On the Scene: Playing Left Field

Good news, bad news …

First the bad news: The headlines greeting readers and viewers every morning.

Now the good news: Mort Saul has been heading off the headlines for the past 50 years with a wile and wit that makes everything that's fit to print fodder for his fulminations.

Read the fine print: Mort Sahl is a merry old soul – well, chronologically perhaps; but the fire within this spritely 78-year-old is an eternal flame that combusts with robust comic timing.

And, clad in that forever sweater and cloak of caustic commentary, Saul will be back on the local stage this weekend – Oct. 29, at 8 p.m.; and the next day at 2 p.m. – ,joining fellow firebrand Dick Gregory in "Performance in the Present Tense," at the Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St. in Philadelphia.

Rebbe with a cause? If anything, Saul is ever the teacher, using the daily newspaper – which he clutches under his arm on his journalistic journey across the stage – as a weapon to swat the sweat out of insincere politicians.

Where there's a will, there's a Saul: "Will Rogers used to come out with a newspaper and pretend he was a yokel criticizing the intellectuals who ran the government.

"I come out with a newspaper and pretend I'm an intellectual making fun of the yokels running the government."

He's yoked his career to the infallible conceit that people are fallible, and that government leaders are led by their ids and egos too often for the public good.

From the Hungry I club in the '50s to the from-hunger oys that greet many a politician's opportunism, opportunity has knocked for Sahl – and he's knocked the politicians right back.

Dubbed by Time 45 years ago as "The Patriarch of a New School of Comedians," the magazine's first comedic cover boy has graduated since to the granddaddy of digs. Time hasn't passed him by – it's made him more current.

And comfortable. "Yeah, it's pretty comfortable, cashmere," he says of the sweater he dons nightly.

"From China."

His humor knows no boundaries. Global warming? This Jewish japer warms to the world as an orb off its axis.

"Do newspaper headlines change over the years? Well, the country seems more sour," says Sahl. "It's as if we're not looking to make a better world."

It's Mort's world – and welcome to it. Indeed, he's the real winner of the world serious: Playing left field for the Washington liberals …

Think of Sahl as the DH – denting hypocrisy. He's truly a democrat – sticking it to all parties when they're off-base.

"Oh, the Democrats … they're such a joke these days," he says. "They've made themselves out to have this morally superior attitude to conservatives. Even look at the comedians, like Jon Stewart" – described by some as a modern-day Mort, albeit not by Sahl himself – "they all want to make Bush out to be a moron.

"Tell me, if he's such a moron, just how did he win?"

Winning over those who feel "morally superior" is not his moral obligation, assures Sahl. In fact, he says, those who look down on others often find themselves looking up at the heels they hate.

Former President Reagan "used to like the fact that people thought he was 'mentally inferior,' said that it gave him an edge."

Need someone to push the self-righteous over the edge? Mort for hire.

On Mel Gibson, whose "The Passion of the Christ" had a major booster in his own right-wing father: "A perfect example of how you can go wrong if you love your parents."

Fox broadcaster Sean Hannity: "Isn't it possible for them to get a real fascist instead of this guy who plays one on TV?"

Liberals v. conservatives: "Liberals feel unworthy of their possessions. Conservatives feel they deserve everything they've stolen."

'Women and Jews'
Some stolen moments with Sahl now reveal a man who revels in pricking the unjustly proud; deflating balloons and torching the hot gas that fills them.

For the first modern-day entertainer to ever record a comedy album, going on the record is a natural calling. Court controversy? Guilty as charged!

"The two biggest disappointments in my life: Women and Jews," says Saul of what he considers the feminist movement gone awry and the Chosen People opting for safer choices in life.

Give him that old-time religion – or at least, give him the Jewish people before they became "paralyzed" some 50 years ago.

It dates back to "when they started the Spanish Inquisition here [Hollywood] in the '50s," says the legendary liberal of the McCarthy anti-Communist hearings that targeted many Hollywood Jews as leftist-leaning. "Everybody got frightened; subsequently they [Jews] became paralyzed."

But they have been able to move ahead of the pack, taking the righteous road, which is the "reason why [Jews] are hated around the world. The yoke of morality – of being a mensch – is a moral straightjacket," which doesn't suit much of the world, says Saul with more than a hint of pride.

In an Internet age of innuendo, call Saul's cutting-edge humor Mac the knife; it certainly isn't P.C. "Oh, political correctness produces some strange people," he says with a laugh. "Like black Republicans."

Hail to this chief chockablock with anecdotes and memories. The one-time presidential speechwriter for John F. Kennedy is rarely left speechless – whether on stage, on CDs or during an interview.

And even those – especially those – who bear the brunt of his broadsides brook the insults as a badge of honor. The sardonic satirist is also a good listener, however, recalling fondly, "I was at a party at the White House when [late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem] Begin and Reagan got into a bake-off of Jewish stories. They were really good," he says of the two storytellers.

Sahl's own story offers more than killer comedy; it includes ideas about conspiracy theories and the assassination of Kennedy. For years, Sahl took it on the chin because of his involvement in and defense of former New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison's controversial investigation of JFK's murder.

That was then, this is now. And while Sahl's liberal cred may not stand him in great stead in a conservative environment, he can at least imagine conversations in the Oval Office without being there.

As for Bush talking to his daughters and them asking him: "What did you do in the war, Daddy?"

His response: "I started it."

Start with Saul and get out of the way of sarcastic sorties. He saves some of his best heat-seeking missiles for misguided comedians, declaring that they don't go far enough: "They have no politics; it's all self-aggrandizement," he says of today's political comics. "What it is is a misplaced social humanism mistaken for liberalism."

No mistaking Sahl's bent. Blame it on Canada? The Montreal native is no American come lately; he's been living in Los Angeles since the age of 4.

Age of reason? "Not here," he quips of Hollywood hypocrites, those stars who consider themselves screen savers of the social order.

If people who like people like Barbra Streisand's views so much, "how come they keep electing [actors who are] Republicans?"

It's obvious that Saul has the beat on taking the measure of society. And if there is music in his delivery, maybe it's because legendary jazz artist Stan Kenton was a muse.

"He had more conviction than anyone I knew," says Sahl of his late legendary friend and "great surrogate father, who was like a rabbi to me."

And if there's one thing that Sahl himself has learned from the public arena that is his bimah, it's the importance of the arc of everyday life and what a solid, good, clean shot of a joke can do to help others.

Cosmic comedy and cosmetology? People just look better, says Sahl, when they've had a good laugh out of life.



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