It’s the reboot of What’s So Funny! and there’s a new spin on things! Our host, Dave Schwensen, returns and this time he’s brought three of his friends: Kelly, Tom, and Logan. Join in as we listen to comedy albums from the 1950s, ‘60s, or ‘70s. We’ll take a look at the life of the comedian as well as the cultural relevance of the album then and now. So sit back, relax, and get ready to laugh!

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The Political Satire of Mort Sahl in “The Future Lies Ahead”

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It’s the first episode of the new season of What’s So Funny! and we are listening to the first recorded modern comedy album, “The Future Lies Ahead” by Mort Sahl. Our host, Dave Schwensen is back and better than ever, and we’ll meet our first co-host of the season, Cleveland Comedy Festival’s own, Logan Rishaw. Mort Sahl is the master of political satire, he was the first comedian to be on the cover of Time Magazine, the original comedy game changer. Listen in to find out how Mort Sahl transformed the comedy scene one newspaper at a time!

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Narrator:
Welcome to What's So Funny, a comedy podcast where we talk about some of the most influential and controversial comedy albums from the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. Sit back, relax, and get ready to laugh. Here's your host your host, Dave Schwensen.

Dave Schwensen:
Hi. I'm your host Dave Schwensen. And today I'm joined by Logan Rishaw.

Logan Rishaw:
Hi, Dave.

Dave Schwensen:
Well, hi, Logan. How are you?

Logan Rishaw:
I'm doing great today. How about you?

Dave Schwensen:
Why don't you tell us a little something about yourself?

Logan Rishaw:
I've been doing comedy for around five years now. In the past two I've been producing the Cleveland Comedy Festival, and that's an annual festival here in Cleveland at Playhouse Square.

Dave Schwensen:
Very nice.

Logan Rishaw:
And it takes place every November.

Dave Schwensen:
I remember when the Cleveland Comedy Festival started, and that's really a great deal. I love comedy festivals and all those cities.

Logan Rishaw:
So, Dave, what's been going on with you lately?

Dave Schwensen:
Well, Logan, let me tell you. Actually, I'm working on finishing a new book. My former book called How to be a Working Comic deserves some kind of a sequel, so I'm working on that. And getting ready to do some more of my comedy workshops coming up in Chicago and Cleveland. So I'm pretty excited about that. I'm also excited about this new version of What's So Funny, where not only are we listening to comedy albums from the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, but we'll also take a look back at the life of the comedians we're talking about and what was going on during that time. The album we're listening to today is from Mort Sahl. It's a 1958 album called The Future Lies Ahead.

Logan Rishaw:
And this is a social satire, a very political album by Mort Sahl. And what's most interesting is that it's actually one of the first standup, modern standup, comedy albums ever recorded.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah, there was one recorded actually three years before this called At Sunset.

Logan Rishaw:
Which is weird because he has the first recorded modern comedy album with The Future Lies Ahead as far as release date, but he also has the first live modern standup recording with At Sunset, which was recorded in 1955, but came out a few months after this without his approval.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah. I call it a bootleg. But what's interesting too, I don't want people to misunderstand, because this was not the first recording of standup comedy.

Logan Rishaw:
No, definitely not.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah, they had comedy albums ... I don't know if we can go, say, as far back as the '30s, but in the '40s, early '50s, there were a few comedians out there that worked very blue, and they really could not get away with that type of language in those days. They could be busted for it. It could be arrested for obscenities. Many of these comedians from Vaudeville and the smaller clubs, they recorded albums of their dirty jokes. Oh, well let's get right into it with our first clip today from Mort Sahl. This is from his album The Future Lies Ahead, which is a very classic comedy album. It was recorded in 1958 at the hungry i. All right, let's set the scene for what was going now. This was 1958. In the White House you had Eisenhower was the president, Richard Nixon was your vice president. And then the space race and the Cold War was going on, and it seemed like everybody was looking everywhere else for communists.

Announcer 1:
(Comedy Clip) The hungry i is very proud to announcer the next president of the United States, Mort Sahl.

Mort Sahl:
(Comedy Clip) Thank you. We're making records here. I hope this won't ... I just want to explain what all these mics for. I don't want to do an imitation of the president, and I don't have Jim Haggerty here. So, yeah, I have Sherman Adams though in the back. At any rate, the president and Sherman Adams and Arthur Godfrey and Tony Marvin. It kind of works out that way. Anyway, we're making records here, and this cable goes back. And the recording engineer is Herbert Philbrick, whom you may know. Now, I want to, before I did the brick wall ... I'm still a Bohemian. I don't want any of you to think that I sold out. And the generation is now in style, isn't it? The Beat Generation. Anyway, I wanted to mention here before we going any farther that President Eisenhower is going to run for a third term, and I thought that should take precedence over homecoming speeches and all things like that.

Mort Sahl:
(Comedy Clip) And he made a speech last night, which got a seven on NBC. It says ... and Zorro got an 18. Well, anyway, so President Eisenhower's going to run for a third term and in the meantime, or at least he said he would, Vice President Nixon has his hand on the switch. And I was in the East when the president got sick and Vice President Nixon moved in and started appearing on all these magazines, and he sort of came of age or at the end of the year. And he's writing, he got his glasses, he got those new glasses and all, and with wrought iron frames. Right? Remember those? So anyway, President Eisenhower was depending on Vice President Nixon to keep his hand on the throttle. And he was on all these magazines, like Time and Newsweek and Life. And almost every magazine with the exception of True, which has a hidden significance, which I'm not ... anyway.

Mort Sahl:
(Comedy Clip) So, anyway, neutral colors. So at any rate, the Vice President Nixon, as you know is supposed to go to the NATO meeting. Anyway, he's in charge of calling eggheads back. That's what it says here. And he's going to woo them for the administration. So several eggheads have been called back, including Dr. Oppenheimer, who was granted amnesty this week. And he is taking a quick course in German, so he may join the others defending our country. Right? Anyway, thank you. Thank you. So anyway, I might add that I've been working with nothing but jazz all year and I haven't been working with any folk singers. I've been away from the womb. And I got to tell you, I'm working with all the jazz people.

Mort Sahl:
(Comedy Clip) And I haven't ... I saw one folk singer in New York, but then it was like a vacation, it didn't mean anything. It was a guy at the Waldorf who was wearing a shirt, a velvet shirt, just kind of skin tight, open to the navel, one of those fellows, and he didn't have one. That's all I wanted to tell you about. So at any rate, which is either a show business gimmick, of course, or the ultimate rejection of mother, which [inaudible 00:06:15]. So I know I'm getting into psychology. I want to forget my political conscience. So, at any rate, we were on the road and when we went out with, both of us, went out with Dave Brubeck, who is of course an alumnus of this area. And we did a tour through the Ivy League and brainwashing students and we went up through some great schools. A lot of schools like St. Lawrence and Cornell, a lot of those. And a few outside schools that aren't Ivy League, but these students are allowed to wear the clothing anyway, which is a step ahead.

Mort Sahl:
(Comedy Clip) I know. I think better understanding is coming out of all of this. So we wound up the tour in Portland, Maine on Saturday night. And those of you who haven't been in Maine, you know you hear all the jokes about Philadelphia? Well, we were in Maine on Saturday night, which is kind of depressing. And we're supposed to work. And there were a lot of rumors that Brubeck didn't want to work because it was Mozart's birthday. There was one of those folklore things going. He wants to spend it with his kids. We all have a thing.

Mort Sahl:
(Comedy Clip) So I went into town with this other fellow in the unit as a bachelor. We went into town, and we went to see what was shaking in Portland, Maine at night. So it's kind of a fantasy we're living in. So we went to this cab driver ... and I don't want you to think we're like that, but you must remember what men are like in war. It's that kind of a show tonight. So we went to this cab driver and we said to him, "Where's the action?" Just kind of masculine, sort of. So he took us to this place where they fish illegally. Thank you. You are-

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah. These comedians all have their stories about life on the road. And when Mort Sahl refers to Philadelphia, you know it's the old WC Fields joke, right? "I spent a week in Philadelphia one night."

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah. I mean, there's a lot of things that still would transfer to today's comics too, all the stories about being on the road. But even the political stuff, if you just change the names of the politicians, it holds up.

Logan Rishaw:
Yes. Yeah. Truth. Truth, justice, and the American way. But it's really a like a time capsule.

Dave Schwensen:
It is. Absolutely. It's a whole who's who of the '50s.

Logan Rishaw:
Yes. And we recognize the names of course, Eisenhower and Nixon.

Dave Schwensen:
Then there's fun ones like Oppenheimer. You go back on Wikipedia and figure out who that was just to refresh your memory.

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah, and somewhere we're going through the scandals at the time. And when was something by Mort Sahl not political, by the way? He seemed to really get a very first political comic satire that he did. He was known for that, at the time. We're talking the early mid 1950s. There had been no one it doing that since. I think, Will Rogers. And that would be what? The '30s? Way before our time.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah. At this time a lot of comics who were around were kind of doing those jokes that we hear, like take my wife for example, those sorts of jokes. And this is one of the first people who really talks about everything that was topical and news of the day.

Logan Rishaw:
Well, to be quite honest about Mort Sahl, he's the one that changed everything.

Dave Schwensen:
He really is. I mean, as far as the modern comedy, what we look at as now is doing monologues. The late night TV hosts, everyone from Lenny Bruce to Woody Allen, they all point to Mort Sahl as being that influence. Because you're right, Logan. You're right. Before Mort Sahl, the comics were just doing shtick. They would do a ... they'd be all wearing their suits and they had their polished act. They did their same act every time. And the funny thing about that too, this is before television, before the advent of comedy clubs, a lot of these old time comics were doing the same act.

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah. Or they were sharing bits with each other back and forth.

Dave Schwensen:
They were doing the exact same jokes, just in different venues or different parts of the country. And then Mort Sahl came along and he just changed everything.

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah. He would go into jazz clubs. He wouldn't have the full suit, instead he was very underdressed by those standards of the day. He would go in with a button up shirt and a cardigan.

Dave Schwensen:
He was a hipster.

Logan Rishaw:
And he had a newspaper.

Dave Schwensen:
Like he said, he was a hipster.

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah. Yeah. I mean by today's standards, that'd be like going on stage and shorts or a flannel.

Dave Schwensen:
Yes.

Logan Rishaw:
So today it looks like he's still dressed up, but back then that was something you didn't do. And he would just walk up with a newspaper and start reading the front page to people.

Dave Schwensen:
He would read the newspaper during the day. He would read it, he would have ideas. He knows what's going on in the world. And just his comedic mind, whatever, his sense of humor would take over. So he would just go on stage and read these articles out of a newspaper, but add his own take, his own opinion to this, that was funny.

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah. He'd have a rough outline almost of what he's going to do, but he would ... when he performed in jazz clubs, he almost acted like a jazz musician himself. He would ad lib and go in different directions, drop stories in the middle of telling them and move on to something else. Wherever his mind wanted to go, he would just follow it. Whether he knew where it's going to end or not.

Dave Schwensen:
Well, it was so fascinating. It through everyone else for a loop. Because there was no other comic like that.

Logan Rishaw:
You can find a documentary about the hungry i, I think on some of the streaming sites. But I saw the owner actually talk about Mort Sahl a little bit. And it was so funny because when Mort started, it was one of his friends dragging him to the hungry i, asking if he could perform. And they're like, "We've got this guy, he's very funny, he's a good comedian. He's just out of the service. He's having a breakdown, we need to do something with him." And the owner was like, "Okay, well, we'll put them up. What's the worst that could happen?" And he watched Mort and he just went, "Well, it's a jazz club. At the very least the audience is going to be polite. If they understand the joke or not, that's okay." And then he said he would look in the crowd and see people nudging their friends asking, "What's that even mean?" And then the other friend would be like, "It doesn't matter." And that was the punchline. And not everyone was getting the jokes at all times, because he was just so rapid fire.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah. A rebel without a pause.

Logan Rishaw:
Exactly.

Dave Schwensen:
It what they called him.

Logan Rishaw:
So one important thing in that first clip is how Mort Sahl brought up Herbert Philbrick and Richard Nixon. And for me, it's kind of interesting just to hear about Richard Nixon as a younger politician, because I don't think most people today really think of him before he was president. But there was a time where he was sort of an upstart, up and coming Republican, which is crazy to get this sort of perspective in comedy. But also the mention of Herbert Philbrick, who was an ad exec that was involved with the Communist party and the FBI.

Dave Schwensen:
Well, he infiltrated it.

Logan Rishaw:
He infiltrated it.

Dave Schwensen:
For the FBI.

Logan Rishaw:
On behalf of them.

Dave Schwensen:
So you got to remember, this is when Joseph McCarthy was out there with the big blacklisting of many entertainers because they were believed to have something to do with the Communist party.

Logan Rishaw:
And this was a topic that Mort Sahl loved to get into. He was really interested in Communism rising in America. He was interested in McCarthyism. And later would kind of lead to him being sort of a conspiracy theorist in his own way.

Dave Schwensen:
Yes. Yeah. Well, I mean, that's what a really, I guess, set him off, politics and opinions. And so here we are, 1958, he's already talking about all this. And matter of fact, let's just use that right now to get into another clip by Mort Sahl. This is from his album The Future Lies Ahead.

Mort Sahl:
(Comedy Clip) I did want to say a couple of words about the Beat Generation if I can, because I really saw it up close. I was working in Greenwich Village, and lucky me. And while I was down there it was kind of exciting in the New York city, because the IRT stopped running. It was kind of a panic there. And people were learning to live off the land. Do you know how New Yorkers are? So we went ... so it was really a kick though. So while I was in Greenwich Village, some of you read a spy was arrested there named Colonel Rudolf Abel, who was the first Russian spy to be arrested in this country in 13 years. It was kind of a real morale builder for a lot of us. And he was arrested by the field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And they called in New York and called up Washington and said, "We found a Russian spy in the Village." And you I probably read about his trial in Life magazine.

Mort Sahl:
(Comedy Clip) And they said, "We found this Russian spy." And of course the Washington people have a typical distrust of field offices. And they said, "Come on now. Stop playing it cloak and dagger. What'd you get? What is he, a school teacher? Are you sure he isn't a writer or something?" They said, "No." And is he addicted to folk music, and all they're having kind of a checklist. They said, "No. He's a spy. We wouldn't kid you. It doesn't happen this often." It only happens once. And guys are Washington were saying, "How do I know it's real?" There was a lot of that. So the problem was whether ... how to evaluate this thing. See, because we hadn't had any spies for a long time, and guys Washington were justified in their cynicism, I think. Because we hadn't had any spies for a long time.

Mort Sahl:
(Comedy Clip) And the Russians, meanwhile, have had all kinds of spies, not real ones, but they were unscrupulous. And I have a lot of student friends who were in Europe, and the Russians will always arrest them. They'd always be around the Eastern zone on Sunday with their rollies. And the Russians would throw them in prison for the rest of their lives, or the end of the Fulbright, which is the same thing in our group. I don't know about ... right? It's a very dependent, very dependent kind of ... so when they are ... so we had never had a spy. We tried to do better in the Olympics and build a better car and a lot of things like that. But we never had a spy. And people began to get depressed for several years. And it got so bad, as you recall, for a while they had a committee to find spies. That was their job. And they used to travel around to try to find spies. And they were pretty good guys, but let's face it, if there's going to be had, there's nothing to be had.

Mort Sahl:
(Comedy Clip) So there was a kind of a retaliatory thing going on. And for a long time ... you remember that there was a kind of a Cold War, the seesaw. And every time the Russians would put an American in jail, this committee would put an American in jail. But that didn't quite meet the need. Remember this? So, right? So then they got Colonel Abel, so a lot of us were happy. And then he was brought into federal court in Philadelphia and they had all these people who lived around him in the Village who had known him for seven years. And they were all people, government witnesses, and they're all people who read poetry in front of jazz groups, people like that. And wear duffle coats and sandals, real revolt people.

Mort Sahl:
(Comedy Clip) And they had ... and people who paint with rollers and people make jewelry and everything. So they were ... they all came in and they said that they knew Abel for seven years when he had moved on to MacDougal Street in the Village. They'd come in with a welcome wagon, to welcome him with hashish and long pipes and all that other ... anyway, so they said the government prosecutor asked them if they knew he was a Russian spy, because they're trying to build a conspiracy case. And these people all said, "Oh, yeah, quite openly. When he moved in, we asked him what he did. He said, "I'm a Russian spy."" And then all these artists would say, "Well, that's the Village." Exciting. All right. Now we have-

Logan Rishaw:
Now you talk about a rapid fire delivery.

Dave Schwensen:
Mort Sahl. That's why he got that nickname, the rebel without a pause. He just kept going through the jokes. Sometimes he would talk over people's laughter, and just transition-

Logan Rishaw:
Well, you know why?

Dave Schwensen:
... straight from one joke to the other.

Logan Rishaw:
He did that, though, I read this about Mort Sahl, that he was worried people weren't going to laugh.

Dave Schwensen:
Oh, really?

Logan Rishaw:
Yes.

Dave Schwensen:
So he's just trying to fill any silence?

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah. He wasn't going to stop. He was worried. Just keep going. And so he did not stop. He didn't really work with a lot of pauses there. But it's so intelligent, is what he's talking about, about the presidents.

Dave Schwensen:
Whatever he's saying, whether you can follow it or not, depending on the bit, it sounds like he knows what he's talking about.

Logan Rishaw:
Right. And the thing is, they called him an intellectual comedian. And he laughed about that in an interview I read with him. He said, "I wasn't even a CS student. How are they calling me that?"

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah, his whole storytelling style is fantastic. It actually is very common now as the late night monologue style. It's what it sounds like we're listening to. It sounds like how Carson would start his shows, or even today's late night hosts.

Logan Rishaw:
Well, sure. Yeah. All the late night hosts. I mean, it all came-

Dave Schwensen:
It's all built on this foundation.

Logan Rishaw:
Yes. From Mort Sahl. Again, what he was talking about in the 1950s with Russian spies ... oh, the other thing I like too is because he's really from the jazz generation, like Lenny Bruce. They were like cool cats, is how you can describe them.

Dave Schwensen:
Almost like almost beatniks.

Logan Rishaw:
No, no. They were before the beatniks. They were the jazz guys, and then they were talking about the Beat Generation coming after that. That was the beats, the beatniks. And the folk singers and things. So he's making fun of someone trying to read poetry in front of a jazz group. But it was really talking about the folk singers, which he liked that ... he came up out of the folk clubs too. But when he was talking about the Village and different things, I see the generational gap. You had Mort Sahl, and then after that would be like the Bob Dylan kind of generation coming in. And so I do see the difference in there, and I do relate comedy a lot to music.

Dave Schwensen:
Well, yeah, certainly with the changes that happen, especially in this generation, you see him leading into something new. He's very kind of aggressive for the '50s, but then, like you said, Lenny Bruce comes from this, so sort of takes on that mantle of pushing the envelope throughout the '60s.

Logan Rishaw:
Well, who was it? They called it [Sicknik 00:18:33] Comedy, I think at that time. [Sickniks 00:18:35]. And it was led by Mort Sahl, also included Lenny Bruce and also Dick Gregory.

Dave Schwensen:
Since you brought up Dick Gregory, he's got this one quote on an album that I love where he's talking about the comparisons people made between him and Mort Sahl. and he says, "A lot of people are saying, you are the black Mort Sahl. And I think Mort Sahl's the white Dick Gregory." And they were just so entwined as comedians.

Logan Rishaw:
Well, it was a completely different time. That's why I love doing this show, because we get to look back at how these comedians and the material and everything developed through what was going on at the time, but he was not doing anything that the other comics were doing before. He took it in a completely different direction.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah, he was doing things that people weren't really supposed to talk about in front of a crowd, and he was making that his entire act.

Logan Rishaw:
And it's really living on the edge. Talk about walking a tight wire, because you didn't know if it was going to go or not. And again, that's why he was talking so fast. It's like if this is not going to work, they're going to laugh at this or they'll laugh at that. But he did say if the audience wouldn't go with him, he knew enough he could change it. He didn't have an act where he had to stay with it all the way through beginning to end. He could change things.

Dave Schwensen:
He wouldn't just focus on politics or social issues too. He would attack theism as well. And that leads us to our next clip here from The Future Lies by Mort Sahl.

Logan Rishaw:
All right, well let's take a listen, see what he has to say.

Mort Sahl:
(Comedy Clip) Now, are there any groups which we have not offended in some small way? I've gone into every field except theism. I do that on the next show. And I'll tell you all about the Billy Graham rally in New York, which I went to in your interest. Kind of a consumer's test. I did. I went to see him. And he's a pretty wild. And he's got ... I thought it quite significant that his annual report is in the paper for the 57 Crusade to Save Souls. And it didn't get into the religious section on Saturday or Sunday, but it's on the financial page, which I think is significant. So, well, he did very well. There's nothing wrong with paying your way.

Mort Sahl:
(Comedy Clip) So at any rate, that isn't what I meant. I thought I heard some bowling upstairs. So anyway, he's kind of ... he does that all the time. You got the wrong connotation. I think too many of you are free associating. That didn't mean ... no, that's not that. Graham does that all the time. He's always reading and looking up, which even people in the field will admit is an assumption. We don't know. I mean, we think it, right? He does that, and he always to his audiences, "Do you believe?" That's his big cheerleading thing? And the audiences always say ... they're very vociferous, they're kind of a cross between the bonus March and jazz at the Philharmonic. Anyway, it's known everywhere. And they always say ... he always says to them, "Do you believe?" And the audience always lays it on him, like, "You know it." Like, oh, sure.

Mort Sahl:
(Comedy Clip) And then they always ... and then a couple of minutes later he'll be an original sin or something. All of a sudden he'll stop, like they never said it. And he'll say, "Do you believe?" And then they lay it on him again. And then a couple minutes later he'll do it again. He does this all the time. So he obviously is insecure in these areas. I mean, there's no other ... right? So, thank you. So I'll have more to say about him later. I don't want to give all this away, but it's really weird. It was a very weird rally. And at the rally, you read about this, cuckoo went out, this kind of weird guy, went out and started collecting money with the others. He's not really an usher. He was putting money in the bag and everything. And nobody knew, because the sun was in back of him forming a nimbus. It's a suggestion. So, hey, you're very well schooled in this area.

Mort Sahl:
(Comedy Clip) And I was, meanwhile, I was taking pictures of Graham like crazy, because I wanted to show something to the folks back home. And then later on I developed the roll and it was blank, which is really weird, but I don't want to ... anyway, so then this guy collected all the bread and he said ... collected all the money and he started to split with the money and these two policeman caught him at the gate at the rally. And they brought him to Billy Graham's feet for salvation. And he said, "What are you doing with the money?" And he said, "I took the money in an effort to get closer to God by eliminating the middleman, of course." Thank you. Now, we'll close this off now. Cut the tape and say good night. We'll see you in about an hour. Thank you very much.

Logan Rishaw:
That is so funny. And he's talking about things, Mort Sahl is talking about things, that you didn't talk about on stage at that time.

Dave Schwensen:
Well, just the way that clip starts shows how taboo it was at the time. I mean, he makes one joke about a religious event being on the financial page, and then he kind of has to do three more jokes backing up from it to say like, "Oh, you people are putting words in my mouth. Oh, you're free associating." Because he kind of has to ease the audience into this idea before he can even really dive in and start making jokes about Billy Graham.

Logan Rishaw:
Now here's the thing too about Mort Sahl that he was the most famous comedian in the country. Again, Time Magazine cover 1960, 1961, whatever it was.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah, the first comedian to be on the cover of Time too.

Logan Rishaw:
First comedian. That's how popular he was. That's how big this guy was. And then his career just took a nose dive.

Dave Schwensen:
And there was a pretty good reason it. He came up as a big comedian and was, at one point, hired to be a writer for JFK. And they became good friends.

Logan Rishaw:
Yes. Even the politicians liked his material, by the way. Adlai Stevenson was big at that time. Hubert Humphrey.

Dave Schwensen:
They weren't crazy when about him making jokes about them later on though.

Logan Rishaw:
No.

Dave Schwensen:
They thought he was on their side, which was never really Mort's style. He was attacking both sides, always.

Logan Rishaw:
Sort of like how we'll talk about each other after the show is over.

Dave Schwensen:
Right. Absolutely.

Logan Rishaw:
We won't like that.

Dave Schwensen:
He started writing for JFK and they became quite close.

Logan Rishaw:
Yes.

Dave Schwensen:
And then after JFK's assassination, he was just very hung up on it and became kind of a conspiracy theorist and would talk about it incessantly on stage.

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah. He had a ... they formed a commission after Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, the Warren commission. They came out with what they called the Warren Report. Basically it said one guy did it. There was no conspiracy. And of course Mort Sahl didn't buy it. And similar to what Lenny Bruce was doing at the end of his career, going on stage, talking about his obscenity trials, and reading court papers and different things, Mort Sahl got carried away ... I shouldn't say got carried away, became his main focus, the JFK assassination and the conspiracy theories.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah. I mean, he would go onstage with the Warren Report and start reading off things and saying what he found as logical flaws. And it became almost more of a lecture than a comedy routine at times.

Logan Rishaw:
Yes. Yeah. And it really affected his career. Like he went, oh, let's say. Like in one year, maybe 1964, he made $1 million that year. And I read this, I can't remember where, but the next year his earnings were down to $19,000. that's how hard of a hit he took.

Dave Schwensen:
He had contracts with places like CBS and NBC that were big, high paying contracts to create his own shows. And those started disappearing as he got more and more involved with talking about the JFK assassination, and getting more involved in politics at the time.

Logan Rishaw:
Yes. And it affected him through the rest of the decade. I know he tried to make a, or he did make, somewhat of a comeback in the '70s. Where they called it the counterculture when you had ... now you had George Carlin and Richard Pryor, some of these comedians talking about what's going on in the country and critiquing it, and sort of like Mort Sahl the next generation.

Dave Schwensen:
And they all looked up to and respected Mort Sahl and now he was sort of almost on their level.

Logan Rishaw:
Well, he came out later on with an album called America.

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah, he made an album called America in 1987 and then he actually brought it back and toured on it again in the late '90s, but just changed out some of the material so it was updated to be about things like bill Clinton. And lucky for him, most of the mistakes politicians make, they seem to keep making.

Logan Rishaw:
All right. Well, the one thing about Mort Sahl too, I mean, you have to realize how far back he goes. We're going back to World War II. I mean, he was 15 years old. He dropped out of school and enlisted to fight in World War II. It took his mother two weeks to find them and drag him out by telling them how old he really was. So he's always been involved with the government, and he talks a little bit about that. In this next clip, we're going to listen to.

Mort Sahl:
(Comedy Clip) Now we ought to say a few words about survival. There's going to be civilian defense raid Tuesday afternoon, and they're talking about bombs here. And a lot of us don't worry about the bomb because we're busy and with the Russians and outer space. And then after that people worry next about the Intercontinental ballistic missiles, which secretary Dulles denied the Russians have, you recall sometime ago. Or he said, "They'll have to prove it to me." Did you read that? Well, unfortunately they are willing to oblige him, I feel. And even though there's a lack of party discipline, I feel my fate is entwined with his in a sense. So I'm kind of nervous in general about the Army anyway, having been in the National Guard. And I think that you'll find college kids have really gotten off the Army thing, because during World War II everybody was really hot for the program. And I wanted wings. Everybody was out of their minds, or everyone was out of his mind. Got to watch that.

Mort Sahl:
(Comedy Clip) And it's kind of sloppy habits, collective noun, isn't it? Well, even though the Russians are ahead up there, we may lose the battle for language here. So anyway, right? That's for the English majors, because they have nothing else in life. I know. So I did that too. Anyway, a little later, if there are enough college people here, I do all the jokes about statistics. I have a lot of off beat, non-commercial jokes about a course I took at Cal once called statistical analysis. And there was a guy in the course who used to make up all his computations and he never used sigma. He used to use his own initials. Right? Because he was the standard deviation. That's what I was going to say. All right. So, anyway, so that's for the intellectuals. Actually if you understand that joke, you shouldn't be here. You should call a government office because you're needed desperately. I know. Symbol there. Now, what are we talking about?

Dave Schwensen:
Yeah, when I kind of find interesting too about him is when he talks about government and you talk about the bomb and the Russians and space. This is the '50s. The Cold War was really going on. He enlisted in World War II. He was 15 years old, and they got him out. Then when he was 18 he went and enlisted again, got in the Air Force. But the war was pretty much over at that time. So he was stationed, I think, it was up in Alaska for like five years. But I think that's when he realized that he didn't like the government telling him what to do. He didn't like authority all that much.

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah. He wasn't a great soldier. He was really ready to fight for the cause when he went into it. But after a few years, he was not someone who was very rigid in how he would act. I think they demoted him down to line cook for a while.

Dave Schwensen:
He got KP for three months because he grew a beard and wouldn't shave. And then he wouldn't wear a hat when he was supposed to. And next thing you know, he's peeling potatoes and washing pans.

Logan Rishaw:
One thing I noticed in this clip is while he's talking about the Army, he says their and then pulls back and says, "Whoops, I should have said his."

Dave Schwensen:
Yes.

Logan Rishaw:
Which is almost the exact opposite of PC culture today.

Dave Schwensen:
Yes.

Logan Rishaw:
So today if he was talking, you would have said, "Oh, his, whoops. I mean their." And it'd be way more progressive. And it's just so funny that back then the language was different.

Dave Schwensen:
Very observant, Logan. That's very good. That's why I like working with a younger cohost here. But you're correct on that.

Logan Rishaw:
This last clip that we're going to play for you, it's actually one of Mort Sahl's most famous. It's a little bit sillier and lighter than what we've heard earlier today. But it's a great whimsical kind of funny routine about bank robbery.

Dave Schwensen:
Something that was happening in the '50s.

Logan Rishaw:
Quite often.

Dave Schwensen:
It's happening today.

Mort Sahl:
(Comedy Clip)... three guys with it. It's a great weapon. And like I was saying, well, I wouldn't go with anything but a carbine, because semi-automatic, and with the eight shots I could generally knock off four guys, because I was a dead shot. And we're talking back and forth. And one guy was saying a bazooka is the only answer because you can go through anything and get at the people you're after. And one veteran of a more conservative stripe reminded them that they were only remembering the good times. What about the other days? So, I am very bitter tonight. So they said, "Let's get our just desserts from society." Or words to that effect. And they got in their cars and drove separately, because they'd just met, just getting ... to the Bank of America at Union in Webster. And they went to rob it.

Mort Sahl:
(Comedy Clip) But the police were hipped on it. The cops are very bright, got a great grapevine. And they said, "Let's go down and try and tape this and make it admissible court evidence." So they got an Ampex 600 and went down there with these 10 inch reels of tape and had two Telefunken microphones for binaural. And they're made by fully recovered Germans. So they walk ... been over there lately? Oh, boy. So they haven't got nuclear weapons though. That's next month they're going to ... all right, so they walked in with the tape and they put it under the cash drawer and they got one of the tellers who was a college graduate and who's working in the banks ... fellow'd majored in English and public speaking. He was working in a bank until there's an opening in the field he's ...

Mort Sahl:
(Comedy Clip) So at any rate, this is place is futility. So he said, "What do you want?" And the cop said, "We want to tape these guys robbing the bank, and we're going to get under your cash drawer with this tape recorder and we'll mount the two microphones so we can get a stereo balance. And all you got to do is make them talk and we'll cover you. We got guns down here. We'll just sit down here and smoke and record it." So the teller said, "Great. I'm with you. I'm ready." So then the gangsters walked in unaware of this conspiracy and they said, "Stick them up," or whatever part of the ritual is. I never robbed the bank, but you know. So they said, "You have to project here." So they said, "Stick them up." And the teller looked down and started the switch there on the tape.

Mort Sahl:
(Comedy Clip) And then he said, "What?" So in an effort to get a level, right? So it's a little high. So they said, "Stick them up." He said, "Oh, hands, what?" So they said, "Come on now. Knock it off. Quit stalling. Go get the money out of the vault." So he said, "The money, Oh, yes." Well, he said, "What right do you think you have ..." And of course he was looking down at the cops. They're telling him, "Come on. We're going ... this thing is going on." He said, "What right do you think you have to abscond with the funds of honest people in society, because you're essentially parasitic?" So one of the gangsters said to him, "Well, why the economic theory?" So then the teller said, "Well, I'm not essentially a Marxist or anything." And a gangster said to him, "I don't care if your Daddy Warbucks, go get the money." So he said, "Well, it's not a matter of the money."

Mort Sahl:
(Comedy Clip) He said, "It's not a matter of damage to the bank. We're insured. It's a matter of damage to you, because emotionally you're going to have to go from city and live as a scavenger off society." So these gangsters looked at each other and they had a meeting. And they went up to him and they said, "Have you gone to college?" And he said, "Yes, I've had some casework, social work there." He said, "A psychiatric social worker, that's what I was trained to be." So a gangster said, "We see, in union there." And then they said, "All right, we come from a broken home. And will you get the money?" So by this time, of course, they had the tape, they had their reel. And the police came out and they said, "Good going there, a citizen's arrest." And they arrested these guys and they had the tape, and they went downtown and they went right back here to City Hall. And they played the tape for a judge and they made it kind of a Mickey Mouse stereo set up in the courtroom. They put the judge in the middle for orthophonic living presence.

Mort Sahl:
(Comedy Clip) And they put a speaker on each end of the courtroom and a cop stood in front of each one with his legs about eight inches apart to act as a baffle for the highs. It's perfection. And they played it for him. And the judge listened to it in stereo, and you know how stereo is coming all around him. They guy's saying stick them up and we come from a broken home and everything. And he listened to it and he said, "Boy, that's the end." He says, "It's really great." And the cops said, "Well, we didn't plan it. We don't want to be hypocrites. It's just an accident. We all just sort of fell in and it came off. We're pretty happy with it, but it couldn't be done again, because we couldn't get the same guys and it wouldn't be ..."

Mort Sahl:
(Comedy Clip) So the gangsters were then sentenced to prison. And they were dragged away kicking and screaming, yelling about the dichotomy of guilt in society. Because they felt on the one hand, that they were morally wrong in trying to rob a bank. But that on the other hand, the group really wasn't ready to record yet but had been pushed. Right? So you think about it. All right. Good. Now, and for those of you who think I've been essentially negative, I want you to know that an American sport car finished the Le Mans race Friday night in France. So things are looking up. And we sent a car over there. We sent a Thunderbird over, a '58 Thunderbird, the four seater, which is our sports car over here. And, yes, they laughed. But nevertheless the car, it finished the race. It didn't win, but that's all right. He finished, even though his radio and heater had gone out. I want to thank you all.

Dave Schwensen:
Oh, my gosh. I love that thing about the bank robbers. Any type of absurd comedy where it's a long story that goes in a weird direction, I'm all in on it. It's like a ... it's very Gary Goldman.

Logan Rishaw:
It's very funny. About they we're ready to record yet, the band. It's like relating it to music. And then of course American car technology. He's already talking about that.

Dave Schwensen:
Or even just trying to get the levels of the bank robber. I love that imagery.

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah. What? Just getting the levels. Yeah, that's just a famous bit by Mort Sahl. And it is so funny. And, again, based on what he was reading about in the papers. A bank robbery, he's going to talk about it. American car going over to Le Mans, a great racing against all these European models. He talks about it, and that's what he did. And you know, Mort Sahl really did have ... he has had a long career.

Dave Schwensen:
He was really important to the comedy industry. And I know comedians are into the history of comedy and where they came from. They look back and who was an influence. And you could trace it back to Mort Sahl.

Logan Rishaw:
You can definitely see hints of Woody Allen, even some Steve Martin in some of the clips that we've heard before today.

Dave Schwensen:
Know what was a good joke before Mort Saul?

Logan Rishaw:
What?

Dave Schwensen:
You go to Vaudeville, you see a comedy team. They come out and say, "Hey, guess what I got in my hand, an egg or a tomato?" And a straight man and go, "Hmm, I don't know. An egg?" And the comic would go, "No, a tomato." And smash it in his face. That was what people were watching in those days. And then you had Mort Sahl coming out and talking about what's in the news. That's how big of a difference this was.

Logan Rishaw:
Yeah, I guess we didn't see many people on Vaudeville doing long monologues about FDR.

Dave Schwensen:
No, no. It just didn't happen.

Logan Rishaw:
And he's still performing today. Yeah, so you can catch Mort Sahl monthly, as of this recording at least, at the Throckmorton Theater. And he livestreams the events on Facebook and Periscope. He's still just talking about the current events and taking questions from the audience. The only difference is he's not using a newspaper anymore.

Dave Schwensen:
Well, to think about it, who does? We're all online anyway. Well, Logan, it's been a real pleasure doing this with you today and talking about the great Mort Sahl. Really a legend.

Logan Rishaw:
It's been a lot of fun, Dave. And thank you everyone for listening. This has been What's So Funny?

Dave Schwensen:
What's So Funny. And I'm Dave Schwensen.

Logan Rishaw:
And I'm Logan Rishaw.

Dave Schwensen:
And we will catch you later. Keep laughing.

Narrator:
You've been listening to What's So Funny? Catch us next week when we meet cohost Tom Megalis and listen to the late great Lenny Bruce. Special thanks to executive producers Joan Andrews and Michael DeAloia, producer Sarah Willgrube, and audio engineer Eric Koltnow.

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