You can draw a straight line from Mort Sahl to Dave Chappelle. Fearless, contentious, uncompromising and sometimes his own worst enemy.
The Montreal native died Oct 26 at his home near San Francisco. He was 94.
His rise in the mid- to late- ’50s was so pronounced it seems as if he should be older. He came before, and heavily influenced, Woody Allen, George Carlin and Richard Pryor. He preceded other outspoken comics such as Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory, who died in 2017.
As someone who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, I felt like I missed him in his prime. I was alive, for example, when he was on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show; it was just on five hours past my bedtime.
Still, there was an awareness among my generation that Sahl really helped shape modern stand-up comedy. His was not the old school style of joke telling you’d get from Henny Youngman or Shecky Greene or even Myron Cohen on the Ed Sullivan Show. Sahl’s stuff was observational, conversational; modern. It was more political then what you’d hear from Bob Newhart or Bill Cosby in the ’60s. He’d often perform it sitting down with a rolled-up newspaper in his hand.
He seems more the father of the style of political exorcism practiced today by Bill Maher, John Oliver, Jon Stewart or Trevor Noah. Sahl however, who was performing in a club near his California home right up until the pandemic struck, was more of an entrenched contrarian. Much like Maher (another comedian with a silent “H” in his name; both attacked hypocricy), he dealt with liberals and conservatives with equal distain.
“A conservative is someone who believes in reform,” he once said. “But not now.”
“Liberals,” he also joked, “are people who do the right things for the wrong reasons so they can feel good for 10 minutes.”
Telling truth to power extended to telling it to their faces. He was acquainted with John F. Kennedy and wrote jokes for him during the 1960 presidential campaign, but then started tweaking the young president right after his inauguration. Likewise, 20 years later, he goofed on Ronald Reagan, who he counted as a friend.
“Washington couldn’t tell a lie, Nixon couldn’t tell the truth, and Reagan couldn’t tell the difference.”
Sahl’s career had many ups and downs, After Kennedy’s assassination, his rants against the Warren commission investigating the murder began to turn off audiences. Some critics felt he had lost the funny. Others stood by him as an important counter culture voice, including The Smothers Brothers.
Nevertheless he persisted. He enjoyed some bounce back in the wake of Watergate, appearing as a guest on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. He went on to mock George W. Bush, Barrack Obama and Donald Trump.
He earned the respect of many of his comedy peers.
RIP Mort Sahl. He just invented modern American political satire, is all. Was still doing great stand ups on Periscope until very recently. And while he was best known for stinging wit, he was always an expert joke writer.— Harry Shearer (@theharryshearer) October 26, 2021
R.I.P. Mort Sahl. Most young people have no idea who he was but he was one the few comedians who yanked comedy out of vaudeville type humor into the modern age. One of the very first to just talk to the audience. We’ll miss you Mort.— Albert Brooks (@AlbertBrooks) October 26, 2021
Let’s leave the last word to Sahl himself. Here’s a line straight out of the 1960 presidential election, where Kennedy squeaked by with some suspiciously late tallies from Chicago’s Cook County:
“I’ve arranged with my executor to be buried in Chicago. Because when I die, I want to still remain active politically.”
“You haven’t lived until you’ve died in California.”