NEW YORK (AP) — 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 favorite 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, California. 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.”
Sahl prided himself in mocking every president except Dwight Eisenhower Donald TrumpHe admitted that he loved John F. Kennedy privately and was close to Republican Ronald Reagan. 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?”
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. Beatniks and college students gathered in the small club to listen to someone talking about their disgust for the status-quo. The young comic with a distinctive style quickly became popular. Sahl soon earned $7,500 per Week at nightclubs throughout the United States and appeared on television alongside Steve Allen and Jack Paar. Sahl was featured in The New Yorker and on Time magazine’s cover in 1960.
Sahl inspired a whole new generation, which included Bill Cosby, George Carlin, and Elaine May. David Letterman, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, and Jon Stewart continued this iconoclastic tradition. Woody Allen likened his work to Charlie Parker’s jazz, and critics compared him with Will Rogers who tweaked politicians more gently.
“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.”
Sahl was cast as a wisecracking GI in two war movies, “In Love and War” (1958) and “All the Young Men” (1960). Sahl starred in his TV special. He was a best-selling comedian. He was cohost of the Academy Awards 1959 with Bob Hope and Laurence Olivier. Jerry Lewis also participated. 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!’”
Reagan was often ridiculed by him in 1980s. But he claimed that Reagan never meant to offend.
“If you’re his friend, it doesn’t matter if you’re an escaped con,” Sahl once said of Reagan. DemocratsHe said that they were not always as patient. In the 1990s, Sahl had fallen out of favor with them when he complained that President Bill Clinton’s only lasting legacy would be his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
“A lot of people I have met in the Democratic Party are extremely expedient,” he said. “Once it’s over, they don’t want to know you. Of course, that’s not generic to the Democrats.”
Sahl thought so highly of Kennedy, however, that he even wrote jokes for him on the campaign trail, including one which inspired JFK’s quip at his own expense — about a telegram from his wealthy father. “Don’t buy a single more vote than is necessary. I’ll be d―-ed if I’m going to pay for a landslide.”
But 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 soon believed that Kennedy was killed in a CIA plot, and he accuses the government of a huge 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. The laughter stopped and bookings plummeted.
Sahl suffered another personal tragedy in 1996, when Morton Jr. his son, also aged 19, died. Ten years later, the subject was so raw that mention of his son’s name could bring him to tears.
“My kid was like a more human version of me,” he once said.
He continued his work in small clubs and colleges despite the hardships. He never recovered his old stature but he was able to make a living from comedy.
While he continued to take his newspaper along onstage, he joked with the audience that he probably should have taken a laptop with him as well.
At age 80 he also began teaching a class in critical thinking at Southern California’s prestigious Claremont McKenna College.
This was Sahl’s return to academic life, which he had experienced decades before when he received a University of Southern California degree in urban planning in 1950.
He decided to quit graduate school and make a living writing funny jokes for comedians. He took to the stage himself, he once said, when he discovered the ones he was writing for were “too dumb” to get the material.
Morton Lyon Sahl, a Canadian father and mother, was born in Montreal on May 11, 1927. He managed a New York tobacco shop. The family moved to the United States where Sahl’s father, Harry, worked for the Department of Justice in various cities.
Morton and his family settled down in Los Angeles. There, he joined the high school ROTC program. His speech skills were exceptional. According to his mother, he started talking at seven months old and was able to speak by the age of 10.
Sahl enlisted in the Air Force after high school. He spent 31 months on an Alaskan Airfield, where he edited Poop from the Group, the Post Newspaper. In 1947, Sahl was discharged and entered college.
Before his girlfriend Sue Berber persuaded, he took on many jobs.
They were married again two years later, but they divorced in 1957. Sahl was married to China Lee in 1967. They divorced.
Bob Thomas (later Associated Press journalist) contributed biographical information. Hillel Italie (AP National Writer) and John Rogers (Retired Associated Press Writer) contributed to this report.