Morton Lyon "Mort" Sahl (born May 11, 1927) is a Canadian-born American comedian and actor, widely considered the first modern stand-up comedian. He was the first comedian to dress casually and speak about current events in a matter-of-fact style. He helped to get Lenny Bruce some gigs at the hungry i, and occasionally wrote jokes for speeches delivered by President John F. Kennedy. Sahl got deeply involved in the post-Warren Commission investigation of Kennedy's death.
Sahl was born on May 11, 1927 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. His father, Harry Sahl, was a court reporter who met his wife when she responded to an advertisement he took out in a poetry magazine. The family moved to Los Angeles, California and Mort joined the ROTC unit at Belmont High School. He was also on the staff of the school's newspaper, the Belmont Sentinel. Actor Richard Crenna was one of his classmates.
After high school, in 1945, Sahl enlisted in the United States Air Force and was stationed in Alaska. In 1950, he graduated from the University of Southern California with majors in traffic engineering and city management. In a speech given at Claremont McKenna's Athenaeum in 2008, Sahl claimed to have attended West Point. He then began performing stand-up comedy at Enrico Banducci's hungry i nightclub in San Francisco.
In 1976, Sahl wrote an autobiography called Heartland. It is a bitter account of his rise in comedy, his obsession with the Kennedy assassination, his decline in show business, and his longtime friendship with Hugh Hefner. In 1979 he briefly hosted an afternoon talk show on WRC Radio, in Washington, D.C.
During the 1980s, Sahl made many jokes critical of his old friend, Ronald Reagan ("Washington couldn't tell a lie, Nixon couldn't tell the truth, and Reagan can't tell the difference!"). Sahl and his wife were invited to the White House by Nancy Reagan, where President Reagan roasted him at a White House tribute in front of many other top comedians. Sahl said to television interviewer Charlie Rose of the Reagans, "They are very, very forgiving."
In the late 1980s, his comedy featurette "In Spite Of The News" was heard on the Mutual Broadcasting System.
Following Kennedy's assassination in 1963, Sahl's interest in who was behind it was so great that he became a deputized member of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison's team to investigate the murder. As a result, Sahl's comedy began to reflect his politics and included readings and commentary on the Warren Commission Report. His earlier anti-Kennedy jokes and his onstage tirades against the Warren Commission alienated much of his audience. He was effectively blacklisted and his shows were cancelled. Sahl's income dropped from US$1 million to US$19,000 a year. (According to the Inflation Calculator of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, $19,000 in 1964 was the equivalent of $144,000 today.) However, the rising tide of counterculture fueled his comeback.
In the 1988 presidential election, Sahl was the most prominent supporter of unsuccessful candidate Alexander Haig.
Sahl's humor has always been based on current events, especially politics. He broke new ground in the late 1950s and early 1960s by looking to the day's newspaper headlines for many of his monologues, rather than relying on one-liners. His trademark is to appear on stage with a newspaper in hand, casually dressed in a V-neck sweater. In 1960 he was dubbed "Will Rogers with fangs" by Time magazine.
When John F. Kennedy, a personal friend, became President, Sahl began making jokes that were critical of Kennedy's policies. Television host Ed Sullivan refused to let Sahl tell any Kennedy jokes on The Ed Sullivan Show, which meant Sahl was seldom seen on TV during the next few years.
Sahl was married to Playboy Playmate China Lee from 1967 until their divorce in 1991. They had one son, Mort Sahl Jr., who died March 27, 1996 at the age of 19.
Sahl is ranked #40 on Comedy Central's list of the 100 greatest stand-up comedians of all time.
Sahl, who is Jewish, received the Fifth Annual Alan King Award in American Jewish Humor (2003) from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.
Woody Allen has said, "I adored Mort Sahl," and added he would not have become a comedian himself if not for Sahl's example, which proved a comedian could succeed with offhand intellectual material. He compared Sahl's influence on comedy to the effect Charlie Parker had on jazz. "I still find Mort Sahl funny," Allen said in 2008. "I was with him the other day, in California, and he's 81 and he's teaching at Claremont College. And he said they have a course out there that they offered him to teach, on the Holocaust, and he didn't take it. He said, 'I wanted to see first how history judges the event.'" Allen introduced Sahl's 2002 stand-up appearance at Joe's Pub in New York City and attended a similar show several years later at "B.B. King's" in Manhattan's Times Square.
In 2011, the Library of Congress placed Mort Sahl's 1955 recording, At Sunset, on the National Recording Registry.
- At Sunset (1955)
- The Future Lies Ahead (1958)
- Mort Sahl: 1960 or Look Forward In Anger, Verve Records MG V-15004 (1959)
- At the Hungry i (1960)
- The Next President (1960)
- A Way of Life (1960)
- Great Moments of Comedy with Mort Sahl
- The New Frontier (1961)
- On Relationships (1961)
- Anyway... Onward (1967)
- "Sing a Song of Watergate... Apocryphal of Lie!" (1973)
- Mort Sahl's America (1996)
- In Love and War (1958) .... Danny Krieger
- Richard Diamond, Private Detective (CBS-TV 1959) .... Himself
- All the Young Men (1960) .... Cpl. Crane
- Johnny Cool (1963) .... Ben Morrow
- Doctor, You've Got to Be Kidding! (1967) .... Dan Ruskin
- Don't Make Waves (1967) .... Sam Lingonberry
- Inside the Third Reich (1982) (TV) .... Werner Finck
- Nothing Lasts Forever (1984) .... Uncle Mort
- Looking for Lenny (2011)
- Max Rose (2013)