Sahl, Mort (1927—)

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Sahl, Mort (1927—)

Mort Sahl pioneered the type of biting satirical political humor that inspired so many other comics who came after him, from Lennie Bruce to Jay Leno. Appearing first in nightclubs during the late 1950s, Sahl did not follow earlier comics who told mother-in-law jokes or stuck to ribbing their show business cronies. Instead, he adopted the style of jazz musicians who begin with a theme, are reminded of another idea, and then circle back to the original theme.

Sahl was born May 11, 1927, in Montreal, Canada, but soon moved to Los Angeles, where his father eventually worked as a clerk for the F.B.I. Sahl was a high school member of R.O.T.C. and was stationed, after being drafted, in Alaska. There, he got into trouble as editor of the base paper, "Poop from the Group," and claimed to have served 83 days in a row on KP (kitchen patrol). Nevertheless, Sahl claims that he remained an establishment supporter, the same boy who won an American Legion Americanism award. He served his country with pride, but turned to the comedy of satire as he drifted away from those values.

It took time for Sahl's style of comedy to catch on. Audiences, at first, did not quite know what to make of him. Sahl appeared on stage with a rolled-up newspaper. The paper held a crib sheet of topics and lines he wanted to follow. The owners of San Francisco's Hungry i comedy club believed in him and kept him working until fans came to appreciate the sweater-clad, hip comedian. Here was a man who dared chide President Dwight D. Eisenhower: "Eisenhower proved we don't need a President," Sahl once said. Nothing was sacred to him, and he paraded his ability to expose others' foibles, wondering, "Is there any group I haven't offended yet?"

Sahl was one of the first comedians to do comedy records. In the late 1950s his recordings—such as 1958's The Future Lies Ahead —sold quite well and Sahl's humor became familiar to many that never had the chance to see him in clubs. He set his sights on politicians especially, taking swipes at Eisenhower, Adlai Stevenson, and John F. Kennedy (even though he had once penned one-liners for the Kennedy campaign). Sahl once remarked, "Whoever the President is, I will attack him." But liberals who supported the jibes aimed at Eisenhower failed to appreciate the jokes made at Kennedy's expense and this lack of fan appreciation, coupled with what Sahl complained was a blacklisting by entertainment executives sympathetic to Kennedy, sent his career into a sharp decline in the later 1960s.

Sahl soon became obsessed with Kennedy's assassination, and he felt it was his responsibility to educate the American public that the CIA was responsible for the president's death. His income dropped from about a million dollars a year to $17,000 in 1967. Sahl was reduced to working small clubs and writing movies that never were filmed. He published an autobiography, Heartland, in 1976 and in the late 1980s staged a comeback of sorts, appearing in a one-man show on Broadway called simply Mort Sahl on Broadway, and acting as host of the radio program Publishers Weekly's Between the Covers with Mort Sahl on the ABC Radio Network beginning in 1995. Though he had defined the cutting edge of comedy 40 years earlier, it seemed that Sahl still had something to say to American audiences in the late 1990s.

—Frank A. Salamone

Further Reading:

Disch, Thomas. "Mort Sahl on Broadway." The Nation. Vol. 245,No. 16, November 14, 1987, 570.

Gross, Ken. "Not Going Gently into That Good Night, Caustic Comic Mort Sahl Gears Up for a Broadway Comeback." People Weekly. October 12, 1987, 134-36.

Sahl, Mort. Heartland. New York, Harcourt, 1976.