Mort Sahl, comedian who satirized politics, dies at 94

Oct 26, 2021, 3:07 PM | Updated: Oct 27, 2021, 11:47 am
FILE - Comedian Mort Sahl poses for photographs at the 80th Birthday "Sahl-ute" honoring him, in Lo...

FILE - Comedian Mort Sahl poses for photographs at the 80th Birthday "Sahl-ute" honoring him, in Los Angeles on June 28, 2007. Sahl, who helped revolutionize stand-up comedy during the Cold War with his running commentary on politicians and current events died Tuesday, Oct. 26. 2021. He was 94. His friend Lucy Mercer said that he died "peacefully" at his home in Mill Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Ann Johansson, File)

(AP Photo/Ann Johansson, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — Satirist Mort Sahl, who helped revolutionize stand-up comedy during the Cold War with his running commentary on politicians and current events and became a favorite of a new, restive generation of Americans, died Tuesday. He was 94.

His friend Lucy Mercer said that he died “peacefully” at his home in Mill Valley, California. The cause was “old age,” she said.

During an era when many comedians dressed in tuxedos and told mother-in-law jokes, Sahl faced his audiences in the ’50s and ’60s wearing slacks, a sweater and an unbuttoned collar and carrying a rolled-up newspaper on which he had pasted notes for his act. Reading news items as if seated across from you at the kitchen table, he made his inevitably cutting comments, often joining the laughter with a horsey bellow of his own and ending his routines by inquiring: “Is there any group I haven’t offended yet?”

“Every comedian who is not doing wife jokes has to thank him for that,” actor-comedian Albert Brooks told The Associated Press in 2007. “He really was the first, even before Lenny Bruce, in terms of talking about stuff, not just doing punch lines.”

Sahl took pride in having mocked every president from Dwight Eisenhower to Donald Trump, although he acknowledged he privately admired Democrat John F. Kennedy and counted Republican Ronald Reagan among his closest friends. Of President George W. Bush, he observed: “He’s born again, you know. 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 became famous in 1953 at San Francisco’s hungry i (the i stood for intellectual), the perfect place for a comedian of his type. The city was a meeting ground for beatniks and college activists, and they crowded into the tiny club to hear someone who spoke to their disdain for the status quo. Word spread quickly about the young comedian with the distinctive style. Soon Sahl was earning $7,500 a week at nightclubs across the nation and appearing on television with Steve Allen and Jack Paar. He made the cover of Time magazine in 1960 and was profiled in The New Yorker.

A new generation of comedians, including Bill Cosby, George Carlin and the team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, was inspired by Sahl. David Letterman continued the iconoclastic tradition, and more recently Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver. Woody Allen would liken his work to the jazz of Charlie Parker and reviewers compared him to Will Rogers, who had tweaked politicians in a gentler manner.

“I don’t have the image of myself as a comedian,” Sahl himself said. “I never said I was one. I just sort of tell the truth and everybody breaks up along the way.”

Sahl was cast as a wisecracking GI in two war movies, “In Love and War” (1958) and “All the Young Men” (1960). He starred in his own TV special. His comedy albums became best sellers. At the Academy Awards in 1959, he was co-host along with Bob Hope, Laurence Olivier, Jerry Lewis and others. Fearing he would seem to be joining the establishment, Sahl cracked: “We’ve just lost the college crowd; all across the country they’re yelling, ‘Sellout!'”

In the 1980s he frequently ridiculed his friend Reagan, but he said the president was never offended.

“If you’re his friend, it doesn’t matter if you’re an escaped con,” Sahl once said of Reagan. Democrats, he added, were often not as forgiving. In the 1990s, Sahl had fallen out of favor with them when he complained that President Bill Clinton’s only lasting legacy would be his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

“A lot of people I have met in the Democratic Party are extremely expedient,” he said. “Once it’s over, they don’t want to know you. Of course, that’s not generic to the Democrats.”

Sahl thought so highly of Kennedy, however, that he even wrote jokes for him on the campaign trail, including one which inspired JFK’s quip at his own expense — about a telegram from his wealthy father. “Don’t buy a single more vote than is necessary. I’ll be d—ed if I’m going to pay for a landslide.”

But when Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Sahl was devastated and the tragedy foreshadowed a decline in the comedian’s fortunes that lasted for years. He quickly became convinced that Kennedy had been killed as part of a CIA plot and he accused the government of staging a massive cover-up. He devoted much of his monologues to reading long passages from the report by the government’s Warren Commission, which had been appointed to investigate the assassination. Audiences stopped laughing and his bookings plummeted.

Sahl also suffered a personal tragedy in 1996 when his only child, Morton Jr., died at age 19. Ten years later, the subject was so raw that mention of his son’s name could bring him to tears.

“My kid was like a more human version of me,” he once said.

Through the tough times, he continued to work the college circuit and small clubs. Although he never regained his former stature, he eventually returned to making a comfortable living with comedy

He continued to carry his newspaper on stage with him, although as the 21st century dawned he joked that he should probably have replaced it with a laptop.

At age 80 he also began teaching a class in critical thinking at Southern California’s prestigious Claremont McKenna College.

It was a return to the academic life Sahl had known decades earlier when he earned a degree in urban planning from the University of Southern California in 1950.

Putting plans for graduate study on hold, he decided to make money writing jokes for comedians. He took to the stage himself, he once said, when he discovered the ones he was writing for were “too dumb” to get the material.

Morton Lyon Sahl was born on May 11, 1927, in Montreal, to a Canadian mother and a New York father who managed a tobacco shop. The family moved to the United States where Sahl’s father, Harry, worked for the Department of Justice in various cities.

They eventually settled in Los Angeles, where young Morton joined his high school ROTC program and excelled at speech. His mother said he had started to talk at 7 months and by age 10 already spoke like a man of 30.

After high school, Sahl joined the Air Force, spending 31 months at a remote Alaskan airfield where he edited the post newspaper, Poop from the Group. Discharged in 1947, he entered college.

He took on a number of jobs before his girlfriend, Sue Berber, persuaded him to audition for the hungry i in 1953.

The couple married two years later but divorced in 1957. Sahl married his second wife, former Playboy Playmate China Lee, in 1967. They also divorced.

___

Late Associated Press writer Bob Thomas contributed biographical information to this report. AP National Writer Hillel Italie and retired Associated Press writer John Rogers also contributed.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

FILE - This 2003 electron microscope image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Pr...
Associated Press

WHO panel says Monkeypox is not a global emergency ‘at this stage’

LONDON (AP) — The World Health Organization said the escalating monkeypox outbreak in more than 50 countries should be closely monitored but does not warrant being declared a global health emergency. In a statement Saturday, a WHO emergency committee said many aspects of the outbreak were “unusual” and acknowledged that monkeypox — which is endemic […]
18 hours ago
Police in riot gear surround the Arizona Capitol after protesters reached the front of the Arizona ...
Associated Press

Dueling narratives of Arizona protests ended with tear gas

PHOENIX (AP) — Protests outside the Arizona Capitol over the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade that ended with a volley of tear gas were variously described Saturday as either peaceful or driven by anarchists intent on destruction. Republican Senate President Karen Fann issued a news release describing it as a thwarted […]
18 hours ago
Emergency personnel look over the sight of a  helicopter that crashed in Blair, W.Va., on Thursday,...
Associated Press

West Virginia helicopter crash victims identified

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Medical examiners in West Virginia have released the names of six people killed in the crash of a Vietnam-era helicopter that gave tour rides. The aircraft crashed Wednesday during its last planned flight at an annual reunion for helicopter enthusiasts in Logan County. All six people aboard were killed. The state’s […]
18 hours ago
Associated Press

Army private’s plea shelved internet fantasy chat defense

NEW YORK (AP) — An Army private charged with plotting to murder members of his unit overseas with help from a secretive violent anarchist group was planning a defense calling it all an internet fantasy before pleading guilty just before trial, court records show. Plans for the defense of Ethan Phelan Melzer was revealed in […]
18 hours ago
Associated Press

Jury awards $21M to family of pregnant teen shot by police

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — A federal jury awarded $21 million to the family of a pregnant teen who was shot and killed by undercover police officers in Northern California five years ago, attorneys said. Elena Mondragon was a passenger in a BMW pulling out of a Hayward apartment complex when an unmarked van filled […]
18 hours ago
Associated Press

LAPD officer who died was beaten in training, mother claims

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A Los Angeles police officer who died of neck injuries suffered during training had been beaten by fellow officers in an exercise meant to “simulate a mob,” according to a wrongful-death claim filed against the city by his mother. Houston Tipping, 32, was hurt May 26 at the police academy and […]
18 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

(Courtesy Condor)...
Condor Airlines

Condor Airlines shows passion for destinations from Sky Harbor with new-look aircraft

Condor Airlines brings passion to each flight and connects people to their dream destinations throughout the world.
...
Carla Berg, MHS, Deputy Director, Public Health Services, Arizona Department of Health Services

Update your child’s vaccines before kindergarten

So, your little one starts kindergarten soon. How exciting! You still have a few months before the school year starts, so now’s the time to make sure students-to-be have the vaccines needed to stay safe as they head into a new chapter of life.
...
Carla Berg, MHS, Deputy Director, Public Health Services, Arizona Department of Health Services

ADHS mobile program brings COVID-19 vaccines and boosters to Arizonans

The Arizona Department of Health Services and partner agencies are providing even more widespread availability by making COVID-19 vaccines available in neighborhoods through trusted community partners.
Mort Sahl, comedian who satirized politics, dies at 94