There’s no Dave Chappelle or Hannah Gadsby Without Mort Sahl

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The first time Mort Sahl has appeared in this paper is theater critic Brooks Atkinson referred to him as a “Saloon Talker” because that’s more or less what comics were in the 1950s. They are, of course, still there. But now they are also philosophers, politicians, conspirators, grumblers, rebels and failure. And no one deserves more credit for expanding their portfolio than Mort Sahl.

When news broke Tuesday that he had died at the age of 94, there was a common reaction, wait, Mort Sahl was still alive? Call it a careful story to live long enough to forget.

Before there were even comedy clubs, Mort Sahl won announcements to turn the news of the day into punch lines, the now expansive industry of political comedy pioneers. Lenny Bruce, his contemporaries, died young, and while Bruce’s reputation rose in death, Sahl drove past his prime minister in the mid – 1960s and was wildly out of fashion for the next decade. When he tried to make a comeback on Broadway in 1987, the same year Jackie Mason reviving his career there, Laurie Stone of The Village Voice delivered a roaring elo for Sahl: “He has become irrelevant.”

Unlike Mel Brooks or Bob Newhart, other legends of his era, Sahl, often unkind to his colleagues, were too writing to ever be loved. Chris Rock once said that “Carrot top is better than Mort Sahl.”

But Sahl has his champions, none more consistently effusive than Woody Allen. “He was an original genius who revolutionized the medium,” he said. “He turned the country on jokes that required them to think.”

To be sure, some of this conversation is overblown (even sometimes by Sahl). Redd Foxx released a comedy album years before he released it. Sahl did not invent a current comedy on topics in the news (see Rogers, Will), and some of these arguments are based on a narrow definition of political. Sahl made a big deal about how radical it was for him not to wear a tuxedo on stage, but for Timmie Rogers, a Black comic that started in the 1940s, it made just as much sense to set one up.

The best case for Sahl’s legacy was his style and delivery. He represents a clean break from the borscht belt past, a rejection of shtick and canned punch lines. Sahl moved the stand-up from the era of joke books and into one in which material was not only original and specific to a performer, but also a reflection of a different personality.

The only time I saw Mort Sahl in person, at Café Carlyle in 2013, was his delivery herky-rucky and fast, with punch lines delivered over President Barack Obama and sides or interruptions. What stood out most was his attitude: eternally spoiled, amusing, without an ounce of anger and his cynical gibberish. He gave the audience exactly what they wanted, down to his outfit, his usual V-neck sweater, once a symbol of grade-school seriousness. He carried a rolled-up newspaper, as much of a signature as the cigar was for Groucho Marx.

He looked at me wondering if if you do something long enough, it will inevitably shtick. The first time Henny Youngman said, “Take my wife – please,” was it personal? It’s hard to say, but part of what made Sahl so important is that he became famous for making comedy that predicted our current scene. He might be the only comic who made way for Hannah Gadsby and Dave Chappelle to take on the rivalry of the moment. Let me explain.

Long before Gadsby integrated art history and feminist critique into formally complicated stand-up routines, comedians had to carry their intelligence easily. To make smart points, you have to play stupid. Sahl adopted the opposite attitude, a movement that now seems banal 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 joker. Variety called him the “Love of the Eggs,” and Bob Hope once hailed him as “the favorite comedian of nuclear physicists everywhere.”

Along with his degressive style, this made Sahl the patron saint of old comedy, but he was not a niche artist. Until 1960, he was a big star, host of the Oscars and the first Grammy Awards, wrote jokes for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Frank Sinatra, on the cover of Time magazine. His rise was rapid and short, and his fall is just as abrupt. It can be traced back to Kennedy’s assassination.

Sahl was fixated on the Warren Commission’s report on the killing, devoting years of his life to it, including plenty of stage time to pick it up, clumsily deciding group thinking, and floating alternative theories. Decades before Joe Rogan struck gold by becoming a clearing house for conspiracies, Sahl demolished that ground. He hosted a satirical television show in 1966, which was fixed on Kennedy. Like his biographer James Curtis set it, “The comedy had almost made way for the equipment.” It sounds familiar.

One of Sahl’s shares asked if there were any groups he did not offend. His retrograde ideas about sex and his direct sexism deserve a setback. After gaining fame as the quintessentially liberal critic, Sahl became a Nixon voter who spoke heartily of Ronald Reagan. His image shifted from Professor Sage to Middle American outlaw, putting a cowboy in a silhouette on the cover of his raucous, naming memoir, “Heartland,” which announced with a straight face on the front page: “Here is the pain. . and the ecstasy of a conscience out of control. ” He later called Lenny Bruce “ignorant” before lashing out over time as Marilyn Monroe put her hand on her chest and said, “Don’t be afraid, Mr. Sahl.” It’s a journey.

You will hear the echoes of the current chapel in this book: self-mythologizing, sensitization, the eruption of grandeur. Sahl plays the victim brilliantly, saying he could not sign a single record deal after taking a position on the Warren Commission. If the term cancel culture was around then he would have used it.

Like so many comics that have been “canceled” today, Sahl continued to work, and when he never regained his old stature, he did not retire either. I did not notice that he was still active until a few years ago when someone told me that he not only performed every week in a theater in Mill Valley, California, but it was also streamed live. And sure enough, I looked him up and there he was in his 90s, still spoiled, and flashing that wolfish grin. It was inspiring and not a bit bizarre, like discovering that Fatty Arbuckle was still alive and acting.

In the popular narratives of stand-up story, Lenny Bruce is often positioned as the founding father, and his struggle for free speech is a super romantic story to build on. A biopic called “Mort” just does not have the same rank. But look around the comedy scene today, which is good, bad and ugly, and this saloon talker seems more relevant than ever.

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