Mort Sahl – Comedian
Born May 11, 1927; died October 26, 2021
Mort Sahl, who has died aged 94, was a mould-breaking stand-up comedian, who brought political satire and spontaneity to a 1950s circuit then dominated by mother in law gags and cheap smut. His topical based routines drew from the newspapers he brought with him on stage, and tapped into a sense of opposition that was building among a younger generation in America’s post World War Two climate. One early commentator referred to Sahl as a ‘Rebel Without a Pause’.
Sahl’s casual, dressed down approach was a million miles both sartorially and ideologically from the tuxedo-clad wise-crackers who dominated mainstream comedy. Sahl’s freewheeling monologues influenced a new generation of stand-ups, including his peer, Lenny Bruce, while TV talk show host Steve Allen called Sahl “the only real political philosopher we have in modern comedy.” Sahl became something of a cause celebre among hip intellectuals, and his shows became a hot ticket that attracted artists of the calibre of Marlene Dietrich and Leonard Bernstein to lap up his whip-smart observations.
For a while he became a court jester of sorts to then aspiring presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, penning the jokes for Kennedy’s speeches. Once JFK was elected to the White House, however, rather than become a cheerleader, Sahl stayed true to his anti establishment spirit by making the new president the punchline of his gags, and found himself ostracised liberal acolytes.
Sahl’s obsession with Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 and what he saw as inaccuracies in the Warren Report, set up to investigate the president’s murder, saw audiences dwindle, and bookings on stage and TV became increasingly hard to come by.
He made a comeback of sorts in the 1970s on the back of the Watergate scandal that left room for a more cynical form of comedy once more. By this time, Sahl had become something of an elder statesman, who had opened the door for the likes of George Carlin, Lily Tomlin and Richard Pryor. TV specials and an off Broadway show followed.
Other mini revivals came along every few years, with Woody Allen instigating a series of packed out shows by Sahl at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan. In the 1950s, Allen had been inspired to try stand-up himself after seeing Sahl perform.
As the one time conscience of youthful dissent, Sahl’s observations might have become more anecdotal in later years, as he namedropped his way through his act, but in terms of political humour he had been both pioneer and prophet. As far back as 1960, Sahl was calling out TV news for “spoonfeeding” the public, and being responsible for the “corruption and ignorance that may sink this country.”
Despite these views, Sahl resisted being labelled, and was a mass of contradictions. He denied any intellectual callings, despite his early college boy styled appearance. His personal political leanings were ambiguous, and he denied being either a liberal or a conservative.
“Are there any groups I haven’t offended?” was a frequent question he threw out from the stage.
Beyond Kennedy, he befriended presidents of all stripes while lacerating them onstage. In 1985, he told the New York Times that “I’m an independent. My job is to go after all of them, including the good ones. The good ones can withstand the attack.”
Morton Lyon Sahl was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, the only child to Dorothy and Harry Sahl. His father was a would-be playwright, before moving the family to Los Angeles, where he became an administrator for the FBI.
Sahl attended Belmont High School, where he wrote for the school paper, before he joined the American Army aged fifteen after lying about his age. His mother brought him home, but he enlisted again as soon as he left school, serving in the Army Air Forces in Alaska. His satirical inclinations flourished through Poop From the Group, an army base magazine he edited, and which riled his superiors.
After being discharged, he attended Compton Junior College, and earned a degree in city management at the University of Southern California. After dropping out of a master’s degree to become a playwright, he performed his monologues on stage, before following Sue Babior, who would become his first wife, to California.
Sahl finally got a break in 1953 at the hungry I, the San Francisco nightclub that became a breeding ground for a new generation of American comedians. Sahl’s act was initially more orthodox and old-fashioned, but once he found his own voice, his off-the-cuff cutting edge style tapped into the zeitgeist, and before long he was playing to packed houses and being quoted in the papers that gave him his material. He became a TV regular, released the first known comedy record, At Sunset (1955), and in 1960 appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
Having been left out in the cold by the society who once claimed him as its own, Sahl wrote Heartland, an acerbic score-setting autobiography, published in 1976. Sahl continued to perform, latterly streaming weekly live shows online from a San Francisco theatre. Only the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 managed to close him down in a way a conspiracy of various American establishments never managed.
Sahl was married and divorced four times. His son Mort Jr, to his second wife, China Lee, predeceased him in 1996.
The Herald, November 4th 2021