Before December of 1953, practitioners of stand-up comedy followed a fairly standard template that consisted of someone standing up on a stage, reeling off one joke after another, often accompanied by a rim shot to alert audiences when to laugh. The topics would be largely non-controversial in nature (unless you were a mother-in-law, I suppose) and if someone like Bob Hope did drift into making jokes about politicians, they tended to be innocuous enough so that he could still hit the links with the subjects of his punchlines without too much discomfort. Occasionally, a comedian would tailor a couple of their jokes for wherever they were appearing—inserting the name of a local politician or sports team into a punchline—but, for the most part, the material they delivered would rarely vary. And since this was before the days of television appearances, they could coast on the same material for quite a long time.
After December of 1953, all of that would change forever, almost entirely due to the efforts of a seemingly unassuming man who hit the stage armed with nothing more than a proto-preppy wardrobe, a rolled-up newspaper, and a willingness to challenge the social conventions of the time and the joke-joke-joke nature of comedy. The man was Mort Sahl, who passed away yesterday at the age of 94, and what he did would single-handedly revolutionize American comedy forever. There is perhaps not a single notable comedian to emerge in his wake who has not been influenced by his efforts in one way or another.
He was born Morton Lyon Sahl in Montreal on May 11, 1927, and later relocated with his family to Los Angeles, where his father tried to break into show business as a writer before taking a job as a court reporter for the FBI. When America entered World War II in 1941, the 14-year-old Sahl joined his school’s ROTC program, earning awards for marksmanship and “Americanism,” and dropped out the next year to enlist in the Army, lying about his age to get in—a ruse that fell apart two weeks later when his mother found out and revealed his true age. After high school, he joined the Air Force but soon grew disenchanted with the conformity of service, rebelling by growing a beard and writing articles critical of the military for a local newspaper. After his discharge in 1947, he attended USC, majoring in traffic engineering and city management, but after receiving his degree in 1950, he decided to drop out of the masters program to try to make it as an actor, playwright and comedian.
At first, he had little success—at one point, he and a friend rented their own theater to put on experimental one-act plays but struggled to find an audience—and did odd jobs while continuing to write. He then hit upon the idea of performing his plays as comedic monologues, but this approach attracted little attention at first. Eventually, he convinced the owner of a San Francisco nightclub to let him audition and he earned a regular performing spot. After a few weeks, lines from his act began appearing in the work of influential San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen. With that seal of approval, audiences began to come out in droves to see what all the fuss was about.
For those used to the likes of Henny Youngman or Milton Berle reeling off one-liners, what Sahl did up on stage had to be a profound shock to the system. He employed a more personal and conversational style in his interactions with the audiences that made you feel like you were part of a conversation as opposed to someone reciting the contents of their joke file. He spoke in a loose, slangy style that was the comedic equivalent of jazz and which was the epitome of hip. He also demonstrated a flair for improvisation that saw him going off on comedic riffs, often prompted by the newspaper that he carried on stage with him, and which ensured that audiences could go back to see him without running the risk of hearing the same bits over and over.
He had many targets for his sardonic wit, but he was most effective as a commentator on contemporary social trends, especially when he could take down especially egregious examples of conformity in post-war America. His favorite focus was politics but what he did was the complete opposite of the pseudo-populist banter of someone like Will Rogers (of whom he once commented “I never met a man I didn’t like until I met Will Rogers”). He delivered barbed and pointed commentary against people from all areas of the political spectrum if he suspected them of hypocrisy. Even when a politician found favor with him, that didn’t make him off-limits for his commentary—when John F. Kennedy was running for president in1960, he was an especially vocal supporter, even supplying jokes for his campaign speeches, but after he was elected, Sahl took him on as a comedic target as well.
By this time, Sahl’s popularity had grown to enormous proportions. He played nightclubs and college campuses around the country, appeared regularly on television, recorded a number of albums, and even became the first comedian to appear on the cover of Time. He branched out into other areas as well—he appeared in a revue on Broadway, hosted the Academy Awards and was even featured in a couple of movies, the war dramas “In Love and War” (1958) and “All the Young Men” (1960). His radical break from what comedy had traditionally been gave other aspiring comedians—people like Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, and Jonathan Winters—the inspiration to do their own respective things as well. He even became the first comedian to win a Grammy Award.
His popularity took a steep dive following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 as he began to dedicate a large part of his act to excoriating the Warren Commission report, much to the annoyance of his dwindling audiences. He even worked for a time as an unpaid investigator for New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison when he was attempting to prosecute businessman Clay Shaw on conspiracy charges. Although he would never regain the kind of popularity that he once held, he would make a bit of a comeback in the 1970s when his acerbic style would again find favor in the Watergate era. He would continue to perform regularly over the years and still appeared once a week at the Throckmorton Theater in Mill Valley, California, right up until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 1976, he published his autobiography, Heartland, and staged a one-man off-Broadway show, Mort Sahl’s America, in 1988. He turned up in a number of documentaries about comedy—most notably the 1989 film “Mort Sahl: The Loyal Opposition”—and also made brief appearances in the little-seen 1984 cult oddity “Nothing Lasts Forever” and the 2016 drama “Max Rose,” the final film outing for Jerry Lewis. He also began receiving a number of much-deserved tributes for his work and his influence on the world of comedy—Comedy Central would list him as #40 on their list of the 100 greatest stand-up comedians of all time and his 1955 album At Sunset would be placed in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress in 2011.
Before Mort Sahl came along, there had never really been a performer like him and there has never been one like him since then. With his quick wit, he could have easily made a safe and comfortable career for himself. However, he was an iconoclast through and through who was more interested in telling the truth than in making audiences comfortable. While he may have paid a price for that determination, the world of comedy continues to reap the benefits of his boldness and bravery to this day and beyond.