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Why Mort Sahl mattered

He was the alter zeyde, the grandfather of today's comics. He was also my rebbe.

If you are younger than, say, fifty years old, I will forgive you if the name means little or nothing to you.

But, this week we lost Mort Sahl, aged 94, one of the great comedians and humorists of our time.

If you binged on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, then you already have some familiarity with the comedy scene of the late 1950s — especially Lenny Bruce.

But, let us not forget Lenny’s “brother” and contemporary (they were precisely the same age), Mort Sahl. Because whenever I think of how deeply Jewish standup comedy is, yes, I think of Lenny — but more often than not, I think of Mort.

Mort Sahl was a different kind of comedian. He was a social critic, a contrarian. a skeptic. He hated conformity, What was happening in the world drove him crazy; he would often walk on stage, wielding a newspaper, riffing on the news. When it came to the JFK assassination, he was all conspiracy theory, at a time when you did not have to be crazy to be a conspiracy buff.

He criticized the American political system — from all sides (in fact, his later political leanings were, in a word, confused). Check this out. 

“Liberals are people,” he once said, “who do the right things for the wrong reasons so they can feel good for ten minutes.”

In a sense, then (OK, this is a stretch, but stay with me): Mort followed in the footsteps of the ancient prophets. They were angry, cantankerous individuals who turned their jaundiced eye to kings, priest, the common people — and sometimes, God.

To be sure, this did not win them any popularity contests.The Christian author Frederick Buechner once quipped that “there is no evidence of a prophet being invited back a second time for dinner.”

So, too, it was said of Mort that he was “a very likable guy who makes ex-friends easily.” It was not easy being Mort, and his career suffered the usual ups and downs. His life makes me think of the New Yorker cartoon that has stayed in my files — in which the court jester has his head on the chopping block, and the executioner is saying to him: “You didn’t just make silly jokes, no, sir! You really gave us something to think about.”

That was Mort’s “problem.” He was very funny, but he always gave us something to think about. He was true to his calling, and he never abandoned his authentic voice.

Mort was not only a prophet, in a very loose, colloquial sense. He was also a rebbe, because he raised up disciples — whether they acknowledged him or not.

I have already mentioned Lenny Bruce. Lenny’s signal tragedy was that he went “dirty” at a time when America could not bear the words he spoke — a hypocrisy that enraged him all the more. Lenny’s tragedy was also his drug use, which ultimately claimed him when he was little older than forty.

If I were writing this according to biblical cadences, I would say: “Lenny and Mort begat Dick Gregory, and they begat George Carlin, and they begat Richard Pryor, and they would then begat Sarah Silverman.” And to a lesser but no less powerful extent: Robin Williams and Joan Rivers and yes, Bill Mahrer and Jon Stewart and…(fill in your own favorite comedians here).

You get the picture. There was something distinctively Sahlian and Bruceian in the way that American stand up unfolded in the 1960s and beyond. It was not destined to be merely funny. Like the hapless court jester with his head on the block, the comedy had to make you think as well.

That was essentially Jewish as well. No, Carlin and Gregory and Pryor, et al,, were not Jewish. But there was something metaphorically Jewish about going on on the stage alone, vulnerable, and telling the truth and hoping that people would laugh.

Or, think.

As I said, Mort liked to come out on stage, reading a newspaper. He would then go nuts on the news, spewing his outrage all over the place.

Time for a confession. I once did that, as well. It was more than thirty years ago. I came out on the pulpit, reading a news item on the plight of the Kurds — and I went biblically ballistic.

Or, if you are wondering how it is that I decided to get into the “shake and stir” profession — yes, it was the prophets, and it was Heschel, and it was various rabbinical exemplars.

But, truth be told: Mort Sahl was my rebbe, as well.

Thanks, Mort. Whether we know it or not, any one of us who has laughed at a comedian’s shtick in the last forty years or so was also laughing at you.

What I learned from Mort Sahl was that if you are going to tell the truth, leave ’em laughing, as well.

May that laughter resound as Mort Sahl’s enduring kaddish.