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Mort Sahl, Caustic Stand-Up Comic of the 1950s, Dies at 94

The Hollywood Reporter
 2021-10-26
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Mort Sahl , the caustic, kinetic stand-up comedian of the late 1950s and early ’60s whose unflinching bipartisan barbs defined political satire for a generation of Americans, has died. He was 94.

Sahl , described as “Will Rogers with fangs” by Time on Aug. 15, 1960, when he made history as the first stand-up to be featured on the magazine’s cover, died Tuesday at his home in Mill Valley, California, his friend told The New York Times .

Starting with his first performance in 1953 at the famed hungry i nightclub in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, Sahl fearlessly ridiculed every U.S. president from Dwight D. Eisenhower (“Kennedy and the Democrats aren’t attacking Eisenhower this year. I guess that’s been pretty much left to me”) to Barack Obama (“After five years of Barack Obama, I’m severely wounded, but I can’t find a doctor,” he wrote on Twitter) to Donald Trump.

In his heyday, when he was said to be earning more than $1 million a year, the brainy Sahl was a much sought-after guest on TV talk and variety shows. In 1959, he co-hosted the 31st annual Academy Awards and emceed the inaugural Grammy Awards within a month of each other. His 1955 album, At Sunset , is considered the first recording of modern stand-up comedy.

Woody Allen was a TV joke writer when he went to see Sahl perform — and was changed forever. “I would never have been a cabaret comedian at all, if it hadn’t been for him,” Allen said in the 1994 book, Woody Allen on Woody Allen: In Conversation With Stig Bjorkman .

Before Sahl, “All these comedians were very, very formula,” Allen said. “They’d all come out in a tuxedo and would say, ‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,’ and there was no sincerity to any of it. And they would do silly little jokes. … They would do golf jokes, because the president played golf.

“And suddenly, in this small cabaret, this comedian comes along, Mort Sahl . He was just wearing slacks and a sweater [with] a New York Times folded under his arm. He was a nice-looking guy in a certain way, very intelligent. And highly, highly energetic, like hypermanic . And a spectacular phrasemaker , but of an intellectual type.

“He was absolutely like nothing anybody had ever seen before. And he was so natural that other comedians became jealous. They used to say, ‘Why do people like him? He just talks. He isn’t really performing.’ But his jokes came out as stream of consciousness, in a kind of jazz rhythm.”

That wasn’t surprising. Sahl supplied the liner notes for a 1956 album by The Paul Desmond Quintet and often said his rapid-fire, free-flowing style — which earned him the nickname “Rebel Without a Pause” — was influenced by jazz pianist Stan Kenton.

Sahl contributed jokes to John F. Kennedy ’s 1960 campaign but soon made the new president the butt of jokes after the election. That and his support of conspiracy theories in the wake of JFK’s assassination in 1963 eroded his popularity and effectively torpedoed his career.

“Mort was a hero to all of us who used current events as raw material. He never backed down from controversy,” comedian David Steinberg said in a statement.

Sahl was born in Montreal on May 11, 1927, the child of a Canadian mother and an American father. His dad was an unpublished playwright who later worked as an FBI clerk.

His family moved to Los Angeles, and Sahl attended Belmont High School and, after a stint in the Army, the University of Southern California. He worked as a stand-up comic on stages throughout L.A., and in 1953, he headed to Berkeley, California, and was hired by Enrico Banducci , owner of the hungry i, to fill in for a singer. ( Sahl’s manager at the time was Larry Tucker, an early writing partner of filmmaker Paul Mazursky .)

While most comedians were using wives and mothers-in-law for joke fodder, Sahl turned to the newspaper for fresh material for his political potshots.

One of his more famous jokes: “For a while, every time the Russians threw an American in jail, the Un-American Activities Committee would retaliate by throwing an American in jail too.”

“The audience didn’t know what to make of me,” Sahl said. “Here was this strange face, speaking a strange language, in a strange dialect, with strange ideas.”

He wore a button-down shirt open at the neck and a sweater “because it occurred to me you mustn’t look like any member of society you’re criticizing,” he said in Gerald Nachman’s 2003 book, Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s . ( Sahl is on the cover.)

Said Steve Allen: “The first time I saw Mort, I wondered what he did for a living. He had none of the nightclub polish, which was indicative of his uniqueness — as if he just stepped out of history class for a minute.”

Many assumed that he was a liberal Democrat, but Sahl’s satire landed on both sides of the political aisle. “Liberals feel unworthy of their possessions. Conservatives feel they deserve everything they’ve stolen,” he said.

With his graduate-school touch, Sahl toured with Kenton and Dave Brubeck and turned jazz clubs into comedy clubs too. He was a guest panelist on What’s My Line? , appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and chatted with Steve Allen, Jack Paar , Merv Griffin and Joey Bishop on their talk shows.

Sahl also was seen in such films as In Love and War (1958) and All the Young Men (1960) and played himself on a 1959 episode of CBS’ Richard Diamond, Private Detective .

In September 1963, on the premiere of Jerry Lewis’ live ABC variety show, Sahl joked during a monologue , “The governor of Nevada is objecting to [Frank] Sinatra’s friends — who are [mobster] Sam Giancana and the president of the United States.” In the taped version that aired in the West, the sentence was chopped after “friends.”

Later, Sullivan forbid him from making Kennedy jokes on his show, and soon, Sahl was having trouble finding work.

Following Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, Sahl put aside full-time performing to assist New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison in an investigation that concluded that the murder was sanctioned by the CIA.

A year later, he lambasted the Warren Commission report that said Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone ( Sahl would read from the report onstage, and audiences did not laugh). He said a single conspiratorial group — he called it an “assassination bureau” in a Playboy interview — was involved in the murders of Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr . and Robert Kennedy.

In the 2006 book Revel With a Cause: Liberal Satire in Postwar America , author Stephen Kercher wrote that in 1965, Sahl “earned $13,000 — a steep drop from the $600,000 to $1 million annual incomes he formerly enjoyed.”

Sahl enjoyed a bit of a resurgence during the Watergate era; published an autobiography, Heartland , in 1976; and played Werner Finck , a 1930s German-Jewish satirist who was sent to a concentration camp for his anti-Nazi views, in a 1982 ABC miniseries.

In 1987, he did a one-man show on Broadway that lasted mere weeks and backed the presidential bid of Alexander Haig , hosting fundraisers for the retired general and former Secretary of State in Bel-Air and Scottsdale, Arizona .

Sahl had three wives: Sue Babior (they were married in 1955 at the home of San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen , an early supporter of Sahl’s ); China Lee, who in August 1964 became the first Asian-American Playboy centerfold and later served as his manager; and Kenslea Motter , a Delta Air Lines flight attendant. All his marriages ended in divorce.

His son with Lee, Mort Jr., had problems with drugs and died in 1996 at age 19.

Sahl , who taught classes for a few years at Claremont McKenna College in Orange Country, left Southern California in the late 2000s for Mill Valley, where he did the occasional comedy show at The Throckmorton Theatre .

“I’ll tell you what I’ve learned,” he told Robert B. Weide in the 1989 American Masters documentary Mort Sahl : The Loyal Opposition . “It’s not, ‘Look at my scars.’ It’s that you can stand up in a society that says, ‘Don’t rock the boat.’ You can rock the boat. I’m not afraid to take on anyone. You can have your say in America and really survive.”

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