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Mort Sahl, a political satirist and stand-up comedy pioneer, has died at 94

Comedian Mort Sahl cracks a joke at a press conference in London on July 10, 1961.
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Comedian Mort Sahl cracks a joke at a press conference in London on July 10, 1961.

Long before Jon Stewart or Bill Maher, there was Mort Sahl. In the 1950s, while most comedians were telling jokes about in-laws, Sahl was ribbing politicians. His stream-of-consciousness style was influenced by jazz, and his topical humor influenced generations of stand-up comedians. Sahl died on Tuesday at his home in Mill Valley, Calif. His death was confirmed by Lucy Mercer, a longtime friend. No cause was given. He was 94.

Sahl was a forerunner of topical, stand-up comedy. His fans included Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. A 1960 Time magazine cover showed Sahl surrounded by balloons — each showing a caricature of a U.S. president. Sahl holds a long, sharp pin between two fingers, ready to start popping.

In a 1967 show, Sahl said it was his job to burst the public's illusion that presidents are father figures. "They salute them for a while and then it begins to bother them and they have a wish to do him in — that's where I come in," he joked.

Sahl was born in Montreal, but his family moved to Los Angeles when he was young. His father was a failed playwright who worked as a clerk for the FBI.

Sahl started doing stand-up in the 1950s, a time when most comedians were men in suits, rattling off one-liners. Sahl, by contrast, wore a V-neck sweater, tucked a newspaper under his arm, and just ... talked. His savage humor spared no one. When Sahl was 33, Time called him "a sort of Will Rogers with fangs."

"I was walking through Central Park," he told an audience in 1960. "There were some delinquents there who stopped me — a gang of kids with knives. And I stood my ground and told them I admired their vagabond existence and I wanted to join 'em. And they panicked from the responsibility."

One of Sahl's fans was a teenage Woody Allen. Later in life, Allen described Sahl as "just dazzling," and said the satirist talked about things that mattered to young, 1950s audiences.

Sahl's satire spared no one: young, old, people on the right and the left — and yet he socialized with celebrities and government officials. He called President Ronald Reagan a "personal friend," and he wrote jokes for John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign speeches. Once Kennedy took office, Sahl went back to stand-up and aimed his jokes at the president he helped elect.

After JFK was assassinated, Sahl was convinced the CIA was behind it. He got involved with New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison's investigation trying to prove the conspiracy.

"I think he was removed for a reason," Sahl said on Steve Allen's TV show in 1971.

After that, Sahl's career began to stall. He recovered somewhat in later years, but he always stood fast to his belief that a satirist should give people the truth.

"I wanted them to give the audience some credit for being bright ... " he told WHYY's Fresh Air. "The audience will never let you down. It'll keep you honest."

Sahl married three times; his only son died in 1996. Sahl performed well into his 80s, every Thursday night at a small theater near San Francisco.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.

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