Not Going Gentle into That Good Night, Caustic Comic Mort Sahl Gears Up for a Broadway Comeback

updated 10/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Here's the joke: "Eisenhower proved that we don't need a President...." No. They may not remember Eisenhower. Okay, let's try this: "Nixon killed the Presidency, Carter buried it, and Reagan gave it life after death." That's a little too slow. No, here's the joke: "Washington couldn't tell a lie, Nixon couldn't tell the truth, and Reagan can't tell the difference."

Mort Sahl has come back to haunt us.

America's most passionate humorist—the man who shaped modern political satire way back in the '50s—is back onstage, still wearing his eternal sweater and a smile like a grimace on his postgraduate face—still trying, after all this time, to move the earth with a new twist to an old joke.

In a small nightclub in Santa Barbara, Calif., Sahl, now 60, is trying out lines like an old soldier seeing if the uniform still fits, getting ready for a one-man show (Mort Sahl On Broadway) that opens this week at New York's Neil Simon Theater. "I've been trying for a larger platform for a long time," he explains afterward. "When Jackie Mason took off in his one-man show, they figured there was a chance for me."

Once the intellectual supernova where the orbits of politics and comedy crossed, Sahl has been in eclipse for the past two decades. There was a time when fans poured in from the heartland to hear Sahl's scalpel-sharp opinions. There was a time when he was writing gags for John F. Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson, living in his own bachelor apartment at the Playboy mansion in Chicago and issuing bons mots like news bulletins. ("Wernher von Braun aimed at the stars and hit London.") In 1960 his face was on the cover of TIME, he hosted the Academy Awards and squired around America's most desirable women.

Then he became obsessed with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Sahl was certain that the President's murder was the result of a conspiracy engineered by the CIA, and he made it his mission to convince the world. For almost a quarter-century—on or off the stage—he couldn't stop talking about it. He was branded a paranoid. He lost a lot of friends and the bulk of his income (which dropped from perhaps $1 million a year in 1964 to $17,000 by 1969), and, most of all, he lost his audience. But even that didn't stop him. ("You can't turn your back on murder," he insists.) He was never unemployed during the outcast years—he worked small clubs and wrote unproduced movies and television scripts. But the whisper that he had grown hopelessly sour poisoned his chance for a major audience.

Until now. "I think this may be his time to come back," says former Sen. Eugene McCarthy, the poet and erstwhile political standard-bearer of the counterculture. "Mort was too sophisticated for the '70s; there wasn't much reflection then. Now people may be more responsive to satire."

Or they may not. Sahl's backers have booked him on Broadway for just four weeks. Sahl knows that the price of failure would probably be more empty years in Las Vegas, where vague-name comics open like twilight for the stars.

Perhaps that is why his jokes are not as uncompromisingly painful as they were 35 years ago when he was an angry young prophet, standing against a brick-wall backdrop, wagging that trademark newspaper in America's face like an accusing finger. Maybe less angry, and definitely less young—he has a touch of bursitis and high blood pressure—he cuts his act to suit the times. "Reagan's kidding around: 'I just outlawed Russia. We begin bombing in five minutes.' My friend Al Haig says, 'I hope this isn't another empty campaign promise.' "

Yes, he endorsed the conservative Haig for President, as the least of all evils—"A really nice guy. Besides, he doesn't promise much, so you can't hold him to much." Sahl even visited the Reagan White House and had his picture taken with Nancy ("an old friend and she loves her husband"), thus causing confusion among the ideological accountants. "I'm a radical with no place to turn," he quips. "All these Democratic campaign staffs are trying to employ me—Gore and Dukakis, they all say the same thing. 'Mort, our man's just like Kennedy. You loved Kennedy, Mort.' So I say, 'Good Lord, is there anybody in this Democratic Party that didn't like Jack Kennedy?' And somebody says, 'Yes, Ted Kennedy.' "

He is sitting in his house now, high up in Beverly Hills. Outside is a large satellite dish, and the news programs never stop. It is as if Mort Sahl regards himself as a sort of early warning system for current events. His second wife, China Lee (a former Bunny and Playboy executive), is now his manager. They have a son, Mort Jr., 11.

"My friends said I was too selfish to have a child, but Mort made a man out of me," he says, and for once the face softens, the guard drops, the smile isn't part of the job. "I just wish that he could have met his grandparents. They died before he was born. When China and I first got married in 1970, we lost a parent every six months. For two years."

Born in Canada, Sahl was the child of an American father and a Canadian mother. In one of the many ironies that pepper the radical iconoclast's life, his father, Harry Sahl, was a clerk for the FBI. "He wanted to be a playwright," recalls Mort. "After he died we found a box of his writings in the closet, marked Harry Sahl: Personal."

As Sahl drives along the palm-lined roads of West Los Angeles, on his way to pick up his son at an exclusive private school, he recalls his own youth during World War II, when he tried in vain to enlist at 16. For him the values of that time became fixed forever. There were heroes and there were villains, and a body of wisdom and humor lurked in the working-class heart of America. "I wanted to be a pilot and a paratrooper and a hero," he says. "I wanted to save America. I still do."

During his college years, when he helped support himself by selling used cars, he began entertaining college friends at parties with stand-up routines. "I wanted some kind of approval and I wanted an audience. I also wanted to be a jazz musician, but I couldn't play." Over Christmas of 1953 he performed at a club called the hungry i in San Francisco. Within six months he had developed a following. Soon he was the hottest humorist in America. And then he was not.

"Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives," says Sahl, who feels the pressure of the odds against him. He relentlessly works on his performance, honing, sharpening the lines. "Nakasone is talking to Reagan about the economy and cars. Nakasone says to him, 'Mr. President, we'll acknowledge the economic problem, but what about Hiroshima? We never destroyed one of your cities.' Reagan says, 'What about Detroit?' "

The eyebrows arch. The teeth gleam. Mort Sahl is getting ready for his second act on the American stage. He knows there won't be many more chances.

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