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