Last Laugh—Remembering the Comedy Legend Mort Sahl

I had lunch with legendary comedian Mort Sahl about nine years ago, in February of 2012, at a diner near his house in downtown Mill Valley, and what was planned as a conversation about movies turned quickly into a conversation about love.

“When you go to a picture today, the good guys rarely win, and love does not conquer all,” he told me that day, pining for the days when movies told love stories in which love was the prize for being a decent person. “Those were the days when heroism was a virtue and not a symptom, and love was about innocence and kindness and romance and looking great in a hat, and not just about disappointment and pain. Nothing makes me feel better when things are going bad than watching a good old-fashioned love story, where loving another person, and being loved, was still consequential.”

Sahl, born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, in 1927, passed away last week, on Oct. 26, at the age of 94. Though his heyday was in the ‘50s and ‘60s, largely in San Francisco — where he became famous as a comic, social satirist and actor — the last few decades of his life, in Marin County, were spent playing host to countless younger comedians who sought out his advice, his blessing and his stories, often visiting one of his many appearances at Mill Valley’s 134 Throckmorton Theater.

For a time, he hosted a movie screening program there, where he’d show just the kind of movie he told me no one makes anymore, launching into a spontaneous examination of the film during a spirited question and answer session once the credits rolled.

The details of Sahl’s long and storied career have been well-documented in obituaries since his death, and available space does not allow a fair summary of his accomplishments here. But it would be criminal to neglect to mention his connection with San Francisco’s hungry i nightclub, where he made his debut as a comic in 1953, and became a regular. The hungry i was a breeding ground for comics during the Beat era, and as an overtly political comedian, Sahl spoke to the younger generation in ways no one had done before, while also turning the heads of older folks delighted by his straightforward dissection of the world. And he did it all while dressing conservatively, looking more like a college professor who’d accidentally wandered up onto the stage than the other comics, the Lenny Bruces and Dick Gregorys, whom he often shared that stage with.

That he eventually did become a professor was no surprise, I suppose, or the fact that the film class he taught at Claremont College in the late ‘90s, in Southern California, became one of the schools’ most popular offerings.

Which brings us back to the subject of film, and of love.

“Every first act of a film showed us life as it is,” he told me that day over lunch, still describing the Golden Age of Hollywood optimism. “And the second act showed us life as it shouldn’t be, and the third act showed us life as it ought to be. And that almost always involved someone falling in love. Nobody knows how to end a movie that way anymore.”

To those young comics who sought his company, the ending of Mort Sahl’s own story is bittersweet. But Sahl would have likely wanted them to remain optimistic, to find something to laugh about, and maybe fall in love with an old movie.

“America used to be an optimistic country,” he said that day, concluding our conversation. “But I don’t think it is anymore. We have a grudging admiration for optimism, but that’s about it.”

Rest in peace, Mort.

Now let’s watch an old movie.

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