Mort Sahl

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Mort Sahl
Mort Sahl Ed Sullivan 1960.JPG
Sahl with Ed Sullivan for a 1960 television special.
Birth name Morton Lyon Sahl
Born (1927-05-11) May 11, 1927 (age 87)
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Medium Stand-up, film
Nationality American
Years active 1953–present
Genres Satire, political satire, Improvisational comedy
Subject(s) American politics, American culture
Influences Will Rogers,[1] Henry Morgan, H. L. Mencken
Influenced George Carlin, Jon Stewart, Chris Rock, Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Jay Leno, Cardell Willis, Will Durst, Bill Hicks
Spouse Sue Babior (m. 1955–58)
China Lee (m. 1967–91)
Kenslea Sahl (m. 1997)
Notable works and roles "Mort Sahl at the hungry i"
"Sing a Song of Watergate: Apocryphal of Lie!"

Morton Lyon "Mort" Sahl (born May 11, 1927) is a Canadian-born American comedian and actor, widely considered the first modern stand-up comedian. He was the first comedian to dress casually and speak about current events in a matter-of-fact style. He helped to get Lenny Bruce some gigs at the hungry i, and occasionally wrote jokes for speeches delivered by President John F. Kennedy.[1][2] Sahl got deeply involved in the post-Warren Commission investigation of Kennedy's death.

Early life[edit]

He was born on May 11, 1927 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.[2] His father, Harry Sahl, was a court reporter who met his wife when she responded to an advertisement he took out in a poetry magazine.[1] The family moved to Los Angeles, California and Mort joined the ROTC unit at Belmont High School. He was also on the staff of the school's newspaper, the Belmont Sentinel. Actor Richard Crenna was one of his classmates.

Military service[edit]

After high school, in 1945, Sahl enlisted in the United States Air Force and was stationed in Alaska.[1] In 1950, he graduated from University of Southern California with majors in traffic engineering and city management.[2] In a speech given at Claremont McKenna's Athenaeum in 2008, Sahl claimed to have attended West Point. He then began performing stand-up comedy at Enrico Banducci's hungry i nightclub in San Francisco.[2]


In 1976, Sahl wrote an autobiography called Heartland. It is a bitter account of his rise in comedy, his obsession with the Kennedy assassination, his decline in show business, and his longtime friendship with Hugh Hefner. In 1979 he briefly hosted an afternoon talk show on WRC Radio, in Washington, D.C.

During the 1980s, Sahl made many jokes critical of his old friend, Ronald Reagan ("Washington couldn't tell a lie, Nixon couldn't tell the truth, and Reagan can't tell the difference!"). Sahl and his wife were invited to the White House by Nancy Reagan, where President Reagan roasted him at a White House tribute in front of many other top comedians. Sahl said to television interviewer Charlie Rose of the Reagans, "They are very, very forgiving."

In the late 1980s, his comedy featurette "In Spite Of The News" was heard on the Mutual Broadcasting System.

Political activism[edit]

Following Kennedy's assassination in 1963, Sahl's interest in who was behind it was so great that he became a deputized member of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison's team to investigate the murder.[2] As a result, Sahl's comedy began to reflect his politics and included readings and commentary on the Warren Commission Report. His earlier anti-Kennedy jokes and his onstage tirades against the Warren Commission alienated much of his audience. He was effectively blacklisted and his shows were cancelled. Sahl's income dropped from US$1 million to US$19,000 a year. (According to the Inflation Calculator of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, $19,000 in 1964 was the equivalent of $134,000 in 2008.) However, the rising tide of counterculture fueled his comeback.

In the 1988 presidential election, Sahl was the most prominent supporter of unsuccessful candidate Alexander Haig.[3]

Comedy style[edit]

Sahl's humor has always been based on current events, especially politics. He broke new ground in the late 1950s and early 1960s by looking to the day's newspaper headlines for many of his monologues rather than relying on one-liners. His first recording appeared in 1959, five years after its recording. Sahl himself was responsible for the delay.[4] His trademark is to appear on stage with a newspaper in hand, casually dressed in a V-neck sweater.[2] In 1960 he was dubbed "Will Rogers with fangs" by Time magazine.[5]

When John F. Kennedy, a personal friend, became President, Sahl began making jokes that were critical of Kennedy's policies. Television host Ed Sullivan refused to let Sahl tell any Kennedy jokes on The Ed Sullivan Show, which meant Sahl was seldom seen on TV during the next few years.

Personal life[edit]

Sahl was married to Playboy Playmate China Lee from 1967 until their divorce in 1991.[citation needed] They had one son, Mort Sahl Jr., who died March 27, 1996 at the age of 19.[6]


Mort is listed #40 on Comedy Central's list of the 100 greatest stand-up comedians of all time.

Sahl, who is Jewish,[7] received the Fifth Annual Alan King Award in American Jewish Humor (2003) from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.

Woody Allen has said, "I adored Mort Sahl," and added he would not have become a comedian himself if not for Sahl's example, which proved a comedian could succeed with offhand intellectual material. He compared Sahl's influence on comedy to the effect Charlie Parker had on jazz.[8] "I still find Mort Sahl funny," Allen said in 2008. "I was with him the other day, in California, and he's 81 and he's teaching at Claremont [McKenna] College. And he said they have a course out there that they offered him to teach, on the Holocaust, and he didn't take it. He said, 'I wanted to see first how history judges the event.'"[9] Allen introduced Sahl's 2002 stand-up appearance at Joe's Pub in New York City and attended a similar show several years later at "B.B. King's" in Manhattan's Times Square.

In 2010, the Library of Congress placed Mort Sahl's 1955 recording, At Sunset, on the National Recording Registry.


  • At Sunset (recorded 1955, released 1959?)
  • The Future Lies Ahead (1958)
  • Mort Sahl: 1960 or Look Forward In Anger, Verve Records MG V-15004 (1959)
  • At the Hungry i (1960)
  • The Next President (1960)
  • A Way of Life (1960)
  • Great Moments of Comedy with Mort Sahl
  • The New Frontier (1961)
  • On Relationships (1961)
  • Anyway... Onward (1967)
  • "Sing a Song of Watergate... Apocryphal of Lie!" (1973)
  • Mort Sahl's America (1996)



  1. ^ a b c d "Comedian Mort Sahl". Fresh Air. December 23, 2003. Retrieved 2010-09-16. He wrote jokes for JFK and appeared on What's My Line? and The Ed Sullivan Show. In addition, he was the first comic to make a live recording, the first to do college concerts and, in 1960, the first to grace the cover of Time magazine. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Mort Sahl". American Masters. March 19, 2006. Retrieved 2010-09-16. In his trademark V-neck sweater, with the day's newspaper tucked under his arm, Mort Sahl has satirized — and entertained — presidents from Eisenhower to Clinton. ... 
  3. ^ Ken Silverstein (September–October 1999). "Still in Control". Mother Jones. Retrieved 2008-05-14. It was not an auspicious debut: The most influential person to endorse him was political comedian Mort Sahl. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ Time. July 25, 1960,9171,826502,00.html.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  6. ^ Army Archerd (June 21, 1996). "Copperfield Act Could Blow Away Auds". Variety. Retrieved 2006-11-09. Mort Sahl, "picking up the pieces" since the March 27 death of his son, Mort Jr., returns to the stage, with a four-week stand at the Tiffany, starting July 17. 
  7. ^ Goldman, Albert (1990). "Laughtermakers". In Blacher Cohen, Sarah. Jewish Wry: Essays on Jewish Humor. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. p. 80. ISBN 9780814323663. Retrieved 21 March 2014. 
  8. ^ Woody Allen on Woody Allen rev. ed. (New York: Grove, 2004) 30-1.
  9. ^ "In Conversation: Woody Allen". New York Magazine, 40th Anniversary Edition. 2008. Retrieved 2008-12-04. 


  • Epstein, Lawrence J. (2001). The Haunted Smile:The Story of Jewish Comedians in America. New York, NY: Public Affairs. ISBN 1-8916-2071-1. 
  • Nachman, Gerald (2003). Seriously Funny:The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s. New York, NY: Pantheon Books. ISBN 0-3754-1030-9. 
  • Sahl, Mort (1976). Heartland. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. ISBN 978-0151398201. 
  • Smith, Ronald L. (1992). Who's Who in Comedy: Comedians, Comics, and Clowns From Vaudeville to Today's Stand-ups. New York, NY: Facts on File. ISBN 0-81602-338-7. 

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