On the night Jon Stewart departed the air, Mort Sahl took the stage at the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley, caustic, topical, angry, maybe a little paranoid, and funny, still funny.
As Bruce Springsteen rocked Stewart off the stage, Sahl, at 88, relied on a friend and a cane to steady him as he made his way to the spotlight. He didn’t bring his trademark rolled up newspaper, and can’t see as well as he did when print was king.
But for comics who riff off the news and politics, Sahl is the model, though he is unimpressed with the new breed, Stewart included.
“He is so reverent with Democrats,” Sahl told me.
Not that I’m an expert, but I will miss Stewart’s act. There is, however, an alternative, not far away.
I drove to Mill Valley, where Sahl is living, to catch his act one night last week. He was opening for his good pal Woody Allen, who was in town with his New Orleans-style jazz band. Allen crossed his legs, tapped a foot and played serious clarinet. Not bad, but Sahl was more my taste.
On George H.W. Bush: He is proving what no child left behind means.
On Donald Trump: He’s going to build a wall, and “he’s not going to let me get out of here.”
On John Kasich: He talks about his working-class roots, “except for the nine years he worked at Lehman Brothers.”
Sahl recalled getting a chance to fill in on “The Tonight Show” when his good friend Jack Parr retired, circa 1962. His guests included the young Woody Allen and Ella Fitzgerald. NBC didn’t approve because the Queen of Jazz’s trio was integrated.
“We’ve come a long way,” Sahl told the crowd. “God bless President Obama. Long may he waver.”
Showing zero reverence to the Democrat in the Oval Office, Sahl points out that Obama failed to close Guantánamo, and remains engaged in Middle East wars. The full story of CIA torture has not been told, in his view, nor has that of the 9/11 attacks.
“The liberals want to feel noble. ‘I voted for a black guy made in a lab by white guys.’ ”
Sahl started his career in the 1950s and made the cover of Time in 1960, when that was a huge deal, two years before Stewart was born. In his bits last week – his regular Thursday evening monologues at the Throckmorton are webcast on Periscope – he referred to Eleanor Roosevelt, worked in Adlai Stevenson lines, and returned to John F. Kennedy.
I’m told he used to skewer Camelot until the assassination. Then he became convinced that the CIA was to blame for Kennedy’s murder. Conspiracy theories don’t do much for comedy careers, though he has survived.
We talked by phone, and I asked what he thought of Stewart. “Not much,” he said. Extending that view to current comics who joke about the news, he said: “Their lack of mercy is directed at Republican gentiles.”
Are there no sharp young satirists? “None. … It is not political satire to be a Jewish kid working in New York and pretend to worry about poor people and talk to people like yourself. They idealize Obama. … That is not political satire. It is soft.”
Sahl talks about the old days, at the hungry i in North Beach, where my late parents would see him perform, and radical Berkeley, and his outrage about Vietnam, and how young people forced President Lyndon Johnson not to run for re-election.
Today’s comics, he says, don’t confront such issues: “You have to hold people up to the mirror, and if the mirror cracks, so be it.”
What about the current presidential candidates? He appreciates Rand Paul for going after the National Security Agency. He sort of likes that Trump has made money. He likes that Bernie Sanders seems to believe in the need to help poor people. But it’s not the job of satirists to love politicians.
“The CIA is running the country. I said that in 1964. They’re more powerful than ever.”
What about the Planned Parenthood videos? The Confederate flag? “Self-righteous distractions, while the Pentagon spends us into poverty.” And so he goes, angry, radical and laughing. Onward, as he would say.
Stewart had bad timing, departing as the 2016 presidential debates begin. But if you’re in need of a satirical fix as the campaign unfolds, and long to hear someone deflate Trump and point out the hypocrisy of Cruz and Bush and Rubio and Clinton, drop by the Throckmorton, a lovely old hall, or click into Periscope any Thursday evening.
Sahl will make you think while you laugh. He’s far angrier and more pessimistic than Stewart. But maybe Stewart will get there when he is 88.
What will Jon Stewart’s legacy be?
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