Saturday, 01 October 2016 15:08

Mort Sahl 1970 Interview

A rare interview with Mort Sahl about his experiences in New Orleans and his thoughts on the JFK case.

David Giglio is a contributor to CTKA. He publishes regularly at Our Hidden History.

From the period of about 1960-66,  Mort Sahl was one of the highest profile, in demand, and highest compensated comedians in America. In fact, in its issue of August 15, 1960, Time Magazine placed him on its cover.  He was a regular on such programs as the “Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show”.  Sahl, more or less, redefined what stand up comedy would be from then on.  And men like George Carlin essentially followed in his footsteps.  Sahl’s brand of humor was both socially and politically conscious.  Although he would come on stage with a college sweater and the daily newspaper, he was far from the average man.  He was quite well informed and acute, and his satire came from a deep affection for America and what it was supposed to be about.

Sahl was one of the very few Americans who actually knew and communicated with John and Robert Kennedy.  Kennedy appreciated Sahl’s humorous deprecations of him as a spoiled rich kid.  Although JFK once had the following conversation with Sahl on the subject: “OK, so how much do you think my father is worth Mort?”  Sahl replied, “I don’t know, maybe 300 million?”  Kennedy replied, “Alright.  Now how much do you think the Rockefellers are worth?” Sahl said he had no idea.  Kennedy responded with, “Try four billion Mort.” Kennedy paused to let the number sink in. He then jabbed his finger at the comedian and added: “Now, that’s money Mort.”

Sahl was quite interested in Kennedy’s assassination.  Something did not sit right with him about the Warren Report.  He actually read long parts of it and the volumes of evidence that accompanied it.  He thought much of it was ludicrous. He actually used to quote from it in his stand up performances.  He would read parts of its most pointless and stupid depositions in a dead pan comic style, letting the ridiculousness hit home. He would then say, “And that’s how they found out who killed John Kennedy.”

When the Jim Garrison investigation broke into the newspapers in 1967, Sahl had a talk show on the radio in Los Angeles.  Naturally, he was quite interested in what the New Orleans DA was discovering.  He actually journeyed to the Crescent City to talk to Garrison.  He was impressed with the man and wanted to have him on his show.  But station management insisted that if he did that, he would have to perform an attack journalism/hatchet job on the DA.  Sahl said he could not do that since he thought Garrison was pretty much right on about Kennedy’s murder.  He was then taken off  the air. He went back down to New Orleans and Garrison swore him in as a deputy.  Sahl wrote about some of his experiences working for Garrison in his book Heartland.  Especially bracing is a scene he describes with Clay Shaw’s lawyers trying to introduce the Warren Commission volumes into evidence at a hearing.  The judge was absolutely beside himself with indignation that any self respecting lawyer could take such a document seriously as evidence.

With his connections in the entertainment world, Sahl did what he could to get some positive exposure for the DA.  The high point of this effort was the interview conducted for Playboy by Eric Norden in October of 1967.  (Click here to read The low point was when Mort Sahl appeared on The Tonight Show and suggested that Johnny Carson interview Garrison on his show.  The audience response was so positive that Carson had to agree to do so on the air.  But clearly, Carson’s bosses at NBC did not want to have any kind of fair and serious debate about the issues.  What Carson did was what Sahl would not do on his show: a premeditated attack to prevent any elucidation and education of the public on the issues surrounding Kennedy’s death.  Carson had been thoroughly briefed, and NBC lawyers had interviewed Garrison in advance. The lawyers furnished Carson with cue cards as to how to question Garrison.  But still, Garrison did fairly well and Carson came off like the hatchet man he was prepped to be.  The host was very angry with Sahl for getting him into this sticky situation. Afterwards, he yelled at him: “You will never be on my show again.” (Click here for that appearance

Carson kept his word. Sahl paid a stiff price for backing Jim Garrison.  His career went into a steep decline.  He was quite literally blackballed for several years.  It was not until the Watergate scandal, which was made to order for Sahl, that he came back.  And after Carson retired, Jay Leno had Mort Sahl on his version of The Tonight Show.  So, in the long run, Sahl had come full circle.

We present here a rare interview with Sahl about his experiences in New Orleans and his present thoughts on the JFK case.

~Jim DiEugenio


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