Last Man Standing

James Cur­tis
  • Review
By – April 19, 2017

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.

Relat­ed Content:

Bill Bren­nan is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and enter­tain­er based in Las Vegas. Bren­nan has taught lit­er­a­ture and the human­i­ties at Prince­ton and The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. He holds degrees from Yale, Prince­ton, and Northwestern.

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