Mort Sahl, the comedy legend whose provocative style influenced generations of performers to come, died Tuesday at his home in Mill Valley, California. He was 94. His friend Lucy Mercer confirmed the news of his passing with the New York Times.
Sahl was at the forefront of several milestones in comedy and entertainment, with multiple “firsts” to his name: he was the inaugural host of the Grammy Awards in 1959, the same year he co-hosted the Academy Awards alongside Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, Laurence Olivier and others. He is credited for creating the first standup comedy album in 1955 with his album “Mort Sahl at Sunset,” which the Library of Congress placed on the National Recording Registry.
His conversational yet caustic approach to current events opened up new possibilities for the legion of standup comedians he inspired – Mike Nicholas and Elaine May, George Carlin, Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce among them. The works of contemporary satirists such as Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver all bear his mark.
Born May 11, 1927 in Montreal to Jewish parents, Sahl moved from Canada to the United States at a young age. Eventually, the family settled in Los Angeles. After spending a few years in the Air Force and attending Compton College and the University of Southern California, he auditioned at the Hungry i club in San Francisco in 1953. There, he developed a reputation for monologues that riffed on current events, popular trends and social themes, earning him the nickname “Rebel Without a Pause.”
Sahl’s career gathered speed with popular appearances at nightclubs and college campuses, where his topical, against-the-grain brand won over younger audiences. Soon he began headlining with high-profile figures like Steve Allen and Jack Paar. His Academy Awards gig set things into even faster motion, with Time Magazine and New Yorker profiles following in 1960.
At the peak of his career, Sahl graced every major comedy show, from “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” to “The Ed Sullivan Show to “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” – not to mention his own television special, 1961’s “The Mort Sahl Show.” He produced a dozen comedy recordings and even appeared in a handful of films, including “In Love and War” (1958) and “All The Young Men” (1960).
A critic of both Democrats and Republicans, the iconoclast wrote jokes for and about politicians; he was a joke writer for John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign and also targeted him in his jokes. (Sahl was responsible for Kennedy’s famous self-deprecating line, “Don’t buy a single more vote than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.”)
His career took a hit when Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 and, convinced that the CIA had ordered Kennedy’s death, began reading the Warren Report during his acts. He was effectively blacklisted from television until the 1970s, when the countercultural tide turned in his favor and he was ushered back into the spotlight. Following a string of successful standup tours in the 1970s, he brought his act to off-Broadway in a one-man show in 1988 called “Mort Sahl’s America.”
Sahl’s look – his typical uniform was a v-neck sweater, slacks and a rolled up newspaper under his arm – and freestyling approach marked a significant departure from his predecessors. His penchant for provoking audiences, rather than placating them with punchlines, continued well into old age with barbs aimed at the Watergate Scandal and every president from Reagan to Obama to Trump.
He also reentered academia in 2008 as writer-in residence at Claremont McKenna College, where he instructed on politics, screenwriting and critical thinking.
Sahl ranks #40 on Comedy Central’s list of the 100 greatest stand-up comedians of all time. In 2003, he was awarded the Fifth Annual Alan King Award in American Jewish Humor by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.
His life has been memorialized numerous times. He published a memoir, “Heartland” in 1976; James Curtis’ biography of Sahl, “Last Man Standing,” was published in 2017. Robert Weide’s documentary, “Mort Sahl: The Loyal Opposition” premiered in 1989.
Sahl was married three times: to Sue Berber, China Lee and Kenslea Ann Motter. He is predeceased by his and Lee’s son, Morton Sahl Jr.