AKA: Morton Lyon Sahl
Born: May 11, 1927
Blue Meter: Tame
In match-ups against other comics:
Won: 1338 | Lost: 1654
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All video pulled from YouTube.
|1997||Mort Sahl's America||Buy: Amazon|
|1973||Sing a Song of Watergate
titled "Mort Sahl Live!" on iTunes
|1961||The Next President||Buy: Amazon|
|1961||The New Frontier|
|1960||A Way of Life|
|1960||Look Forward In Anger||Buy: Amazon|
|1960||Mort Sahl at the Hungry I||Buy: Amazon|
|1958||The Future Lies Ahead|
|1955||Mort Sahl at Sunset|
Specials (and other video)
|1989||Mort Sahl: The Loyal Opposition|
|1981||hungry i Reunion||Buy: Amazon|
Books (by and about)
I’m for capital punishment. You’ve got to execute people. How else are they going to learn?
Born a Canadian, Mort Sahl grew up in Los Angeles from the time he was seven.
After graduating from Belmont High School, Sahl was drafted into the Air Force. He served at the Ninety-Third Air Depot in Anchorage, Alaska. Besides growing a beard and refusing to wear his hat, he edited the campus newsletter Poop from the Group. His allegation about military payoff earned him a stint of eighty-three days on KP. He retired the military a private.
After the military, Sahl went to college: first Compton Junior College and later University of Southern California. He earned his bachelors despite spending most of his nights in jazz halls. After graduation, he attempted to continue his schooling by earning a masters in traffic engineering. But continuing in the establishment wasn’t him and he soon quit.
Somewhat adrift, Sahl wrote – published movie reviews and unpublished fiction, including a novel. He supported himself as used-car salesman and as a messenger. He also had another aspiration – stand-up comedy. For three years until he found his home at San Francisco’s hungry i, Sahl would occasionally work the Los Angeles scene, offering to perform for free at places like strip clubs.
In 1953, at the prompting of his girlfriend, Sahl tried stand-up at the hungry i, which had already had a reputation as a hangout for the smart and hip. Sahl stacked the deck with his first performances and his friends’ laughter and applause earned him a $75 a week gig. Once his friends stopped coming, Sahl learned to work the tough crowd to accept his new style of comedy.
There Sahl would develop his signature style. First, the look. Rather than dressing in suit and tie, he came on stage in casual dress… chinos and a sweater with an open collar. Another affectation, a rolled-up newspaper, allowed Sahl to secret reminders about topics to cover.
Another, was his delivery. Comedy was delivered in a borscht belt rhythm at the time. Setup-punch. Repeat. With a crowd of intellectuals, Sahl could trust the audience would be listening closely and could follow him to a joke.
Both, but particularly the later, would be a tremendous influence on those who would follow Sahl including his contemporary Lenny Bruce. Sahl brought Jazz to stand-up – allowing for him to improvise, blending remembered bits with stream of conscious discoveries and other free associations. Far from being predictable of where the joke would fall, audiences had to take it all in. A laugh could come at any moment.
Sahl also brought political dissent to stand-up and in the late 50s and early 60s, crowds were eager to hear it. Attacking political figures or even the instrument of government itself was unheard of. With lines like “I’m not so much interested in politics as I am in overthrowing the government”, he became eminently quotable in the press.
Sahl was honored with a cover story in Time Magazine in August 1960, a first for a comedian and a sign of comedy’s new effect on society.
Though Sahl rose to prominence in the times of McCarthy, Eisenhower and Nixon, he was an equally-opportunity satirist. Though he wrote some material for John F. Kennedy during the election, Sahl soon had barbs for the Democrat as well, much to the surprise of audiences who expected him to be a liberal partisan. Sahl said, “If there was two people left on the planet, I would have to oppose you. That’s my job.”
In the wake of the Kennedy Assassination, Sahl put his career on the line by turning his performances into long explanations of a conspiracy theory to kill the President, attacking the Warren Commissions report. Bookers tried to get him to stop, but Sahl was undaunted and his income suffered for it. From a high of $1 million a year, Sahl found himself making less that $20,000.
Sahl as unbowed, stating, “According to Gallup 88 percent of the American people don’t believe in the Warren Report. I certainly wouldn’t want it on my conscience that I disturbed the faith of the remaining 12 percent.”
Sahl saw a career renaissance later in the 60s as followers of him began to gain their own comedy careers. The Smother Brothers, Dick Cavett and Steve Allen all invited Sahl on their programs.
Mort Sahl, like another humor institution from the 50s, had become a victim of his own success. Though he continued to tour, television became a home to not only topical humor but often of a sharp, biting kind. Sahl was no longer the only one working that side of the street, sharing it with comics like the topical but apolitical Jay Leno and today’s arguably premiere satirist Jon Stewart.
In recent years, Sahl has taken to performing with another groundbreaking comics with his generation, Dick Gregory.