Legendary comedian and satirist Mort Sahl died at age 94 on October 29. His career spanned six decades, starting in the 1950s with his performances at the hungry i nightclub in San Francisco. He was known for his biting wit and quick humor, which often criticized American politics and culture. Some of his most famous targets were Richard Nixon and Marilyn Monroe. His success spanned decades and he was always in demand, performing regularly until the end. He appeared on stage and in movies and opened for The Beatles when they played in San Francisco.
He was a favorite comedian of Frank Sinatra, who acted as his manager at one point. He appeared on television in the sixties and seventies, including The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. His most famous appearance was when he walked out during an interview after Carson made some jokes at his expense.
Sahl wrote for Hugh Hefner’s short-lived satirical magazine, Trump, and later published several books. Besides politics, his other favorite targets were the news media and show business. He was often at odds with journalists, including those who praised him to high heaven. He once said the press treats me like a psycho. I figure anyone who could come up with what I say is either someone not responsible enough to have an opinion or so irresponsible that it doesn’t matter.
His fans included Steve Martin, who had an early comedy act that was heavily influenced by Sahl. Other comedians used him as inspiration too, including Garry Trudeau, creator of Doonesbury. He endeared himself to the college crowd when he gave one of his books the subtitle America in the 1960s.
Sahl wrote a play based on the Chappaquiddick incident, involving Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne’s death. This was performed at The Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center in New York City.
He also appeared in movies over the years. His most recent film appearance was in 2016’s Vaxxed From Cover-Up to Catastrophe, a documentary about the dangers of vaccines.
Sahl married four times. He was born in Montreal and moved to Los Angeles at an early age. His father was a doctor who worked in Montreal at the beginning of his career. He spent time in the Air Force during World War II and studied at UCLA after being discharged.
Mort Sahl appeared on The Dick Cavett Show in 1970, discussing politics with fellow guests Gore Vidal and Merv Griffin. His appearances were always exciting because you never knew what he would say. He had great instincts and honed his craft over the years, becoming one of the most original comedians in American history.
He was interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air in 2015. During his long career, he never considered himself a comedian. I don’t hack ’em out, he said. My style is to talk and be serious and let the audience figure it out. Sahl also discussed how cynical he became with American politics over the years. He said, I don’t think anybody can sit here and say politics is a proud profession.