Mort Sahl, legendary 1950s comedian, dead at 94

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Stand-up comedian Mort Sahl has died at the age of 94. 

A friend confirmed the news to the New York Times that he passed away on Tuesday at his home in Mill Valley, California.

The comic was known for his biting and cutting edge humor well into the 1950s and ’60s. His career continued for decades.

He was also known for hosting nationally televised ceremonies such as the Grammys and the Academy Awards. He co-hosted the 31st annual Oscars in 1959 and was the first host ever to emcee the Grammys that same year.

Sahl made history in 1955 when he dropped the first comedy album with his album “Mort Sahl at Sunset.”  In 1960, he released the record “Mort Sahl at the Hungry I” where it reached No. 22 on the Billboard 200. His 1973 disc,  “Sing a Song of Watergate” came at No. 145.

Sahl made a living by also making fun of several American presidents such as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. 

The Canadian native got his start in 1953 at the iconic “hungry i” nightclub in San Francisco.

Sahl was married three times and had one son, Mort Jr. He passed away at 19 in 1996 from an unknown drug-related reaction.

Mort Sahl
Mort Sahl passed away on Tuesday at his home in Mill Valley, CA, at the age of 94.  The stand-up comic was influential to the world of comedy and paved the way for others such as Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and George Carlin.
Courtesy of the Everett Collection

Director Woody Allen once praised Sahl in his 1994 book, “Woody Allen on Woody Allen: In Conversation With Stig Bjorkman.”

“I would never have been a cabaret comedian at all, if it hadn’t been for him,” Allen wrote, adding that before Sahl, “All these comedians were very, very formula.”

Mort Sahl (left) pictured with co-star Ingemar Johansson in 1960's "All The Young Men,' passed away on Tuesday at 94.
Mort Sahl (left) pictured with co-star Ingemar Johansson in 1960’s ‘All The Young Men.’
The Everett Collection

The “Annie Hall” filmmaker continued, “They’d all come out in a tuxedo and would say, ‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,’ and there was no sincerity to any of it. And they would do silly little jokes. … They would do golf jokes, because the president played golf. And suddenly, in this small cabaret, this comedian comes along, Mort Sahl.”

Allen added about the funnyman, “He was just wearing slacks and a sweater [with] a ‘New York Times’ folded under his arm. He was a nice-looking guy in a certain way, very intelligent. And highly, highly energetic, like hypermanic. And a spectacular phrasemaker, but of an intellectual type.”

“He was absolutely like nothing anybody had ever seen before. And he was so natural that other comedians became jealous,” Allen said. “They used to say, ‘Why do people like him? He just talks. He isn’t really performing.’ But his jokes came out as stream of consciousness, in a kind of jazz rhythm.”

His net worth reached $1.6 million at the peak of his fame. He paved the way for iconic comedians such as Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and George Carlin. The Hollywood star was born in Montreal on May 11, 1927.
Sahl moved with his family  to Los Angeles and joined the Air Force. He later graduated from USC in 1950. Aside from taking the stage as a comic, he showed off his acting chops in many films.

Sahl appeared in the 1958 Robert Wagner film “In Love and War” as well as “All the Young Men” (1960), “Johnny Cool” (1963) and “Don’t Make Waves” (1967). On television, Sahl lit up the screen with guest roles on programs such as “Pursuit,” “Playhouse 90,” “Ironside,” and “Love American Style.”
He also performed on late-night shows hosted by iconic figures like Dick Cavett, Mike Douglas, Dinah Shore, Merv Griffin and David Frost. Sahl even lent his comedic chops to the Dean Martin celebrity roasts of the mid-1970s and also appeared multiple times on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Sahl moved to Mill valley in the 2000s where he befriended the late Robin Williams who lived nearby.

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About the Author: Durkhanai Schuyler