Revolutionary comic Mort Sahl is dead

Mort Sahl, who revolutionized stand-up comedy in the mid-1950s with his insightful political and social satire, has died at his home in Mill Valley, Calif., At the age of 94.

Sahl, whose concern on stage and off a conspiracy theory over the assassination of President John F. Kennedy slowed his career in the late 1960s, died Tuesday, a family friend overseeing his family said. business at the New York Times.

In an era when brash comics in suits and tuxedos typically told jokes about their wives and stepmothers, Sahl shattered the stand-up stereotype, starting with the Hungry i, a small basement club. to brick walls in northern San Francisco. Beach area.

Dressed in a V-neck sweater and open-neck shirt – and holding a rolled-up newspaper – the dark-haired USC graduate with hooded eyes and a wolfish smile fearlessly focused on Cold War era targets such as President Eisenhower, Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee.

His laid-back, conversational style is said to influence a generation of comedians, from Lenny Bruce to Dave Chappelle.

Sahl, who frequently punctuated his punchlines with a dry, jerky laugh, spoke in a language that a New Yorker magazine writer in 1957 described as “a unique cross between an article on philosophy and modern jazz slang.” .

Indeed, Sahl could embellish his monologues with allusions to the Odipus complex or references to monotheism, then precede a new target by saying: “Dig that” – or, more often, “Forward!” “

A New York profile of Sahl in 1960 listed the “people, places, objects, institutions, and ideas” he disparaged in a 45-minute monologue, starting with Charles de Gaulle and followed by Eisenhower, segregation, la comedienne Shelley Berman, unions, the movie “Marty”, jazz, New York City, Berkeley, playwright Samuel Beckett, newspapers, cafes, sandals, JD Salinger, soiled raincoats – and 62 other topics.

“I don’t tell jokes, I give small lectures,” Sahl told his audience. He usually concluded his shows by asking, “Are there any bands that I haven’t offended?” “

“He was a force of nature, a whirlwind whose ideas defined him; behind every joke was a cynical and well-etched worldview, “wrote Gerald Nachman in his 2003 book” Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s “.

Before Sahl, “it was heretical, even career suicide, for a comedian to discuss politics, let alone carve out a sitting president on stage,” Nachman wrote. While Will Rogers and Bob Hope were comfortable, non-offensive characters, Sahl was a grenade shot.

“When Rogers or Hope were doing political material, their jokes weren’t meant to hurt or squirm anyone; Sahl was and did, ”Nachman said.

From starving i to clubs like Mister Kelly’s in Chicago, Basin Street East in New York, and Crescendo in Los Angeles – as well as showrooms in Las Vegas and Miami – Sahl was at the forefront. of a new generation of actors.

“He was like Charlie Parker in jazz,” said Woody Allen, an early fan. “There was a need for revolution – everyone was ready for the revolution. He totally restructured comedy.

Sahl was known to devour numerous newspapers and magazines every day to keep his news up to date. As for his ideological leanings, Sahl told The Associated Press in 2007 that he remained what he had always been: “an independent and populist radical”.

During his heyday in the 1950s and early 1960s, Sahl recorded several pioneering live stand-up comedy albums, performed on Broadway in a short-lived revue, “The Next President” and played small roles. in several movies and TV shows.

A jazz connoisseur whose friends included Stan Kenton, Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond, Sahl was co-host of the first Monterey Jazz Festival with Dizzy Gillespie in 1958 and was emcee of the first Playboy Jazz Festival in Chicago in 1959.

He even donned a tuxedo and co-hosted the 1959 Oscars show, starring Laurence Olivier, Jerry Lewis, David Niven, Tony Randall and Hope, who called Sahl “the favorite comedian of nuclear physicists around the world.”

Sahl’s stock as a political satirist was so high that Joseph P. Kennedy asked him to write jokes for his son’s presidential race in 1960, which Sahl agreed to do while stressing that as a rule , he did not support the candidates.

Indeed, bipartisan Sahl joked on television during the race that senior Kennedy had told his son John, “I’m putting you on an allowance. You are not entitled to a dime more than you need to buy a landslide.

Sahl wasted no time targeting Kennedy’s new White House.

But Joe Kennedy viewed the comedian’s continued gunfire against his son as disloyalty and, according to Sahl, Patriarch Kennedy lobbied to silence him. And when he didn’t, Sahl wrote in “Heartland”, his 1976 memoir, “the job started to dry up.”

But things got worse for Sahl’s career after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963.

In 1966, while hosting a talk show on KTTV Channel 11 in Los Angeles, Sahl heard a report that New Orleans Dist. Atty. Jim Garrison claimed to have uncovered evidence that the Kennedy assassination was the result of a conspiracy – contrary to the Warren Commission finding that Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole assassin.

Sent to New Orleans to interview Garrison, Sahl volunteered to help him with his investigation. Over the next several years, Sahl worked for free as an alternate member of the Garrison murder investigation team.

His association with the controversial group damaged Sahl’s reputation so much that it cost him television, recording and club jobs. His gross income, he later wrote, increased from $ 1 million per year to $ 13,000.

When performing, Sahl was often laughed at by reading excerpts from what he considered to be “the most ridiculous aspects” of the Warren Commission report and at times brought the 26 volumes of the report on stage with him.

“I had them on stage so people could see the physical size of the deception,” he told Rocky Mountain News in 2001. “A lot of people didn’t want to hear it. But I thought it was. was the end of the country. But you know, this country never ends. It’s like a bad TV show that they keep repeating for the next season.

The Warren Commission report, Nachman wrote in his book, “traumatized him so much that he never got back on his feet and is still fighting an old stigma that he’s a serious case.”

But the Nixon administration and the ensuing Watergate scandal provided a new wealth of information and helped turn the tide for Sahl.

“When I made fun of Eisenhower, the academic public thought I was making chaos out of order,” he wrote in his memoir. “Twenty years later, the college audience is asking me to tidy up the chaos: tell me what that means, man.”

Sahl wrote screenplays and contributed to various films and continued to offer his caustic and satirical ideas about America. In 1987, he returned to Broadway for a few weeks in 1987 with a one-man show, “Mort Sahl on Broadway!” Late in his life he taught a critical thinking course at Claremont McKenna College.

The only child born to an American father and a Canadian mother, Sahl was born on May 11, 1927 in Montreal. After a series of moves, the family moved to Los Angeles when Sahl was 7 and his father became an FBI administrator.

A member of the ROTC while a student at Belmont High School during World War II, Sahl, 15, lied about his age and joined the military, a patriotic movement that ended two weeks later when his mother found him in Fort. Mac Arthur in San Pedro.

After graduating from high school, Sahl enlisted in the Air Force and served in the 93rd Air Depot Group in Anchorage, where he edited the Post Journal and reportedly spent 83 days after the KP for posting insubordinate comments about its commander.

“A few months under the heel of authority,” Sahl said of his time in the military, “killed him for me.”

After his release in 1947, Sahl attended Compton College on the GI Bill, then transferred to USC. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in public administration in 1950 and was working towards a graduate degree when he dropped out.

Over the next few years he made a number of stab wounds in show business. He and a friend rented a theater, where Sahl wrote and directed experimental one-act plays. He also made his first brief foray into stand-up comedy at strip clubs under the unlikely name Cal Southern.

“I did everything the others did,” he recalls in 1989. “I took a tie and a coat, talked about movies and imitated movie stars. I didn’t dare talk about what I really had in mind. It took a long time. It takes some confidence. “

While working as a used car salesman and courier, he wrote an unreleased novel and several short stories. He also attempted to sell equipment to other comedians, who told him his offers weren’t commercial enough.

After his girlfriend, Sue Babior, left to attend UC Berkeley, Sahl headed north. He and Babior married in 1955 and divorced two and a half years later, but not before she suggested he audition at Hunger i.

The small club had only singers and musicians at the time, but owner Enrico Banducci agreed to give Sahl a chance at the end of December 1953.

Though he received the requisite laughs, having packed his Berkeley friends’ club on its opening night, Sahl faced a much less tolerant crowd the following night: the audience booed and shouted, and the bombarded with peanuts and pennies.

But Banducci let Sahl go on, and within months the outspoken comic was generating only standing crowds.

Over the years, Sahl’s brand of humor has remained unchanged.

When George W. Bush became president, Sahl dismissed Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Nixon and focused on a new target.

“He was born again, you know,” Sahl told a crowd in 2007, referring to the president’s newfound religious fervor. “Which would raise the inevitable question: If you had the unusual opportunity to be born again, why would you come back as George Bush?” “

Sahl has been married and divorced three times. Her only child, Mort Jr., died of a drug overdose at the age of 19 in 1996.

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