Mort Sahl: Improvising a new life
Excerpted from marinij.com
Mort Sahl, one of the all-time greats of comedy, was nursing a cup of afternoon coffee the other day in a booth at Piazza D'Angelo, an Italian restaurant and occasional celebrity hangout that has become his place of choice for interviews in Mill Valley, his new hometown.
The 83-year-old grandfather of political humor left Southern California a year or so ago and moved into an apartment in Mill Valley to get back on his feet... A decade and a half after the emotional devastation of losing his only child, Sahl is recovering from the heartbreak of a divorce and the lingering physical effects of a minor stroke.
Age and frailty aside, he's kept his post-collegiate look and image. He had on his trademark V-neck sweater, this one a handsome turquoise. He still has a full head of hair, once dark, now pewter.
And in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, he stays on top of current events, just as he did in the 1950s and early '60s, when he was revolutionizing stand-up comedy with a new brand of irreverent contemporary humor, stalking the stage with a rolled up newspaper in his fist, ripping into friends and foes alike.
"Mentally, he can run circles around people," said Lucy Mercer, founder and director of the 142 Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley, where Sahl will perform Aug. 14. "He's always current."
Sahl may have paved the way for hip topical comics like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but he finds their humor "kind of soft." They don't draw blood like he did in his heyday, he complains. And when reverential younger comics ask his advice, he tells them to "take more chances."
Back in the day, Sahl got his start in San Francisco, breaking through nationally while working at Enrico Banducci's Hungry i in North Beach and living for a time in Sausalito.
A year or so ago, he heard about the Mill Valley theater through his friend Woody Allen, who performed there with his band. It would become his sanctuary from the turmoil of his life in Southern California.
"Everything was falling apart for me in L.A. professionally and personally, too," he said. "I lived in the same house in Beverly Hills for 43 years, but L.A. has gotten out of reach. So I came up to where I could talk to people. It was lucky for me here the first time."
Saul considers himself a "radical" politically. And unlike most of his Marin neighbors, he did not support Barack Obama. When he points out what he sees as the disappointments of the Obama administration, Throckmorton audiences sometimes have a hard time laughing.
"The last time I was at the theater for Lucy, I went out there and opened up, saying, 'No, he can't.' But they weren't going to acknowledge it. It was like being in a church. There wasn't a sound."
By and large, though, Marin has embraced its newest celebrity resident, respecting his legendary status in the world of comedy.
Asked how he likes his new home so far, he didn't miss a beat.
"You can't not like it here," he said. "Everybody is pretty civilized. Anyway, what you think you don't like is stuff you don't like in yourself. It's not in your surroundings."