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Mort Sahl might be the only comic who paved the way for both Hannah Gadsby and Dave Chappelle

  • In analyzing the influence of Sahl, who died Tuesday at age 94, Jason Zinoman looks at the legendary comedian's legacy through the "rivalry of the moment" between Chappelle and Gadsby. "Let me explain," says Zinoman. "Long before Gadsby integrated art history and feminist critique into formally tricky stand-up routines, comedians had to wear their intelligence lightly. To make smart points, you had to play dumb. Sahl adopted the opposite posture, a move that now seems banal after the work of Jon Stewart, Dennis Miller and John Oliver, among others. But a remarkable amount of Sahl’s early press attention focused on the curiosity of an intellectual telling jokes. Variety called him the 'darling of the eggheads,' and Bob Hope once teased him as 'the favorite comedian of nuclear physicists everywhere.'" Zinoman adds: "One of Sahl’s stock lines was asking if there were any groups he hadn’t offended. His retrograde ideas about gender and his outright sexism earned backlash. After finding fame as the quintessentially liberal critic, Sahl became a Nixon voter who spoke of Ronald Reagan with affection. His image shifted from professorial sage to middle-American outlaw, putting a cowboy in a silhouette on the cover of his raucous, name-dropping memoir, Heartland, which announced with a straight face on the first page: 'Here is the pain and the ecstasy of a conscience out of control.' Later he called Lenny Bruce 'ignorant' before boasting about the time Marilyn Monroe placed his hand on her breast and said, 'Don’t be afraid, Mr. Sahl.' It’s a trip. You can hear the echoes of the current Chappelle in this book: the self-mythologizing, the sensitivity, the bursts of grandeur. Sahl plays the victim brilliantly, saying he couldn’t sign a single record deal after he took a stand on the Warren Commission. If the term cancel culture was around then, he would have used it."


    • Dave Chappelle should take note of Mort Sahl's rise and fall: "Mort Sahl, who died on Tuesday at 94, may be unknown to most people who are younger than half that age, but in his prime in the 1950s, he sparked a revolution in stand-up comedy that persists to this day," says Fred Kaplan. He adds that by the end of the 1950s, "Sahl had become fabulously rich and famous, appearing on the cover of Time, starring in a hit one-man Broadway show called The Next President, and playing nightclubs around the nation for $7,500 a week (roughly $52,000 in today’s dollars), as much as the average American earned in a year...Sahl had no discernible ideology except for a distrust of all authority, regardless of which party was in power, and a disdain toward all shibboleths. 'Is there any group here that I haven’t offended?' he would often say toward the end of a set. 'I wish I had a cause because I’ve got a lot of enthusiasm,' he was quoted as saying in a 1960 New Yorker profile. John F. Kennedy’s election as president in that year marked Sahl’s peak—and the start of his downfall. Sahl adored Kennedy—his insouciant wit and youthful charm—and the Kennedy crowd adored Sahl in return, laughing along with his trenchant stabs at Eisenhower, Nixon, and the stagnant complacency of the era. But then, once Kennedy entered the White House, this same crowd was appalled when Sahl started going after him. Sahl found himself blackballed from Camelot and never got over the sting. Nor, however, did he quite get over his infatuation with Kennedy himself—and JFK’s assassination wrecked him. He plunged deep down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, going onstage not with his usual props of newspapers and magazines but rather with a marked-up copy of the Warren Report (which concluded that JFK was shot by a sole gunman), devoting entire, hourslong sets to shredding its inconsistencies. In short, Sahl committed the cardinal, often fatal sin of a stand-up comedian: He became unfunny. (Dave Chappelle, take note.)"
    • Watch a collection of Mort Sahl's appearances with David Letterman

    TOPICS: Mort Sahl, Late Night with David Letterman, Late Show with David Letterman, Dave Chappelle, Hannah Gadsby, Standup Comedy