Cambridge produced the first new comedian with Tom Lehrer, but San Francisco became the center of the new comic revival. The City by the Bay was already world headquarters for a growing “Beat” generation. Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in June of 1953 had opened City Lights Bookstore on Columbus Avenue in the heart of North Beach. It was America’s first entirely paperback bookstore. San Francisco’s bohemians now had another unofficial headquarters in addition to Vesuvio next door and the venerable Café Trieste a block up Vallejo, which served the only real cappuccinos in town.
I was back in The Bay Area over spring break in 1954. City Lights Bookstore’s community bulletin board advertised a handful of small clubs where folk singers, poets and jazz groups performed outside the mainstream. Korean War veterans who had retreated to such clubs around military bases while on R&R in Korea and Western Europe were the key patrons The clubs became the setting for the sharp edge of new kind of humor. Mainstream comedy was as timid and moribund as the rest of Fifties culture, although talented comedians like Milton Berle and Bob Hope did their best.
The clubs were heady fare for a 19-year-old. I could get a class a wine and overhear conversations about Camus and Becket floating through dense cigarette smoke, with the sense of being literally in the underground. Many of the clubs were below street level!
I went to see a new comedian called Mort Sahl at a club called the hungry i (“i” stood for Freud’s id — the brain’s uncoordinated instinctual trends.) You entered down a flight of stairs past Alvah Bessie, one of The Hollywood Ten, famous for serving prison time after refusing to answer HUAC’s questions. Bessie collected our tickets and dumped them in a huge wooden barrel. We sat in director’s chairs with cup holders on the side in a narrow, brick lined room with a small platform at one end. Bessie came on stage and announced in a sonorous voice, “The next president of the United States … Mort Sahl!” And Sahl walked on dressed like a graduate student from UC Berkeley with folded newspapers under his arm, quoting marked up passages that were particularly;y hypocritical. And then he laughed his hacking, self-conscious laugh and everyone relaxed as Sahl started to dissect the day’s news.
Sahl first performed professionally at the hungry i in San Francisco. After a rough start with the comedy routine he’d written out, he discovered that the political asides he threw out between the routine’s actually grabbed the audience, “and that is when they began to laugh. At the end of the third week, I broke the sound barrier and I was in.”
By spring break Sahl’s breakthrough and most quoted joke was part of his routine: “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.” Another McCarthy joke: “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.”
Mort Sahl’s humor went beyond tweeting noses to drawing blood. He explained that “in America we have a political Left, the Communist Party, which is controlled by the FBI and on the Right– we used t0 have Capitalism, which was great, ask your parents about it — but now we have the empire of Greed.” This in 1954. Sahl ended his performances asking, “Are there any groups I haven’t offended yet?”
I can’t leave early Fifties humor without mentioning an LP record called The Investigator, which appeared on an obscure label named “Discuriousities” without any credits. John Drainie, a Canadian actor played “the Investigator,” a thinly disguised Joe McCarthy. He has made his way to heaven and taken over an investigating committee that includes Torquemada, Cotton Mather and Titus Oates. They sit in judgment on Socrates, Milton, Jefferson and other champions of liberty, declaring them “subversives” and sending them to hell. All goes well, until the Investigator sends a subpoena to the Chief, God, because “there is no one so high as to be immune from investigation if there is the slightest suspicion.” The drama ends with a ranting Investigator sent to hell, where the devil rejects him, finally returning him to earth as a babbling idiot.
Tom Lehrer’s songs, Mort Sahl’s intelligent, debunking of the daily news and The Investigator felt like three isolated voices in a wilderness. It’s only in hindsight that they appear to be part of a comic revival. They were the first seeds of a cultural rebellion. It was still tiny. All of hip San Francisco could be put in the Longshoreman’s Hall, and in a few years it would be.