Mort Sahl was a defining force in the history of intellectual stand-up comedy.
Sahl was born in 1927 in Montreal and later moved to Los Angeles with his family where, for the most part, he stayed. Those comedians who followed in his footsteps, most notably Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce, were based in New York City but Sahl despised the town, saying (among other things)
"Vernon Duke wrote a song called 'Autumn in New York' but had obviously not spent the preceeding summer there." 1.
It was Sahl's girlfriend's idea that he should try a standup routine, and suggested
The Hungry i
(the "i" stood for "intellectual") in San Francisco. she said "The audiences are all intellects, which means if they understand you, great, and if they don't, they will never admit it..." 2.
Intellects or not, Sahl's audiences initially had problems with his brand of humor - he didn't do one-liners or routines, he was a satirist. He generally went onstage with a newspaper tucked under his arm and "talked intelligently about pseudo-political events." 3.
He said that during his routines "nobody was laughing - it was a new kind of comedy I'd invented." 3.
He did something amazing - he assumed his audiences were as intelligent as he was and didn't resort to condescension or low humor. Not that there's anything
with that, but it just wasn't his thing.
Sahl didn't really have a script - he had some things he wanted to talk about and his trusty newspaper for reference (and also for hiding gag reminders) but his cadence and inflection were completely off the cuff. He didn't sound like a contemporary comic; he was informal, as if his audience were gathered in his living-room.
One of his most startling aspects was his complete and utter irreverence. He openly attacked political figures (including the president, an action completely unheard of in the 50's and 60's) celebrities and the like. "Sahl was labelled 'Will Rogers with fangs.' Rogers used to say 'I never met a man I didn't like.' Mort challenged, 'Is there any group I haven't offended?'" 2.
John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963 hit Sahl extremely hard - he was a huge supporter of the late president (despite his attacks on him) and was a vocal proponent of the conspiracy theory. Interest in him declined. His income rapidly dropped to 5% of what it was, from $400,000 a year to $19,000. But things were looking up, for him anyway: The Vietnam War brought his kind of political satire back into fashion.
In the 80's his career slowly shifted to Hollywood - he moonlighted (moonlit?) as a screenwriter, working on such films as the remake of Sabrina, Nobody's Fool, and Regarding Henry, although he never recieved official credit. Sahl opened a successful one-man Broadway show in 1988 as well as the astounding "Mort Sahl's America" in 1997, the second half of which was a conversation with Senator Eugene McCarthy.
As far as I can tell, Sahl still lives in Los Angeles and is working towards offending the entire world.
1. "Mort Sahl at 'The Hungry i'"
3. "Mort Sahl's America"
"If anybody comes up to you and says 'My kid is a conservative -- why is that' you say, 'remember in the 60's when we told you if you kept using drugs your kids would be mutants?'"
"Washington couldn't tell a lie, Nixon couldn't tell the truth, and Reagan couldn't tell the difference."
"Most people past college age are not atheists. It's too hard to be in society, for one thing. Because you don't get any days off. And if you're an agnostic you don't know whether you get them off or not."
"I took a course at Cal once called Statistical Analysis. And there was a guy in the course who used to make up all his computations and he never used Sigma. He used his own initials. 'Cause he was the standard deviation."
"Liberals feel unworthy of their possessions. Conservatives feel they deserve everything they've stolen."
"He was wearing a velvet shirt open to the navel. And he didn't have one. Which is either a show business gimmick, or the ultimate rejection of mother."
On his fans' reaction to his Kennedy Jokes: "We thought (Kennedy's election) was what you wanted." His salty response: "You didn't have to do it for me!"
Information on when Sahl's albums were published is hard to come by and often contradictory. I have omitted albums that he merely appeared on and focused on his own recordings. If anyone has any info on these that I might be wrong on please /msg me. My thanks to Google Answers, www.mortsahl.com and the All Music Guide.
- MORT SAHL AT SUNSET (Fantasy 7005) 1955
- THE FUTURE LIES AHEAD (Verve MGV 150002) 1958
- LOOK FORWARD IN ANGER (Verve MGV 150004) 1960
- A WAY OF LIFE (Verve MGV 150006) 1960
- AT THE HUNGRY I (Verve MGVS 15012) 1960
- THE NEXT PRESIDENT (Verve MGVS 615021) 1961
- THE NEW FRONTIER (Reprise R 5002) 1961
- ON RELATIONSHIPS (Reprise R 5003) 196?
- THE AGE OF ANXIETY (Radiola MR 1151) 197?
- ANYWAY...ONWARD (Mercury MG/SR 61112) 1967
- SING A SONG OF WATERGATE (GNP Crescendo GNPS 2070) 1973
- MORT SAHL'S AMERICA (Dove Audio 2291731802) 1997