I am convinced that people will laugh at almost anything Mort Sahl says. He comes out on stage in non-descript pants and a yellow cardigan sweater, and there he is:... MORT' SAHL, devastating critic of our times, about whom everyone has read so much, in Time magazine. He stands for a minute, scratches his head, gestures erratically once or twice, and then he's off, saying funny things about politics and the situation of the world. He has a marvelous stage presence, an easy stance, an endearing nervousness and an odd tone of voice, which makes otherwise pallid remarks assume the appearance of great bitterness--and, in the case of his Symphony Hall performance Wednesday, persuades people that they are hearing things that no one has dared say before, and no one else could possible say so well.
Some of his lines are actually funny, so funny that they come across well on paper. "That's an interesting question," he has Nixon saying to a reporter on one of the television debates, "Pat and I were discussing that very question the other night--after we had put the kids to bed--after the oath of allegiance--it was a usual sort of evening--Pat was sewing a flag--I was reading the Constitution . . ." He has little patience with the President. "Kennedy and the Democrats aren't attacking Eisenhower this year," he says, "I guess that's been pretty much left to me. . . . Vote NO for President this November. Then the White House will be empty for another four years. . . . Eisenhower was supposed to brief Stevenson on foreign policy for Kennedy, but it didn't work out. Language problem, I think."
These are funny things to read, and Sahl's effective voice and excellent timing made them funnier to hear. Yet much of the evening he was saying things that weren't intrinsically amusing, remarks which were carried along solely by the force of his personality. Now, this is not necessarily the sign of an inferior comedian; some of the best comedians of the modern era have gotten along brilliantly by saying dull things in a witty way. Yet one suspects that if Sahl had pulled out a few more of the stops, he could have come up with a much spicier performance--one which would have shocked some people, and would have been a good deal more interesting.
Mort Sahl is considered a critic--and yet people were laughing, I think, not so much because they heard what they didn't expect and what made them uncomfortable--but rather because they heard precisely what they knew they were going to hear, precisely what they wanted to hear, and precisely what they have eagerly believed to be true for some time.
And, after all, what can one expect? Here is Mort Sahl, critic, in Symphony Hall, one of the most exalted products of years of pleasant and successful conformity. He has left the dingy purlieus of the hungry i, and has had to pay the price. He has had his grimacing image on the cover of Time; he has performed on CBS, on NBC.
Repeatedly Wednesday night, Sahl alluded to remarks that he hadn't been able to use on television; he repeated them to the Symphony Hall audience, as though here were people who could be expected to understand and appreciate comments the television audience would resent. And indeed he had every right to expect it, for the lines were really quite tame, had no particular punch, reflected indeed the thoughts of most run-of-the-mill liberals in the country today. What would have been interesting to hear are the remarks he doubtless makes in small groups, at parties, perhaps to himself, prefaced by a succinct aside: "Well, gang, here's something that I didn't think was quite right for Symphony Hall...."
Essentially, Sahl is an exceedingly safe comedian. He merely articulates what thousands of Americans (correctly or incorrectly) have thought before him (to wit: 1. Nixon is an evil man. 2. Kennedy is ambitious, but not as evil as Nixon. 3. The President of the United States, alas, is a fool.). His well-known remark "Are there any minority groups I haven't offended?" is cute but deceptive, for he's careful only to offend the minority groups which one can get away with offending. His entire viewpoint resembles, in fact, that of a slightly eccentric but avid supporter of Adlai Stevenson. And it need hardly be remarked be that views of this sort have not been conspicuously absent from the recent political scene.
Mort Sahl says many things which, when read by themselves, (in Time magazine or the CRIMSON) are exceedingly funny. It takes a visit to one of his shows to perceive just how tame Sahl really is--and to realize that his "refreshing young voice" is actually uttering the same banalities that have been floating around us, available at bargain prices for some years.