One way my mother rewarded good behavior was to let us stay up and watch late night television with her. We would cuddle up and share the jokes and music and weird views of Jack Parr, and later The Tonight Show hosted by Steve Allen, and eventually Johnny Carson.

From an early age, The Tonight Show opened my experience to comedy, jazz, political commentary, and a general sense of the creative power and foolishness of humanity.

Watching and listening to the guests — a variety that included authors and artists along with the actors plugging their latest movies and musicians promoting albums hot from the vinyl press – I fantasized about my own future, what work I might do that could be worthy of a five-minute visit to the stage. I fell in love with words early on, and hearing writers exchange witticisms with Johnny gave me encouragement.

It was on those late nights, curled up with Mom, that I first witnessed stand-up comedy, and one of the first comedians to make an impression on me was Mort Sahl. When I say “make an impression” I want to be clear: Sahl was not one of those comics who made a name by imitating others. When he spoke it was always in his own voice. He was nobody’s mouthpiece, and he freely expresses his very strong opinions.

Some of the first jokes I heard him make were about the 1960 presidential election. When asked to comment about John F. Kennedy — at that time the presumptive winner of an undecided race against Ricard Nixon — Sahl said, “I’ve decided myself, as a personal morality, to restrict my criticism of the president until we find out who he is.”

A New York Jewish intellectual, his allegiances were not easy to pin down; Sahl would criticize Democrats and Republicans with equal fervor.

That was the year I discovered politics, a seven-year-old child caught up in the first major political campaign to tailor itself to the audience of the emerging technology of television.

In 1962, while NBC was checking out possibilities to replace Allen at the Tonight Show, Mort Sahl got a turn behind the big desk. He started his first monologue by saying he’d decided to “give politics a rest.” Instead, he said he’d had enough of divisiveness and was inviting a panel of women to talk about men. He and Hugh Downs — the show’s announcer and later co-anchor for a number of the network’s news and entertainment programs — would rebutt.

Inviting Downs to join him at the host’s desk, Sahl said, “This isn’t going to be like (current affairs host) David Susskind, because I don’t have any facts.”

During that trail run, Sahl hosted George Carlin’s first visit to The Tonight Show.

As a guest, Mort Sahl shared the spotlight with rising comics like Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Lenny Bruce. At the time, he was more pointedly political than Carlin and less confrontational than the latter two. Sahl was never profane, unlike Bruce, who was once arrested in New York for obscenity in Yiddish. A veteran and critic of the United States’ increasing militarism, he provided in depth foreign policy education to my impressionable mind.

Introducing Sahl, Steve Allen once said both he and Bruce were sometimes referred to as “sick comics … Of course that meant irreverent, outrageous, and in my personal opinion, extremely funny.” Saying Sahl was “not really sick at all, but always very funny and very insightful,” Allen called him “ … probably the only real political philosopher in modern comedy.”

“I was in the Korean War, which we called at the time World War 2.4,” Sahl said. “The Korean War didn’t quite end or start. You just kind of went there.”

“Everything I tell you is true,” he once said, differentiating his honest perspective from actual events.

The peak of his career came early; after Kennedy was shot he turned his focus to investigating that event and the other assassinations that followed, returning to comedy in the 1970s, as the satirical style he had pioneered fell more in line with popular culture.

In 1969, Sahl appeared on The Smother’s Brothers’ Comedy Hour, once more looking at the results of an election, and once more reminding us that popular judgement is just a point of view.

“When a man is elected and you say you’ve got to like him, that’s the same as discovering you’re pregnant and then trying to fall in love as rapidly as you can,” he said of the newly elected Richard Nixon. As he moved about the show’s circular stage, Sahl observed that he seemed to be moving to his right. “Your left is my right,” he said. “And that’s what makes this country … what it’s rapidly becoming.”

During a performing life that spanned more than 60 years, the outward stories changed, but Sahl’s description of events in the late 1960s show how much the essence has remained the same:

“Liberals wanted bussing — to establish racial integration — and didn’t want prayer in the schools, and the conservatives wanted prayer in the schools and no bussing, and the moderates wanted a compromise whereby there would be prayer on the bus on the way to the school.”

In the post-Sept. 11 world of perpetual war, Sahl said. “The idea of war is that you’re not supposed to win. You’re supposed to go there and stay there.”

One of his last performances, sometime in the mid-2010s, was on the British show Set List. Saying he’d been asked, by a friend, why he was back in London, Sahl replied, “We’re all back, The experiment failed.”

Mort Sahl inspired me as a writer and an activist, and for a brief time, as a stand up comedian. Like him, I avoided foul language and tried to use humor to reveal a truth. That I was less successful is all on me.

Comedy doesn’t have to be offensive, but good comedy often offends someone. The difference between comedians like Mort Sahl and George Carlin — and most of the ones I shared a stage with during my brief courtship with stand-up — is not that the earlier comics were less offensive, but that they didn’t need to get all scatalogical and prurient. They used the attention they gathered to talk about important things.

Mort Sahl was 94 when he died at his home in Mill Valley on Oct. 26, 2021.

Shlomit Auciello is a writer, photographer, and human ecologist who has lived in Midcoast Maine since 1988. Letter From Away has appeared online and in print, on and off since 1992, and is published here on a weekly basis.

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