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Comic Sahl's routine: teaching collegians

October 17, 2008|Amy Kaufman | Special to The Times

Mort Sahl stands before a classroom of college students, his eyes widening as he watches images of old Hollywood. He walks in front of the movie projector for a moment, his shadow interrupting a fiery on-screen embrace between Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen.

"This is probably the best love scene I ever saw in a movie," he said, shaking his head.

Yes, Sahl, 81, the legendary stand-up comedian and writer who famously skewered the politicians of his time with his trademark cranky outrage, has a new gig -- trying to convince Gen Y to believe in love.

"I just want to teach those kids about the kind of thing that Jimmy Stewart represents -- decency," he said. "If you stick with it, you can save America and get the girl. That's really what I'm teaching. It might be a lie, but it's the only reason I get out of bed every day."

Since last fall, Sahl has been a visiting professor at Claremont McKenna College, where he teaches screenwriting -- in which he screened the original "The Thomas Crown Affair" recently -- and a course titled the Revolutionary's Handbook. Content for the latter includes tales from Sahl's own experience during the investigation of President John F. Kennedy's assassination led by New Orleans Dist. Atty. Jim Garrison.

From the outset of his career, Sahl approached humor differently than most other comedians. He went onstage with a newspaper in hand and spoke to his audience about the most pressing issues affecting his era -- events including the McCarthy hearings and the early tremors before the Cold War.

It would seem that with the impending election, there couldn't be a better time for one of America's leading political satirists to be at the helm of the classroom. Many see Sahl as the predecessor to figures like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who target politicians with the aid of humor. But Sahl finds the comparisons between himself and the Comedy Central stars unflattering, drawing stark differences between their methods of delivery.

"You have to have a point of view, sift everything through it and look for the irony," said Sahl, who still does comedy gigs on weekends at local clubs. Even the recent "Saturday Night Live" phenomenon surrounding Tina Fey's impression of Sarah Palin is more parody than satire, Sahl believes.

"The other day, Palin spoke at the Home Depot in the parking lot in Carson. So you could say, 'She's the only one in the parking lot I wouldn't hire.' And you'd be right at the joke," he said.

Sahl spent his own collegiate days at USC, where he gained a degree in urban planning to "try to keep my father happy." Soon after, he moved to San Francisco, where he got his start performing stand-up at the hungry i club. There he began a longtime friendship with Clint Eastwood, whom he still sees frequently.

"He was very hip," Eastwood recalled in a recent interview. "Nowadays, a lot of comedians try to satirize politics, but they don't do it as well as he did. He played straight out to the audience."

Later in his career, Sahl was a speechwriter for many politicians, including Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Ross Perot. "I'd say, 'If you kid yourself, it'll humanize you to the press.' There's nothing divine about them, they can all take a little kidding," Sahl said, chuckling.

If he had the choice, he'd rather work for Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama than for Republican John McCain, who he believes "comes across as Mr. Magoo," though he's still not sure who he'll vote for, if at all.

Before his screenwriting class, Sahl was camped out at the school's student center, sipping from a coffee mug and sifting through the day's newspapers. The generation gap between him and his students, he said, can be frustrating. "The first thing I try to get them to do is read the [New York] Times and be curious," he said, sighing. "And they say things like, 'How easy is the website to navigate?' I ask a kid a question in class and he looks at the Apple [laptop] instead of me."

Sahl approaches his classes in a way similar to his comedy acts -- with no preparation. His teaching style is straightforward -- just go in and tell them the truth, he said.

"You can really tell how passionate he is about what he's teaching," said Steve Pontius, a junior who has taken two of Sahl's courses. "He doesn't guard himself or seem elitist. He ... really tries to relate to the students -- he likes them and believes in them, sometimes at his own expense."

Mostly, Sahl just wants his students to believe in something. In his screenwriting class last year, he says, the students wrote "some terrible screenplays." They wrote what they thought could be commercial material -- one story, he recalled, was about a bunch of people who were competing on an "Apprentice"-style show to work for the Lakers.

"My students haven't seen women like Grace Kelly in a long time. Everybody's running around here in sweat pants. The men are like peacocks -- they don't think about saving up to give something to a girl for Christmas," he lamented.

"I just want to encourage people to follow their own heart and listen to their conscience -- to be that free," he said. "I don't feel like any kind of legend, really. I just want to find a place to drink some coffee and read the paper."

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