When Mort Sahl first appeared in the paper, theater critic Brooks Atkinson referred to him as “Salon Talker” because comics were comics in the 1950s. They still are, of course. But now they too are philosophers, political sages, conspirators, scoundrels, rebels and outcasts. And no one deserves more credit than Mort Sahel for expanding their portfolio.
When the news came on Tuesday that he had died at the age of 94, there was a general reaction, wait, was Mort Sahl still alive? Tell it a warning story to survive a long time like forgetting.
Even before the comedy club, Mort Sahl was praised for turning the news of the day into a punch line, pioneering the now broader branch of political comedy. Lenny Bruce, her contemporary, died at a young age, and as Bruce’s fame plummeted to death, Sahl surpassed her prime in the mid-1960s and was out of fashion for the next decade. When he tried to return to Broadway in 1987, the same year Jackie Mason revived his career there, a wounded admiration for The Village Voice’s Laurie Stone Sahl: “He’s become irrelevant.”
Unlike Mel Brooks or Bob Newhart, other legends of his era, Sahl, who was often not generous to his colleagues, was so disgusted that he could never be widely loved. Chris Rock once said that “carrots are better than top mortal sahel.”
But Sahl has a champion, none more consistently effective than Woody Allen. “He was a real genius who revolutionized the medium,” he says. “He made the country listen to jokes that made them think.”
To be sure, some parts of this discussion are excessive (sometimes including Sahl). Red Fox released a comedy album a few years ago. Sahl did not invent topical comedy on news topics (see Rogers, Will), and some of these arguments rely on narrow political definitions. Sahl made a big deal about how radical it was for him not to wear a tuxedo on stage, but for Timmy Rogers, a black comic who started in the 1940s, wearing it was just as meaningful.
The best case for Sahl’s legacy was his style and delivery. He represented a clear break from the past of the borscht belt, rejecting the stick and canned punch lines. Sahl has come out of the comic book era to a place where material was not only original and specific for an actor but also a reflection of a distinct personality.
Whenever I saw Mort Sahl perform in person at Cafe Carlyle in 2013, his delivery was extremely shaky and fast, punching lines about President Barack Obama to one side or the other. His attitude that stood out the most: forever surprised, cheerful, without an ounce of his anger. She gave the audience exactly what she wanted, her dress, her traditional V-neck sweater, once a symbol of grad-school seriousness. He carried a rolled-up newspaper, as much as a cigar signature for Grucho Marx.
Seeing him makes me think that if you do something long enough, it will inevitably get loose. The first time Henny Youngman said “Take my wife – please,” was it personal? It’s hard to say, but part of what made Sahl important is that he became famous for the comedy that awaited our current scene. He may be the only comic who paved the way for both Hannah Gadsby and Dave Chappell to compete in this moment. Let me explain.
Long before Gadsby’s art history and feminist critique were formally integrated into a tough stand-up routine, comedians had to wear their intelligence lightly. To make smart points, you had to play dumb. Sahl took the opposite approach, a move that now seems commonplace after the work of John Stuart, Dennis Miller and John Oliver. But a significant amount of Sahl’s early press attention focused on the curiosity to tell an intellectual joke. Variety called him “Egghead’s favorite” and Bob Hope once teased him as “the favorite comedian of nuclear physicists everywhere.”
With his degrading style, it makes Sahl a patron of alt comedy, but he was no special artist. By the 1960s, he was a major star, host of Oscars and the first Grammy Awards, wrote jokes for President John F. Kennedy and Frank Sinatra, appeared on the cover of Time magazine. His ascent was quick and short, and his fall was just as sudden. It could fairly track Kennedy’s assassination.
Sahl settled on the Warren Commission report on the murder, devoting many years of his life, many of which were to separate it, crankly denying groupthink and floating alternative theories. A few decades ago Joe Rogan hit gold by becoming a clearing house for the conspiracy, Sahl dug into this ground. He hosted a satirical TV show in 1966 that settled on Kennedy. As his biographer James Curtis puts it, “Comedy almost gave way to anger.” It sounds familiar.
One of Sahl’s stock lines was asking if there was a group that he was not dissatisfied with. Her retrograde ideas about sex and her complete sexuality have gained response. After gaining a reputation as a liberal critic above all else, Sahl became a Nixon voter who spoke affectionately about Ronald Reagan. His image has shifted from a professor sage to a Central American criminal, placing a cowboy in a silhouette on the cover of his rude, name-dropping memoir, “Heartland,” which declares straight on the front page: “Here’s the pain and the joy of conscience out of control.” He later called Lenny Bruce “unconscious” because Marilyn Monroe had put her hand on his breast before boasting of the time, “Don’t be afraid, Mr. Sahl.” It’s a trip.
You can hear the echoes of the current chapel in this book: self-mythology, sensitivity, an explosion of glory. Sahl has played the role of a great victim, saying he could not sign a record deal after taking a position on the Warren Commission. If the word cancel culture had been around then, he would have used it.
Like many comics “canceled” today, Sahl has continued to work, and while he has not regained his old dignity, he has not retired either. I didn’t realize that a few years ago he was still active when someone told me that he was not only performing at a theater in Mill Valley, California every week, it was also livestream. And of course, I looked at her and there she was, in her 90s, still amazed, flashing that wolf’s smile. It’s inspiring and not the slightest bizarre, such as discovering that Fatty Arbuckle is still alive and well.
In popular narratives of stand-up history, Lenny Bruce is often credited as the founding father and a great romantic story for building his fight for freedom of speech. A biopic called “Mort” doesn’t have the same ring. But look around the comedy scene today, good, bad and ugly, and this salon talk seems to be more relevant than ever.