Chris Koch on Mort Sahl
Cambridge may have produced the first new comedian [Tom Lehrer], but San Francisco became the center of a new comic revival. The City by the Bay was already world headquarters for a growing “Beat” generation. Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in June had opened City Lights Bookstore on Columbus Avenue, just off Broadway, in the heart of North Beach. It was America’s first entirely paperback bookstore, and we all flocked to it. San Francisco’s bohemians now had another unofficial headquarters in addition to the venerable Café Trieste across Broadway, which served the best cappuccinos in America.
Over winter break in 1953, when I was back in Berkeley, I became aware of small, gritty clubs where folk singers, poets and jazz ensembles performed outside the mainstream. They were supported in part by Korean War veterans who had retreated to such clubs around military bases while on R&R in Korea and Western Europe. The clubs became the setting for the sharp edge of new kind of subversive humor. Mainstream comedy was as timid and moribund as the rest of cultural life in the early fifties: tired comedians telling tired jokes about motels and mother in laws on the Ed Sullivan show.
San Francisco’s Beat master of ceremonies was a twenty-seven year old Italian named Enrico Banducci, who opened a tiny club called the hungry i on Columbus Ave, across the street from Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore, past Vesuvius Bar where the sign over the door read, “We’re just itching to get away from Portland, OR.” I assumed that Reed students devised that one.
The hungry i was named by Eric ‘Big Daddy ”Nord.” It stood for “hungry id” and was always written in lower case “to be cool,” Banducci explained. The club on Columbus held about eighty people and featured the usual run of obscure folk musicians doing respectful renditions of Woody Guthrie, grungy poets reading to a base, or small jazz ensembles trying to sound really cool, the kind of music where you snapped your fingers to the off beat. The audience was made up of kids like me looking to belong to something that seemed genuine and Korean War veterans looking for solace and maybe our college dates.
In 1953, Banducci moved the hungry i to an abandoned wine cellar on Jackson Street that sat 300 people. He modeled the club on the little cafés he had visited in Paris. The sign outside read: ‘Club des Artists’ and ‘The Left Bank of San Francisco. Dinners from $1.25.’ Banducci wanted the hungry i to be part coffeehouse, part cabaret, part European salon. ‘I think sandals and sables ought to mix here,’ he said.”
The night’s performers were scrawled in bright pastel colors outside on the club’s brick wall. On Christmas Eve, 1953, it was the name of an unknown comedian, Mort Sahl. San Francisco’s resident trendsetter, Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, didn’t mention him until May. Terrence O’Flaherty, San Francisco’s other denizen of the dark, didn’t get around to Sahl until July. By then, standing in line was common for a Sahl performance. On my first night over spring break, I moved slowly down the steep flight of stairs to the cellar, worked my way past a big bear of a man standing behind a rope, Enrico Banducci himself, who was invariably at the door, taking our tickets and dropping them in a wine vat. Finally, we slid into swayback director’s chairs with glass holders built into the arm. The room was heavy with cigarette smoke. I have no idea what the drinking age was, but no one ever asked, and glasses of red wine appeared in chipped, cut glass glasses. A low stage sat in front of a brick wall.
The multiple thrills of European sophistication, existential conversations about Camus and Becket floating through the dense cigarette smoke, cheap red wine and the sense of being literally in the underground, were almost overwhelming at 19 years old. To top it off, Alvah Bessie, one of the famous Hollywood 10, announced in his sonorous voice, “The next president of the United States … Mort Sahl!” And Sahl came on dressed like a graduate student from UC Berkeley with a folded newspaper under his arm, asking, “Are there any groups I haven’t offended yet?” And then he laughed his terrible, hacking, self-conscious laugh and everyone relaxed as Sahl started to express the things that were on all of our minds, but that we were afraid to speak out loud.
Sahl was a professional comedian, who had started in the burlesque houses and strip joints of Los Angeles, with standard comic routines. Then he discovered something. Between jokes, he would throw in a political aside – “and that is when they began to laugh. At the end of the third week, I broke the sound barrier and I was in.”
His breakthrough and most quoted joke went like this. “Have you seen the Joe McCarthy jacket? It’s like the Eisenhower jacket only it’s got an extra flap that fits over the mouth.” Other edgy jokes of the period, “Joe McCarthy doesn’t question what you say so much as your right to say it.” Another standard … “For a while, every time the Russians threw an American in jail, the Un-American Activities Committee would retaliate by throwing an American in jail, too.”
When Herb Caen finally discovered Sahl, he wrote, “Sahl has been there 18 weeks and I like to keep up on things. He’s very funny … I don’t know where he’s come from, but I’m, glad he’s here.” That summer Terence O’Flaherty, wrote “Down at the hungry i they’ve got a brisk young comedian named Mort Sahl – a refreshing relief after an overdoes of folk singers at this North Beach spa. His humor is something very special.”
Excerpted from Chris Koch: Untitled Autobiography, Chapter 4: Romance with Communism [1953 – 1955] [In which at the age of nineteen I carry out a secret mission for the International Communist Conspiracy.]
RETURN TO THANK YOU, MORT SAHL