Mort Sahl...! How the veteran satirist turns today's headlines into zingers

THE punctuation mark in ``Mort Sahl on Broadway!'' is the kind of affectation Mr. Sahl might shoot down with a wisecrack if it adorned the title of someone else's act. Happily, the humorist's first one-person Broadway show makes no other concessions to Broadway-type entertainment gimmicks.

Sahl appears at the Neil Simon Theatre much as he has appeared for years in smaller and less expensive venues - casually dressed in open-necked shirt and V-necked sweater, clutching a copy of today's newspaper under his arm, quick to chuckle at a timely headline and his own rueful jokes about the issues it raises.

Near the beginning of his Broadway performance, Sahl announces the topics he'll touch on: politics, women, and movies. As the show develops, the first and third items get the most attention. Sahl has, after all, built his primary career as a political satirist and his secondary career as a Hollywood screenwriter.

Aside from occasional digs at Nancy Reagan and the feminist movement (he has his own version of the fairness doctrine), he leaves women largely alone, saving his ammunition for targets that tempt him more drastically. These range from Clint Eastwood to Jesse Jackson, and an amazing number of points between the two.

At nearly two hours, the show is overlong, especially when Sahl indulgently strings out the climax. It's an anecdote - with enough first-person pronouns to qualify as a Spalding Gray monologue - wherein he waltzes (literally) up to President Reagan at a dinner party and warns him that Middle East peace is about to be scuttled by disagreeing dignitaries at the other end of the dance floor.

Skewering politicians

Sahl has a point to make here - he wants to paint the President as both a silly jokester and a savvy diplomat - and he's willing to sacrifice timing for the sake of expansiveness.

Such longueurs aside, ``Mort Sahl on Broaday!'' is a smart and funny show, despite that exclamation point. Liberals and conservatives will long debate which camp suffers the most losses. The answer is: both are reeling by the end of the evening.

Wondering whether Sahl is smart and funny offstage as well as on, I met with him in a Manhattan restaurant a few days before opening night for an interview.

He projected much the same persona his act has popularized over the years, except that he was sitting down - something audiences rarely see him do.

Audiences are important to Sahl, who sees himself as a mirror of widespread - if frequently unspoken - social attitudes. He wants to avoid ``theorizing clinically and remotely,'' he told me.

``As long as you express what's on the unconscious mind of the audience,'' he continued, ``you're justified in being there. ... You have to reflect what they suspect.

``If it's founded in truth, [a joke] will fly. Humor that's founded in a lack of truth will lie there ... because it's built on quicksand.''

How does a hardworking humorist know what's going on beneath the surface of contemporary thought?

``I'm a working-class kid,'' he replies, ``and [I talk about] the things that are bothering me. ... You've got to ignore the logic and run with your passion. You also have to figure that people ... aren't all red or all black. There are a lot of different parts to them, and you have to appeal to the parts that are optmistic.''

He contrasts his approach with that of Hollywood moviemakers.

``Technologically they're perfect,'' he says. ``But their humanity is lacking. They can build a shark, but they can't create a person on the screen.''

Sahl wants his humor to cut so broadly that it offends no particular party or ``interest group,'' to use today's lingo. He says the best audiences are sophisticated ones with views of their own.

``I'm a social friend of the Reagans - how can that be?'' he asks with a grin. ``It can be because, on balance, people who have a strong personal philosophy will usually allow room for your philosophy. They're not threatened by it.

``People who aren't sure of what they think, and have a lot of residual guilt, are combative and easily shaken in their stance.''

Sahl entered the show-business world via dreams of a writing career.

``I wanted to be a writer, because my dad was a writer,'' he recalls. ``I loved my dad. I wanted to be like him if I could.''

Why Sahl turned comedian

His early experiences were sometimes hard. ``I tried to write jokes for comedians but found them intellectually wanting,'' he says.

``They never knew what [the humor] was about. So I overcame my timidity and got up and said it myself. Then people said to me, `No one will understand it.' But my combative nature was out to prove that someone would understand it. Then they said, `Don't do politics.' When they said that, I did three times as much.''

Although he has built a thriving career on topical humor, Sahl sees few entertainers taking a similar path. ``There are more comedians and less relevance than we ever had before,'' he laments. ``Why there's so much information and why nobody knows anything is a joke in America.''

If there's hope on the horizon, it lies in today's young people, Sahl insists. ``They have an opportunity,'' the humorist says. ``They can take this generation off dead center in the '80s, swing it the other way, and bring out the promise of America. If we're lucky, they'll be better than their parents. I don't think much of the '80s. I think the '50s look heroic alongside the '80s - and they were pretty bad!''

The key question, in Sahl's view, is whether young people will withstand the bad influences aimed at them and make a positive contribution.

``The kids can [change society] or they can become consumers,'' he says, ``and buy videotapes and cocaine and walk around fearfully. Will they buy into the poison? I know they have good instincts, but then the propaganda comes down, the poison: `It's your sacred duty to get rich....'

``The only thing that'll save them, probably, is literature - to go back and read Dickens instead of sitting through Michael Cimino movies. I'm very optimistic about young people. I'm hopeful. Boy, do we need them, huh?''

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