Mort Sahl's been making audiences uncomfortable since he first stepped on stage in 1953, and he's likely again to cause a little squirming when he performs Feb. 25 in Normal Heights.
“Liberals were a little tougher when I first knew them than they are these days,” said Sahl, sometimes called Will Rogers with fangs. “They're sort of righteous now, for what passes for liberal. I don't think Hillary Clinton could get into the 1960 Democratic convention. And John Kerry? Unbelievable.”
As for the Democrats in general, Sahl doesn't see much promise. “I think their part in this play is to fail,” he said. “I think that's their role in this time. It's their part in the script.
“The party has been co-opted,” he continued. “When the bank keeps getting robbed, the police start looking for an inside job. Gore won, but nobody did anything about it. Kerry conceded the same day [as the election]. He's certainly a good sport, Kerry. I'd love to run against him.”
His dissection of Democrats notwithstanding, Sahl is no Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter. His beef is not ideological; he just wishes liberals would be more defiant and focused in their fight. “It's a cliché to be an American liberal now,” he said. “It's a cliché because it isn't passionate the way the left once was.
“Look at the Scooter Libby thing,” he said. “Why hasn't anybody asked for [Robert] Novak to be fired?”
Democrats should have taken the floor of the Senate and filibustered because the Patriot Act is unconstitutional, he said, and somebody should investigate whether Novak actually works for the CIA. Sahl also would like someone to question the circumstances of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone's death.
“The most powerful anti-war Democrat goes down in a plane crash,” Sahl said. “Maybe he died legitimately; maybe he didn't. It's funny, but the guys who liked the war are still around.”
Sahl rattles off various other scandals, connecting the dots of players from the Reagan administration to today, painting a portrait of a corruption so deeply entrenched it hardly seems worth fighting.
Then, rather than ending his thought with a resolving sigh, he laughs-a deep, hearty laugh that rescues from despair and gives some reassurance that it's still possible to find humor in grave matters. Despite the seriousness of his material, Sahl never gives in to outrage, never resorts to mockery or vulgarity and has never lost his sense of humor, which is broad and precise, but never vicious.
Being well-mannered does not mean holding one's tongue, though, and Sahl sees a social obligation in speaking out against wrong.
“You can't be an American and be careful,” he said. “You have to speak up, and sometimes you have to test the law by breaking it.”
His friend Lenny Bruce tested the law in the 1960s when he used profanity in his stand-up routines, leading to several arrests and perpetual legal combat that helped kill him. Sahl sees today's vulgar comics as innovators, but imitators.
“It shows an inner poverty in the person that uses it,” he said about using profanity on stage. “It's cliché-ridden speech.”
When comedians attack President Bush, Sahl notes that too often the comics aren't looking at the consequences of the administration's actions; they're just making fun of Bush as though he were somebody's square parent.
Equally annoying for Sahl are comics who feign outrage over mundane things like imported bottled water.
“Is what's wrong with this country now that people drink imported water?” Sahl said, referring to a routine he saw by Lewis Black. “I don't think that's what's wrong. I think that people in this country are lost because they deserted their commitment. The commitment was to be a full-time American citizen, the way that Ralph Nader is.”
In his sixth decade as a comic, Sahl has a greater sense of history than almost any performer working today. He was the first to make jokes about President Eisenhower, and his act is ever-evolving, with about 20 minutes of new material added every few months just to keep pace with the news.
Sahl began his career as a standup comic at a time when there weren't many people doing comedy. “I was just doing jokes,” he said about his debut in the early 1950s. “Back then, [Sen. Joseph] McCarthy was around, and I did a couple of McCarthy jokes. People came down on me so hard, I got angry and went back and did more. It's just my nature.”
In 1960, Time magazine described Sahl this way: “The best of the new comedians, he is also the first notable American political satirist since Will Rogers.”
A lot has changed since Sahl made a name for himself at the Hungry I in San Francisco, and he hasn't always kept pace with the times. Twenty-four years passed between his most recent albums, Sing a Song of Watergate and Mort Sahl's America, released in 1997. It's also been 30 years since his only book, the autobiography Heartland. Sahl would like to write another book, but only on his terms.
“My agent said, ‘What do you want to write about?' I said, ‘America.' The agent said, ‘That's too soft. Give me a book like Ann Coulter's.' He didn't think I had anything to say.”
Sahl, an Air Force veteran, challenges Coulter's view of patriotism. “A good American doesn't let a fascist scare everybody to death so they can kill their sons in Baghdad,” he said. “She calls people treasonous. What did she ever do for America?”
For all his decades finding fault in his government's leaders, Sahl seems in his heart, and in his own way, passionately patriotic for his country.
“We know that it's great to be a free man, and there's a place to pursue freedom, and that happens to be America,” he said.
Mort Sahl will perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25, at Acoustic Music San Diego, 4650 Mansfield St. in Normal Heights. Call 619-303-8176 or visit www.acousticmusicsandiego.com.