Mort Sahl, legendary comedian, dead at 94

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Stand-up comedian Mort Sahl has died on Tuesday at his home in Mill Valley, CA. He was 94.

The legendary comic was known for his bold social commentary on current events and scathing stand-up routines targeting political heavyweights, including former presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

“One tentative way of describing Mr. Sahl might be to call him a kind of Will Rogers of the beat generation,” wrote Richard Watts Jr. in an April 1958 edition of the New York Post. Watts watched Sahl perform in person during a show called “The Next President” at the Bijou Theater.

“Carrying a newspaper and with his shirt open at the neck, his vocabulary bristling with the lore of the up-to-date young intellectual, he chats with the audience freely brightly and pungently,” Watts explained, “giving without fear or favor his views of the contemporary world and the people running it from the standpoint of the uninhibited and untamed political liberal.”

The satarist died “peacefully” of “old age’ according to friend Lucy Mercer whom confirmed his death to the Associated Press. He paved the way for countless future comics such as Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, David Chapelle and George Carlin.

“I would never have been a cabaret comedian at all, if it hadn’t been for him,” director Woody Allen wrote in his 1994 book, “Woody Allen on Woody Allen: In Conversation With Stig Bjorkman” adding that before Sahl, “All these comedians were very, very formula.”

Mort Sahl
Mort Sahl passed away on Tuesday at his home in Mill Valley, CA, at the age of 94.  The stand-up comic was influential to the world of comedy and paved the way for others such as Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and George Carlin.
Courtesy of the Everett Collection

The “Annie Hall” filmmaker continued, “They’d all come out in a tuxedo and would say, ‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,’ and there was no sincerity to any of it. And they would do silly little jokes. … They would do golf jokes, because the president played golf. And suddenly, in this small cabaret, this comedian comes along, Mort Sahl. He was a nice-looking guy in a certain way, very intelligent. And highly, highly energetic, like hypermanic. And a spectacular phrasemaker, but of an intellectual type.”

Morton Lyon Sahl was born on May 11, 1927, in Montreal, to a Canadian mother and a father whom worked at tobacco shop in New York. The family would move to California when Sahl was still a young child. After joining the Air Force. He graduated from USC in 1950.

The Canadian native got his start in 1953 at the iconic “hungry i” nightclub in San Francisco.

Sahl made history in 1955 when he dropped the first comedy album with his album “Mort Sahl at Sunset.”  In 1960, he released the record “Mort Sahl at the Hungry I” where it reached No. 22 on the Billboard 200. His 1973 disc,  “Sing a Song of Watergate” came at No. 145.

Mort Sahl (left) pictured with co-star Ingemar Johansson in 1960's
Mort Sahl (left) pictured with co-star Ingemar Johansson in 1960’s ‘All The Young Men.’
The Everett Collection

Aside from taking the stage as a comic, he showed off his acting chops in many films.

Sahl appeared in the 1958 Robert Wagner film “In Love and War” as well as “All the Young Men” (1960), “Johnny Cool” (1963) and “Don’t Make Waves” (1967). On television, Sahl lit up the screen with guest roles on programs such as “Pursuit,” “Playhouse 90,” “Ironside,” and “Love American Style.”

He was the quintessential host to many nationally televised ceremonies such as the Grammys and the Academy Awards. He co-hosted the 31st annual Oscars in 1959 and was the first host ever to emcee the Grammys that same year.

“He was absolutely like nothing anybody had ever seen before. And he was so natural that other comedians became jealous,” Allen said. “They used to say, ‘Why do people like him? He just talks. He isn’t really performing.’ But his jokes came out as stream of consciousness, in a kind of jazz rhythm.”

He also performed on late-night shows hosted by iconic figures like Dick Cavett, Mike Douglas, Dinah Shore, Merv Griffin and David Frost. Sahl even lent his comedic chops to the Dean Martin celebrity roasts of the mid-1970s and also appeared multiple times on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

In the 2000s, Sahl moved to Mill Valley where he befriended the late Robin Williams who lived nearby.

Ever the ladies man, Sahl was married three times and had one son, Mort Jr. whom passed away at 19 in 1996 from an unknown drug-related reaction.

His net worth reached $1.6 million at the peak of his fame.

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