When Mort Sahl’s fiancée first introduced him to her parents, they were horrified at the prospect of their daughter marrying an aspiring nightclub comic. As they told him later, “We never knew you’d become Mort Sahl.”
In his heyday, Mort Sahl was indeed a name to conjure with. His success stemmed from timely iconoclasm: he discarded the de rigueur tuxedo worn by all nightclub performers before him in favor of a casual sweater and slacks that befit his grad-school-dropout persona; he didn’t tell jokes, but improvised long, free-form monologues that allowed him to display his wit; brandished a newspaper to underscore the topical nature of his material; and, largely by accident, established the mainstream comedy record album as a viable medium.
James Curtis’s claim that Sahl was the father of modern comedy may be debatable, but he builds a strong case in its favor. Sahl’s eminence has since been eclipsed by the near-mythical status of his contemporary, Lenny Bruce, as well as the success of other comedians — such as Woody Allen, Bob Newhart, Shelley Berman, and Dick Gregory — in television and film. But Sahl, far more than Bruce, was looked to as a model who enabled the “sick” comedians who rose to prominence after him.
Sahl was a creature of the nightclub, an entertainment institution that began to disappear as his career reached its apex. Looking back, it is hard to believe that A‑list entertainers once made their livings playing multiple shows nightly in venues that could seat a couple of hundred patrons at most. But Sahl’s monologues were the verbal equivalent of jazz, and the immediate feedback of a relatively small audience of like-minded souls was essential to their vitality. Despite several forays, he found both television and films to be less than congenial mediums.
Curtis’s book is an extraordinarily granular chronicle of Sahl’s career. Curtis reports not only the where and when of Sahl’s engagements, but the how-much as well. Along the way, he provides valuable sketches of such legendary clubs as the original hungry i in San Francisco, Mister Kelly’s in Chicago, Basin Street East in New York, and the Crescendo in Los Angeles, along with their proprietors and such related figures as the San Francisco columnist Herb Caen, without whom Sahl probably wouldn’t have had a career.
Curtis treatment of Sahl’s personal life is less detailed, but will provide more surprises to most readers. While cultivating the image of a left-wing nonconformist, Sahl was pretty much a straight-arrow who went through ROTC in college, never used drugs (though addiction tragically claimed the life of his only son), and easily fell into the orbit of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy philosophy. (He was a regular at the Playboy Mansion in Chicago, and he twice married the iconic Playboy bunny and centerfold model China Lee.) Beyond performing, his main enthusiasms were beautiful women, fast cars, and expensive watches.
While Sahl leaned left politically — his political heroes were Henry Wallace and Adlai Stevenson — he also became a fan of the Reagans and had cordial encounters with Richard Nixon. He had a rocky relationship with the Kennedys, although he would become a serious conspiracy theorist after JFK was assassinated. He became a fierce advocate for New Orleans prosecutor Jim Garrison and took to reading from the Warren Report on stage, to the considerable detriment of his reputation.
Sahl was clearly a far more complex figure than most of his fans ever recognized. While Curtis does not fully account for this complexity, he does Sahl and his adherents a favor by indicating that it existed.