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“Liberals feel unworthy of their possessions. Conservatives feel they deserve everything they've stolen.” – Mort Sahl
Bob Hope, Milton Berle and Henny Youngman recited their vaudeville influenced acts to packed theaters around the country. With a steady stream of quips about the President’s golf game and self-deprecating jokes about middle age infirmities, they were the standard young comedians imitated. Fibber McGee and Molly and Amos ’n’ Andy broadcast their weekly radio programs from the studios of WMAQ in Chicago. Abbott and Costello were kings of the box office.
So, where the hell did Mort Sahl come from?
He prowled the stage in a red cardigan, a newspaper rolled up under his arm. Mort Sahl was into ideas and talked about what was on his mind, including biting social and political commentary. Other comedians of the era mainly told a lot of one-liners about their mothers-in-law and jokes that were just jokes that didn't have much to say about anything, certainly not about American life. Mort Sahl was the man who began the comedy revolution that swept through Chicago in the ’50s and ’60s.
Mister Kelly’s, on the corner of Rush and Bellevue Place, was Sahl’s primary home in Chicago. He’d settle in for weeks at a time, ripping apart the normal conventions of stand-up comedy. Small and tight – it seated less than 200 people – Mister Kelly’s proved ideal for Sahl’s rapier wit. The audiences were mostly made up of North Side college students and educated professionals. They were entranced by this new style of comedy.
Woody Allen said about Mort Sahl: “He was the best thing I ever saw. He was like Charlie Parker in jazz. There was a need for a revolution, everybody was ready for a revolution, but some guy had to come along who could perform the revolution and be great. Mort was the one.”
“A hotel is a place that keeps the manufacturers of 25-watt bulbs in business.” – Shelley Berman
At the Argo Off Beat Room, a proletarian theater company named the Compass Players was pushing comedic boundaries with improvisation. The group was made up of mostly University of Chicago students who were experts at taking an audience suggestion and creating dazzling, captivating theater on the spot.
One of the brightest stars to come from the Compass was Shelley Berman. A struggling actor who had no intention of becoming a comedian, Shelley got into comedy to get cast in serious plays. He became the first “sit-down” comedian. Seated on a stool at Mister Kelly’s, cigarette in one hand and an imaginary receiver in the other, Shelley specialized in “telephone” monologues. While initially his act was rough on the edges, audiences adored his agonized, neurotic persona.
At the recommendation of Mort Sahl, Verve Records signed Shelley Berman to a recording contract. Inside Shelley Berman would become the first spoken word album to reach number one on Billboard’s album charts. It would stay on Billboard’s Top Forty charts for two and a half years. Within the year, Shelley had three gold comedy albums in stores simultaneously. He won the first Grammy for a nonmusical recording and became the first stand-up comedian to appear at Carnegie Hall. Struggling no more, Shelley was a million dollar comic and the most sought after entertainer in America.
MIKE NICHOLS + ELAINE MAY
“We work at least one and a half hours a night on respecting the rights of others.” – Elaine May as an over-attentive mother talking to her child’s teacher.
“Louise, where were you? I’ve been going out of mind. Darling, to be doing this terrible thing….and to be late on top of it!” – Mike Nichols as man about to commit adultery with his best friends wife.
Shortly after Shelley Berman’s success, another groundbreaking act from the Compass Players skyrocketed to fame. The comedy pairing of Mike Nichols and Elaine May established themselves as the foremost social satirists of their time. It wasn’t stand-up. It wasn’t a nightclub act. It wasn’t even theater. It was completely new.
Nichols and May used improvisation to create sketches that ridiculed the new intellectual, cultural and social order emerging at the time. They taunted and mocked the very people who were dolling out the big bucks to watch the comic duo perform. Masochists all, the American public ate it up. Biting and sharp, Nichols and May subtly captured the absurdity of how people behave in relationships. When Nichols as a surgeon whimpered, “Is it badgering you to tell you I love you?” and May as his nurse bemoaned, “Please don’t tell me over and over in the cafeteria and during operations”, it resonated with audiences who recognized their own behavior being satirized.
Steve Martin said about Nichols and May: “They were like music – less a comedy duo than a wry duet, verbal comic musicians jamming with each other: challenging, each tearing off a new lick and topping the other…”
Robert Brustein of The New Republic described them as “the voice of outraged intelligence in a world given over to false piety, cloying sentiment and institutionalized stupidity.”
“I never believed in Santa Claus, because I knew no white dude would come into my neighborhood after dark.” – Dick Gregory
The world was waiting for Dick Gregory. Comedy just got to experience him first.
Tired of the minstrel tradition, African-American comedians on the South Side of Chicago like Nipsy Russel, Godfrey Cambridge and Redd Foxx forged a new brand of comedy. Dick Gregory was the man who introduced it to mainstream white audiences.
Gregory got national attention when he became the first black comedian to perform at the Playboy Club in Chicago. A one-night booking at Hugh Hefner’s penthouse turned into a three-year contract. Gregory was able to ingratiate himself with white audiences because he provocatively explored the racial inequities of the civil rights era in a nonconfrontational, unthreatening way. Sitting on a bar stool, smoking a cigarette and blinking his sleepy eyes, he dissected sensitive, delicate issues with compassion, acute insight and blunt, direct humor. “There’s no difference between the North and South,” Gregory told the all white audiences who paid big money to see him. “In the South they don’t mind how close I get so long as I don’t get too big; in the North they don’t mind how big I get so long as I don’t get too close.”
His autobiography, Nigger, became the top-selling book in America. His choice for the title was explained in the dedication. Gregory wrote, “Dear Mama: Wherever you are, if you ever hear the word nigger again, remember they are advertising my book.”
As the civil rights movement heated up, Gregory began spending more time on social issues and less on performing. He understood the power of celebrity: his presence at a march or a rally was sure to attract newspaper and television coverage. Gregory would make the marches, speak to reporters, get arrested, post bail, then slip into a nightclub to do his act.
At the height of his career, Gregory stopped going to the nightclubs altogether. His heart just wasn’t in it anymore. He devoted himself full-time to being an activist. Eventually, his extreme beliefs and eccentricities caused even some of his ardent fans to dismiss him.
Gregory protested the Vietnam War by fasting for two years, subsisting on nothing but fruit juice. Gregory and his wife, Lillian Smith, raised their 10 children as “fruitarians.” They eat only fruit and none has ever tasted, or has expressed any desire to taste, cooked food. He’s also a practicing “breatharian.” Breatharians believe that they are sustained by “light energy” alone, and follow a diet in which no food and possibly no water is consumed. Gregory undertook a 70-day “water only” fast in the mid 80’s. On many occasions, he’s gone as long as a week without consuming water or food on an “air only” diet.
Dick Gregory’s descent is eerily similar to those of his peers in the comedy revolution. Their reign was short and their plunge rapid.
Shelley Berman’s fall from the top is mystifying. During a crucial moment in a performance that was being filmed for a television documentary, a phone rang offstage twice, destroying the mood of the vignette he was doing. Cameras followed him backstage, where he tore the phone off the wall. When he returned to Mr. Kelly’s, the staff avoided him. Clubs subsequently wouldn’t book him because he had the reputation for being difficult to deal with. Lately Berman’s career has enjoyed a rebirth: He plays Larry David’s father on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
The breakup of Nichols and May was a blow to their fans. Battles over material were what eventually did them in. Explosive personalities both, they found it too difficult to continue working together. After they went their separate ways, Mike Nichols focused his considerable talents on directing. He won an Academy Award for best director for The Graduate (1968), an Emmy for Angels in America (2004) and nine Tony Awards, including Spamalot (2005). Elaine May won got an Oscar nomination for her screenplay for Heaven Can Wait (1978), but she was critically crucified for her work as the director and writer of Ishtar (1987). The spark that existed in 1961 was briefly relit when May penned screenplays for two of Nichols’s movies (The Birdcage and Primary Colors).
Following President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Mort Sahl volunteered to assist in the investigation being conducted by New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison. Sahl became a deputized member of Garrison’s investigative team, which eventually concluded that the CIA sanctioned the assassination. The American public labeled him as “paranoid” once Sahl began reading The Warren Report as part of his act. The jobs dried up overnight.
Nichols and May, Berman, Gregory and Sahl reinvented the world of humor. Thanks to them, comedy’s no longer safe.