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CRITIC AT LARGE

L.a. To Get Another Taste Of The Biting Wit Of Mort Sahl

March 21, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

It is tempting to say that Mort Sahl is back, but the nearer truth is that he was never really away. It is just that he has had to spend some time as an itinerant preacher while his main constituency decided what targets required his missionary satiric zeal.

He has been writing screenplays, punctuated by brief gigs here and elsewhere around the country, and he recently returned from a hugely successful multiweek run in Australia.

Now he is making a major appearance here, opening Wednesday night at the Henry Fonda Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard for six performances under the auspices of the Nederlander Organization. There seems little doubt that the surprising box-office success that another and quite different comedian, Jackie Mason, enjoyed here and is now having in Manhattan was a big factor in the booking of Sahl.

It will, as always, be a daring undertaking: Sahl alone on stage in a sweater and slacks, with a folded newspaper for security (he is the ultimate minimalist), purposefully free associating about Our Times.

The image that comes to mind is of a lion being thrown to the Christians and other groups who, in the tradition Sahl invented, may well be cheerfully offended before the night is over.

Sahl has never really been a captive of either end of the political spectrum. In his early years, when Enrico Banducci's hungry i in San Francisco was his principal pulpit, the targets in view included Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Eisenhower-era complacency and the yuppies of their day. The latter were materialists then as now, but they were into hi-fi instead of VCRs and, as Sahl remarked at dinner earlier this week, they drove a different set of initials--MG instead of BMW.

The Sahl constituency was young, intellectual and liberal, and had no doubt he was one of them. What has grown clearer over the years is that Sahl is a kind of unattached centrist tilting against pomposity and other social sins wherever they arise. The only label he wears, it has seemed to me, is one that says he is his own man, even at some cost to himself. His continuing concern with the Warren Report on the assassination of John Kennedy unquestionably put a damper on his career, because audiences and talk-show hosts were anxious to get along to less troubling matters.

The surprise--although I have had no preview--may be the discovery that Sahl, if not necessarily more mellow, is mindful and admiring of older traditions of rectitude and achievement and probity. The moment has seldom seemed riper for Sahl's kind of stiletto scorn, a position that might, say, find Roosevelt liberals and Goldwater conservatives joining hands for once.

What will be interesting from Wednesday forward is whether Sahl finds a new constituency to join with the old, and how the old constituency responds to him 30 years later in his career.

Sahl has always been a reservoir of surprises. Early on, he seemed the prototypical Berkeley-Bay Area product of the '50s. In fact, he was born in Montreal, where his father, an American government worker, had gone to take a fling at private enterprise, running a tobacco shop. The family quickly resettled in Los Angeles, and Sahl went to Virgil Junior High and Belmont High, with Richard Crenna as one of his pals.

"Dick has been blackmailing me for years, threatening to reveal I'm not from San Francisco," Sahl says, with that familiar throaty chortle. "He and I used to sneak into KFI, and he got on a show called 'Boy Scout Jamboree.' He started working at 13, and he's been working ever since. I didn't work until I was 26."

Sahl was in the high school ROTC, won an Americanism award from the American Legion and enlisted in the Army. He came out and attended USC, where he majored in city management. Interesting training for the young satirist. He followed a Los Angeles love to Berkeley, did some writing, drifted into stand-up comedy, and in the beginning, he says, was doing very traditional impressions.

Then he was engaged at the hungry i and, as much by accident as design, found his free-associative style.

"They let me work for three months without getting a laugh," Sahl says. "Finally Ernie told the house manager to fire me. The manager said, 'You always make me do your dirty work. Fire him yourself.' He wouldn't, or didn't, and I finally caught on. After I'd been a success with the folk singer, Josh White, on the bill, he hired 38 each of comedians and folk singers. . . .

"I never found you could write the act," Sahl says. "You can't rehearse the audience's responses. You adjust to them every night. The audience is bright; you have to believe that; and they know the nugget you're going to find in the story. Sometimes the audience gets there before you do, and laughs. If you ignore them and keep going, you'll lose the laugh later. You've got to have a spirit of adventure."

The act is not quite so free-form as it seems. In a favorite metaphor, Sahl says he follows a kind of skeletal arrangement, in the way jazz musicians improvise on a sequence of chords.

There are still the jokes. One of my favorites, from blacklisting days, was: "Every time the Russians put a writer in jail, we put a writer in jail, just to prove they can't get away with it."

But the nightly suspense of getting to the jokes is always the pleasure of Sahl's performance. And although irreverent humor is a current mode among a throng of indistinguishable young comedians, no one I know of has seriously invaded Sahl's turf of informed politico-socio-cultural commentary. In the present day, he may sound more than ever, as someone once described him, like "Will Rogers with fangs."

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