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

The first time Mort Sahl appeared in this paper, the theater critic Brooks Atkinson referred to him as a “saloon talker,” because that’s more or less what comics were in the 1950s. They still are, of course. But now they are also philosophers, political sages, conspiracy-mongers, grumps, rebels and outcasts. And no one deserves more credit for the expansion of their portfolio than Mort Sahl.

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

Before there even were comedy clubs, Mort Sahl gained acclaim for turning the news of the day into punch lines, pioneering the now expansive branch of political comedy. Lenny Bruce, his contemporary, died young, and while Bruce’s reputation ballooned in death, Sahl raced past his prime by the mid-1960s and was wildly out of fashion the following decade. When he tried a comeback on Broadway in 1987, the same year Jackie Mason resuscitated his career there, The Village Voice’s Laurie Stone delivered a bruising eulogy for Sahl: “He’s become irrelevant.”

Unlike Mel Brooks or Bob Newhart, other legends from his era, Sahl, often ungenerous 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 more consistently effusive than Woody Allen. “He was an original genius who revolutionized the medium,” he has said. “He made the country listen to jokes that required them to think.”

To be sure, some of this talk is overblown (including occasionally by Sahl). Redd Foxx put out a comedy album years before he did. Sahl did not invent topical comedy about issues in the news (see Rogers, Will), and some of these arguments rest on a narrow definition of political. Sahl made a big deal out of how radical it was for him not to wear a tuxedo onstage, 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 the legacy of Sahl was his style and delivery. He represented a clean break from the borscht belt past, a rejection of shtick and canned punch lines. Sahl moved stand-up out of 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 distinct personality.

The only time I saw Mort Sahl perform in person, at the Café Carlyle in 2013, his delivery was herky-jerky and quick, with punch lines about President Barack Obama delivered in asides or interruptions. What stood out most was his attitude: perpetually bemused, cheerfully, without an ounce of anger in his cynical gibes. He gave audiences exactly what they wanted, right down to his outfit, his customary V-neck sweater, once a symbol of grad-school seriousness. He carried a rolled-up newspaper, as much a signature as the cigar was for Groucho Marx.

Watching him did make me wonder whether, if you do something long enough, it will inevitably become 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 doing comedy that anticipated our current scene. He might be the only comic who paved the way for both Hannah Gadsby and Dave Chappelle, to take the rivalry of the moment. Let me explain.

Long before Gadsby integrated art history and feminist critique into formally tricky stand-up routines, comedians had to wear their intelligence lightly. To make smart points, you had to play dumb. Sahl adopted the opposite posture, a move 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 telling jokes. Variety called him the “darling of the eggheads,” and Bob Hope once teased him as “the favorite comedian of nuclear physicists everywhere.”

Along with his digressive style, this made Sahl the patron saint of alt comedy, but he was no niche artist. By 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. His ascent was fast and short, and his fall just as abrupt. It can be tracked roughly to the assassination of Kennedy.

Sahl became fixated on the Warren Commission’s report on the killing, dedicating years of his life, including much stage time, to picking it apart, crankily decrying groupthink and floating alternative theories. Decades before Joe Rogan struck gold by becoming a clearing house for conspiracies, Sahl mined this ground. He hosted a satirical TV show in 1966 that became fixated on Kennedy. As his biographer James Curtis put it, “The comedy had almost given way to outrage.” It sounds familiar.

One of Sahl’s stock lines was asking if there were any groups he hadn’t offended. His retrograde ideas about gender and his outright sexism earned backlash. After finding fame as the quintessentially liberal critic, Sahl became a Nixon voter who spoke of Ronald Reagan with affection. His image shifted from professorial sage to middle-American outlaw, putting a cowboy in a silhouette on the cover of his raucous, name-dropping memoir, “Heartland,” which announced with a straight face on the first page: “Here is the pain and the ecstasy of a conscience out of control.” Later he called Lenny Bruce “ignorant” before boasting about the time Marilyn Monroe placed his hand on her breast and said, “’Don’t be afraid, Mr. Sahl.” It’s a trip.

You can hear the echoes of the current Chappelle in this book: the self-mythologizing, the sensitivity, the bursts of grandeur. Sahl plays the victim brilliantly, saying he couldn’t sign a single record deal after he took a stand on the Warren Commission. If the term cancel culture was around then, he would have used it.

Like so many comics “canceled” today, Sahl kept working, and while he never regained his old stature, he also didn’t retire. I didn’t realize he was still active until a few years ago when someone told me not only was he performing every week at a theater in Mill Valley, Calif., but it was also livestreamed. And sure enough, I looked him up and there he was in his 90s, still bemused, flashing that wolfish grin. It was inspiring and not a little bizarre, like discovering that Fatty Arbuckle was still alive and acting.

In the popular narratives of the history of stand-up, 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 “Mort” just doesn’t have the same ring to it. But look around the comedy scene today, the good, bad and ugly, and this saloon talker seems more relevant than ever.

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