The first time Mort Sahl appeared in this article, theater critic Brooks Atkinson referred him as a gossip, because that’s more or less what the comics were in the 1950s. They still are, of course. But now they are also philosophers, political sages, conspirators, cranks, rebels and outcasts. And no one deserves more credit for expanding his portfolio than Mort Sahl.
When news broke on Tuesday that he had died aged 94, a common reaction was, wait, was Mort Sahl still alive? Call it an uplifting tale to live long enough to be forgotten.
Even before there were comedy clubs, Mort Sahl was acclaimed for turning the news of the day into punchlines, pioneering the now expansive branch of political comedy. Lenny Bruce, his contemporary, died young, and while Bruce’s reputation swelled in death, Sahl passed his prime in the mid-1960s and was completely out of fashion by the following decade. When he attempted a return to Broadway in 1987, the same year Jackie Mason resurrected his career there, The Village Voices Laurie Stone delivered a eulogy for Sahl: it became irrelevant.
Unlike Mel Brooks or Bob Newhart, other legends of his time, Sahl, often not generous to his colleagues, was too abrasive to ever be widely loved. Chris Rock once said that Carrot Top is better than Mort Sahl.
But Sahl has his champions, none is more systematically effusive than Woody Allen. He was an original genius who revolutionized the medium, he said. He made the country listen to jokes that made them think.
Certainly, some of these speeches are exaggerated (including occasionally by Sahl). Redd Foxx released a comedy album years before him. Sahl did not invent topical comedy on topical subjects (see Rogers, Will), and some of these arguments rest on a narrow definition of politics. Sahl stressed how radical it was for him not to wear a tuxedo on stage, but for Timmie Rogers, a black comic who started in the 1940s, it was just as meaningful to put one on.
The best case for Sahl’s legacy was his style and delivery. It represented a clean break with the borscht belt past, a rejection of punchlines and canned punchlines. Sahl emerged from the stand-up era of joke books and moved on to an era in which material was not only original and performer-specific, but also a reflection of a distinct personality.
The only time I saw Mort Sahl perform in person, at Caf Carlyle in 2013, his performance was jerky and fast, with lines about President Barack Obama spoken as aside or interrupted. What stood out most was his attitude: perpetually amused, cheerful, without a hint of anger in his cynical taunts. He gave the audience exactly what they wanted, right down to his outfit, his usual V-neck sweater, once a symbol of serious graduate studies. He carried a rolled up newspaper, as much a signature as the cigar was for Groucho Marx.
Watching it made me wonder if, if you do something long enough, it will inevitably become shtick. The first time Henny Youngman said Take my wife, was it personal? It’s hard to say, but part of what made Sahl so important was that he rose to fame by making comedies that anticipated our current scene. He might be the only comic who paved the way for Hannah Gadsby and Dave Chappelle to take on the rivalry of the moment. Let me explain.
Long before Gadsby incorporated art history and feminist criticism into formally delicate stand-up routines, comedians had to wear their intelligence lightly. To make smart points, you had to play the fool. Sahl took the opposite stance, a move that now seems commonplace after the work of Jon Stewart, Dennis Miller and John Oliver, among others. But a remarkable amount of Sahl’s early press attention focused on the curiosity of an intellectual telling jokes. Variety called him the darling of egg heads, and Bob Hope once teased him as the favorite comedian of nuclear physicists around the world.
With his tapering off style, that made Sahl the patron saint of alternative comedy, but he wasn’t a niche artist. In 1960 he was a major star, host of the Oscars and the first Grammy Awards, writing jokes for President John F. Kennedy and Frank Sinatra, appearing on the cover of Time magazine. Its rise was quick and short, and its fall just as steep. It can be traced roughly to the Kennedy assassination.
Sahl became obsessed with the Warren Commission report on the murder, devoting years of his life, including a lot of stage time, to pulling it apart, humorously decrying group thinking and floating alternative theories. Decades before Joe Rogan found gold by becoming a conspiracy clearinghouse, Sahl mined this soil. He hosted a satirical TV show in 1966 that became obsessed with Kennedy. Like his biographer James Curtis to put she, The comedy had almost given way to indignation. It sounds familiar.
One of Sahls’ stock lines was asking if there were any groups he had not offended. His backward ideas about gender and outright sexism have drawn backlash. After coming to prominence as an essentially liberal critic, Sahl became a voter for Nixon who spoke fondly of Ronald Reagan. His image shifted from the wise professor to the Middle American outlaw, silhouetted against a cowboy on the cover of his raucous and breathtaking memoir, Heartland, which announced with a straight face on the front page: Here is the Pain. and the ecstasy of a consciousness out of control. He later called Lenny Bruce ignorant before bragging about when Marilyn Monroe placed her hand on his chest and said: Have no fear, Mr. Sahl. It’s a journey.
You can hear the echoes of the current Chappelle in this book: self-mythology, sensitivity, bursts of grandeur. Sahl plays the victim brilliantly, claiming he couldn’t sign a single recording contract after taking a stand on the Warren Commission. If the term cancel culture had existed at the time, he would have used it.
Like so many comics canceled today, Sahl continued to work, and while he never regained his former stature, he also did not retire. I didn’t know he was still active until a few years ago, when someone told me not only that he performed every week at a theater in Mill Valley, Calif., But that he was also broadcast live. And sure enough, I looked at him and he was there in his 90s, still amused, putting on that wolfish smile. It was inspiring and quite a bit bizarre, like finding out that Fatty Arbuckle was still alive and acting.
In popular stand-up history tales, Lenny Bruce is often positioned as the Founding Father, and his fight for free speech is a great romantic story to build on. A biopic called Death just doesn’t sound the same. But look around the comedy scene today, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and this chatterbox seems more relevant than ever.
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