Mort Sahl, the incisive standup comic who called out hypocrisy as he addressed politics and social issues and served as a trailblazer for future generations in the comedy world, died on Tuesday in Mill Valley, California. He was 94. The New York Times confirmed his death with his friend, Lucy Mercer.
Sahl made the Top 10 of Rolling Stone‘s “50 Best Stand-Up Comics of All Time” list for his ability to riff on politics “in a way no one had heard before. Just imagine a comic digging through the headlines (sometimes in the middle of a set) looking to expose hypocrisy with the right piece of journalistic evidence – and scoring in a big way.”
He made a name for himself performing at the hungry I in San Francisco beginning in 1953, where not only did he buck the system with quick-witted monologues addressing politics and social issues head-on, but he brought a more casual vibe to the then-staid style in the comedian world, where punch lines and mother-in-law jokes ruled and suits and ties were the dress code. He preferred to appear like the youth he reached, wearing casual styles and using language that was relatable to his audience.
Sahl’s work influenced generations of comedians, including Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, Jonathan Winters, Joan Rivers, George Carlin and Richard Pryor. He called out hypocrisy during his routines and no political figure was in the safe zone, whether they were Democrat or Republican.
Off the stand-up stage, he was also a pioneer. In 2011, his live 1955 album Mort Sahl at Sunset was credited as the first standup comedy album and named by the Library of Congress to the National Recording Registry. He served as the inaugural host of the Grammy Awards in 1959, that same year he co-hosted the Academy Awards alongside Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, Laurence Olivier, among others.
He appeared on a variety of television shows, including The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and The Ed Sullivan Show and also hit the big screen in films including 1963’s Johnny Cool and 1967’s Don’t Make Waves, among others.
But it was his stand-up material that continued to resonate, even after he appeared to be blacklisted from television for reportedly reading from the Warren Commission report onstage after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. In the Seventies, he had a career resurgence following Watergate. He released the album Sing a Song of Watergate and appeared on late-night TV as well as performed a number of college shows.
In 1987, he staged the one-man Broadway show Mort Sahl on Broadway and he performed at clubs in the years following. He worked well into the 2000s. Most recently, he was regularly performing at Throckmorton Theater in Mill Valley, with his shows streaming online up until the pandemic.