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Other segments from the episode on December 23, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 23, 2003: Interview with Mort Sahl; Review of best books of the year.

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DATE December 23, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Mort Sahl discusses the role of the political satirist
and his career as a comedian
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Fifty years ago today, Mort Sahl gave his first performance at the San
Francisco nightclub The Hungry I and a new kind of comedy was born, topical
and conversational. As the critic Francis Davis wrote, quote, "Sahl was the
most innovative comedian to gain access to a mass audience in the comedy-happy
'50s. Lenny Bruce was still doing shtick when Sahl began walking on stage
with a newspaper, extemporaneously riffing on the headlines. A cool jazz
buff, Sahl derived from musicians not only his timing but also their habit of
traveling light. Schnooky dialects and comic personas like the ones Bruce was
still hiding behind would have been excess baggage for Sahl, who spoke to
audiences in his natural voice," unquote.

Sahl was the first comic to make a live recording, the first to do college
concerts, to speak at the National Press Club or to be on the cover of Time
magazine. Most of today's political and topical comics owe something to Mort
Sahl. He's still getting laughs from his take on the news. Before we meet
him, let's listen to an excerpt of his album "A Way of Life," recorded in
1960, the same year he was on the cover of Time.

(Soundbite of "A Way of Life")

Mr. MORT SAHL (Comedian): I want to read you part of the San Francisco
Chronicle, which I have here. And there's a couple of interesting things that
happened you might be interested in having to do with Billy Graham, who called
me an atheist. Do you know about this?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAHL: Yeah, he called me an atheist, which is not true. And as I've
pointed out in the past, very few people are really atheists, you know, and
Billy Graham--it's just that I'm of another faith than Billy Graham, and
almost everybody is, I find upon inspection.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAHL: So--Zen Buddhism.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAHL: So the club is supposed to be empty. The owners were worried
because of this high holiday.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAHL: So--Did I tell you about that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAHL: That's what they kept saying. So it has to do with ethnic groups,
which I want to discuss after a while. Right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAHL: So anyway--I'll get back to that. So this gets better. So then he
said I'm an atheist, and I pointed out I'm not. And most people past college
age are not really atheists because it's too hard to be in society, for one
thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAHL: Yeah. Because you don't get any days off. That's been my
biggest...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAHL: And if you're an agnostic, you don't know whether you get them off
or not. That's...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAHL: Monday. This is really weird. So then he attacked me. And Billy
Graham is in Melbourne, Australia, saving Melbourne. That's his big thing
now, he saves cities.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAHL: And I don't doubt that. There's sincerity involved. It's just,
you know, if he really wanted a challenge, he could go to Vegas. Wouldn't
that be great?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAHL: Saving while he--thank you. So now to get back...

GROSS: Mort Sahl told me that 50 years ago he started to click with his
audience when he took an anti-authority position.

Mr. SAHL: The blacklist was on then, not that it isn't on now, and it was
that the Russians were provoking us, you know, at every turn in Berlin and
all. And I pointed out to the audience that every time the Russians threw an
American in jail, we would throw an American in jail to show them they can't
get away with it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAHL: And I found the oppressed majority, as Adlai Stevenson pointed out,
which were the Democrats, who were all around and thought that it was the
conformist '50s and they weren't welcome. But a lot of this sounds innocuous
now, you know, like General Motors might become resentful and cut the
government off without a cent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAHL: See, there wasn't a Ralph Nader then. There weren't any kids, you
know. And everybody remembers what they wanted to. People remembered the
political stuff. Woody Allen, whom I saw Sunday, said to me he remembered all
the stuff about men and women. I used to get up and, you know, quote Shaw,
who said, "A woman who demands her equality renounces her superiority," and a
lot of Freud. So it was, don't be ashamed to be intellectually curious.
That's what it was about.

GROSS: So before you performed at The Hungry I, had you performed anyplace
else before?

Mr. SAHL: Yeah, in Los Angeles. I was trying to get started for about two
years, very unsuccessfully.

GROSS: What were you doing before and when you were in LA?

Mr. SAHL: Oh, imitations of movie stars and anti-authoritarian stuff about
people and policemen, mostly about being a misfit in society, which of course
makes you everybody. So there was no success here. The city was unconscious;
may still be as far as I know.

GROSS: Were you doing James Cagney impressions like every other comic?

Mr. SAHL: No, no, no. It was way-out stuff, you know, the cadence of
political people and the president, and also the sense of what they said more
than an impression. I mean, in the sense--well, let me give you an example.
Here was Johnson--later I did this--expanding the war, and the way he would do
it as he established a draft in a democracy, he said, `You know, it would be
wonderful if the world was at peace. It would be wonderful if other countries
wanted peace as much as we do. Unfortunately they don't. Therefore I'm
sending a truck to pick up your brother in the morning.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAHL: That was basically what it--you know? So it was kind of looking in
and saying, `Where are we and does anybody else feel this way?' which is what
a real performer ought to do. Does anybody else feel this way? I had the
misfortune of seeing Al Franken in New York, which was presented to me as
political satire. And instead of taking a swing at the mighty, he's basically
lifting his leg on them. And that shows you how the franchise has
degenerated. I kicked the door down hoping somebody would follow me, and
we're living in a day and age where Michael Moore and Madonna are endorsing
General Clark. How would you approach that as a joke? It would mean
basically--and I doubt the comedians can do this today--that they see it.

You know, what Howard Dean said yesterday, that Saddam Hussein got a physical
examination and very few Americans can get one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SAHL: That joke is--you know, or why weren't the weapons of mass
destruction in the rat hole with Saddam Hussein? Who gave Saddam Hussein the
poison gas? We did, and we've got the receipts to prove it. But you've got
to have politics to do that. I had very radical parents. Jack Kennedy had
parents who talked about politics at the dinner table. It's like that, you
know?

GROSS: Now you're Jewish, but growing up on the West Coast, you didn't have
any direct contact with, say, the Borscht Belt, you know, the Catskill
Mountains.

Mr. SAHL: Not at all.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SAHL: Not at all.

GROSS: So were you removed--you know, like a lot of Jewish children in the
'50s and '60s grew up with parents who knew all the dialect comics like Myron
Cohen, you know...

Mr. SAHL: That's true.

GROSS: ...who talked half in Yiddish and half in English. And I think that
shaped a lot of Jewish comics. Were you exposed to any of those dialect
comics?

Mr. SAHL: No. I never had an orthodox taste--you should forgive the
expression, but you know, I spent an awful lot of my years around jazz. And
Stan Kenton was like a father to me. I never liked the standard stuff. I
liked big bands. I liked jazz composers that liked Hindemith as an outside
influence. I liked Stan Getz. I didn't like the blues. I didn't like
Dixieland music. And it was the same with the comedians. I wanted them to
give the audience some credit for being bright, and it is. The audience will
never let you down. It'll keep you honest.

GROSS: Now your parents moved briefly from Los Angeles to Montreal. You were
born in Montreal. Your father had a tobacco shop there. Then the family left
Montreal, moved back to LA. What did your father do after the tobacco shop?

Mr. SAHL: Well, he was always a writer, you know, with varying degrees of
acceptance. But my father was really kind of a giant guy. I mean, he
believed in honor. I mean, he was a moral leader for me, and he kept on
writing. He also had other skills. He was a court reporter for the federal
government. And he had a--he thought character was everything, and he
certainly impressed it on me. And he was not a materialist. My dad married
my mother by putting an ad in Poetry Magazine...

GROSS: You're kidding.

Mr. SAHL: ...that said--oh, yeah. She read it in Montreal. It said, `Is
there still a woman out there who would like to meet a dreamer?' And there
was, and she came to Los Angeles on the train, and they were married in 72
hours. So they were, you know--there's a lot I hear about parents that people
ought to think about, you know. That whole generation I grew up with had a
lot of left-wing parents, and I mean that in the kindest way. They were very
humanistic, Eastern European derivation, but not great at relating to one kid
at a time. It's like when I met Joan Baez, she told me she loved all of
mankind, but not one at a time.

GROSS: Is that how you felt about your parents, that they didn't relate to
you very well even though they were great idealists?

Mr. SAHL: No, I didn't mean them as examples. They were terrific.

GROSS: My guest is comedian Mort Sahl. We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Mort Sahl is my guest.

Now you've made it really clear, and it's always been clear, that you've had a
strong streak of anti-authoritarianism...

Mr. SAHL: Yes.

GROSS: ...just being anti-authority in every way. Yet when you were a kid,
you tried to join the Army before...

Mr. SAHL: You bet.

GROSS: ...you were even of age to do it.

Mr. SAHL: That's correct.

GROSS: Why would you want to get into the Army if you were so anti-authority?

Mr. SAHL: 'Cause it was World War II, and the greatest father figure of all,
FDR, said that was a worthy war. So on one level, I wanted to go get the
Germans, and on another level, as a 120-pound kid, I wanted to get my wings
and go meet girls. I had very healthy drives. You know, it was terrific. I
liked the glamor. I liked the idea of honor. I liked all that. And we
weren't crazy. We weren't lost, either. And that generation probably saved
America. The question is: For what? I mean, now it's all about music and
movies. I mean, you know, it would be great if, you know, somebody were
really willing to fight for something.

GROSS: Now so you tried to enlist when you were underage.

Mr. SAHL: Yeah.

GROSS: My understanding of the story is that your mother went to the Army and
said, `He's not old enough yet. Get him out of there.'

Mr. SAHL: Yeah, I went down and registered for the draft, because I knew if
it was coercion, they'd take me, whereas if I volunteered, they wouldn't take
me. So I registered for the draft, and then they called me, and then my
mother got me out. I also had an appointment at the West Point. Did you know
that?

GROSS: No, but wait a minute. Wait a minute. Were you trying to get in or
trying not to get in? I'm confused.

Mr. SAHL: I was trying to get in. My mother was trying to get me out. I
also...

GROSS: But you said you knew if you enlisted that they wouldn't
(unintelligible).

Mr. SAHL: Oh, if you enlisted, they wanted to know how old you were.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SAHL: So I overcame being 15 by going down and registering for the draft.

GROSS: Oh, I see what you're saying.

Mr. SAHL: Then they think you're trying to get out of it. And that may be
the end, by the way, of this great crusade in the Middle East if Bush starts
drafting people. You know, the opportunity with this administration is so
rich as an example, and where are the comedians? I mean, it's so rich. Diane
Sawyer is sitting there the other night, saying to Bush, `What papers do you
read?' And the president says, `I don't read papers. I've got people working
for me that know everything.' He doesn't read papers. I mean, you know, it's
like my conversation with him, when he said, `You've got to fight the war on
terror. Are you ready to make the sacrifices?' And I said, `I don't know.
I'm pretty exhausted from fighting communism with your father.' And he said
to me, `Well, I don't like it. It's a dirty job, but that's what you elected
me to do.' And of course, I was tempted to say, `We didn't elect you that
much,' but that'll come. That opportunity will come. I knew him when he was
a governor.

GROSS: Well, you know, while we're on the subject, what about, say, Bill
Maher, who does a lot of political comedy on television?

Mr. SAHL: Well, a lot of it is profane, which is not to my taste, but you
can't have an elite feeling toward the people.

GROSS: You think he does?

Mr. SAHL: Yeah, I think he does. I think the skepticism toward authority,
you know--this is all said from a salon at Arianna Huffington's house with all
those people there. They all drive a Toyota Prius. That's the car for the
pious, you know. And I don't have a feeling that that's a real rebellion.
I'm being very candid with you. I, you know...

GROSS: Yeah, but you were connected to power, too. I mean, you worked for
the Kennedy campaign, writing for him.

Mr. SAHL: Yes, I did.

GROSS: You knew, and still know, a lot of very powerful people.

Mr. SAHL: I also sat head to head with Kennedy and argued about Fidel Castro
and the revolution. But what I'm saying to you is what Stanley Sheinbaum
said: These people have no politics. They're basically skeptical about
America. They think Southerners are ignorant. They think power necessarily
corrupts. They're very elite. I mean, I've listened to Maher by the hour.
When I met him, he was an announcer for Steve Allen, but I don't find any--I'm
being very candid with you. I don't find any generosity of the human spirit,
and I don't find a lot of talent there. We might as well be straight up.
That's not Will Rogers.

GROSS: Anybody you do like who's working now?

Mr. SAHL: Yeah, but I'll tell you. Most of the people with great humor are
professional men in other fields who, as a byproduct of their viewpoint, have
a sense of urban irony. Example: Alexander Haig is conducting business in
Russia.

GROSS: Wait a minute. You think Alexander Haig's funnier than Al Franken and
Bill Maher?

Mr. SAHL: I'll tell you. I can give you examples.

GROSS: OK.

Mr. SAHL: And you'd be hard put to give me any examples of those two guys.
Not that that's your chore. But a great example, I mean, Haig said he was in
Russia, conducting business, and how capitalism has caught on. And he said,
`I went to the Inter-Continental Hotel in Moscow, and every car that pulled up
was a Mercedes 600, driven by a Russian baby boomer with a platinum blonde 20
years old on his arm and a Rolex, and they all went in and drank apple
martinis. I might as well have been in Beverly Hills, except there were no
communists.' That's a wonderful observation. Yeah. You remember when I said
to him--he smokes Cuban cigars. I said, `How can you smoke Fidel Castro's
cigars?' He said, `Well, in my place, I prefer to think of it as burning his
crops to the ground.'

GROSS: Wait. Now let me ask you. I don't know if you politically agree with
Al Haig and with the Republican administrations that he worked with. Do you
have to agree politically...

Mr. SAHL: Of course not.

GROSS: So it's funny to you whether you agree with the person or not
politically?

Mr. SAHL: Yeah, because he's a man with a sense of irony. You know, I can
give you an example on the other side. Gene McCarthy has the best Democratic
sense of humor, the great, great humorist, poet and thinker. And those are
the people that I honor and I aspire to know. But this other stuff of, you
know, rebellion by the pound, I mean, what is it? Dennis Miller is telling
you how wonderful Bush is. That's not political satire.

GROSS: Now I'm going to stand up for Bill Maher and Al Franken, who I think
really are funny.

Mr. SAHL: Well, until you hear the real thing, you will stand up for them,
but eventually...

GROSS: OK.

Mr. SAHL: ...you know, you won't. They're not serving--you know, I haven't
said this publicly before, but I'm glad you gave me the opportunity. They're
not serving the people. A political satirist's job is to draw blood. And I'm
not saying that they were paid off. I think if--those who can do. The rest
of this is emergency stuff.

GROSS: What are some of the things that you said over the years that you
think drew the most blood?

Mr. SAHL: Oh, my God, you know, when Kennedy was nominated, I introduced him,
and I sent a wire to his father, saying, `You haven't lost a son. You've
gained a country.' You know, that kind of--but something that reflects the
truth, not only the truth you find, but the truth of our fathers and something
that shows a sense of history. You know, when Jack Kennedy went to Vienna,
he'd only been in office two months, and he met Khrushchev. And he looked at
this medal on this chest, and he said, `What is that?' He said, `I won the
Lenin Peace Prize.' And Kennedy said, `Let's hope you get to keep it.'

We aspired to be like that. I mean, you know--and that doesn't mean I worship
them. I had plenty of arguments with them, but those guys could give you 15
rounds. It was something, you know. It was something to know them. It
was--you know, if you look at the speech by Kennedy at American University the
month before he was murdered, that's something that should be taught in the
schools.

GROSS: I want to get back to something we were talking about earlier, which
is how you tried to get in the Army during World War II, but you were
underage.

Mr. SAHL: Yeah.

GROSS: And your mother kind of came and told the Army and got you out.

Mr. SAHL: She did.

GROSS: Was that embarrassing when that happened?

Mr. SAHL: Well, it was the shooting down of a dream. I really had the
glamour then. Once I got in and I saw that there were privileges and that the
officers manipulated people, that's when I decided I didn't want to be an
officer. I had a chance, so...

GROSS: Once you got in when you were older?

Mr. SAHL: Well, not much older, yeah. I went in at 18. But--and I was up in
the Aleutian Islands. So the point was that I had seen it all, but I didn't
want every young man to get killed because it once appealed to me. I had this
source of--I think what we're talking about here, even when we talk straight
and in the role of comedy is that I'm not a liberal. I'm a radical. The
liberals, they made liberalism into a weigh station for people that want to
cooperate with a right-wing administration and not lose their source of income
and still be self-righteous. You know, have a dinner party at Barbra
Streisand's, but spend an equal amount of time with the guests and out in the
kitchen talking to the Nicaraguans. That's really what's going on here. And
you have to find a way to kid that, see. I'll give you an example, Terry...

GROSS: Sure.

Mr. SAHL: ...without--you know, I don't meant to postulate about it, but an
example of a big joke on the stage is, going to a party at Streisand's, a
fund-raiser for a Democrat, and a star will walk up to me, and he'll say, `I'm
going to work for Gephardt. I don't know if he can win, but when I look in
the mirror in the morning to shave this mug, I've got to know I did the right
thing.' They always talk about conscience. Republicans never do. And, you
know, 'cause liberals are ashamed of what they've accumulated, and they don't
think they have a right to it. And conservatives love everything they have
stolen. They're proud of it. So then another star will come up to me and
say, `I'm working for John Kerry,' and etc., `'cause I've got to look at this
mug in the morning.'

So finally, Norman Lear comes up to me, and he says, `I'm working for Al
Sharpton. I know he hasn't got a prayer in a racist nation, but do you
understand why I would engage in a futile campaign?' I said, `Does this have
anything to do with when you're shaving, 'cause I heard about that from
(unintelligible).' Well, that's it, see.

And the other thing in the technique, comedically, Terry, is, too, to do
candid, not to stand up there and tear them to pieces. It's not Al Franken
saying that the president is a moron, a liar and a--as I heard him say the
other night. I was on a show with him in New York. But to say you accept
him, and then show that the emperor has no clothes. That's your job, and you
should know how to do your job.

GROSS: Mort Sahl will be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with comic Mort Sahl. And
book critic Maureen Corrigan runs down her list of the best books of the year.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with comedian Mort Sahl.
Today is the 50th anniversary of his debut at the San Francisco nightclub The
Hungry I, the club where he first became known for a new kind of comedy. He
got his laughs from talking about the headlines, not from one-liners.

Joseph Kennedy, JFK's father, asked...

Mr. SAHL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...you to write for John Kennedy's presidential campaign.

Mr. SAHL: That's right.

GROSS: And you agreed to do it.

Mr. SAHL: Uh-huh.

GROSS: What did you write for him that he used?

Mr. SAHL: Oh, I can give you some examples.

GROSS: Good.

Mr. SAHL: It was a lot of trouble about being a Catholic then. You're not
old enough to remember that, but that was a bad word to run for high office.
So I gave them--they come in and they say, `Are you gonna take your orders
from the pope?' And he says, `It's not the hereafter that's bothering me but
November 4th is driving me out of my mind.' And when he went out there at the
press conference and May Craig from the Portland, Maine, paper said, `What are
you doing for women?' and he said, `Not enough, I'm sure.' Which is--he had
the quality to do it, though. You know, he had the moral authority. And it
was, you know--and he and I used to argue all the time because I was a friend
of Adlai Stevenson.

GROSS: Are there things you wrote for Kennedy that he didn't use that you
remember and wish he had used?

Mr. SAHL: Yeah, I did a lot of stuff about Eisenhower for him playing golf.
I said Eisenhower had hired Stevenson to write a foreign policy speech, which
was true, but he couldn't use it because of the language barrier--it was in
English--and he said, `I can't say that about him,' and William O.
Douglas--Remember Justice Douglas?

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. SAHL: Douglas was there. He said to Kennedy, `Listen, if you're gonna be
Stan Kenton, be Stan Kenton. Don't try to be Lawrence Welk. He's better at
it.' That's all true, you know. Who could come up with that. There was
great stuff. Yeah, I was--you know, and you can tell a lot about the guys
about which humor they'll use and which that they get. The really heavyweight
guys are never offended. For instance...

GROSS: Yeah, you're actually--you're--go ahead. Go ahead.

Mr. SAHL: Yeah, I was gonna say Richard Nixon said to me, `You got a chance
to be Will Rogers, but you have to remember to keep a blowtorch under my
behind as well as Jack Kennedy's.' Even-handed.

GROSS: Wait, wait, you already had the blowtorch under his behind.

Mr. SAHL: Well, he was drinking at that time...

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. SAHL: ...so--but he was the smartest guy I ever met in the office, by the
way.

GROSS: Oh yeah?

Mr. SAHL: Yeah, brilliant.

GROSS: Did you write for him, too? Would you...

Mr. SAHL: No, no. I did not.

GROSS: You didn't.

Mr. SAHL: But I worked for Reagan, who was a personal friend of mine, and...

GROSS: So whether you agree with somebody's politics or not, if you like them
personally, you'll write for them?

Mr. SAHL: Yeah. You do some jokes. At least Reagan had a sense of humor.
This guy has no sense of humor unless what he's doing now...

GROSS: Which guy?

Mr. SAHL: ...is an example.

GROSS: President Bush?

Mr. SAHL: Yeah. He has no sense of humor. I think he knows it, too. I gave
him a gag. He asked me when he was governor of Texas if he should allow
prayer by the student body at the football games, and I said, `It depends how
far behind you are.' And he wasn't sure. His father has a great...

GROSS: Oh, I see. I see.

Mr. SAHL: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: I get it.

Mr. SAHL: His father has a great sense of humor, by the way. The old man
said to me at the White House, he said to me--he asked me when I got my
invitation to come to dinner there, and I told him it had taken four weeks for
the letter to get to California, and he said, `That's absurd.' And I said,
`How are you gonna get these guys in line? Are you gonna fire everybody in
the post office?' He said, `No, I'm gonna keep them on, but I'm gonna mail
them their checks.' He's very intellectual, but he doesn't want that out, you
know. So was Estes Kefauver.

GROSS: Are you writing for candidates now?

Mr. SAHL: No, not currently. I worked for Bill Bradley. I wrote some stuff
for him. I found him pretty cautious.

GROSS: In terms of what kind of humor he'd use?

Mr. SAHL: He's aloof. Well, he's aloof in general, you know. But the most
memorable things Gore has said is since he left office.

GROSS: What strikes you as most memorable?

Mr. SAHL: You know, the speech about the Patriot Act, what it's costing
America. But if I were writing for somebody now, as an example, you know,
you'd say--you're writing for a Democrat now you'd say, `John Ashcroft's first
act in his office was to come in and cover up the bare breasts of justice out
in the hall, and that's the last time justice exposed herself in the Bush
administration.' That's what I would say. And then you're off, you know, to
the races.

It's not a good sign that they don't have any humor, and on the other hand,
the other night at this--I was at a dinner in New York and Lieberman was there
and he quoted an old gag of mine, which is reworked Mark Twain, you know, that
if you're drowning 20 feet from shore, Kissinger will throw you a 15-foot rope
and Nixon will point out that they met you more than half way. That's
the--you know, you can trot out a lot of the old stuff. You know, you
remember when Twain argues with his wife and she says, `You'll never amount to
anything,' he said, `Well, I can always be a bad example to others.' That's
great American humor. That's not mean-spirited. That's not a comedian
getting up and saying that the president is mindless.

I mean, look at an example here. You're talking to me about Al Franken and
Bill Maher and all the--what have they ever said about Cheney? I mean,
wouldn't it be possible, without being intellectual, to say that Cheney is the
only one covered by Bush's health plan? Or that when he dated Lynne Cheney,
who he dated, you know, in 1952 at the University of Wyoming, that he
haltingly and shyly says to her, `If you're free Friday, would you like to
meet me at a secret, underground, undisclosed location?'

But you've got to have a point of view to do it, otherwise you're stealing the
money. You've either got wit or you can identify with the human heart or
you're Jackie Gleason, that you can do something. I mean, look, you know, you
don't have to be an intellectual. You look back--of course you've seen "The
Honeymooners," Terry.

GROSS: Sure, yes.

Mr. SAHL: Well, look at that. That's built as well as Shakespeare. He's
always got a scheme. Nobody believes it. His wife is the first to tell him
he's crazy. When he falls on his face, who comes in there and picks him up,
dusts him off and kisses him? His wife. Why do we like it? It's about
something. And when somebody says to you, `That's too intellectual for me,'
it means they don't want to work through the fact that they're stealing the
money, they're not up to it.

GROSS: My guest is comedian Mort Sahl. We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is comedian Mort Sahl.

I want to go back to something we were talking about which is that you think a
comic should draw blood and be willing to take risks.

Mr. SAHL: If he does politics.

GROSS: Yeah, if he does politics.

Mr. SAHL: Yeah.

GROSS: Now the biggest risk that you took and the biggest consequences that
you suffered as a result of it was after Kennedy's assassination, when you
were convinced, and you're probably still convinced, that it wasn't...

Mr. SAHL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...just Lee Harvey Oswald as a lone assassin.

Mr. SAHL: Yeah, right.

GROSS: You were very opposed to the Warren Commission report saying that it
was a lone assassin. And you even went down to New Orleans for a while to
work with the DA there, Jim Garrison, just...

Mr. SAHL: That's right. I was an investigator in the office.

GROSS: And you were trying to uncover if there was any CIA involvement in a
plot against Kennedy. Correct me if I'm wrong on any of this.

Mr. SAHL: No.

GROSS: So--and then you started talking about it almost obsessively in your
performances, even reading the Warren Commission report, long passages of it,
during performances.

Mr. SAHL: Yeah.

GROSS: And things started to really dry up for you about that time. Would
you do it...

Mr. SAHL: Well...

GROSS: ...any differently if you could do it again?

Mr. SAHL: No. The death of the president was the foulest event in our lives.
It was the prelude to the unraveling of the country, and the irony is the
people who murdered him did not abscond with the country. It's a different
country now. And I did the right thing. It's laden with irony because none
of his friends did it. We came--the audience should know this. What I read
on the stage was for laughs. I still believe in being a comedian for a
living. I read passages the Warren report as follows: `Earl Warren and
Gerald Ford cross-examined the bartender at Jack Ruby's club. And they say to
him, "What did you have in there?" He said, "We had a rough crowd. We had
strippers and they did a dance called the dirty dog." "Describe it," Ford
says. The bartender says, "I'd rather not," and Ford says, "I have the
presidential mandate here and I command you to describe this dance." And the
bartender says, "It's called a dirty dog and it's sickening and disgusting
and revolting if you do it right."'

That's what I read on the stage. I wanted people to see by their own word
that this was a hoax. Or I'd say to the audience, `Here's a picture of Oswald
being shot while he's being guarded by 24 members of the Dallas police force,
or 25 if we count Ruby.' It was to give the people something to think about.
And also, to make them think about it, not to go home and be led in communal
crying by Walter Cronkite.

GROSS: Now Lenny Bruce had been reading a lot of transcripts of the trial,
his own obscenity trial, on stage during his performances. Did you feel
connected to him when he was doing that?

Mr. SAHL: No.

GROSS: Why?

Mr. SAHL: No. I never--well, I never bring anything in unless I can go after
them and get laughs with it. In other words, to bring people's attention to
it and get some laughs with it, that's the job. Lenny, you know--don't
forget, Lenny was surrounded by lawyers. You know, the kind of guys that say,
`We can't test the law until we break it.' I don't know that I believe in
that, and--but there's no similarity. The stuff in the Warren Commission, the
resistance was not from the audience. The resistance was from the people who
did it, who didn't want it talked about. You know, you can go a long way a
single voice. Remember that me, alone, brought Jim Garrison on to Johnny
Carson where he got an hour and 45 minutes to himself. And by the way,
there's a guy who had a great sense of humor himself. It was a sense of irony
and it was based on a deep love of America. That's the finest patriot I ever
met was Jim Garrison. Probably the bravest man I ever met. Garrison and I
planted a seed of doubt in young people. When we got through, nobody believed
that report about Lee Harvey Oswald and his electric rifle. To make it my
obsession, it's not my obsession. I didn't even vote for the guy.

GROSS: You didn't vote for Kennedy?

Mr. SAHL: No. In fact, there's a good, long-winded joke about that.

GROSS: But seriously, you didn't vote for Kennedy?

Mr. SAHL: No. And I could give you a joke about why not.

GROSS: Did you vote? Did you vote for Nixon? You're not gonna tell me?

Mr. SAHL: It's an Australian ballad. It's an Australian ballad.

GROSS: What--I don't--what's that? What's that mean?

Mr. SAHL: You know, but I worked for Perot, too, so you ought to know
everything about me.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. SAHL: I wrote for Perot, too. And admire him greatly.

GROSS: But you seem so close to Kennedy, that's what seems so surprising.

Mr. SAHL: Well, we were close.

GROSS: I'm sorry, I just have to say again...

Mr. SAHL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...you didn't vote for Kennedy.

Mr. SAHL: Well, you know there's a joke that goes--let me tell you the joke.

GROSS: Go ahead. Tell me the joke.

Mr. SAHL: A guy keeps voting for people on the basis of what they promise
they'll do, and they don't do it. So he becomes disenchanted. And finally he
votes for Nixon and he says, `Why'd you vote for Nixon?' And he says, `Well,
Nixon said he'd never make peace with the Communists and the last thing he'd
ever do is recognize Red China.' And just before they threatened to impeach
him, he recognizes Red China, so it did turn out to be the last thing he ever
did. See, you can take it a long way, but you get that by talking to people
like Gene McCarthy and--you know, the great thing about McCarthy and Jack and
everything is that it's the last time they enlisted young people in the cause
of saving this country.

GROSS: Do you vote?

Mr. SAHL: Yeah. Sometimes.

GROSS: Sometimes.

Mr. SAHL: It depends who it is.

GROSS: Right. OK.

Mr. SAHL: It depends who it is. When there's a promise of a new tomorrow
like Governor Schwarzenegger, you know, you can bring back the old jokes about
him, too, you know. They make this...

GROSS: What do you think about Schwarzenegger?

Mr. SAHL: Well, I loved the inaugural speech, but it was more powerful than
the original germ. Isn't that the joke? By the way, good jokes come from
unlikely people. At the Reform convention, Pat Buchanan, when he accepted the
nomination, a Republican ran up to him and he said, `You've divorced the
Republican Party,' and Pat said, `Yeah, and they can have the kid.' And also
Perot, you know. `What do you think about gun control?' He said, `When I
grew up in Texas, every kid had a gun. He just didn't bring it to school.'

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SAHL: That's wonderful.

GROSS: I imagine you still read a lot of newspapers.

Mr. SAHL: As many as I can find.

GROSS: And what about TV? Do you watch a lot of the cable news shows?

Mr. SAHL: Yeah, I have a satellite dish and I watch everything.

GROSS: Watch everything.

Mr. SAHL: That's gone down like everything else, see. Bitchery has replaced
satire. Bitchery and jealousy.

GROSS: Tell me what you mean by that.

Mr. SAHL: Well, you know, talking about the first lady's dress or reducing
fascism to gossip, it's the same--that's what's happened to news. I mean,
who's doing news? I mean, Diane Sawyer's walking with people and saying,
`Well, then you lost custody of your children when you were accused of smoking
medical marijuana?' What kind of news is that? You know, I find the press
too compliant. They won't give these guys any trouble. Have you been to
Australia, Terry?

GROSS: No. Why are you mentioning Australia?

Mr. SAHL: Because the press is adversarial there.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. SAHL: The press is extremely adversarial. I went to see a speech by
Prime Minister Bob Hawk at the time, and he said, `I used to drink. I'm not
perfect. And I was a womanizer. And--but our country's turning into a banana
republic and something must be done.' And a guy yelled out of the audience,
`Why don't you start drinking again?' They're not intimidated by power.

GROSS: Now you're a longtime jazz listener.

Mr. SAHL: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Do you feel like your delivery or your timing was affected by jazz at
all?

Mr. SAHL: Yeah, because I could leave a theme and come back without violating
the chord structure. And I think what happens with musicians is a miracle. I
think Dale Evans, the pianist, or Duke Ellington or Sinatra most of all was a
jazz singer; people didn't even know it at the time. But look at a man who,
in this age of barbarism, single-handedly was the custodian of romance in a
country this size. And he kept it alive. Did you see the movie "Matchstick
Men," Terry?

GROSS: No, didn't see that.

Mr. SAHL: Well, the end of the picture, the man bails his life out with the
help of a therapist and he gets on with his life. He doesn't go back to his
wife. He finds another girl so he won't fail at the dream, but he believes in
the dream. And at the end, he's straightened himself out and he's not a
criminal anymore, and he comes home and his house isn't empty. There's a girl
there that loves him, and they start to make dinner together. And she's
pregnant; he puts his ear down to her stomach to hear the heartbeat. And the
music comes up, and it's Frank Sinatra singing the "Summer Wind," written, of
course, by Johnny Mercer. And that's the whole hope of America. If the kids
hear that, they might turn the right way.

GROSS: Mort Sahl, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SAHL: Terry, I'll see you in Philadelphia.

GROSS: Hope so.

Mr. SAHL: (Laughs) So long.

GROSS: Mort Sahl. Fifty years ago today, he made his debut at the San
Francisco nightclub The Hungry I.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan picks the best books of the
year. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Best books of the year
TERRY GROSS, host:

You might want to grab a pen. Here's our book critic Maureen Corrigan with
her list of the best books of the year.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:

This year in books started out sluggishly. By summer, I worried that its
defining literary trend would turn out to be what I dubbed pink books, a rash
of reactionary romances swabbed in calamine-lotion-pink book jackets. Then,
with the arrival of fall, crisp winds blew in a rush of smart, superbly
written novels and non-fiction.

Susan Choi's wonderful novel "American Woman" is set in the mid-1970s and
tells the story of a young Japanese-American woman named Jenny who's been
living underground ever since she set off a bomb in protest of the Vietnam
War. When Jenny is finally captured by the feds, Choi makes her readers feel
a deep sadness, not for the end of Jenny's misguided violence, but rather for
the death of the idealism that prompted it. Here's how Choi's narrator puts
it better: `The loss of Jenny's freedom, of these years of her 20s, ended up
being nothing next to the loss of her confidence in the choices she'd made.'

"Brick Lane" by Monica Ali is a debut novel that rightly dazzled readers and
reviewers and was short-listed for Great Britain's Booker Prize. The
immigrant story it tells is not new. A young bride from Bangladesh finds
herself transplanted to a grimy London housing project via an arranged
marriage. But Ali's precise language and offbeat humor are so beguiling, even
the smallest details register. Take her description of a doctor's walk-in
waiting room, packed with poor people. `An old man with a knobbly nose sat in
the corner, sipping mournfully from a can of something. A large family of
Africans the color of wet river stones with long, beautiful necks and small,
sloping eyes fanned out on the front seats. The grown-ups were silent; their
faces expressed nothing other than the ability to wait. Waiting was their
profession.'

The high-maintenance heroines in Nell Freudenberger's commanding debut
short-story collection "Lucky Girls" travel in the opposite direction.
Departing from the United States and Europe, they backpack their complicated
lives all over the Near and Far East.

And two terrific works of fiction that came out early this year don't deserve
to be buried under the bounty of fall books. "A Ship Made of Paper" is the
latest tale of passion by Scott Spencer, whose love stories are always out of
control, but whose writing never is.

Meg Wolitzer's very witty novel "The Wife" should get a nudge from the
popularity of that new Julia Roberts movie, "Mona Lisa Smile," since it covers
some of the same 1950s terrain of women's colleges that offered majors in
domesticity.

In non-fiction, my nominee for must-read book of the year is David Maraniss'
"They Marched Into Sunlight," an exhaustively researched and poignant work of
history that focuses on two crucial events in October 1967. Maraniss'
narrative alternates between the University of Wisconsin, where the student
protest against campus recruitment by Dow Chemical, maker of napalm,
unexpectedly turned violent, and a jungle in Vietnam where a battalion of the
1st Infantry Division marched into an ambush by North Vietnamese troops.

Maraniss' colleague at The Washington Post, reporter David Von Drehle, wrote a
sweeping and substantive book of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911.
In "Triangle," Von Drehle traces out how, because of that tragedy in which 146
workers, most of them young girls, were killed, the burgeoning women's rights
movement, labor movement and progressive movement all joined forces for a
remarkable time in American history, transforming the Democratic Party and
clearing the way for the New Deal liberalism of Franklin Roosevelt.

Other non-fiction standouts were Kathy Dobie's "The Only Girl in the Car," a
1970s coming-of-age memoir that dramatizes the double standards lurking under
the sexual revolution, and Laura Kipnis' "Against Love," an over-the-top
polemic against marriage and monogamy.

In 2003, a slew of mystery novels proved to be devious vehicles for both
metaphysical inquiry and informed social criticism. Acclaimed Swedish writer
Henning Mankell was my find of the year. His series of novels featuring
gloomy police Detective Kurt Wallander are in the process of being translated
into English. "The Dogs of Riga" is the latest, but "One Step Behind" is my
current favorite.

Neil Gordon's tightly crafted suspense novel "The Company You Keep" invokes
some of the same Weather Underground history as Susan Choi's "American Woman."

"Blacklist," the latest V.I. Warshawski novel by Sara Paretzky, delves into
the Red Scare of the 1950s and makes connections between McCarthyism and
present-day threats to civil liberties in post-9/11 America.

And just in time for the holidays, mystery grande dame P.D. James has returned
with "The Murder Room," another Adam Dalgliesh mystery. Granted, the plot
frays towards the end, but James' sense of place and felt awareness of evil
are as vivid here as in any of her earlier great mysteries. James is now an
octogenarian, but as a stylist, she still runs rings elegantly around most of
the pretenders to her throne.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. Her
best books of the year list, as well as her holiday gift suggestions, can be
found on our Web site, freshair.com.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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