Mort Sahl, Trailblazing Stand-Up Comic, Dies at 94

by John Jamison

Mort Sahl, the comedian behind the first formal stand-up comedy album, died Tuesday in Mill Valley, California, at 94 years of age. Often brought up in conversation with his contemporary, the great Lenny Bruce, Sahl was considered by many to be one of the finest comedians and social satirists of his generation.

He quickly separated himself from the traditional comedy crowd in the 1950s. How? He forewent a suit to perform in more casual attire. His 1955 comedy performance with Dave Brubeck was eventually packaged as a recording titled “Mort Sahl at Sunset.” In 2011, it was recognized by the Library of Congress as the first stand-up comedy record album.

On stage, he never shied away from the most divisive political controversies of the day. Sometimes, it wasn’t to his benefit. Hollywood hit Mort Sahl with the conspiracy theorist label in the early 1960s. This came as a result in response to his very public thoughts on the Warren Commission Report following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. But his talent couldn’t be denied. After nearly a decade of being quasi-black-listed by the entertainment industry, he again found an audience.

Mort Sahl felt a certain responsibility as a satirist. He didn’t do or say things purely out of entertainment value. His comedy was a more intellectual brand than many of his contemporaries. When asked about his beliefs on NPR’s “Fresh Air” in 2003, Mort Sahl said, “I wanted them to give the audience some credit for being bright. The audience will never let you down. It’ll keep you honest.”

Mort Sahl Inspired Entertainers Such as Woody Allen and George Carlin

Mort Sahl’s impact was such that he influenced the generation of entertainers to follow him. The list of his fans is a long one and includes names like George Carlin and Woody Allen.

Allen was a teenager when he first witnessed Mort Sahl. He spoke on how Sahl appealed to younger crowds in the 1950s because he talked about things that mattered.

“The three great geniuses of the period were Nichols and May, Jonathan Winters and Mort Sahl,” said Woody Allen, per Variety. “He was the best thing I ever saw. He totally restructured comedy, he changed the rhythm of the jokes.”

The Legendary Comedian’s Varied Career

There was very little that Mort Sahl couldn’t do in entertainment. His true brilliance was in his unique form of stand-up comedy, yes. But he also dabbled in acting, writing, and even pulled off a one-man Broadway show.

Sahl’s most recent acting credit came in 2013 for his role as Jack Murphy in the Jerry Lewis-led film Max Rose. He starred in the movie alongside Kevin Pollack, Rance Howard, and Fred Willard.