Mort Sahl: From laughs to conspiracy theories
James Curtis’s ‘Last Man Standing’ delves into the dueling sides of the comedian’s persona
In the 1960s, when he was an A-list comedian and hosted a pioneering satirical news show, Mort Sahl often took the stage with a bit of reading material. Newspaper in hand, he zipped across the political landscape, offering wry takes on the day’s knotty issues. When a U.S. spy plane was downed in the Soviet Union, he looked for the upside: “If we’re lucky they may steal some of our secrets and then they’ll be two years behind.” Other times, when his props included, say, the Warren Commission report, Sahl might spend an hour fuming about cabals and coverups. He called himself “everyone’s conscience,” but his zealousness shortened his career.
James Curtis captures the dueling sides of Sahl’s persona in “Last Man Standing,” his fair-minded new biography. He meticulously charts his subject’s path from striving club comic to mercurial star. Coupled with deep dives into the morgues of Hollywood trade magazines, Curtis’s interviews with the likes of Woody Allen, Dick Cavett and Sahl himself (he turned 90 this year) give the reader a clear sense of his nimble mind and his influence on younger talents.
Emerging from the San Francisco club scene, Sahl capably straddled two worlds in the 1950s. His stream-of-consciousness monologues played well at jazz joints, where he shared bills with hip musicians. Meanwhile, he notched mainstream milestones, co-hosting the 1959 Oscars and cutting an album that the Library of Congress would declare “the earliest example of modern standup comedy on record.”
Unlike the proudly coarse Lenny Bruce, to whom he was sometimes compared, Sahl “was a genuine Puritan when it came to language,” says Curtis, the author of biographies of W.C. Fields and Spencer Tracy. Sahl excelled at gallows humor (Soviet leader Nikita “Khrushchev says he can bomb any American city. And I want to know if he’s taking requests”), and his barbs could be prescient. Years before Watergate, he noted that then-Vice President Richard Nixon was “on the cover of every magazine except ‘True.’ ”
In 1966, Sahl helped develop an innovative, if short-lived, satirical news show. The set of “Mort Sahl,” broadcast in Los Angeles, included “a world map and three clocks suggesting the stern surroundings of a small newsroom,” Curtis writes. A typical skit featured a cast member dressed “as NBC News correspondent Nancy Dickerson to report on the upcoming wedding of Luci Baines Johnson.” Sahl’s belief that he “was on the job to save America,” as Curtis puts it, was evident in his preoccupation with President John F. Kennedy’s murder. “Mort Sahl” was dominated by assassination theorizing, with repeated appearances by Mark Lane, whose book “Rush to Judgment” aimed to debunk the Warren Commission’s single-shooter conclusion. “The comedy had almost entirely given way to outrage,” Curtis says. Ultimately, Sahl’s incessant Kennedy coverage “was the downfall of the show,” recalls a behind-the-scenes colleague. “Mort Sahl” was canceled in 1967. To Sahl, this and other setbacks were evidence of something more insidious.
Eventually, Curtis writes, “the conspiracy Sahl blamed for keeping him unemployed got conflated with the one he saw as being responsible for the death of the president.” For a time, he volunteered as an “unpaid investigator” for Jim Garrison, the New Orleans prosecutor who spent years looking into Kennedy’s death. In 1968, Sahl encouraged Johnny Carson to interview Garrison. After Garrison’s appearance went poorly, “The Tonight Show” stopped booking Sahl. “I went out of business for about twelve years,” Sahl recalls.
Aside from Curtis’s sensitive handling of the overdose death of Sahl’s son, the final chapters of “Last Man Standing” are laden with wearisome discussions of unproduced screenplays and other abandoned projects. Not for nothing did GQ, in 1984, ask, “Whatever Happened to Mort Sahl?” These years could’ve been dispatched in a few pages. Sahl is a comedian, not a statesman. Who says every episode in his professional life merits scrutiny?
By many accounts, Sahl was once a singular performer. Woody Allen said, “He was the greatest thing I ever saw.” The last chapter might’ve been the place to tally his accomplishments. Instead, Curtis quotes from a news release about a college-teaching gig Sahl had a decade ago, and then wraps up with a half-dozen of his tweets. #Why?
For a book about a man who claimed that “anybody can act, but the only one who can do what I do is me,” it’s an awfully feeble curtain-closer.
LAST MAN STANDING Mort Sahl and the Birth of Modern Comedy By James Curtis Univ. Press of Mississippi. 400 pp. $39.95