studs Terkel I gotta, I gotta correct 'cause I've been -- you know, I'm, I'm under the gun here, 'cause a lot of women's liberation guests, 'cause this is -- you, you were not telling women, you said "girls," you're not telling women
Mort Sahl Women, all right, we're gonna call them women. All right. But they gotta be equal. People. I'm not telling them to stay in the back of the bus, what I'm saying is our generation was stuck with a tab that's overdue, and we're trying to make good as rapidly as we can. And in their anger, they -- look, here's what I want to say. I'm glad, I'm glad you corrected me, because I'm getting closer to what I want to say. You don't get anything for nothing in this world, and that's not capitalism, that, those are just the rules. That's a divine balance of the universe. That's God. They're gonna have to give something up, and I wish that they would not give up their femininity without a struggle. I wish they wouldn't get locked in an octopus death struggle with man as the enemy. They have rightful demands. But they're asking us to jump light years, and I want them to help us do it for them. But you know
Mort Sahl But you see, look what they do. They come on television when they discuss it. They seem to, to stick the tab with Hefner as if he's responsible for the entire society. I can't believe that. I mean, when I say, I say economic, I mean their earning power for those who have to sustain themselves and children in broken, broken marriages. There are many, certainly, and, but as far as discrimination against women, well, what -- it's less in Europe, I mean, there's a pilot on SAS, a blonde pilot. A pretty good, I hear. The question is, as I said, we're jumping at all in one generation and if we're gonna bring it about, I didn't say "Don't do it." We're gonna have to work together, not as enemies. That's really what
Studs Terkel Of course. I, I think when, since you mentioned it, I think what only objections is, they object to something that is frivolous, taken seriously, like Playboy quote unquote philosophy, urban male, and I [disagree?] with that
Mort Sahl No, but he thinks they're humorous. Those women. Although I understand the Playboy foundation is also representing -- you know that legal thing he founded? Hefner? Well, they're rep --they're representing some women's lib people, some of their cases, to prove that it's not male chauvinism, as they used to say in the Communist Party. [pause in recording]
Studs Terkel You're just showing, the very fact when you're up there, return to you on that stage for an hour and a half, that's seemingly free association. You have an idea I think, a beginning, a middle, and end. You work like a jazz artist,
Studs Terkel So what you're doing, though, you see, is presenting a picture of a society, you see, and by the way, I say very enthrallingly to the audience, and it's an amazing -- the word "tour de force" used a lot, it's amazing to watch you for far more than an hour each set on that stage, you know. And it's not gag, it's not Bob Hope prefabricated gags. It isn't that at all.
Mort Sahl No, it comes out in stories, and there are, there are laughs, but it's a different kind of thing now. You see, I'm, I'm dropping as much of the truth as you can get in and seeing what a market it has. I want to see how much a people, you know people can digest. You know, I was on The Dick Cavett Show recently, and Sander Vanocur said to me, "The American people are in bad shape, they're losing faith in their government," and he said, "I, I know they need something, but of all the things they need, they don't need a harangue." And I said, "Perhaps you're trying to say that they know the truth, but they don't want to be reminded of it." Because, you know, when people -- let's go back to paranoia. I've had a lot of hostility. I mean, my remarks have been greeted with a lot of hostility, not by audiences, but on a one-to-one basis. People say to me, "You're crazy, you're paranoid." Well, look, if you and I were walking down State Street and was a fella talking to himself and holding a sign saying, "The world is going to end," we would either walk around him and say, "Poor fellow tsk, tsk," or, being humanitarians, we might arrange for a psychiatrist in the county to see him, but we certainly wouldn't react with hostility to a man who's lost touch with his surroundings. That, that's hardly the reaction to a crazy man, is hostility. You remind them of what they know. The American people know a great deal intuitively. They knew the war was wrong, but they didn't have the information to document it. Well, what's the difference? Viscerally they knew it's wrong, and I'll tell you where I got them, Studs. They rationalized everything. I said, "Look at the assassinations of all, of all the anti-war leaders," they said, "Well, crazy people can buy guns and it's a violent society." I said, "Look at the war." They said, "Well, listen, we have a commitment to, uh, SEATO." I said, "Look at the Black people in the country." They said, "Well, they're gonna have to learn what we did when we came from Ellis Island to pull themselves up by the bootstraps," and they were reminded that Black people had no boots and that still didn't bother them, but the one thing I hung them on was, "You may have noticed a new development in your home. Your children aren't talking to you anymore." And that's the thing they gagged on. And I do believe, as I said, it's not altruism. When each man pays the price of that war, equal taxation, then it stops. Then the madness stops. Then the slaughter stops. When the Wall Street Journal tells, tells them the stock market is collapsing. It -- you know, a woman said to me recently, "I don't want my son to have to go. I suppose that's selfish." No, it isn't. It's the best thing I ever heard. The selfish man is the man I trust. The altruistic one is the one I worry about, who takes the bumper stickers for his car and I don't see him the following week, because his ardor has waned.
Studs Terkel What's interesting here, to come back to you, what you're saying is that you sense hostility towards you, that if you were psychically ill, they would just say "Oh, poor Mort Sahl." But that's not it, so therefore, you must have hit some sort of chord.
Mort Sahl Yeah, you know why? Because what they're doing, I think this, this is very true of the GIs in Vietnam. They've been asked to participate in bestial maneuvers, and the American tradition is one of decency, and I think there's a conflict within the people. You don't forget your conditioning. They were brought up to believe other things. Maybe they were lied to by a politician in the park on July the fourth. But that funnel was in their ear until they were 10 years old and they heard other things, and now they're asked to do something else. The only way to make an American do that, to make him into a Nazi, in other words I believe that fascism is a virus. I believe it can bite everyone. And here's a good offensive remark. I believe it can bite even Israelis. It's not just Germans. It's not just a genetic failing. It usually bites winners who are busy flexing their muscles, an inhuman attitude toward those around you who are suffering. Therefore, uh, uh, hey I'm losing track of my own original point.
Mort Sahl You've got to make on American crazy to take him from being a decent man in the tradition of Tom Jefferson and make him oppress other people on a racial basis. You've got to make him crazy. Now, one way the politicians did it and the generals was to arrive on Capitol Hill and play on, guess what, our old friend, Studs, paranoia. Our old word. They'd say, they'd come up there and they'd say, "The Communists are all around us. We need more money." They did that for 25 years. They drove the American people crazy. I believe they drove the German people crazy. I believe that every country has a choice. Every country comes to a fork in the road and they can go down the road leading to fascism through madness, which, by the way, never wins. The most successful evil man of all time, Adolf Hitler, had 13 years, whereas Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to 16, which he did not serve, but the people freely chose him in a democracy. Now, the trouble with fascism is that even though it fails, it collectively, it takes everyone down with it. All of the, all of the conservative people in our audience who are listening to us, who say "Communism is strong central control," if they had any idea that fascism is strong central control without disregard to showing a profit, that fascists take your money out and, and waste it and make your country bankrupt in spirit and in treasury, why, I think the military would show a mercy, a merciful attitude toward this society if they'd merely take the goods to Honolulu and drop them in the ocean. That in itself would be a saving, but they do not show you any return on your investment, and it surely is a disease. It surely is a disease, and it can bite people. But we're used to the cliches, you know, you hear people say six million died in World War Two. The fact is, 54 million died, and, and that every man in agony is your brother. He's not a gook, and he's not a slope, and he's not a spade. He's, he's your brother. And I think most men who are comfortable are on their way to disowning you as a brother if you ever were considered a brother, that's the way I feel. I feel a bond with those who feel some discomfort. I like people who are uncomfortable, because I think they're going to struggle upwards. I think they're gonna try harder to make it better. Otherwise, what's it for? In other words, we're back to the myth of Sisyphus again. You know, pulling the rock up the hill. I think even that has a purpose.
Studs Terkel We come back again to the matter of struggle and battle, and it's forever that the [same?] man was never perfect, but at least there's that attempt. Mort Sahl, we're talking to Mort Sahl on the roof of the hotel where he's staying, as he's appearing at Mister Kelly's for three weeks. And each time he appears two times a night, I believe, isn't it, twice a night?
Studs Terkel And three in the weekend and it's incredible, the energy with a, a back in a brace, but perhaps you could talk about that too, automobiles in a moment too, go into [unintelligible] for yourself, but before that, your stories are incredible when you're on that stage. And the question to ask is, is it true? Like you tell certain anecdotes about being a guest at the home of Stewart whose guest of honor was General LeMay, and I says, "Did he make this up?" You see?
Mort Sahl So, you know, I have one foot in the underground, the one foot in the so called overground I guess you'd call it, and of course that, I pose the dilemma for a lot of people because of that, because many people in the established order, who were formerly my friends now in my age bracket, would like to disown me, I don't think that's any secret, but they can't because, you know, the tree has roots in the ground. I've been around 18 years. Pretty hard to eradicate. People you can eradicate are guys who were stars on television for four weeks, because people have no memory. As McLuhan says, "There's a blurred image". Somebody remembers something that was said on a talk show the evening before, and it's a paraphrase. They don't even remember who said it. But, you know my, my situation is to try and stand outside and blow the whistle on the rascals, including my friends. So of course, they think -- they're all surprised when they're not immune, but they can't be immune from the scrutiny, and I think they're better people for it. And I know that, you know, that's my job. I'm not really worth a damn doing anything else.
Studs Terkel Now there's something you said a moment ago about the star on television, and people don't know what he said, only there's a certain face was on it. In other words, celebrity. This is rather
Studs Terkel Now, I'm going to tell you a very quick story, I know this'll lead to many thoughts on your part. It was during the Chicago convention, the week before it, I was on the Today show, and Mike Royko was on on Friday, [Kup?] was on on Monday. Anyway so, and I'm pretty rough in condemning the city administration. So that following Saturday, the convention now had begun, there's trouble in town. I go to a bar to pick up a bottle of whiskey, and there's a guy at the bar, tough-looking guy, says "Come on, talk to you. I see you on that thing the other day?" I said, "Oh, here it comes." Then you know he's, "I'm gonna punch you" or get bawled out, and he says "Tell me something." I says "What?", "What's Hugh Downs really like?" [laughing] [Unintelligible] so we come back to the question of nothing is remembered, other than the face was on it, therefore you are somebody. You know, isn't that what
Mort Sahl Yes, as, I think it was Ambrose Bierce: "A celebrity is a, is a person who is famous for being well-known." But they're not famous about anything, Studs, are they? Everybody knew what Mark Twain's talent was and was in awe of it. And everybody knew what Clark Gable's talent was, for that matter. There, there was no doubt, certainly. And today if a guy is there, he is automatically royalty because he prevails. He doesn't necessarily satisfy, and he's not to be admired, but he prevails. When I go to a college campus the night after I'm with Merv Griffin or Johnny Carson, my audience is usually twice as big as normal, and people come up to me and they ask me what he's really like. Well, he's really as he appears, he's a guy who is talking into the lens to his bosses.
Studs Terkel Now, it isn't a question of what you said, what you said, anybody else said, it's what is that -- so that person on that magic box, whether it's radio or to a greater extent on television, something becomes the matter what he said
Mort Sahl Absolutely.
Mort Sahl Absolutely. Everything but the SST. You know, what people can believe. For instance, you know, people think they're perceptive when they say things like "It's Orwellian that you have a bank charge card and an IBM number." That's not what it is. It's that there are domestic intelligence agencies that spend 70% of their budget watching Americans.
Mort Sahl Yeah, well, I can tell you. First of all, I was, I was catapulted to fame and fortune, literally, by the fact that I could see around corners. I was the prophet. Then when I brought bad news from around the corner, as Gene McCarthy used to say about Caesar's couriers, they wanted to execute me for bringing bad news. My, when I brought the news that they could not live with, which was that there was a domestic intelligence apparatus that was gonna do us all in and that the president had, no longer had the power to the Pentagon, a lot of friends began to run away from me. A lot of my work began to disappear. However, even though they measure you for a casket, you don't have to lie down in it. I would not cooperate in a conspiracy, and so I moved my base of operations. I got out of Hollywood. I mean, I live there because I'm from California. But I moved to the campuses because I felt that the young people would listen, and I was right, so I moved out and I began to talk. And I hoped that information would catch up with what I was saying, and I wouldn't look like a complete madman. I look to inform people, not scare them to death. So I thought I'd wait around for the end. I'd wait around for the third act. That's what you're doing. You too have done the same thing. You're still here. You didn't move to Europe and say "There's too much violence in the streets of Chicago. It's not the city I knew as a boy." You checked it all out, up and down, this is the second act, you're gonna wait here for the end all the way, and that's the way I feel about America. I didn't leave and I didn't go to London and say, "It's a violent country." I stuck with it. I manned my post. That means sometimes you lose your status, you lose your office and your badges of status, but, and sometimes your income. When I got involved in the New Orleans investigation, I found that the government tapped my phone and I found that after riding on Air Force One with one president, I suddenly was suspect as an enemy of the state. That's a hard adjustment for me to make. It wasn't hard for my oppressors. And then finally, when nothing else worked because, you know, people believe me. Might not always like me, but they believe me. When nothing else worked, I found that the Internal Revenue Service began to harass me. And so far they've been successful, and I've been successful in meeting their demands. And so I learned to roll with the punches, and I found out that even though my position changed, my role didn't. Therefore, I owe a great debt to the people before me who must have carved out some kind of niche because I didn't do it alone. They must have made an America in which I could do this.
Studs Terkel You're really talking about continuity. Earlier, you talked about the ahistorical, or the non-historical feeling young and sad, many are, I think, finding it. But you're talking about you're part of a strain in a sense, see the continuity here.
Mort Sahl Yeah.
Mort Sahl Of course. In other words, when somebody says to me, they say -- in other words, when I see them closing in on a friend of mine because his politics are not yet popular, I have to remember that Zola told them the truth in France, that they stoned his carriage when he left for England for 12 years. I, I'm not gonna say I comfort myself with those thoughts, because they don't comfort me. And yet I know, I know that that's the case, but I must say to all the pessimists out there, you mustn't think this is a third act. The evidence is this is the second
Studs Terkel Very funny thing, you mentioned conspiracy moment ago, and this conspiracy of acceptance, of self-censorship, the manner that, there's another kind of censorship that we hardly discuss, and that's self-censorship.
Mort Sahl Yes, that's true. I found -- in other words, whenever we want to check everything out, we try to get a hold of The New York Sunday Times, and I guess it's acknowledged to be the best paper in America by almost everybody. Well, you know, I felt for a long time that it sat on the fence. In fact, I think it even created the fence. So Reston in Washington is much more a member of the establishment than Fulbright is, for that matter. So I, I said, I said to a fella in The New York Times once, I said, "I don't read all the material in there. I mean, I know what's taking place in certain parts the country. I don't read it in your paper." He said to me, "You're paranoiac." And he said, "I've been at The Times 18 years, and no one has ever told me what to write, although I must admit that I know pretty much what to hand in." Now you know, Studs, my wife, China, who worked for many years here in Chicago for Playboy, my wife and I differ in this area and, you know, being a -- you know, not being advanced as the members of the women's liberation movement know, you know, being retarded in that area, I cannot tolerate the fact that she has her own opinion. I'm still trying to figure out how to punish her. I've been ruminating all afternoon. I say to her, "These people are paid off by government agencies to think of things," and she says "These people don't have to be paid off. They know which way the wind blows upstairs, and they abort themselves."
Mort Sahl I think you're -- yeah. I would say a conspiracy of silence, Bertrand Russell called it. And Russell, I, I think, well, I think you're quite right. In other words, these men know, and I have to know this because, you know, as -- in the 18 years I've been working as a performer, I've made the acquaintanceship of all of them. I don't think you can name many newsmen I don't know. And surely this is a different America than it was eight, ten years ago. Those men are quiet, and I do not believe they're all brought into a room and given a list of verboten subjects every morning. But they know what the traffic will bear.
Mort Sahl He also says a, a good thing, Studs, in this book, How to Talk Back to Your TV Set. Do you recall where, I'm sure you do, where he says that the network newsmen don't seem to resent it when the network censors them, but they resent it when the government does. Good point! I hope, Studs that above all, you know, aside from indoctrination, whether it's mine or anyone else's, I wish people would, you know, a lot of men died for this country, and I'm not talking about Vietnam. I'm talking about the last 200 years, to protect your right to make a choice. So don't, don't use derivative opinion. Don't quote Walter Cronkite or The New York Times. Get all the information you can and preserve your state of mind. Don't be driven mad. Don't let them play on your fears.
Mort Sahl Yes, well, of course, the fear -- no one remembers Richard Nixon in the House of Representatives in '51 asking us to go to the military aid of France and Indochina. One thing about him, he's been consistent, but fear. Yes, for instance, when people talk about George Wallace in the North, they say he has a crowd of, you know, raging rednecks. I was in that crowd at the Indianapolis airport, and I find that there's a fear there. When Lyndon Johnson went to Da Nang harmor, harbor and he addressed our troops, he said, "If you wonder why we are here, we're here because they want to take away what we have." Why, gee, that's almost a parallel of an urban situation.
Studs Terkel Lyndon Johnson's memorable speech to the troops overseas, if I remember right, said "There are two billion, more than two billion of them, and only 200 million of us. They want what we got, and they're not gonna get it." So it wasn't Communists he was talking about, but the whole rest of the world.
Mort Sahl Well, then, in other words, the Vietnamese -- North Vietnamese are only being held up as an object lesson. In case the others get outta line. And that happens all the time. You know, many people overlook that in this country. When the federal government, for instance, harasses an individual, they're not really interested in, in his blood as much as other people being intimidated by his experience.
Studs Terkel This is perhaps the last phrase, it suddenly occurred to me, a good way to wind up. Vulnerability is something all humans, all humans have. Vulnerability. We will never admit to vulnerability. You're very vulnerable. You are. Mort Sahl is a person, and Mort Sahl is a wit. He's a vulnerable person. You are hurt. You can bleed. And that is the sign I suppose, of a human, and we will not admit our vulnerability or a mistake
Mort Sahl You know, Studs, in art, which is really my primary interest, the greatest actors we have had have been vulnerable. I'll give you an example. Sidney Poitier, in the roles he has chosen, and his agents have chosen, has not shown vulnerability and as a result has not shown humanity. Robert Blake, who starred in a picture called Willie Boy, I'm not sure if you saw that, Tell Them Willie Boy is Here, and In Cold Blood, is, I think, the finest actor in America next to Brando in motion pictures. Both of them, regardless of what you think of them, both of them show, they don't worry at all about showing their vulnerability, and that vulnerability, they really bleed when the arrow hits them. Sometimes it comes about in the strangest places. You know, you'll be in a television show, you'll be in a show like the Cavett show, and a guy will walk out there, a newsman or a government official, and he'll say to you, you know, "You are a radical, and you lie to the people." He is a mouthpiece. That's his role. I stand there and bleed. I'm vulnerable. I turn and I say, "Do you think so, Dick?" And Dick thinks, he has the real burden because he's got to come up with an answer. He's gotta choose sides, and that's his nightmare. It's interesting.
Studs Terkel I know. This leads, this could go on forever. This is gonna be a, an open ending, probably fade out somewhere, I know, but that, that's the question of choosing, of being objective, that word, that phony phrase, "objective" as though there were, as though there were any objective journalist or objective commentator, as though everyone doesn't have a
Mort Sahl You mustn't be on the side of humanity. Well, the kids aren't objective. They're on the side of life against death. They're not leftists, they're on the side of life against death. They don't want to die, which is considered an uncooperative attitude by their elders in Washington. But I'm -- objectivity? I, I really wonder about objective journalists. Those are the guys who say "I'm not censored, but we took that story out because we don't think anyone is interested in it in our judgment," I think is the way they say it. I'd like to know how objective federal judges are, who are political appointees.
Studs Terkel I think that's a good way to end, you know, some people in the field in which Mort Sahl is such an expert and artist, the field of entertainment, and yet enlightenment, call and say Mort Sahl has gone off his rocker, or Mort Sahl is paranoid, so I think after this conversation for an hour or so, you the listeners decide. You think he is? Or do you think I am? Or how do you feel about yourself? Anyway, in any event, he's to be seen and heard at Mister Kelly's here in Chicago for the next week or so during the time this program is on. It's quite an experience. Thank you very much
Studs Terkel Thank you. This is our program for this morning after this message a word about Monday's program. [pause in recording] Monday my guest will be the British novelist Doris Lessing before she went into what might be described as very advanced science fiction writing. It was The Four-Gated City, one of her Martha Quest books. Until Monday, then, take it easy, but take it.