Mort Sahl: From laughs to con­spir­acy the­o­ries

James Cur­tis’s ‘Last Man Stand­ing’ delves into the du­el­ing sides of the co­me­dian’s per­sona

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY KEVIN CAN­FIELD Kevin Can­field has writ­ten for Book­fo­rum, Film Com­ment and other pub­li­ca­tions. book­world@wash­

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

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