BACK STAGE WEST
April 09, 1998
HUMORISTS' DIALOGUE : Jimmy Tingle & Mort Sahl
Reporting by Rob Kendt
As we near the end of the American century, we have no shortage of comedians. But how many true humorists do we have? Humorists--comic philosophers who typically work in longer forms than three-minute sets, comedy sketches, or cobbled-together "books" of well-worn material--do indeed seem on the wane in our attention-deficit-disordered media culture.
Mort Sahl has weathered many generations of political and cultural change, first hopping onto the stage of the hungry i nightclub in San Francisco in 1954 between the folk acts to skewer the politics of his time. He always carried the day's paper under his arm, and there was always an offhandedly heavyweight intellect behind his material, which shied neither from the vagaries of pop culture nor the nitty-gritty of U.S. foreign policy. After years working in both politics and in the movie business, Sahl took some fresh 1996 election-year musings to stages in San Francisco, L.A., and New York in Mort Sahl's America.
Carrying the torch of intelligent political comedy is Boston-born comic Jimmy Tingle, whose part-autobiographical, part-topical one-man show Uncommon Sense plays at the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood through Apr. 19. The show has also played at the Hasty Pudding Theatre in Cambridge and Off-Broadway; Tingle appears regularly on National Public Radio's Heat and on Jim Hightower's nationally syndicated radio show Chat and Chew.
Tingle and Sahl got together recently at the Sonora Cafe to discuss the state the art and the state of the union.
Mort Sahl: Jokes come out of point of view. And the reason there's nothing residual to a lot of the guys you see work is that they don't have any point of view. They'll say, The audience isn't interested in politics or social issues. Maybe. But there used to be shared values with the audience. There was a time in this country when you were part of the majority rather than a bunch of fractionated minorities. Not just political values; it was shared values of romance and justice. You could go to a movie, and the movies were about dreams, not nightmares. I mean, today, what would you say--"I had a great time at this movie because I've always wanted to be an outlaw and go across the country robbing 7-11 stores"? (I'm sure this restaurant is full of filmmakers who are making small, passionate, personal films.)
Jimmy Tingle: And the point of view has changed. It seems that a lot of the jokes are less about the big picture and more about the everyday foibles of people, rather than the shortcomings of the political debate; it seems that the issues have taken a back seat, really, to the characters of the people. And that can only go so far.
Mort: That's part of the feminization of America; the men have been feminized.
Jimmy: I'm not feminized, Mort! Actually, though, I am a feminist.
Mort: But remember that the guys practicing that observational comedy have never been in the Army; they've never lived with a woman. They're observers--of what? Based on what? They've never been to a university, usually. You've got to go through some privation, besides what your parents do to you.
In the old days, when Sid Caesar and those kind of people were on, 10 writers would get in a room and try to focus where the joke is. Most of the comedians you see today would have started there, as writers, and they would learn the craft. Today, in a rock 'n' roll world, you're a star before you're a performer. You come and you go before you find out why you were there.
Pout and Scowl
Jimmy: In our neighborhood, the Kennedys were gods. My mother grew up on Jack's campaigns. And there was something there. It was the Democratic Party of the 1960s, and there was a lot of idealism at the time. A lot of that has gone. The Democratic Party has become more of a corporate party. They have to get on television, so they have to raise billions of dollars; it doesn't matter sometimes where it comes from.
Mort: It's the left wing of the Republican Party. I mean, you're talking about Camelot, but what they've got up there is Dogpatch. Kennedy had a pretty good sense of humor, by the way. Have you ever heard a joke from Bill Clinton? Reagan had a very ready sense of humor. It wasn't subtle, but it was available. Clinton pouts and scowls, bites his lip and cries a lot. I've never heard a joke from him. Or Gore, for that matter.
Jimmy: He needs a writer, Mort.
Mort: Why hasn't he recruited anybody? He's got Carville and those guys--attack dogs--but nobody with any sense of social ridicule. Kennedy had a very intellectual sense of humor. He was actually an intellectual, if the truth were known. Now, of course, his honor is attacked with great regularity. It would be nice if some of the surviving family would defend his honor; that would be refreshing, instead of having a yard sale.
Mort: If I were doing a show tonight, I would say that Reagan could arouse passion in people, make them wanna march. Clinton doesn't arouse any passion in anyone, including Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey. I mean, the audience could decide whether they would want to laugh, 'cause they might want to defend his--I hesitate to use the word honor. If you wanted to get really tough, you could say: I admire the president, because any guy who could get a girl from Brentwood to do all these wonderful things for him deserves to be president, maybe even have a third term. But you can't do anything on the Republicans, 'cause there aren't any. There's no party. They're remarkably silent.
Jimmy: They're letting the press do the work. They don't have to say anything. They're starting to, a little bit. Quayle was on the other day talking about moral character. He's going to run for president in the year 2000. That would be good for us.
Mort: I don't know
Jimmy: I mean for us--not us, the people, but you and I, doing political humor.
Mort: Oh, yes.
Go After Everybody
Jimmy: Mort, I've always wanted to ask you: What do you think the chances are of doing an overtly political show on television? Can you even do real politics on television, never mind comedy?
Mort: Well, when I started, it was totally illogical, and that was my advantage. A handicap always becomes a virtue if you're the only one who can do it. I think if we went on CNN on Friday night, and we said, "This was the week," and four of us chopped it up with our own points of view, it would go through the roof. The guys you'd propose it to, they'd tell you it can't be done, because it isn't being done. What is being done? Instead of satire, you have bitchery; instead of news, you have gossip; instead of exposure of political hypocrisy, you have jealousy. Those are the values that are traded. And that's what I mean by feminization. You need a really subversive program that would go after everybody.
Jimmy: But do think it's possible to get a show like that on the air?
Mort: I think there'd be great resistance, but I think it would stay on 20 years once you've got it on.
Jimmy: I think Politically Incorrect does a service, because it's a discussion, and I think it's entertaining, but I don't think it's subversive.
Mort: Politically Incorrect? I heard that guy defend the Vietnamese War, Maher. He says, "If you gotta draw a line in the sand and stop Communism, I'm for it." Do you know anybody that liked the Vietnamese War? General Westmoreland and Bill Maher. And then, to buttress his opinions, you have his guests: "Here she is, she plays the blacksmith on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," and she plugs the show and says that Eskimos should be anchormen. I bet if you watch Politically Incorrect tonight, they'll be talking about Clinton's sex life. True?
Jimmy: But Mort, they're responding to what's in the headlines, to the media. I gotta say, when I watch Politically Incorrect, I think they're doing a service, in the sense that it's as good as the news is--it's a reflection of the news.
Mort: That's a terrible indictment, Jimmy.
Jimmy: I wonder if it's even possible to do a show that attacks or satirizes corporate America when they're required to finance the show.
Mort: The bigger outfits are terribly secure. It's the guys in between who worry. The big guys are often scholarly and cultured, and they'll laugh.
Jimmy: They're not threatened.
Mort: Exactly. But there's also a factor of self-censorship. Most kids wanna sell in; it's not a matter of selling out anymore.
Jimmy: Well, it's tough to make people angry at you, to take a risk. It's tough to do material that you know isn't going to go anywhere, that isn't going to get a laugh, but it's coming from a point of view that you believe in. But at least you feel good about what you're doing.
Mort: If the audience knows you're right, and they sense that they didn't stand up at the opportune moment, they feel they're being chastised. So you go from being a comedian who's giving them escape to being a nun who's hitting 'em in the knuckles. But if that's what it's gonna take. . . You have to tell the truth and keep it funny. That's all you have to do. That's a lot, though.