If there hadn't been a Mort Sahl, there wouldn't be a Jon Stewart. I'd add an "arguably" in there somewhere, but that statement feels like something I'd feel comfortable setting aside the time it would take to etch it in stone.
I won't pretend that today, Mort Sahl's topical, often political material isn't almost impenetrably dated, but I also can't deny that his attitude, cadence, candor, and wit transcend any specific bits that may be lost in translation. I didn't really start this blog to talk about political or topical humor (not that anything I do ever persists in the spirit or intention with which I started it), but Sahl's irreverence and aversion to bullshit appeals to me.
Aaaannnddd... midcentury American (counter?)culture is an inexplicable interest of mine. I'm reading Gerald Nachman's Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s (the introduction is available to read in its entirety on Google Books) right now, and the way the hungry i (a San Fransisco comedy/music club) and its resident performers and atmosphere are described makes the place seem like an estuary of budding cultural trends. Its proprietor, Enrico Banducci, discovered and nurtured some of the most influential comic talents of the last 6 decades - providing an environment where no subject was taboo and no censorship (or heckling) was tolerated. Sounds like any mic or room these days, but when you consider that Lenny Bruce's undoing was his 1950s obscenity trial (he said cocksucker a few times on stage! I'm scandalized just typing it), the hungry i's significance becomes evident.
In trying to convince him to audition at the hungry i, Mort Sahl's girlfriend told him that "the audiences are all intellects, which means if they understand you, great, and if they don't, they will never admit it.". Pretentious hipsters have always and been and will always be. Say what you will about that mentality, when a hipster likes something, he or she (androgynously, with feigned disinterest) supports it... and supports it waaaay before and in a much cooler way than you do. I know nothing of the place personally, but after listening to an interview with Rebecca A. Trent on The Comedy Nerds podcast, I feel she and her comedy club, The Creek and The Cave in Long Island City seem like the modern incarnations of Enrico Banducci and the hungry i.
Check out this 1960 TIME magazine profile of Mort Sahl and his contemporaries (Nichols and May - favorites of mine, Shelley Berman, Bob Newhart, Jonathan Winters, and more): http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,939769,00.html
Everything's there. His material is quoted sparingly, but the piece sums up everything about why I love him. When I think about the comedy of the 1950s and 1960s, I wonder if my perception is romanticized. Everything I know about the era is, I'm sure, part exaggeration, part creation myth... but that doesn't hamper my being enamored of a place and time I can never visit, save via video/audio clips and in books.
Just wanted to share that with my two readers.
* I may be writing a more in depth thing about Seriously Funny on Splitsider eventually. Will post that link if it ever happens.