Mort Sahl, satirist who revolutionized stand-up comedy, dead at 94

Satirist Mort Sahl, who helped revolutionize stand-up comedy during the Cold War with his running commentary on politicians and current events and became a favourite of a new, restive generation of Americans, died Tuesday. He was 94.

His friend Lucy Mercer said that he died “peacefully” at his home in Mill Valley, Calif. The cause was “old age,” she said.

During an era when many comedians dressed in tuxedos and told mother-in-law jokes, Sahl faced his audiences in the ’50s and ’60s wearing slacks, a sweater and an unbuttoned collar and carrying a rolled-up newspaper on which he had pasted notes for his act. Reading news items as if seated across from you at the kitchen table, he made his inevitably cutting comments, often joining the laughter with a horsey bellow of his own and ending his routines by inquiring: “Is there any group I haven’t offended yet?”

“Every comedian who is not doing wife jokes has to thank him for that,” actor-comedian Albert Brooks told The Associated Press in 2007. “He really was the first, even before Lenny Bruce, in terms of talking about stuff, not just doing punch lines.”

‘Why would you come back as George Bush?’

Morton Lyon Sahl was born on May 11, 1927, in Montreal, to a Canadian mother and a New York father who managed a tobacco shop. The family moved to the United States where Sahl’s father, Harry, worked for the Department of Justice in various cities.

Sahl took pride in having mocked every president from Dwight Eisenhower to Donald Trump, although he acknowledged he privately admired Democrat John F. Kennedy and counted Republican Ronald Reagan among his closest friends. Of President George W. Bush, he observed: “He’s born again, you know. Which would raise the inevitable question: If you were given the unusual opportunity to be born again, why would you come back as George Bush?”

WATCH | Sahl performs on CBC-TV’s Parade in 1959:

Mort Sahl’s sit-down comedy

The Canadian-born California comedian talks about car safety, war with Russia, and royalty. 3:12

Sahl became famous in 1953 at San Francisco’s hungry i (the i stood for intellectual), the perfect place for a comedian of his type. The city was a meeting ground for beatniks and college activists, and they crowded into the tiny club to hear someone who spoke to their disdain for the status quo. Word spread quickly about the young comedian with the distinctive style. Soon Sahl was earning $7,500 US a week at nightclubs across the nation and appearing on television with Steve Allen and Jack Paar. He made the cover of Time magazine in 1960 and was profiled in The New Yorker.

A new generation of comedians, including Bill Cosby, George Carlin and the team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, was inspired by Sahl. David Letterman continued the iconoclastic tradition, and more recently Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver. Woody Allen would liken his work to the jazz of Charlie Parker and reviewers compared him to Will Rogers, who had tweaked politicians in a gentler manner.

“I don’t have the image of myself as a comedian,” Sahl himself said. “I never said I was one. I just sort of tell the truth and everybody breaks up along the way.”

Ridiculed his friend Reagan

Sahl was cast as a wisecracking GI in two war movies, In Love and War (1958) and All the Young Men (1960). He starred in his own TV special. His comedy albums became best sellers. At the Academy Awards in 1959, he was co-host along with Bob Hope, Laurence Olivier, Jerry Lewis and others. Fearing he would seem to be joining the establishment, Sahl cracked: “We’ve just lost the college crowd; all across the country they’re yelling, ‘Sellout!”‘

In the 1980s he frequently ridiculed his friend Reagan, but he said the president was never offended.

Sahl thought so highly of Kennedy, however, that he even wrote jokes for him on the campaign trail. 

Comedian Jonathan Winters, left, talks with Sahl at Sahl’s 80th birthday celebration in Los Angeles in 2007. (Fred Prouser/Reuters)

When Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Sahl was devastated and the tragedy foreshadowed a decline in the comedian’s fortunes that lasted for years. He quickly became convinced that Kennedy had been killed as part of a CIA plot and he accused the government of staging a massive cover-up. He devoted much of his monologues to reading long passages from the report by the government’s Warren Commission, which had been appointed to investigate the assassination. Audiences stopped laughing and his bookings plummeted.

Sahl also suffered a personal tragedy in 1996 when his only child, Morton Jr., died at age 19. Ten years later, the subject was so raw that mention of his son’s name could bring him to tears.

Through the tough times, he continued to work the college circuit and small clubs. Although he never regained his former stature, he eventually returned to making a comfortable living with comedy

He continued to carry his newspaper on stage with him, although as the 21st century dawned he joked that he should probably have replaced it with a laptop.

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