Government records show that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover thought standup comedian Mort Sahl was a “very sick man,” and that the feds kept close tabs on Sahl’s jokes about them, believing that he and like-minded comedian Lenny Bruce were receiving material from “communistic” sources.
Sahl, whose barbed political commentary paved the way for generations of anti-establishment comedians, died last October at 94. His FBI files, obtained by Reason through a Freedom of Information Act request, show that the FBI was quite sensitive to Sahl’s frequent jabs at it and Hoover.
A 1960 memo from the FBI’s Los Angeles field office to Hoover, headlined “Criticism of F.B.I.,” recounts Sahl’s appearance on a local TV station, which included a long, involved joke about the FBI protecting Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev on a visit to Chicago.
One assumes that Sahl’s delivery was funnier. The memo included a rundown of Sahl’s background and political activity, such as performing at American Civil Liberties Union galas and a fundraiser for Sylvia Powell and Julian Schuman, two Americans charged with sedition for articles they wrote during the Korean War.
A newspaper columnist named Jack O’Brian advised the FBI that Sahl and fellow comic Lenny Bruce were “what is known in the trade as ‘sick’ comedians who capitalize on jokes that were anti-Republican, anti-Eisenhower, anti-Democratic and anti-semitic.” (Bruce and Sahl were both Jewish.)
O’Brian also told the FBI that Bruce and Sahl “had been receiving script and material from a source believed to be communistic.” The source is never identified, but Sahl, if he were available to comment, might wryly note that he often appeared onstage with a newspaper tucked under his arm.
The feds ultimately decided not to talk to Sahl about his offending jokes, fearing he would publicly roast them.
“According to reliable sources of the Los Angeles Division, familiar with personalities in the entertainment world, SAHL is a vicious, outspoken, ‘sick’ comedian. Accordingly, it is felt that an interview with him concerning his televised skit on 7/26/60 would be of no avail and could result in embarrassment to the Bureau. No further action is being taken in this matter UACB [unless advised contrary by the Bureau].”
Sahl’s name pops up in FBI records again in 1970, this time in a background check of a potential nominee for a federal judgeship. The subject’s youngest sister was married to Sahl, a black spot on the otherwise positive findings.
“Mort Sahl in the past has ridiculed the FBI, law enforcement, and high public officials, beyond the bounds of good humor,” the memo says. “On a nationally televised show during March of 1969, he made some remarks concerning the Director and the FBI which were not in good taste. The Director noted that ‘Sahl is a very sick man.'”
The FBI’s keen interest in Sahl wasn’t unusual. The Bureau under Hoover was notoriously paranoid, and it kept files on any public figure that disparaged its good reputation, even as it went about burgling and illegally wiretapping Hoover’s political enemies. Hoover ruled the FBI as his own fiefdom, and even Sahl had to tip his hat to his long reign, joking in 1972: “There’s a great deal of comfort in knowing that the man who’s chasing your son today chased your father in the Palmer raids.”