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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

No Dave Chappel or Hannah Gadsby without Mort Sal

When Mort Sal first appeared in this newspaper, theater critic Brooks Atkinson called him a “salon chatter” because that’s more or less what comics were in the 1950s. Of course they are still there. But now they are also philosophers, political sages, conspirators, grumblers, rebels and outcasts. And no one deserves more credit for expanding their portfolio than Mort Sal.

When the news broke Tuesday that he had died at the age of 94, the general reaction was: wait, is Mort Sal still alive? Call it a cautionary tale about living long enough to be forgotten.

Even before comedy clubs even appeared, Mort Sal was acclaimed for turning the news of the day into a highlight, launching a widespread trend of political comedy. Lenny Bruce, a contemporary of his, died young, and while Bruce’s reputation rose sharply after his death, by the mid-1960s Sal was out of fashion and went out of fashion in the next decade. When he tried to return to Broadway in 1987, the same year that Jackie Mason rekindled his career there, The Village Voice’s Laurie Stone gave Sal a eulogy, “He’s gone.”

Unlike Mel Brooks or Bob Newhart, other legends of his era, Sahl, often ungrateful to his colleague, was too harsh to ever be loved. Chris Rock once said that “Carrot Top is better than Mort Sahl.”

But Sal has his champions, and none of them can be more flamboyant than Woody Allen. “He was the original genius who revolutionized the media,” he said. “He made the country listen to the jokes that made them think.”

Certainly, some of these conversations are exaggerated (including sometimes Salom). Redd Fox had released a comedy album many years before. Sahl did not invent comedy stories about issues in the news (see Rogers, Will), and some of these arguments are based on a narrow definition of the political. Salh attached great importance to how radical it was for him not to wear a tuxedo on stage, but for Timmy Rogers, a black comedian who began his career in the 1940s, it was just as meaningful to wear it.

The best example of Sal’s legacy was his style and manner of performance. He personified a complete break with the past borsch belts, the rejection of chips and canned raisins. Salle moved stand-up from the era of anecdotes to one in which the material was not only original and specific to the performer, but also a reflection of an individual personality.

The only time I saw Mort Sal speak in person, at Café Carlyle in 2013, was jerky and quick, with sideways or interruptions about President Barack Obama. What stood out the most was his attitude: constantly stunned, cheerful, without a drop of anger in his cynical ridicule. He gave the public exactly what they wanted, right down to his clothes, his usual V-neck sweater that was once a symbol of the seriousness of graduate school. He carried a folded newspaper with the same signature as the cigar for Groucho Marx.

Watching him got me thinking, if you do something long enough, it will inevitably become a trick. The first time Henny Youngman said, “Take my wife, please,” was it personal? It’s hard to say, but partly Salle became so important because he became famous by filming a comedy that anticipated our current scene. He could be the only comedian to have paved the way for both Hannah Gadsby and Dave Chappell to accept the rivalry at the moment. Let me explain.

Long before Gadsby combined art history and feminist criticism into formally complex stand-up routines, comedians had to wear their intellect with ease. To earn smart points, you had to behave stupidly. Sahl took the opposite pose, a move that now seems trite after the works of John Stewart, Dennis Miller and John Oliver, among others. But a significant amount of Sal’s press attention was initially focused on the curiosity of intellectuals telling anecdotes. The Variety dubbed him “the darling of the clever,” and Bob Hope once teased him as “the favorite comedian of nuclear physicists all over the world.”

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Along with his distracted style, this made Sal a patron of alternative comedy, but he was not a niche entertainer. By 1960, he was the main star, host of Oscars and first Grammy awards, wrote jokes for President John F. Kennedy and Frank Sinatra, who appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Its rise was quick and short, and its fall was just as sharp. This can be roughly traced back to the Kennedy assassination.

Sal became obsessed with the Warren Commission’s murder report, devoting years of his life, including a lot of time onstage, dealing with murder, bizarre denunciation of groupthink, and the spread of alternative theories. Decades before Joe Rogan was successful as a conspiracy processing center, Sahl was a mining company. In 1966, he hosted a satirical television show that focused on Kennedy. As his biographer James Curtis put it, “Comedy has almost given way to outrage.” Sounds familiar.

One of the Sahl representatives asked if there were any groups that he did not offend. His retrograde ideas about gender and his outspoken sexism have provoked backlash. Rising to fame as the quintessential liberal critic, Sahl became a Nixon voter who spoke fondly of Ronald Reagan. His image shifted from a sage professor to a Central American criminal, depicting the silhouette of a cowboy on the cover of his husky, big-name memoir Heartland, which said with a deadpan face on the front page, “Here is the pain and ecstasy of an uncontrolled conscience.” He later called Lenny Bruce “clueless” before bragging about the way Marilyn Monroe put her hand on her chest and said, “Fear not, Mr. Salle.” This is a trip.

In this book you can hear the echoes of the current Chappelle: self-mythologization, sensitivity, bursts of greatness. Salle plays the victim brilliantly, saying he hasn’t been able to sign any recording contracts since taking a position on the Warren Commission. If there had been a term “abolition culture” then, he would have used it.

Like many of the comics “canceled” today, Sahl continued to work, and although he never returned to his former position, he also did not retire. I didn’t realize that he was still active until a few years ago when I was told that not only was he performing at the theater every week in Mill Valley, California, but was also broadcast live. And, of course, I looked at him and saw that he was over 90, he is still stunned, beaming with his wolfish grin. It was inspiring and a bit weird, like discovering that Fatty Arbuckle is still alive and working.

In popular tales of stand-up history, Lenny Bruce is often positioned as the founding father, and his struggle for free speech is a beautiful romantic story to build upon. A biopic called Mort just doesn’t sound like that. But look at the comedy scenes today, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and this salon chatterbox seems more relevant than ever.

World Nation News Deskhttps://www.worldnationnews.com
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