Mort Sahl remembers JFK, knocks Obama and gets laughs, too

The legendary stand-up rolls up his newspaper and gets to work as part of a three-night stint at Café Carlyle.

Mort Sahl

Mort Sahl

“I’m going to tell you everything tonight,” announced Mort Sahl on Friday, June 7, at the top of his third and final show at Café Carlyle.


“Everything,” it turns out, includes: some political analysis, a window into Sahl’s life in the movie business, the semi-intimate life of John F. Kennedy, a rehash of Sahl’s feelings regarding the aforementioned icon's assassination, and a handful of Jewish jokes in the classic mold.

While this may not align with everyone’s idea of “everything,” it's certainly enough for an evening of comedy. Mounting the stage with care, clad in a familiar red cardigan, trademark newspaper in hand, the 86-year-old may have showed signs of age physically, but mentally he’s remarkably sharp. “I am candid and puritanical,” he told the crowd. “They don’t mix. Except in Hollywood.”

The atmosphere at the Carlyle suits Sahl: It’s a fragment of the old world, easily forgotten, but a comfort to those seeking a bit of the Jazz Age (for which they may or may not have been alive). Presumably, the tempest outside kept a few of the gray-hairs and comedy aficionados away—it was a cozy crowd, maybe 30 people—but Sahl didn’t seem to mind. He had an audience of the devoted, including Woody Allen, and when he laughed, his bright cackle rang out clearly.


While he wondered why there wasn’t more outrage at the news of the NSA’s data mining and took some passing shots at Obama (“Long may he waver”), most of Sahl’s set was spent revealing details of his life he hadn’t felt comfortable disclosing in the past. He talked about being approached to write jokes for the president (“You won’t bludgeon Nixon, but you’ll put a stiletto between his fifth and sixth ribs.”) and painted a picture of JFK on Air Force One in loafers, drink in one hand and cigar in the other, taunting the press corps. Sahl confessed to feeling disillusioned after the President’s death, and talked about working on Jim Garrison's investigation while seeking clarity. Some comedy there, but more


Sahl handled the crowd—in laughter and in silence—with the easy air you might expect from someone who’s been cracking jokes onstage since the ’50s. When he finished talking, he took some questions from a timid assembly, deriding the “frivolous” subject matter of most current stand-up and telling everyone his first act as President would be to unravel the JFK assassination mystery. Sahl’s allowed some leeway to be a grumpy old man if he wants; he’s lived a number of different lives, constantly sought to disrupt the status quo and deeply influenced the art of stand-up comedy. And from a certain perspective, that's everything.