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Toward the Shorter End of the Shtik: From Mort Sahl to Jon Stewart

George Salamon
August 6, 2015

A Curmudgeonly Goodbye

by George Salamon

1jonstewart“Jon Stewart is making fun of the anchorman. The enemy is not the anchorman. It is the fascists who are running the government.” —Mort Sahl to Gerald Nachman, author of Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s.

mort-sahlWHEN IN FEBRUARY Jon Stewart announced his upcoming retirement from “The Daily Show,” journalists and television critics compared his political satire, immensely popular particularly among millennials (39 percent of 18- to- 29-year-olds view him as “the voice of their generation”), to the stand-up routines performed by Mort Sahl in the Fifties and Sixties. What Sahl said of today’s comics applies to such commentary as well: “They have no sense of what came before...”

Sahl expressed scathing contempt for current comedy to Nachman: “They don’t really believe in anything. People who do 'The Daily Show' are the New York crowd that doesn’t like anybody between Los Angeles and New York... ’Hey, do any of you text while you drive?’ That’s what bothers them.”

“Everything bothers me,” Sahl said in his heyday, and his riffs, starting with his 1953 debut at San Francisco’s hungry i, challenged and delighted audiences for close to two decades in small clubs, many of them near college campuses, where his intellectual kvetch and social rebellion were appreciated. He is not, as a writer for JWeekly noted in 2009, “the man most responsible for the John [sic] Stewarts of the world.”

He and his comic kin, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, and George Carlin, exposed and illuminated many of America’s political and social evils and follies throughout the Cold War. They faded away as their audiences embraced Ronald Reagan’s version of the American Dream and as television and now electronics cut to ribbons and dumbed down serious and comic discourse.

When Stewart’s retirement announcement came, he was celebrated in the media as “the most trusted man in America,” as the man who “changed how young people view the news [and] politics,” and as the man “who changed journalism before journalism was ready to change.” While Sahl is credited with taking stand-up comedy far beyond its Borscht Belt roots, just how did Stewart gain recognition as a comic who operates “at the intersection where politics, entertainment and journalism” meet?

AS HOST of “The Daily Show” since 1999, Stewart played to and reached an audience unheard of in Sahl’s day of three national networks and an array of glitzy big clubs and hippy or intellectual small ones. What did Stewart do, and how did he do it, to expand and maintain audiences that revere him and have come to view our public life through his eyes?

Stewart dishes out doses of mockery directed at politicians, public institutions, journalists, and pundits, much of the time directed at their stupidity and foolishness, occasionally at their transgressions against reason or the people’s welfare.

When the Supreme Court issued its verdict in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010 (“If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, for simply engaging in political speech”), opponents of the verdict lamented the Court’s decision for accepting corporations as just “citizens” — just people. Stewart commented, ”If only there were some way to prove that corporations are not people, to show their inability to love, to show that they lack awareness of their own mortality, to see what they do when you walk in on them masturbating.”

When President Obama condemned a terrorist attack without mentioning that the terrorists were jihadists, Stewart suggested that “Obama thinks if he just sits down and explains things to us in a calm, reasoned, slightly annoyed tone, everyone will get it. It’s what the medical community calls MSNBCitis.”

When it was revealed that former president George W. Bush spends some of his retirement time painting, Stewart mocked his late-in-life pastime: “Jimmy Carter’s, like, 108, he’s out in Africa, like pulling Guinea worms out of children’s feet, trying to cure them. Bush’s at home: ‘Ah, bring me my fruit bowl. I’m doin’ a still life.’ Heh, heh, heh.”

When Hillary Clinton, right after her announcement that she was in the presidential candidacy race, endured a “media frenzy” about ordering a burrito bowl at a Chipotle restaurant on the way to Iowa, Stewart mocked the media’s obsession with details of her lunch stop. What kind of beans did she put in her burrito bowl? Did she splurge on extra guac(omole)? What size iced tea did she order? And finally, “How many f****ng napkins did she take?”

On each occasion and in every comment, Stewart produced comic small change. The Supreme Court’s decision climaxes in a masturbatory joke. The president’s inability or unwillingness to confront the roots of evil wilts into an inside television cable news reference. Comparing Bush’s retirement pleasure with Carter’s good deeds lands in a fruit bowl chuckle. And his mocking TV reports about Hillary’s Mexican lunch merely mirrors journalism’s obsession with petty details in the lives of politicians and celebrities.

“To be funny indeed, you have got to be serious,” George Orwell wrote in his essay “Funny, but not Vulgar.” He added: “A thing is funny when it upsets the established order. Every joke is a tiny revolution.” Stewart focuses, instead, on the Emperor’s clothes. A portrait of Stewart in Psychology Today described him as “personable and popular,” as “everybody’s friend.”

MORT SAHL STARTED his career as the troubled outsider in Senator Joe McCarthy’s America, a “disappointed patriot” who attacked the owners of the politicians and the political system, breaking with the tradition of Will Rogers’ good-natured and folksy jibes at the establishment and its spear-carriers in Washington. His humor, intellectual and biting, does not befriend and comfort. It is more in the tradition of H.L. Mencken, Henry Adams, and Gore Vidal, using wit to slice into the core of a system serving the greedy and powerful while exposing the hypocrites and cowards who will not confront it.

He looked and dressed like a Berkeley graduate student, forever studying and constantly switching from one field of study to another. He read books and magazines. His routines contained references to the Oedipus complex and James Joyce; he talked about books, movies, the entertainment industry, women, and blacks. His jokes were not rooted in or geared to the current news cycle, but his targets were skewered in historical and intellectual context.

He said of our presidents that “Washington couldn’t tell a lie, Nixon couldn’t tell the truth and Reagan couldn’t tell the difference.” About Reagan’s 1980 election victory he joked that “Reagan won because he ran against Carter. If he had run unopposed, he would have lost.” He described Barry Goldwater as “the fascist gun in the West.” He didn’t bother to talk about Nixon’s discomfort in his own skin or Dukasis’ in the driver’s seat of an M-1 tank.

When Sahl did mimicry, it was sharp and cut deeper than Stewart’s jokes do about Trump’s hair or Hillary’s age. He imagined what Pat Nixon’s testimony at the Watergate hearings might sound like: “Q.: ‘Doesn’t the President know he has two daughters?’ A.: ‘He did not ask and I did not tell him.’”

His political stance is neither liberal nor conservative, but radical: “The road to fascism is paved with liberal bricks. While our job is to give young people time enough to become radical, the job of the liberals is to castrate them before they can get to the radical side, before they can save America.” He views Stewart as a “Clinton Democrat” and calls the Democrats the “left wing of the Republican party,” asking “Do you want vanilla or French vanilla?”

Sahl is closer in outlook and intellectual temperament to Henry Adams and Gore Vidal (“We have one party with two heads”) and the German-Jewish coffeehouse literati (Kurt Tucholsky, Karl Kraus) than to liberal comics railing against Republicans. He calls their routines “comic tap dances” around targets they dare not hit: “This isn’t darkness, it’s just the night approaching... It isn’t that I’ve changed, it’s that America is so hell-bent on suicide that I’m in the unlikely position of standing at the edge of the cliff and saying ‘Wait a minute, have you thought this over?’”

That’s not what TV watchers of the Comedy Channel are willing to hear or think over. The audience that once flocked to hear Sahl in the 1950s and '60s was. Who were they? “His audience was the group founded by GI Bill barbarians," Henry Allen wrote in the Washington Post in 1978, "who took intellectualism away from academics and the affluent; never, however, without a certain uneasiness, for which Sahl was cathartic. This was back when you could say ‘Bloomsday’ and all the English majors would break up, ‘bell-shaped curve,’ and you got the sociologists, the shout of ‘us too’!’ — and advertisement of knowing better, of being hip.”

By 1978 that audience and their knowledge frame of reference started to disappear from campuses as the coffee houses and clubs in campus towns gave way to trendy boutiques and chain restaurants. The best and brightest embraced pop culture, and the desire for catching the buzz and staying connected to your network replaced engagement with ideas and thirst for knowledge. Campus culture, once synonymous with counterculture, was going mainstream. Sahl remained counter and landed fewer and fewer gigs.

WHILE SAHL HADN'T CHANGED, America was changing. In the early 1980s the change was captured in the writings of Barbara Tuchman on the decline of quality, by Christopher Lasch on the rise of the culture of narcissism, and by David Riesman on the vanishing “inner-directed” American. Cantankerous idealists like Sahl were no longer welcome to rain on the parade into Reagan’s America. Few people predicted the role television would play in supplying the music for the marchers. George Trow saw it when he wrote, after watching one of TV’s earliest talk shows: “The Germans lost World War II. Television won.” Tuchman compared TV talk to “ceramic dolls, trash fiction and plastic furniture.” Stewart has fashioned his comic talk into a faux counterculture to what the pundits of conventional wisdom offer.

It is faux because, as Steve Almond observed in The Baffler magazine in 2012, Stewart is “careful never to question the corrupt precepts of the status quo too vigorously,” and because his “mockery is not genuine subversion” and his poking fun at the establishment does not confront it. When Stewart mocks politicians he treats the ills of the system they serve as follies, not concerted evil. He derides their hypocrisy but leaves untouched their greed, cruelty, and indifference. He entertains and mollifies his audience and does not expose their moral complacency.

Sahl tried to shake up and incite his audience. Television does not tolerate the heat of idealism or subversion, and today’s political correctness has enshrined mindless civility as its censor for “offensive” confrontation. You can scratch the surface of the establishment or the status quo, but you must not rip open the belly of the beast.

SAHL AND STEWART do not talk much about Jews and Judaism. Sahl said that if Judaism means “rocking the boat is Jewish,” then he is, too. And he told Woody Allen that he turned down teaching a Holocaust course at Occidental College because he wanted to see first how “history judged that event” — poking the satiric needle of the old Jewish moralist straitjacket at today’s moral obtuseness.

Sahl is many things Stewart is not: a secular yeshiva bokher, a kvetch, an idealist, an American deeply bothered by what his country has become. Stewart is an entertainer, a decent guy who comes down on the good side of most issues, but who moves in and out of those issues in the quick rhythm television and his audiences demand. There is practically nothing that cannot be explained and poked fun at in less than three minutes, accompanied by the required eye-rolling and gesturing. He fits the description of a suburban character offered by another in a Peter DeVries novel: “Down deep he’s shallow.”

But television is not for adults. As most everything on it, it is the product of experts. Stewart is a humor expert. Sahl was a gifted and complex adult, enraged by the world and laughing at it simultaneously. He would understand the ending of Joyce Cary’s 1944 novel The Horse’s Mouth. The protagonist, an Irish artist named Gulley Jimson, is dying. As he rides through Dublin in an ambulance to the hospital, accompanied by a Catholic nun, he is laughing and laughing. The nun-nurse tells him he should now be praying, not laughing.

“Same thing, Mother” are his last words.

George Salamon taught German language and literature at several East Coast colleges. He published a reader in German history and a study of German-Jewish novelist Arnold Zweig. He served as staff reporter on the St. Louis Business Journal and senior editor for Defense Systems Review. He contributes to the Gateway Journalism Review, The New Verse News, and Jewish Currents from St. Louis, MO.