Mort Sahl revolutionized American comedy. Rather than poking fun at the personal and domestic foibles, which has been modern comedys tradition targets, he used Americans political and social scene as the subject for his wit.
The acclaimed for Sahls iconoclastic point of view keeps on coming. Appearing on Broadway recently in his one-man show, he received accolades from (among many others) Mel Gussow of The New York Times, who wrote "History has returned Mort Sahl to the spotlight when he is most needed. His style has an intuitive spontaneity his presence is tonic." Mimi Kramer of The New Yorker added, "its the kind of one-man Aristophanic comedy that leaves you laughing &ndash uplifted &ndash because its so refreshing."
Sahl is in the unique position of maintaining friendships with several American presidents while poking fun at them. "Its usually not the important people who get angry with me, its their underlying," he says. Unpartisan in his approach, he wrote material for John F. Kennedy and recently served as master of ceremonies for a Hollywood celebrity dinner for George Bush.
Sahl also opened the door for a generation of other comics voices, from Lenny Bruce to Bill Cosby (by his own admission) and especially Woody Allen, who was inspired to try stand-up comedy after being exhilarated by one of Sahls performance. "People reacted to Sahl just as they did to every great turn of art," Allen told his biographer, Eric Lax. "He had all the symptoms of every modern development of art. He was suddenly this great genius that appeared."
Lax notes, "What was truly revolutionary about Sahl was not the only substantive nature of his material but the casual manner in which he delivered it. His is bare-bones comedy, the truth stated simply and gracefully without benefit of dancers, songs, or foils. He is strictly a verbal comedian who gets all his laughs from the subtlety and wit of his delivery."
Sahl has enlivened not only Broadway and television but also the top nightclub stages around the country, as well as Las Vegas.
Unlike other comedians, who polish a routine until it is word-perfect, Sahl improvises, probing for the audiences mood and searching for common ground that will bind entertainer and audience. "I come to an engagement with only an outline," he says. "I follow my instincts. I improvise from night to night, and the audience is my jury. If I try a joke and they like it, I extend it."
"My audience is broader than ever; television is narrower and narrower," Sahl says. "The intellectuals of years past have become Yuppies. They still like to hear what I have to say. This world is a dangerous place, we all know that, and more than ever we must try to make it tolerable by attempting to see the humor in it all. After all, if you tell people the truth, it will resonate like the Brandenberg Concerto."
Credited by Adlia Stevenson with "Bringing humor into the 20th century," Sahl acknowledges that his task may be more difficult than ever. "The problem is that so many people have grown humorless in todays society," he says. "Theyre shell shocked." In response, Sahl succumbs to his overriding desire to "keep it true and keep it funny. Im not afraid to take on anyone," he says.