Biography of the acerbic, irreverent comedian who inspired a new generation of performers.
When Mort Sahl (b. 1927) debuted on stage in 1953 in San Francisco, he wanted his pithy social and political jibes to change comedy. In an entertaining, abundantly—sometimes overwhelmingly—detailed biography, Curtis (William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come, 2015, etc.), biographer of Spencer Tracy, Preston Sturges, and W.C. Fields, makes a strong case for Sahl’s influence. For Woody Allen, Sahl opened up “a whole new style of humor” that led him to become a performer rather than just a writer. Dick Cavett called Sahl’s performances “stunning.” Among early admirers were Jack Benny, Groucho Marx, and Milton Berle. Skewering presidents, platitudes, and hypocrisy, Sahl got his material from daily newspapers, which he often carried onstage. “Wherever there is political bloat,” Hubert Humphrey remarked, “Mort sticks a pin in it.” He set out to shock and discomfit. “Are there any groups we haven’t offended yet?” Sahl often asked his audiences. Curtis had Sahl’s cooperation and also interviewed colleagues, one ex-wife, and assorted friends. While celebrating Sahl’s career, he is forthright about his subject’s many shortcomings. Foremost among them was a tendency to bitterness, anger, and paranoia. He was certain, for example, of an “industry-wide conspiracy” to keep him off TV even though his appearances were not always successes. He was convinced, as well, that John F. Kennedy’s assassination was the result of a conspiracy and, to the point of obsession, embraced the theories advanced by Mark Lane and Jim Garrison. “In time,” Curtis asserts, “the conspiracy Sahl blamed for keeping him unemployed got conflated with the one he saw as being responsible for the death of the president.” The author follows Sahl’s life chronologically, accounting for every nightclub, movie, TV, radio, and stage appearance; the women he dated, married, and broke up with; the colleagues he befriended or alienated; and the demons that beset him.
A sympathetic, evenhanded biography of a man notorious for his savage wit.