Groundbreaking comedian Mort Sahl dies at 94

Widely considered the father of modern political satire, Mort Sahl died at his home near San Francisco at the age of 94.

  Publicity photo of Mort Sahl (photo credit: NBC Television/Wikimedia)
Publicity photo of Mort Sahl
(photo credit: NBC Television/Wikimedia)

Mort Sahl, the Jewish satirist who revolutionized stand-up comedy in the mid-1950s with his insightful political and social ridicule, died on Tuesday at his home in Mill Valley, California. He was 94.

Widely considered the father of modern political satire, Sahl died at his home near San Francisco, the newspapers cited a friend as saying. She did not give a cause of death.

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

At a time when brash comics in suits and tuxedos typically were telling jokes about their wives and mothers-in-law, Sahl shattered the stand-up stereotype, beginning at the "hungry i," a small, brick-walled basement club in San Francisco’s North Beach district.

Wearing a V-neck sweater and an open-collared shirt — and clutching a rolled-up newspaper — the dark-haired University of Southern California graduate with hooded eyes and a wolfish grin fearlessly zeroed in on Cold War-era targets such as President Dwight Eisenhower, Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee.

Sahl was credited with influencing a generation of comedians including George Carlin, Woody Allen (“I would never have been a cabaret comedian at all, if it hadn’t been for him,” Allen wrote), and Jonathan Winters. He was also a friend of another comedy mold-breaker, Lenny Bruce, although his act did not include profanity as Bruce’s did.

His Mort Sahl at Sunset, released in 1955, was the first stand-up comedy album, which the Library of Congress placed on the National Recording Registry. It was the first of 12 comedy albums he produced. Three years later he had a Broadway show.

Sahl is listed at #40 on Comedy Central’s list of the 100 greatest stand-up comedians of all time.

Morton Lyon Sahl was born May 11, 1927, to Jewish parents in Montreal, and grew up in Los Angeles. After graduating from the University of Southern California, he moved to the San Francisco area in the early 1950s to try comedy. He lived in his car part of the time before building a following at San Francisco’s legendary hungry i nightclub and then going on the road.

By 1960, Sahl had become so popular that Time magazine, which called him “Will Rogers with fangs,” put him on its cover – the first time a comedian had ever been so honored.

Sahl’s stage presence was different from the standard of the 1950s. He dressed informally in V-neck sweaters and was more irreverent, more intellectual, more hip and less rehearsed than his coat-and-tie contemporaries spouting mother-in-law jokes.

Sahl took the stage with a newspaper and only an outline of an act while perching on a stool and relying on improvisation and responding to his audience. He would read from the newspaper to launch his comic riffs on the day’s events with a quick-fire delivery that earned him the nickname “Rebel Without a Pause.” He simply declared: “Onward” when he was ready to change topics.

“It wasn’t that he did political comedy – as everyone keeps insisting,” Allen was quoted as saying in the book Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s. “It was that he had genuine insights. He made the country receptive to a kind of comedy it wasn’t used to hearing. He made the country listen to jokes that required them to think.”

As Sahl often told his audience: “I don’t tell jokes. I give little lectures.”

Sahl described himself to The New York Times in 2004 as a populist, a Puritan, a dreamer and a “disturber.” He would ask his audiences: “Is there any group I haven’t offended yet?” and he spared neither Republican nor Democrat.

“(John) Kennedy is trying to buy the country, and (Richard) Nixon is trying to sell it,” he said.

He would later mock Republican President George H.W. Bush as wishy-washy by saying: “God bless George Bush – long may he waver,” and later used the same line on Democrat Bill Clinton.

He kept it up through the rise of Donald Trump.

“I was on stage last night and I gave a medical report about Donald Trump,” he said in an interview with the Library of Congress. “I said he was hospitalized for an attack of modesty.”

Before that, Sahl liked to blast Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee for their pursuit of communists.

“If you were the only person left on the planet, I would have to attack you,” Sahl said. “That’s my job.”

Sahl was closely linked with Kennedy. At the request of Kennedy’s father, Sahl had written jokes for him to use while campaigning in 1960, but he later made acerbic jokes about the Kennedy family. Club owners then refused to book Sahl because they had been threatened with tax audits, according to the book Revel With a Cause: Liberal Satire in Postwar America.

Sahl became obsessed with Kennedy’s 1963 assassination, convinced the CIA was behind it. His attacks on the Warren Commission Report, which concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing the president, became a big part of his act, including readings from the report, turning off his audiences and damaging his career.

He joined New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison in investigating assassination conspiracy theories, and said he believed the same entity was responsible for the assassinations of Kennedy, his brother Robert, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

“I think he was removed for a reason,” Sahl said on Steve Allen’s TV show in 1971.

Sahl partially rebounded in the 1970s as non-traditional comedians such as Carlin and Richard Pryor broke through. In 1988, he had a one-man off-Broadway show titled Mort Sahl’s America.

Even in his 90s, Sahl performed weekly at a theater near his Mill Valley home, with the shows being livestreamed on the Internet. He had been a close friend of Robin Williams, who lived nearby, before the comic actor’s suicide in 2014. (Reuters)

Los Angeles Times and Jerusalem Post Staff contributed to this report.