Mort Sahl, the father of existential humor (why yes, this is rapidly turning into the most pretentious sentence I’ve written in ages), in much the same way that Miles Davis was the father of modal jazz, once said:
“I submit to you that I’ve been called an intellectual more times than you can count’, Sahl said. “I was sort of a C student in college. To me, an intellectual is someone like Bertrand Russell or Robert Oppenheimer, or Albert Einstein. I’m not an intellectual. It shines great light on show business that I would be called an intellectual. After all, I quote intellectuals. Fifty years ago, I would have been a reporter with some promise on a newspaper, maybe.”
Woody Allen was of one of the first comedians (later to be joined by Jerry Seinfeld and Steven Wright, amongst many others) who heard Sahl’s fluid lines and switched from broad, Borscht Belt humor, to drier, more tightly focused riffs.
Dick Cavett orbited in Woody’s circle in the 1960s and 1970s, after apprenticing as a writer for Jack Parr. (The 1970s was the era you could actually imply that Woody was a central figure in comedy, before Interiors pointed the way towards leaden, humorless movies with small, minimal urban audiences. (Once again though, Woody’s a pioneer!, I can’t help but think after my last post.)
Of Cavett, James Lileks echoes Mort Sahl’s description of himself:
Many hosannas are usually heaped at Cavett