It has often been remarked that what makes it tough for comedians is that real life outstrips their wildest imagination. Mort Sahl has solved this problem by moving to Hollywood.
Hollywood, after all, has become home for a lot of '60s activists. A political commentator once called war the continuation of diplomacy by other means. Movies have become a similar continuation. The studios, once full of stars, are now hotbeds for partying for important causes.
How could you possibly make up anything as breathtaking as Sahl's true stories that combine characters like David Biegelman, Paul Newman, Mike Wallace and that Hollywood alumnus in the White House? Sahl holds an audience for an hour and a half with material that is funny because it's about character, not just politics.
What do you have to make up when Jane Fonda invites you to sip white wine with Vanessa Redgrave? The situation needs little embellishment. Sahl strengthens it when Redgrave phones him to ask what fat cat might contribute to her various political causes. He sends her to his college friend Clint Eastwoo, hardly your average bleeding heart.
With a cast of characters like this, Sahl seldom has to add his own comments, though when he does they are as sharp as ever. He says about Redgrave, for example, that "it's possible to dislike her for herself," or about the Donna Rice scandal: "It was a cynical attempt by Hart's staff to humanize him."
Over the years Sahl has become as adept at flaying the left as he always was at tackling the right. "Liberals tend to believe they don't deserve what they have," he says. "I tend to agree. Conservatives believe they're entitled to what they've stolen."
Most of the time Sahl just lets things speak for themselves, as when he has $5 million-a-picture Dustin Hoffman tell him, "I'm a real liberal; the others are mock liberals - they're materialistic."
It's tempting to quote Sahl at length because he's so wildly funny. For an hour and a half he has our minds reeling with the loony improbability of our world. It's not so much an evening of yocks as it is an evening of reality, and that's almost as scary as it is hilarious.
If you want a very simple evening of dazzling, and occasionally even cerebral, entertainment, full of wit, wisdom, bile, and silliness, get along to the Neil Simon Theater and discover Mort Sahl on Broadway.
He looks rather like a very well-preserved, remarkably fit gargoyle. And his props are minimalistically simple. A bare stage with a tall stool stage right.
For nearly two intermissionless yet surprisingly brief hours he keeps standing stage center - weaving around, once in a while, a little like a boxer searching for another shadow to hit.
Soon one is wondering just in what circumstances he would use the stool and sit down. A theater fire, perhaps, or a police raid? It's puzzling.
But that's not the only thing puzzling about the new-look, new-think, quick-talk, 60-year-old Sahl, the born-again radical comedian, with his nervy quickfire delivery punctuated with the occasional, fiercely mirthless laugh.
He tells us that he's "allergic to majorities," but what he seems allergic to is any kind of cant or pomposity.
In the '60s Sahl was a liberal minor prophet with a wicked tongue whiplashing the enemies of progress. He became the court jester of Camelot and the moody chronicler of its betrayal.
In those days he was wonderfully and viciously funnier. Now he has come back, older, wiser, wickeder.
He seems to have learned from Mercutio's dying curse, "a plague on both your houses," and now his barbs, deadlier perhaps than ever, are sent seemingly scatter-shot into the air, but in fact aimed at hypocrites of all persuasion.
Sahl tells us that his apparently meandering but obviously well-mapped and seriously plotted monologue is going to be about "women, politics, and movies."
By and large it is, and occasionally it manages to embrace all three, such as in the hilarious way he tells of sending Jane Fonda's house-guest, Vanessa Redgrave, over to Clint Eastwood to woo Eastwood's financial support for the PLO.
Like so many of Sahl's anecdotes - including an absolutely nutty yet savage account of attending a President Reagan dinner party at the White House - it has the ring of truth to it.
But then so does all his wild and woolly name-dropping - from Paul Newman and Robert Redford, Norman Lear and Ed Asner, to Caspar Weinberger, Alexander Haig, and Jerry Falwell - it all has rings of truth.
One would imagine that after this show Sahl will have to go out and, in Dorothy Parker's words, find himself "a whole new set of old best friends." Surely most of the ones he had then - certainly most of Hollywood, where he has spent the past few years writing unproduced movies, "failing upward as a scriptwriter" - will need to be singularly forgiving to stand his ridicule.
Of course, the major difficulty of writing about a show like this is to give some idea of its flavor without stealing any of the comedian's lines.
Already - from a few interviews - some of his jokes turn up in the show as old acquaintances, but in fairness to the man, he does not really rely on one-liners.
He depends very much on attitude. Although he is that truly rare bird in the American sky, a political satirist who is not a cartoonist, as a comedian he is more in the tradition of Jack Benny than Bob Hope. He presents a persona, a way of looking at life and - in his case - politics.
The real joy of the man, and his show, is the quickness of his mind, and his wonderful sense of nonsense. Without this heightened realization of the ridiculous (something surely present in all genuine humor) his feverish satire would seem ill-tempered and surly.
But his lovely, almost lovable, craziness takes the bitterness out of even his sharpest barbs, although I wonder whether Newman and Redford, Sen. Edward Kennedy, or even our President, will see this in quite the same way.
Also he never really mocks his audience. He takes us - we chosen ticket-holders - into his confidence, as members of a sublime intellectual elite conspiring against the fools of fashion.
It is a compliment we cherish even as we see through it. After all, Mort Sahl is evidently smart enough (and, although he is even smart enough not to stress it, moral enough) for us to want to be on his side. And think of the mean things he might say about us if we weren't.
Anyway just go and enjoy. Forget that the man is clever. Merely think of him as the funniest guy in town. He is.
Mort Sahl, the comic scourge of the 1950's and 1960's, opened his one-man show last night at the Neil Simon Theater on Broadway. Though the comedian has shifted some of his animosity, age has not mollified his temperament or lessened his aptitude. He is still out there in the satiric combat zone, flailing sacred cows (and sitting ducks) with his caustic wit. One may not agree with everything he says, but there is no denying the precision of his articulation. Especially with an election year approaching, his presence is tonic (some might substitute the word toxic).
In contrast to Jackie Mason who preceded him (and to Lily Tomlin and others who came even earlier), Mr. Sahl has not noticeably changed his show to suit the Broadway venue. This hour and 40 minutes of nonstop commentary could as easily take place in a cabaret or a concert hall. As always, his style has an intuitive spontaneity; ''Mort Sahl on Broadway!'' is without formal structure. There is no attempt at ''staging'' a show, which means that our attention is close-up on the comedian himself. What he says is what you get. For many, the look and the attack should provoke memories. Here he is, as we remember him, in sweater and slacks, carrying a folded copy of today's newspaper (perhaps this one you are reading), which he consults and occasionally holds in a threatening position as if to swat a pestilential creature. Though a few of his remarks are dated (one might say ageless), others are as timely as the latest Mideast or Congressional skirmish.
So far as politics go - and everything Mr. Sahl says is political, even when he is dealing with movies and marriage, two of his other favorite subjects - he is less a liberal than an idealist who has been wounded in his illusions. This means that his humor is at the expense of do-gooders as well as missile bearers, office seekers and incumbents, hard-line feminists and male chauvinists. As proof of his bicoastal ecumenicism, he says, ''Donald Trump is building a high-rise prison for the friends of the Mayor,'' and, later, ''The homeless in California - that's Joan Collins's husband.''
Targets run from Senator Edward M. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan, or, to extend the range, from Vanessa Redgrave to Sylvester Stallone. Encouraging a Hollywood meeting of the last two opposites, he informs us that Ms. Redgrave has never seen ''Rambo,'' then adds, devilishly, that neither has Mr. Stallone seen ''Wetherby.'' He says, confidentially, that it is possible to dislike Ms. Redgrave for herself.
Recently, Mr. Sahl has been ''failing upward'' as a ''credentialed'' writer of unproduced screenplays. Such wilderness toiling has rehoned his rapier, and, with a thrust, he tells gossipy tales out of school about eminent people in his personal life, especially about those who tried to discourage him from accepting an invitation to a state dinner with the Reagans.
This was the first time he had been asked to eat at that house, he acknowledges - despite his affinity for John F. Kennedy and because of his disaffection for those Presidents who came after him. President Reagan has apparently proven to be impervious to the comedian's jesting (''Washington could not tell a lie; Nixon could not tell the truth; Reagan cannot tell the difference'').
In a long, amusing monologue, he takes us to the White House, where his wife dances with George Bush (''the fourth man in any car pool''), and he is a witness to a heated confrontation between Caspar Weinberger and the guest of honor, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir of Israel. For once in his life, Mr. Sahl finds himself acting in the peculiar position of peacemaker.
He is, of course, not our only political satirist; there are Johnny Carson and Mark Russell, among others, and even Jackie Mason inflicts a few unkind cuts on our leaders. But Mr. Sahl is, as he was, one of our most acerbic commentators, and someone who refuses to talk down to his audience or to be pigeonholed. As he informs us in his breathless indictment, he also has a sense of history, which is cyclical - and has returned Mr. Sahl to the spotlight when he is most needed. In order to be Mort Sahl today, one must have ''generic bad news,'' which, as it turns out, is ubiquitous.