Sahl in 1960
|Birth name||Morton Lyon Sahl|
|Born||May 11, 1927|
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
|Alma mater||University of Southern California|
|Genres||Political satire, improvisational comedy|
|Subject(s)||American politics, American culture|
Morton Lyon Sahl (born May 11, 1927) is an American comedian, actor, and social satirist, considered the first modern stand-up comedian since Will Rogers. Sahl pioneered a style of social satire which pokes fun at political and current event topics using improvised monologues and only a newspaper as a prop.
Sahl spent his early years in Los Angeles and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area where he made his professional stage debut at the hungry i nightclub in 1953. His popularity grew quickly, and after a year at the club he traveled the country doing shows at established nightclubs, theaters and college campuses. In 1960 he became the first comedian to have a cover story written about him by Time magazine. He appeared on various television shows, played a number of film roles, and performed a one-man show on Broadway.
Television host Steve Allen claimed that Sahl was "the only real political philosopher we have in modern comedy." His social satire performances broke new ground in live entertainment, as a stand-up comic talking about the real world of politics at that time was considered "revolutionary." It inspired many later comics to become stage comedians, including Lenny Bruce, Jonathan Winters, George Carlin and Woody Allen. Allen credits Sahl's new style of humor with "opening up vistas for people like me.":545
Numerous politicians became his fans, with John F. Kennedy asking him to write his jokes for campaign speeches. After Kennedy's assassination in 1963, however, Sahl became obsessed with the Warren Report's inaccuracies and conclusions, and spoke about it often during his shows. This alienated much of his audience and led to a decline in his popularity for the remainder of the 1960s. By the 1970s, however, his shows and popularity staged a partial comeback which continues to the present. A biography of Sahl, Last Man Standing, by James Curtis, was released in 2017.
Early life and education
Sahl was born on May 11, 1927, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, the only child of Jewish parents. His father, Harry Sahl, came from an immigrant family on New York's Lower East Side, and hoped to become a Broadway playwright. He met his wife when she responded to an advertisement he took out in a poetry magazine. Unable to break into the writing field they moved to Canada where he owned a tobacco store in Montreal.
The family later relocated to Los Angeles, California where his father, unable to become a Hollywood writer, worked as a clerk and court reporter for the FBI. Sahl notes, "My dad was disappointed in his dreams and he distrusted that world for me.":55 Sahl went to Belmont High School in Los Angeles where he wrote for the school's newspaper. Actor Richard Crenna was a classmate.:55
When the U.S. entered World War II after Pearl Harbor, Sahl, then fourteen, joined the school's Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC). He won a medal for marksmanship and an American Legion Americanism award.:55 Wanting to express his patriotism, he wore his ROTC uniform to school and in public and, when he turned fifteen, he dropped out of high school to join the Army by lying about his age.:55 His mother tracked him down and brought him back home two weeks later after she revealed his true age.:55
Upon graduating from high school, his father tried to get him into West Point and had received his Congressman's help. But Sahl had by then already enlisted in the United States Air Force. He was later stationed in Alaska with the 93rd Air Depot Group. In the military, however, he resisted the discipline and authoritarian control it had over his life. He expressed his nonconformity by growing a beard and refusing to wear a cap as required. He also wrote articles for a small newspaper criticizing the military, which resulted in his being penalized with three months of KP duty.
He was discharged in 1947 and enrolled in Compton College, followed by the University of Southern California. He received a B.S. degree in 1950 with majors in traffic engineering and city management. He continued with the masters program but dropped out to become an actor and playwright.
Breaking into comedy
Between 1950 and 1953 he tried to get jobs as a stand-up comedian in about 30 nightclubs throughout Los Angeles, but with no success. NBC, where he once auditioned, told him he would never succeed as a comedian. He even offered to perform free during intermissions for the chance to show his talent. He recalls that period: "Despite all the folklore about the faith of friends in the struggling young artist, my friends constantly discouraged me.":56 He and a friend then rented an old theater, which they called Theater X, for "experimental," and he began writing and staging one-act plays. One of his plays was titled "Nobody Trusted the Truth." But unable to attract a large enough audience, they eventually closed the theater.
For income, Sahl began doing odd jobs and writing. He worked as a used car salesman and a messenger, and wrote an unpublished novel and short stories. He went to New York hoping to sell his plays, but only managed to earn about eighteen dollars a week. He recalls, "I couldn't get a thing going. I was working on a novel, I was out of work, and I was out of gas." As a result, he decided to try something different, by performing his plays as monologues. He felt it would be easier to do his monologue on stage instead of trying to sell it to others.:56 "I knew that if I was going to get anything done, I'd have to do it myself," he says.:56 He returned to Los Angeles where he appeared at some clubs but his new style of monologue comedy received little attention.
In 1953 he began dating Sue Babior. When she moved to Berkeley to study at the University of California, Sahl hitchhiked there to be with her. He spent his time auditing classes and hanging out at local coffee houses. For income he wrote for a few avant-garde publications. He slept in the back seat of a friend's car since Babior was living with roommates, including Nancy Droeger and Althia Sims. "Things were simple then," he says. "All we had to worry about was the destiny of man." He felt at home in the San Francisco Bay Area, commenting, "I was born in San Francisco." The three years he lived in Berkeley were a valuable experience, he said.:57
He sought out any clubs where he could perform as a stand-up, and Babior suggested he audition for the hungry i, a nightclub in San Francisco. Its owner, Enrico Banducci, took an immediate liking to Sahl's comedy style and offered him a job at $75 a week (About $720 in 2020 money), which became his first steady job as a stand-up comedian.
Word about Sahl's satirical comedy acts spread quickly. He received good reviews from influential newspaper columnist, Herb Caen, which gave him instant credibility: "I don't know where Mr. Sahl came from but I'm glad he's here," he wrote after watching his show.:62 Caen began inviting his own friends, such as film comedians Danny Kaye and Eddie Cantor, to watch Sahl's performances.:62 Cantor took him "under his wing" and gave him suggestions.:71By the end of his first year at the hungry i, Sahl was earning $3,000 a week (about $29,000 a week in 2020 money) and performing to packed houses. "I'd be washing cars if it weren't for Enrico," he said later in his career, appreciating that Banducci was the first club owner to give him the chance to perform as a stand-up comedian.:62
Nightclub shows and national acclaim
After a year at the hungry i, Sahl began appearing at clubs throughout the country, including the Black Orchid and Mister Kelly's in Chicago, the Crescendo in Los Angeles, and the Village Vanguard and the Blue Angel in New York City. Many of the clubs had never before had a stand-up comedian perform, which required Sahl to break in as a new kind of act. "I had to build up my own network of places to play," he says.:68
— Woody Allen:160
Numerous celebrities dropped by to see his shows after they heard about the "new phenomenon," referring to Sahl's unique style of comedy. Woody Allen, who saw his show at the Blue Angel in 1954, commented that "he was suddenly this great genius that appeared who revolutionized the medium.":68 British comedy actor John Cleese became immediately interested in Sahl's radical style of humor, and accorded to him the same level of respect that the Beatles once reserved for Elvis Presley.
Television host Steve Allen, who originated the Tonight Show, said he was "struck by how amateur he seemed," but added that the observation was not meant as a criticism, but as a "compliment". He noted that all the previous successful comics dressed formally, were glib and well-rehearsed, and were always in control of their audiences.:63 Allen said that Sahl's "very un-show business manner was one of the things I liked when I first saw him work.":63
Sahl dressed casually, with no tie and usually wearing his trademark V-neck campus-style sweater. His stage presence was seen as being "candid and cool, the antithesis of the slick comic," states theater critic Gerald Nachman.:50 And although Sahl acquired a reputation for being an intellectual comedian, it was an image he disliked and disagreed with: "It was absurd. I was barely a C student," he said.:67 His naturalness on stage was partly due to his preferring improvisation over carefully rehearsed monologues. Sahl explained:
I never found you could write the act. You can't rehearse the audience's responses. You adjust to them every night. I come in with only an outline. You've got to have a spirit of adventure. I follow my instincts and the audience is my jury.:64
His casual style of stand-up, where he seemed to be one-on-one with his audience, influenced new comedians, including Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory. Sahl was the least controversial, however, because he dressed and looked "collegiate" and focused on politics, while Bruce confronted sexual and language conventions and Gregory focused on the civil rights movement. After seeing Mort Sahl on stage, Woody Allen, whose writings were often about his personal life, decided to give it a try: "I'd never had the nerve to talk about it before. Then Mort Sahl came along with a whole new style of humor, opening up vistas for people like me.":545
Commenting about Sahl's monologues, Nachman describes him as a "gifted narrator, so good at taking you along on his travels that you didn't quite realize until the show was over that you had been on a labyrinthine journey.":64 The speed with which Sahl gave his monologues was also notable. British film critic Penelope Gilliatt recalls how Sahl's improvisation "goes on a breakneck stammering loop and you think it will never make the circle. It always does." For her it was like watching a circus act: "He freewheels a bike on a high wire tightrope with his brain racing and his hands off the handlebars.":65
Sahl's popularity "mushroomed like an Atomic cloud during the 50s," says filmmaker Robert B. Weide, adding, "Simply put, Mort Sahl reinvented stand-up comedy." Time magazine in 1960 published a cover story about him and his rise to fame, in which they described him as "the best of the New Comedians [and] the first notable American political satirist since Will Rogers." Along with his nightclub performances, he appeared in some films and on television shows, including his network debut on The NBC Comedy Hour in May 1956.
His audience had also widened to include not only students and a "hip" public, but now even noted politicians sought out his shows. Some became friends, such as presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, who asked him to prepare a bank of political jokes he could use at public functions. Kennedy liked his style of political satire and what he described as Sahl's "relentless pursuit of everybody." Adlai Stevenson and Hubert Humphrey were fans, Humphrey stating that "whenever there is a political bloat, Mort sticks a pin in it."
They valued the fact that he stayed current and took material from major newspapers and magazines. He kept his material fresh, wrote few notes, and entertained his audiences by presenting otherwise serious news with his brand of humor. He was not fond of television news, however, which he blamed in 1960 for "spoon-feeding" the public, and was therefore responsible for the "corruption and ignorance that may sink this country."
As a result of Sahl's popularity, besides getting on the cover of Time, he also became the first comedian to make a record album, the first to do college concerts and was the first comedian to win a Grammy.
Declining career in 1960s
I had the pleasure of seeing and hearing Nancy Wilson, George Shearing and Mort Sahl, on the same bill at a nightclub in LA, 1961. Wilson did a fabulous set, followed by Shearing. Then Mort Sahl came on, and began as usual, sitting on a stool, with a newspaper, making comments about the daily happenings. A group of sailors in the back of the room began heckling Sahl, and the [rest of the] audience was definitely on Sahl's side of frustration. After five minutes or so of this heckling, Sahl suddenly blurted out that it was "too bad the sailors had missed the plane that morning." You could have heard a pin drop, and then the boo's at Sahl began ... because a U.S. Navy plane had crashed in the ocean that day, with no survivors. Mort had to leave the stage. It was a lead story in most of the newspapers the following day.
Following Kennedy's assassination in 1963, Sahl's interest in who was responsible was so great that he became a deputized member of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison's team to investigate the assassination. As a result, Sahl's comedy would often reflect his politics and included readings and commentary about the Warren Commission Report, of which he consistently disputed the accuracy. He alienated much of his audience, was effectively blacklisted and more of his planned shows were cancelled. His income dropped from $1 million to $19,000 by 1964. According to Nachman, the excessive focus on the Kennedy assassination details was Sahl's undoing and wrecked his career. Sahl later admitted that "there's never been anything that had a stronger impact on my life than this issue," but added that he nonetheless "thought it was a wonderful quest."
Partial comeback in the 1970s to the present
— Los Angeles Times, 1983:54
By the 1970s the rising tide of counterculture eventually fueled Sahl's partial comeback as a veteran comedian, and he was included along with the new comedians breaking into the field, such as George Carlin, Lily Tomlin and Richard Pryor.:89 In the 1980s he headlined for Banducci's new clubs in San Francisco. In the late 1980s he was trying to write screenplays, besides doing sporadic shows around the country. In 1987 he had a successful multiweek run in Australia.
In 1988 Sahl was back in New York and performed a one-man Off-Broadway show, Mort Sahl's America, which, despite getting good reviews from critics was not a box office success. The New York Times stated, "History has returned Mort Sahl to the spotlight when he is most needed. His style has an intuitive spontaneity. His presence is tonic.":92 Robert Weide produced a biographical documentary, Mort Sahl: The Loyal Opposition, which ran on PBS in 1989.
However, the level of success he once had now eluded him. One Los Angeles Times critic wrote, "Sahl is a man with a country but not a stage.":96 A number of television specials gave him a venue to perform in front of live audiences. The Monitor Channel broadcast a series of eight shows called Mort Sahl Live beginning in November 1991.
From the 1990s on he has performed, but less often and mostly in theaters and college auditoriums. When Woody Allen saw him perform in 2001 at one of his rare New York club appearances, Allen told him, "this is crazy—you should be working all the time.":96 Allen then called his manager Jack Rollins: "Listen, this guy is hilarious. We gotta bring him to New York.":96 Sahl then did shows at Joe's Pub in Manhattan to standing-room only audiences.:97
Sahl is #40 on Comedy Central's list of the 100 greatest stand-up comedians of all time, ranked between Billy Crystal and Jon Stewart. In 2003 he received the Fifth Annual Alan King Award in American Jewish Humor from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.
Satire comedy style
Sahl's humor is based on current events, especially politics, which led Milton Berle to describe him as "one of the greatest political satirists of all time." His trademark persona is to enter the stage with a newspaper in hand, casually dressed in a V-neck sweater. He would often recite some news stories combined with satire. He was dubbed "Will Rogers with fangs" by Time magazine in 1960.
Sahl would discuss people or events almost as if he were reporting them for the first time, and would digress into related stories or his own experiences. TV executive Roger Ailes said he saw him read the paper one day and after a few hours Sahl got up onstage with an entire evening's worth of new material. "With no writers, he just did what he had seen in the afternoon paper. He was a genius.":52
Sahl's presentation of news commentary as a form of social satire created a wide assortment of celebrity and political fans, including Adlai Stevenson, Marlene Dietrich, S.J. Perelman, Saul Bellow and Leonard Bernstein. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. said his popularity was due to the public's "yearning for youth, irreverence, trenchancy, satire, [and] a clean break with the past.":71 And Steve Allen introduced him on one of his shows as being "the only real political philosopher we have in modern comedy."
Combined with his improvisational skill, Sahl's naturalness was also considered unique for a stage performer. Woody Allen notes that other comics were jealous of Sahl's stage persona and did not understand how he could perform by simply talking to the audience.:52 Nachman states that the "mere idea of a stand-up comic talking about the real world was in itself revolutionary ... [and] the comedians who followed him—Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Dick Gregory, Phyllis Diller, Shelley Berman, Jonathan Winters—were cast in a familiar nightclub mold.":51
Sahl has been married three times. He married Susan J. Babior in 1955; they divorced in 1958.
In 1997 he married Kenslea Ann Motter; they divorced around 2009. He regrets their separation, saying "I'm sorry I divorced Kenslea; I'm still in love with my wife. If you love a woman it'll make her a better woman."
In 1976, Sahl wrote an autobiography called Heartland. In June 2007 a number of star comedians including George Carlin and Jonathan Winters, gave Sahl an 80th birthday tribute.
Sahl does not drink, smoke, use drugs or use swear words, on or off stage.:92 In 2008, Sahl moved from Los Angeles to Mill Valley, California, a suburb of San Francisco, where he became friends with comedian Robin Williams who lived nearby. Sahl works every Thursday night taking questions from the live audience and from Periscope/Twitter.
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- The Next President, Verve Records (1960)
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- The New Frontier, Reprise Records (1961)
- On Relationships, Reprise Records (1961)
- Great Moments of Comedy with Mort Sahl Verve Records (1965)
- Anyway ... Onward, Mercury Records (1967)
- "Sing a Song of Watergate ... Apocryphal of Lie!", GNP Crescendo Records (1973)
- Mort Sahl's America, Dove Audio (1996)
- In Love and War (1958) as Danny Krieger
- Richard Diamond, Private Detective (CBS-TV 1959) as Himself
- All the Young Men (1960) as Cpl. Crane
- Johnny Cool (1963) as Ben Morrow
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- Don't Make Waves (1967) as Sam Lingonberry
- hungry i reunion (1981) as Himself, documentary
- Inside the Third Reich (1982) (TV) as Werner Finck
- Nothing Lasts Forever (1984) as Uncle Mort
- Jonathan Winters: On the Ledge (1987) as Himself, TV Special
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- Looking for Lenny (2011) as Himself, documentary
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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.
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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.
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