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Sahl on Ice

Mort Sahl's America
At the Alcazar Theater, 650 Geary, through Nov. 3. Call 441-4042.

It's been a while since San Francisco had a jolt of Mort Sahl, a satirist whose wholly original perspective is as necessary to our well-being as a shot of North Beach espresso. Famous from the heyday of the hungry i some 30 years ago, Sahl returns for a limited engagement at the Alcazar. The setting may have changed, but fortunately his razor-sharp outlook and buoyant good humor have not. Far from losing his edge, he seems to have acquired a few new ones. And for those suffering through what may be the dullest election season in history, Sahl's wit and wisdom are just the blast of fresh air that's needed.

Sahl is as famous for his milestones as for his humor. The unofficial court jester of the '60s, he was the first comedian to make the cover of Time, as well as the first to address the National Press Club. He was the first to do college tours, and the first non-musician to win a Grammy. For years he reigned on television, with programs on all three networks as well as two syndicated shows.

Which is to say that as a performer, at least, Sahl has gone beyond stardom and seems entirely comfortable wherever he finds himself. Happily, he extends that ease and assurance to us, tucking us under his wing for a riotous tour through the halls of political power via the Beverly Hills Hotel and Barbra Streisand's Malibu compound, pointing out vanity, stupidity, and hubris with unbounded delight every inch of the way.

He lopes out wearing his trademark red sweater, a newspaper -- another trademark -- clutched in his hand. San Francisco, he remarks, has changed. The only thing that's not different is the newspapers: "If Macy's has no ad, there's no paper." He then scans the headlines and warms up with a few choice comments on the presidential debate of the previous day.

Dismissing the conclusions of various pundits, he characterizes it as "a face-off between two unarmed men." And we're off. In his inimitable, meandering style, we touch various bases loosely organized around politics, women, and movies.

For instance, a glance at a supermarket tabloid yields a story about a Dole campaign executive and a prostitute, which Sahl dismisses as "a cynical attempt to humanize the Dole campaign." Clinton's legal troubles find their personification in the shackled Susan McDougal -- "Joan of Arkansas."

His slant on women is less successful, perhaps because of his real-life divorce. A date with a much younger woman and her cell phone takes on a poignancy, and he seems to miss his ex-wife, whom he proudly credits for the famous quip about Pat Buchanan's '92 convention speech as being "better in the original German."

But it's Sahl's Candide-like travels through Hollywood that have the sharpest focus and the biggest payoffs. We meet superagent Mike Ovitz, "a living heart donor." We cruise through Beverly Hills with director Sydney Pollack, who claims to envy the homeless sleeping in various glitzy doorways because "they don't have to come up with a hit." And, best of all, we attend Streisand's huge fund-raiser for Clinton and Gore, who appear to Sahl as "a couple of guys selling time-share condos." Suffice it to say that Sahl makes good on his mission to offend everybody. But he's also a genuinely funny man. His barbs come wrapped in a warmth he can't seem to help, making his show -- how can I put this -- devastatingly uplifting.

 
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