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Fear and Loathing on Broadway

November 01, 1987|LAWRENCE CHRISTON

NEW YORK — Mort Sahl gazed out of his Ritz-Carlton Hotel room. Unlike Paris, New York could never claim itself a beneficiary of magnanimous light. And despite the almost mystical tufts of green that gently carried the eye north over the tree-lined expanse of Central Park, a flat autumnal bleakness washed into the room, highlighting the shadows of tension in his face.

"I'm so disjointed, I don't know what I'm doing," he said. He picked up a wad of telephone messages and let them drop on his desk. He shuffled aimlessly through a press packet that listed his interview schedule.

The countdown to his solo Broadway debut was, if you consider its beginning more than 30 years ago, deep into its 11th hour. Nine days away, to be exact. But nothing seemed further from his mind. He was feeling no premonition of the critical triumph that was actually to come, not even a frisson of what it means to be, for as long as one is alone on a Broadway stage, one of the heavyweight kings of American culture. His reviews would be glowing (though attendance for the show, which ends today, would be described as "moderate"). He would be in demand by every talk and interview show in the city. He would take daily calls from his agents hot for a London run, a TV special, a new book.

But all of that seemed inconceivable on this September day. Midway through a media schedule that called for more than 20 interviews in two weeks, he was peevish and drained. New York's relentless assault on the nerves was more than enough to put anyone on edge ("This city is knee-deep in psychosis," observed his friend, NBC correspondent John Hart).

Sahl possesses one of our most brilliant comedic minds and virtually single-handedly defined political satire for a generation of Americans. But the country, and its notions of celebrity, had changed around him. The true iconoclast never makes a media pet. Sahl's complications, his turmoil, his anger and his obsessions (particularly with the conspiracy theory surrounding John Kennedy's assassination) were for real. Under the veneer of the anarchic joker beat the heart of a moralist. Over the years, that had been hard for a lot of people to take. He saw a lot of cold shoulders turned his way.

Now, at 60, he was feeling himself a stranger in a strange land. He couldn't relate to the stream of young reporters who filed into the Jockey Club downstairs with questions culled from 25-year-old clips. In many of their faces he saw himself mirrored as some kind of Abominable Snowman of American Comedy shaking off a quarter century of hoarfrost as he shuffled toward Broadway's lights.

He felt that the Nederlander organization, which was producing the show, had gotten him a little on the cheap--he claims that at first he was offered no per diem for his pre-opening stay, and no hotel accommodation. He didn't know where he'd be living. He grieved over the publicity strategy. He didn't like the plan for the set design. His agent's brother had shot the TV ad for the show, and Sahl and the Nederlanders agreed that the job had been botched. "I look like an astronaut in space floating in front of the black hole," he said.

He couldn't figure why the critics were being allowed to show up at his previews while he was still honing his material. Already the opening night party was shaping up to be considerably less than the gala he had hoped for. Invitations hadn't even been mailed yet, the site hadn't been determined, and already some guests--such as the Reagans--had to be ruled out. Sahl could feel that showdown with the producers was inevitable.

Chalk some of this high anxiety up to pre-opening jitters. This wasn't just another opening, another show. This was Broadway, and this was vindication. Deep inside him there was a small lump of indigestible misgiving that sent up a tiny acid message: He was an American institution, one of the great comedians. And he was getting no respect.

The Fouled-Up Tale of the Tape

Most comedians usually hang out around other comedians. Sahl prefers the company of journalists; they offer more of a plug into the topical energies that charge his act. He was getting little feedback this time out, however. This generation of New Journalists was turning out to be less than a notable bunch.

There was, for example, the interview he'd just concluded with a stringer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, a benign young man who had conducted an earlier interview that lasted nearly five hours--all of which was lost when the tape recorder turned up faulty. He came back with an apology and a new microcassette recorder, and they tried again in the back room of the Jockey Club.

Sahl was resentful that the reporter was fixed on discussing his career during the '60s ("That was 20 years ago. You're asking me to be both detective and corpse").

"If you're any good you should always try to make your art a growth situation," he told the reporter. "Playing it safe is never playing it safe."

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