October 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 5
Overrated There are so many overrated comedians that you could throw a custard pie and hit 10 of them, but the all-time honors go to Milton Berle. Berle was one of those comedians that you are supposed to laugh at . He looked funny, he dressed in outrageous getups (often women’s clothes, an instant comic turnoff for me), and he did anything for a laugh. He made a lot of noise, and he had a frenetic, wacky persona. In short, he behaved the way a comedian is supposed to behave. I admired his energy and courage and even his brashness—he bullied laughs out of audiences through the sheer force of his slam-bang style—but I never once cracked a smile. I don’t like clowns, and Berle was essentially a clown.
Underrated There are legions of great underrated comedians—people like Godfrey Cambridge (the witty black comic who died much too soon), Dean Martin (who was always far funnier than Jerry Lewis), Bob and Ray (the great radio satirists who influenced many comics of the 1950s), Henry Morgan (who ridiculed his own sponsors and had a dark, lethal comic spirit but came along just as radio comedy was fading, so he’s now remembered only as a caustic TV gameshow panelist), Dick Shawn (too surreal to catch a big wave), but Mort Sahl tops them all. Sahl’s career evaporated on him in a few years, when he began crusading against the Warren Report and was falsely perceived as no longer funny, and he is far too faintly remembered today. But he broke all the rules with how he dressed, what he spoke about, and his freeform conversational delivery, and he influenced comedians as diverse as Shelley Berman, Woody Alien, and Joan Rivers. He opened up comedy in what he wore and what he joked about (outlaw politicians, not his mother-in-law). There were no comedians any sharper or more brilliant than Sahl, who was more than a political comedian. He lashed out equally at show business icons, at fads, and at any and all issues; you name it, he skewed it in a line. Sahl wrote his own lines, each one organic to him, and his observations down through the decades reveal that he never lost his eye and ear for blasting any and all targets, left, right, and center—from Sen. Joseph McCarthy (“He doesn’t question what you say so much as your right to say it”) to capital punishment (“I’m for capital punishment. You’ve got to execute people. How else are they going to learn?”), Michael Dukakis (“the only colorless Greek in America”), Gerald Ford (“He looks like the guy at Safeway who okays your check”), and George W. Bush (“Bush wants to be the education President. Yeah, and now he’s being home-schooled by Condoleezza Rice”). It’s a disgrace he isn’t heard every night on the news. His famous prop was a newspaper, which he rewrote each night onstage in his devastating monologues, but when he was unfairly regarded as old news, he was tossed aside like yesterday’s paper.