Mort Sahl, who died on Tuesday at 94, may be unknown to most people who are younger than half that age, but in his prime in the 1950s, he sparked a revolution in stand-up comedy that persists to this day.
Before Sahl, the headline comics performed on the Vegas strip or the Catskills circuit, reciting jokes—snappy setups and rim-shot punchlines—about wives, kids, and mothers-in-law. Sahl, who made his mark at the hungry i, a dank, dingy nightclub in San Francisco’s North Beach district, uncorked discursive monologues on politics and the era’s raft of social hypocrisies—the sorts of topics that polite people didn’t talk about in public. (Yes, Will Rogers poked fun at politicians, but in a genial manner; Sahl was out for blood.)
Sahl had the look and manner of a hip Berkeley professor, dressed not in a suit and tie but in chinos, a V-necked sweater, and a shirt with an open collar, bounding to the stage with a sly grin, a few newspapers and magazines tucked under his arm. (Many years later, he would teach a course on “the other America” at Claremont McKenna College.) With the cadence of a jazz musician, he would read from some of the articles, commenting sarcastically; digress to another issue; cackle at some improvised observation; then return to the topic after musing, “Now where were we?”
Other, similar comedians and satirists would soon emerge from similar scenes with their own forms of rebellion—Lenny Bruce, Jonathan Winters, Tom Lehrer—but Sahl was the first, the tone-setter, and the most enduringly influential. Without him, it is hard to imagine the likes of Woody Allen, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, or Dave Chappelle.
Sahl was the most overtly political of the gang that some stuffy scribe denounced as “sick comics.” He first appeared at the hungry i on Christmas night, 1953, and, after a few weeks of experimenting, scored with these two jokes about the era’s Red Scare: “Joe McCarthy doesn’t question what you say so much as your right to say it.” And: “Every time the Russians throw an American in jail, the House Un-American Activities Committee retaliates by throwing an American in jail, too.”
By the end of the decade, Sahl had become fabulously rich and famous, appearing on the cover of Time, starring in a hit one-man Broadway show called The Next President, and playing nightclubs around the nation for $7,500 a week (roughly $52,000 in today’s dollars), as much as the average American earned in a year. Walter Kerr, the New York Herald Tribune’s theater critic, lauded Sahl’s play as “an indication that something in our society has begun—after too many muddy and fearful years—to change. First thing you know, irreverence will be in vogue again, and even satire may wear its old, outrageous, and becoming smile. It’s nice to know improper things can once more be said in public.”
Sahl had no discernible ideology except for a distrust of all authority, regardless of which party was in power, and a disdain toward all shibboleths. “Is there any group here that I haven’t offended?” he would often say toward the end of a set. “I wish I had a cause because I’ve got a lot of enthusiasm,” he was quoted as saying in a 1960 New Yorker profile.
John F. Kennedy’s election as president in that year marked Sahl’s peak—and the start of his downfall. Sahl adored Kennedy—his insouciant wit and youthful charm—and the Kennedy crowd adored Sahl in return, laughing along with his trenchant stabs at Eisenhower, Nixon, and the stagnant complacency of the era. But then, once Kennedy entered the White House, this same crowd was appalled when Sahl started going after him. Sahl found himself blackballed from Camelot and never got over the sting. Nor, however, did he quite get over his infatuation with Kennedy himself—and JFK’s assassination wrecked him. He plunged deep down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, going onstage not with his usual props of newspapers and magazines but rather with a marked-up copy of the Warren Report (which concluded that JFK was shot by a sole gunman), devoting entire, hourslong sets to shredding its inconsistencies.
In short, Sahl committed the cardinal, often fatal sin of a stand-up comedian: He became unfunny. (Dave Chappelle, take note.)
Lenny Bruce committed the same sin around this time, though Bruce spent time onstage dissecting the transcripts of his own court trials on charges of obscenity and drug possession. Bruce died of an overdose in 1966, at the age of 40. Sahl, who was just two years younger than Bruce and an uneasy friend till the end, avoided that degree of self-destruction, but he vanished from the public light for a few years.
Sahl made a comeback with the reemergence, then implosion, of another blast from the past: Richard Nixon. The abortive second term of Nixon’s presidency—from his landslide over George McGovern in 1972 to the Watergate hearings of ’73 and his resignation in ’74—served as a perfect scene-setter for Sahl’s subtly savage satire and shrewd social observations.
But he never came all the way back. Over the past few decades, he hosted some short-lived cable shows, wrote a few unproduced movie scripts, and did infrequent nightclub gigs. He became a comedian’s comedian—venerated by other comedians, especially those old enough to know that they wouldn’t be doing what they were doing if it weren’t for him—but he never quite kept up with the shifting times in a way that restored his appeal with a broader audience. Not long after his Watergate revival, he spent a few years as a resident comedian at a big hotel in Las Vegas—as clear a sign as any that his brand of humor had gone mainstream: a triumph, but an ambivalent one for an artist who had once been fueled by an avant-garde edginess.