A comedy pioneer is gone. Mort Sahl, one of the earliest political satirists, has passed away at the age of 94.
Sahl is best remembered for his biting commentary, and often heralded for paving the way for other groundbreaking comics of the day such as Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory, Woody Allen, and George Carlin, among countless others. Sahl got his start at the famous club the hungry i in San Francisco in 1953. And within the next few years, he was selling out clubs across the country and had what has been described as the first ever stand-up record, At Sunset. He also became the first comic to ever grace the cover of Time Magazine.
“I never found you could write the act,” Sahl once said when asked how he would describe his comedy act. “You can’t rehearse the audience’s responses. You adjust to them every night. I come in with only an outline. You’ve got to have a spirit of adventure. I follow my instincts and the audience is my jury.”
His laid back approach is perhaps what made him so endearing and inviting to audiences. In a time when all the other comics would stand onstage in a tuxedo, Sahl wore a v-neck sweater that would become his trademark, accompanied by a rolled up newspaper. This made for a more intimate dynamic with audiences, as it felt more like you’re talking to an old friend than going out for a night of comedy.
By the mid 1960’s, however, Sahl’s career started to massively decline at a rapid rate. Reportedly he went from making $1 million dollars a year to just $19,000. Many attribute this to spending so much time talking about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, whom Sahl considered a friend. And in the 70’s, while he was no longer the phenomenon he once was in the 50’s and early 60’s, he was certainly at home among the counter culture comedians, and viewed by many as the one who paved the way for it to all take shape.
Sahl appeared on every television show of his day including The Tonight Show with Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jerry Lewis Show, The Joey Bishop Show, Playboy After Dark, The Dick Cavett Show, Merv, The Dean Martin Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Hollywood Squares, Late Night with David Letterman, and countless others. He even co-hosted both the Academy Awards and the Grammy Awards.
Sahl continued performing well into his 90’s, as recently as January of 2020. We highly recommend anyone who’s not too familiar with Sahl to check out why he’s been regarded as a true trailblazer.