Mort Sahl, revolutionary comic who influenced comedians from Lenny Bruce to Dave Chappelle, dies

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Mort Sahl in Chicago in 1972. <span class="copyright">(Chicago Tribune )</span>
Mort Sahl in Chicago in 1972. (Chicago Tribune )

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 94.

Sahl, whose on- and off-stage preoccupation with a conspiracy theory on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy slowed his career in the late 1960s, died Tuesday, a family friend overseeing his affairs told the New York Times.

At a time when brash comics in suits and tuxedos typically were telling jokes about their wives and mothers-in-law, Sahl shattered the stand-up stereotype, beginning at the hungry i, a small, brick-walled basement club in San Francisco's North Beach district.

Wearing a V-neck sweater and an open-collared shirt — and clutching a rolled-up newspaper — the dark-haired USC graduate with hooded eyes and a wolfish grin fearlessly zeroed in on Cold War-era targets such as President Eisenhower, Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee.

His casual, conversational style would influence a generation of comedians, from Lenny Bruce to Dave Chappelle.

Sahl, who frequently punctuated his punch lines with a dry, staccato laugh, spoke in a language that a writer for the New Yorker magazine in 1957 described as “a unique cross between a philosophy paper and the argot of modern jazz.”

Indeed, Sahl might leaven his monologues with allusions to the Oedipus complex or references to monotheism and then preface a new target by saying, “Dig this” — or, more often, “Onward!”

A 1960 New Yorker profile of Sahl enumerated the “persons, places, objects, institutions, and ideas” he disparaged during a 45-minute monologue, beginning with Charles de Gaulle and followed by Eisenhower, segregation, comedian Shelley Berman, trade unions, the film “Marty,” jazz, New York City, Berkeley, playwright Samuel Beckett, newspapers, coffeehouses, sandals, J.D. Salinger, soiled raincoats — and 62 other subjects.

“I don't tell jokes, I give little lectures,” Sahl would tell his audiences. He'd generally conclude his shows by asking, “Are there any groups I haven't offended?”

“He was a force of nature, a whirlwind whose ideas defined him; behind each joke lurked a sharply etched, cynical worldview,” Gerald Nachman wrote 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, much less to cut up a sitting president onstage,” wrote Nachman. While Will Rogers and Bob Hope were comfortable, non-offensive establishment figures, Sahl was straight grenade fire.

“When Rogers or Hope did political material, their jokes weren't meant to wound or to make anyone squirm; Sahl's were, and did,” Nachman said.

Moving on from the hungry i to clubs such as Mister Kelly's in Chicago, Basin Street East in New York and the Crescendo in Los Angeles — as well as showrooms in Las Vegas and Miami — Sahl was in the vanguard of a new generation of comedians.

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

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

During his heyday in the 1950s and early ’60s, Sahl recorded several pioneering live stand-up comedy albums, starred on Broadway in a short-lived revue, “The Next President” and played small roles in several movies and television shows.

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

He even donned a tuxedo and co-hosted the 1959 Academy Awards show, along with Laurence Olivier, Jerry Lewis, David Niven, Tony Randall and Hope, who referred to Sahl as “the favorite comedian of nuclear physicists everywhere.”

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

Indeed, the bipartisan Sahl joked on television during the race that the senior Kennedy had told his son John: “I'm putting you on an allowance. You're not allowed one more cent than you need to buy a landslide.”

Sahl didn't waste time targeting the new Kennedy White House.

But Joe Kennedy viewed the comedian's continued potshots at his son as disloyalty and, according to Sahl, the Kennedy patriarch applied pressure to have him silenced. And when he didn't, Sahl wrote in “Heartland,” his 1976 memoir, “the work began to dry up.”

But things grew worse for Sahl's career after John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963.

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

Sent to New Orleans to interview Garrison, Sahl wound up volunteering to help him in his investigation. Off and on over the next few years, Sahl worked for free as a deputized member of Garrison's assassination investigative team.

His association with the controversial group so damaged Sahl's reputation that it cost him TV, recording and club jobs. His gross income, he later wrote, went from up to $1 million a year to $13,000.

When he did perform, Sahl often generated laughs by reading excerpts of what he considered “the more ludicrous aspects” of the Warren Commission report and sometimes brought all 26 volumes of the report onstage with him.

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

The Warren Commission report, Nachman wrote in his book, “so traumatized him that he never recovered his footing and still struggles against an ancient stigma that he's a head case.”

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

“When I made fun of Eisenhower, the college audiences thought that I was making chaos out of order,” he wrote in his memoir. “Twenty years later the college audiences are asking me to bring order to chaos: Tell me what it means, man.”

Sahl had a stint writing screenplays and contributing to various films and continued to offer his caustic and satiric insights on America. In 1987, he returned to Broadway for a few weeks in 1987 with a one-man show, “Mort Sahl on Broadway!” Late in life, he taught a class in critical thinking at Claremont McKenna College.

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

A member of the ROTC while a student at Belmont High School during World War II, the 15-year-old Sahl lied about his age and joined the Army, a patriotic move that ended two weeks later when his mother tracked him down at Ft. MacArthur in San Pedro.

After graduating from high school, Sahl enlisted in the Army Air Forces and served with the 93rd Air Depot Group in Anchorage, where he edited the post newspaper and reportedly spent 83 consecutive days on KP duty for publishing insubordinate comments about his commanding officer.

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

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

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

“I did all the stuff other people were doing,” he recalled in 1989. “I got a tie and a coat, and I talked about the movies and did imitations of movie stars. I didn't dare to talk about what was really on my mind. That took a while. That takes some trust.”

While working as a used car salesman and a messenger, he wrote an unpublished novel and several short stories. He also attempted to sell material to other comedians, who told him his offerings 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 that he audition at the hungry i.

The small club featured only singers and musicians at the time, but owner Enrico Banducci agreed to give Sahl a shot in late December, 1953.

Although he received the requisite laughs, having filled the club with his Berkeley friends on his opening night, Sahl faced a far less accepting crowd the next night: The audience booed and yelled, and pelted him with peanuts and pennies.

But Banducci let Sahl continue, and within a few months the outspoken comic was generating standing-room-only crowds.

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

When George W. Bush became president, Sahl pushed Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon aside and zeroed in on a new target.

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

Sahl was married and divorced three times. His only child, Mort Jr., died from a drug overdose when he was 19 in 1996.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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