Satirist Mort Sahl, who helped revolutionise stand-up comedy during the Cold War with his running commentary on politicians and current events and became a favourite of a new, restive generation of Americans, died Tuesday. He was 94, according to a USA Today report.
The report says that his friend Lucy Mercer confirmed that he died “peacefully” at his home in Mill Valley, California. The cause, she said, was “old age” .
During an era when many comedians dressed in tuxedos and told mother-in-law jokes, Sahl faced his audiences in the ’50s and ’60s wearing slacks, a sweater and an unbuttoned collar and carrying a rolled-up newspaper on which he had pasted notes for his act. Reading news items as if seated across from you at the kitchen table, he made his inevitably cutting comments, often joining the laughter with a horsey bellow of his own and ending his routines by inquiring: “Is there any group I haven’t offended yet?”
“Every comedian who is not doing wife jokes has to thank him for that,” actor-comedian Albert Brooks told The Associated Press in 2007. “He really was the first, even before Lenny Bruce, in terms of talking about stuff, not just doing punch lines.”
Sahl became famous in 1953 at San Francisco’s hungry i (the i stood for intellectual), the perfect place for a comedian of his type. The city was a meeting ground for beatniks and college activists, and they crowded into the tiny club to hear someone who spoke to their disdain for the status quo. Word spread quickly about the young comedian with the distinctive style. Soon Sahl was earning $7,500 a week at nightclubs across the nation and appearing on television with Steve Allen and Jack Paar. He made the cover of Time magazine in 1960 and was profiled in The New Yorker.
A new generation of comedians, including Bill Cosby, George Carlin and the team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, was inspired by Sahl. David Letterman continued the iconoclastic tradition, and more recently Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver. Woody Allen would liken his work to the jazz of Charlie Parker and reviewers compared him to Will Rogers, who had tweaked politicians in a gentler manner.
“I don’t have the image of myself as a comedian,” Sahl himself said. “I never said I was one. I just sort of tell the truth and everybody breaks up along the way.”
Sahl was cast as a wisecracking GI in two war movies, In Love and War (1958) and All the Young Men (1960). He starred in his own TV special. His comedy albums became best sellers. At the Academy Awards in 1959, he was co-host along with Bob Hope, Laurence Olivier, Jerry Lewis and others. Fearing he would seem to be joining the establishment, Sahl cracked: “We’ve just lost the college crowd; all across the country they’re yelling, ‘Sellout!'”