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Comedy Review : Mort Sahl: His Bit Still Has That Bite

March 27, 1987|LAWRENCE CHRISTON | Times Staff Writer

The announcement a few days ago that Alexander Haig would run for President in '88 prompted the line, "He threw his helmet in the ring," a resoundingly appropriate tag that was picked up by every news commentator and host from "Good Morning America" to "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour."

For a moment, amid all this Iranscam wrangle and gloomy questioning of presidential competency, it put a bounce into our step. Somebody was finding fun in the ongoing murkiness of public life.

It should come as no surprise that the line was concocted by Mort Sahl, who's been serving up the political mot juste for well over 30 years (he characterized last year's self-serving presidential symposium on humor at the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids as "filled with biting political compliment").

Sahl, who appears only intermittently these days (he was a huge success in Australia last year), is back on track at Hollywood's Henry Fonda Theatre through Sunday in a solo, intermissionless, two-hour concert that puts us face-to-face with one of America's genuine show-biz mavericks and one of its keenest and most elusive comic minds.

Very little about Sahl has changed over the years. His facial lines are a little deeper and his middle has widened a bit, but we still see the buoyant man in the pullover bearing a folded newspaper and chortling over its contents. Did you hear that Oral Roberts built his hospital because his faith-healing line had grown unmanageable?

Sahl hasn't lost a step. His delivery remains ebullient, free-flowing, seemingly improvisatory (with an occasional note lost here and there opening night). Some of his material we've heard before (as in Adlai Stevenson's line, "I find the apostle Paul appealing and the apostle Peale appalling") and some of it is as up-to-date as a current headline (he traces Ronald Reagan's career from left-wing Democrat to "'Ich bin ein contra too' "). He's one of the few American comedians who make public officialdom their turf, and he's one of the fewer still who prize wit.

That Sahl has not had an easy time of it professionally is no secret. A lot of people who looked up to him as America's pre-eminent political spearfisher have felt dismayed by his quirks and obsessions--not the least of which concerned his involvement with the conspiracy theory on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. (To this day, if it comes up and someone asks, "Are you still involved with that?" he will answer, "Yeah, he's still dead.")

Too, as we see in his current appearance, Sahl's love of irony is conducted at the risk of being occasionally oblique. He doesn't subscribe to the vogue of personality. He's not a type. It's somewhat misleading, as Ronald Reagan and Sahl's own publicity have done, to promote him as our contemporary Will Rogers. There are parallels, largely having to do with speaking out of conscience and as an outsider observing the powerful. But Sahl doesn't present a persona. He's neither an urban intellectual (like Woody Allen) nor a cunning cracker philosopher who scores off them odd folks runnin' things in Washington.

Nor is he a visceral performer. What is said takes precedence over who does the saying; with Sahl, we're asked to consider the message, not the messenger.

Sahl's targets include anyone who thinks he (or she) possesses the ideological right stuff. He has, and shares, a great deal of fun with the Hollywood liberal Establishment, particularly when it shakes its head sadly and reproachfully after he accepts an invitation to dine at the Reagan White House (to Sahl's way of thinking, nobody has a corner on righteousness at the moment, and besides, the White House offers more comic relief than a dreary afternoon on a studio lot).

There are times when you wonder where his focus is, but there's never any mistaking his underlying contempt for groupthink and his wish to entertain and inform; and he's far above every dogged cliche pandemic in current stand-up (a reference to 7-Eleven will never pass his lips).

Sahl remains in a class by himself. It is interesting to note that virtually none of the Hollywood comedy Establishment that howled over Jackie Mason last year showed up for Sahl's opening--even though he's always been on call for Hollywood benefits.

Perhaps that's because, after 30 years, we still don't know what to make of him, and because, more than any other major comedian going, he fulfills the definition of the true comedian as a dangerous man.

Performances tonight and Saturday, 8 p.m., with Saturday matinee 2 p.m. and final Sunday performance at 3 p.m., at the Henry Fonda Theatre, 6126 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; (213) 410-1062.

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