It's not much fun when the good guys win
Friday 23 May 1997
(Sahl once made a joke which he claimed was perhaps the first joke ever aimed at philosophy students instead of the general public. He said there had recently been an armed hold-up in a Californian bank in which the masked raider had pushed a note across to the cashier, reading: "I have got a gun. Act normally." The bank cashier had read it and then pushed back another note on which was written: "Define your terms." )
Because Mort Sahl was more politically aware than the other comedians, he delighted more in attacking the establishment of the time, General Eisenhower and all the stuffed shirts of the Fifties. His hero was Jack Kennedy, who represented a breath of fresh air, or would do if he ever got the chance. Well, Jack Kennedy did get the chance; he was elected to be president and the new day dawned and it was the death of Mort Sahl. Suddenly he was on the side of the boys in charge, which is a strange place for a comedian to be, and his career thereafter lost direction, and his humour lost its sharpness.
It got even worse when Kennedy was assassinated because Mort Sahl then became obsessed with finding out the truth about Kennedy's death. No longer was he invited on chat shows or TV shows generally, because instead of being funny, which was what they wanted, he preferred to have a serious talk about the Kennedy assassination. Invitations dried up, which is no doubt why he found time to write the book I mentioned, which is a sad book because he goes on and on about the Kennedy shooting in it, and doesn't say much about humour.
All this has been going through my mind recently because we in Britain, in our own small way, have reached a similar kind of watershed. Whatever else you thought about the Tories, they did make good bad guys, like the last days of the Eisenhower administration. It was easy, almost too easy, to dislike people like Howard and Hamilton and Portillo, and to feel queasy about the Scott report and the mishandling of the BSE crisis, and - well, you probably still remember it all. But now the good guys have ridden in on their white horses, and this is where comedians can be forgiven for taking a break, or at least for giving them a break. And although the Tories are officially off-stage now, the Tory party has kindly provided a diversion in the shape of their leadership contest, with Widdecombe and Howard slugging it out in one of the nearby booths, and young William Hague managing to look the oldest of all the contestants, which is all good for the gaiety of the nation.
Not all comedians have declared a honeymoon period, of course. The braver ones have taken their stance already. Jeremy Hardy on Radio 4's The News Quiz has been taking some hefty swings at Tony Blair since long before the election, as if a comedian's first duty is to attack those in power. That sounds admirable until you realise that it is no better or worse than the idea that an opposition's prime duty is to oppose. British politics is often criticised for being too confrontational, and it may well be that British comedy is too confrontational as well.
What might be interesting to know now is what kind of books British comedians will be writing when they get to Mort Sahl's age. Always assuming that Tony Blair is not assassinated, and that Jeremy Hardy does not become obsessed with finding out the truth behind it, and that Oliver Stone does not get the film rights - well, my feeling is that comedians are going to get so frustrated at living in a Britain where they approve of the government, or at least approve of the government more than they approve of the opposition, that they are going to want to get out.
Most of the comedians who can write novels have already written novels, but I don't think any of them has yet written a travel book. Up the Andes with Jeremy Hardy ... Down the Irrawaddy with Ben Elton ... Into Hong Kong as Chris Patten leaves, with Stephen Fry.
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