March 19th, 2006
Mort Sahl
About Mort Sahl

“Will Rogers…used to come out with a newspaper and pretend he was a yokel criticizing the intellectuals who ran the government. I come out with a newspaper and pretend I’m an intellectual making fun of the yokels running the government.”

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. He revolutionized the world of stand-up comedy with a fresh combination of political awareness, fearless criticism of the government, and a willingness to draw on personal experience. His refusal to play favorites with the political community made him the center of intense controversy, and his involvement with John F. Kennedy nearly cost him his career. But through it all, Mort Sahl has remained an unflinching critic of American politics, and he has never backed away from his beliefs.

Born in Montreal, Canada in 1927 Mort Sahl attended the University of Southern California. It was there that he began to work as a stand-up comic on stages throughout Los Angeles. In late 1953, at the urging of a friend, Sahl went to San Francisco to try his hand at the big time. There, Enrico Banducci, owner of THE HUNGRY I, a popular nightclub, hired him to fill in for a singer. To conquer his initial nervousness, he adapted a machine-gun, non-stop delivery that earned him the nickname “Rebel Without a Pause.” While most comedians of the 1940s and 1950s were delivering stock jokes about wives and mothers-in-law, he turned to the newspapers for material. “The audience didn’t know what to make of me,” Sahl said, “Here was this strange face, speaking a strange language, in a strange dialect, with strange ideas.”

The political climate of the 1950s was ripe for comic satire. President Eisenhower, the McCarthy hearings, the Cold War, and the beginning of the atomic age all presented themselves as targets for Sahl’s bipartisan barbs. His unbridled critiques of the House Un-American Activities Committee brought strong criticism and even violent threats. Through it all he continued to work, putting out several comedy albums and performing frequently on THE TONIGHT SHOW and THE STEVE ALLEN SHOW. He also took roles in a number of movies. Pioneering stand-up comedy in a circuit of night clubs that presented primarily jazz music, he adopted much of the jazz aesthetic. Sahl cites jazz pianist and bandleader Stan Kenton as his most important performing influence: “Stan, of course, was a great artist, but he was a voice of defiance, and he always did it on his own terms.”

In August of 1960, TIME magazine pictured Sahl on its cover and called him “the patriarch of a new school of comedians,” including in that group such stand-up legends as Lenny Bruce and Jonathan Winters. The year before, Sahl was hired to contribute jokes to John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign speeches, but once Kennedy was in office, Sahl returned to his policy of making jokes about the incumbent. Kennedy’s father Joseph Kennedy put pressure on Sahl to cease his criticism, even going so far as to threaten to silence Sahl.

Following Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Sahl volunteered to assist in the investigation being conducted by New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison, which eventually concluded that the assassination was sanctioned by the CIA. During the investigation, Sahl began to openly criticize the findings of the Warren Report, which said that Oswald had acted alone. Once again, Sahl met with hostility from the press. Many questioned the professional wisdom of Sahl’s devotion to the assassination issue—some even suggested that he had lost his sense of humor.

Though the early 1960s would be his time of greatest fame, he enjoyed renewed popularity during the Watergate scandal, and since then has made frequent appearances both in person and on television. In the 1980s he delighted audiences with his parodies of Reagan and Bush on Broadway. Today Mort Sahl remains an inspiration to humorists and social critics everywhere. Of his deep integrity, journalist John Hart said, “Mort Sahl doesn’t tell jokes so much as he tells the truth.”

  • ALYCIA

    Enough already! Mort Sahl couln’t tell the truth if his life depended on it! He’s a phoney…con man!

  • greg

    Oh Alycia — thank heavens there is someone out there that does in fact, know the truth.

    Bet you never saw him during the sixties, there wasn’t much truth then anyway, so, nothing is lost. Quite benevolent of you leaving tidbits of the truth you know…so well.

  • Princeminski

    What’s eating you guys? Glen Beck fans?

  • dave bernard

    Mort Sahl has an astonishing capacity to zero in and succinctly describe cultural phenomona, while others flounder and miss the point. It’s tragic that the American Masters ‘Loyal Opposition’ documentary can’t be distributed. He’s in my Top Five life-time heroes.

  • Richard Butler

    You opposition fans would’nt know an American Master if they appeared in your living room. Just keep wathing and listening to Glen ,Rush and the rest of the right -wingers who don’t wish to be confused with the facts. Long Live The Sixties.

  • Harmon Brody

    When you went to see Mort, it was a very edgy evening. He brought you into his jazz like improvisation, moving in and out of thoughts observations, quips and jokes. After the Kennedy assassination he was obsessed with the Waren Report and how much of a travesty it was. Nothing was off limits and it was refreshing because you wanted him to side with you. That wasnt his concern. He was gutsy, talented, iconoclastic and unique. If you think he is a liar, maybe you have a skewed version of the truth. He is a satirist. He points out the humor and hypocrisy in the world , its observation, and his interpretation which is humor and occasionally anger.

    No matter whether you like him or not , he is an American Master, a classic , one of a kind.

  • Oona Craig

    Mort Sahl is an American hero. He had the courage to say that JFK was murdered by the CIA. The CIA has persecuted him and his family ever since. They are so afraid of his truth that they continue paying people to denounce him and defame him on the Internet.

  • One Eyed Jacks

    I’m a Conservative/Libertarian/Republican who goes to Church, well, a lot of Sundays anyway, and I’ve always been an admirer of Mort’s work. I am fortunate to have a copy of his American Master ‘Loyal Opposition’ on VHS, but it is showing wear. I hope it will be availble on DVD sometime.

    Mort’s job is to be the court jester. Keep the King and those around him, grounded and aware of what people are really thinking and this he has been great at, one of the very best. He deserves to be ranked along side the likes of Mark Twain and Will Rogers.

    You’re the best Mort.

  • Chuck Noyes

    Mort is a friend, and that friendship is a privilege. Mort is a romantic about America, and his great sadness that we have slid into fascism is palpable. He is a Patriot. He tried to tell America the truth..that the CIA murdered JFK, and, that if we did not address that murder and turn the perpetrators out, that a murderous Police State would form. It did. Homeland Security, NDAA, Drones in the skies, millions of cameras, ALL electronic communications tapped and stored. Mort is a hero, and the fact that a small percentage of us seem to realize that does not bode well for our former Republic. Mort, thank you for the stand you took for America. I honor you.

  • Paul R. Cooper

    His insights into the cruel and stupid insanities of his time when I saw him in the Sixties lifted spirits; it was encouraging to see someone speaking out. I don’t know if anyone is doing now what he did then, although Jon Stewart comes close when he is not mugging his message instead of articulating it. The nearest thing to a Sahl observation I heard recently was a commentator who observed that the speakers list at the recent CPAC reminded him of the bar scene in Star Wars. We need more of this.

Inside This Episode

  • About Mort Sahl

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