Comic and Army veteran Mort Sahl basically walked away from his career at the height of his fame, which is why many young people might have never heard his name. That doesn't change the enormous impact he had on live comedy in the 1950s, changing the rules of the game for everyone who came after.
Sahl died on Oct. 26, 2021, at the age of 94. Born in Montreal in 1927, Sahl's family moved to Los Angeles during his childhood, and a 14-year-old Sahl joined the ROTC at Belmont High School after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
He tried to join the Army at age 15 by lying about his age, but his mom showed up at basic training and took the young Sahl back home. He eventually enlisted in the Army Air Forces and was stationed in Alaska with the 93rd Air Depot Group. Sahl later said he had a good experience in the military, but the regimented life also awakened the rebellious attitude that later made him famous.
Back in the old days, comics usually bought jokes from writers and many performed the same set for decades. Some routines, like the "Who's on First?" bit made famous by Abbott and Costello, were performed widely by dozens of comics until one act made it famous.
Sahl changed the entire game when he started offering wry personal observations on the news of the day. Some nights, he'd take a newspaper or magazine onstage and riff about current events based on the articles he read.
This new approach was a sensation, and Sahl became incredibly famous, landing him on the cover of Time magazine in 1960 and making him a regular on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Sahl became the first comedian to tour college campuses, and he was the first to release his own LP.
Before Sahl, stand-up comedy was about the ability to perform jokes that the comic probably didn't write. Sahl's personality-driven comedy changed the game, making a unique perspective a critical part of what defined good comedy. This shift paved the way for future superstars like Army veteran Richard Pryor, Air Force veteran George Carlin, Steve Martin, Robin Williams and Dave Chappelle.
That's why Mort Sahl is the Beatles of comedy. Before the Fab Four, music acts mostly played songs written by professional songwriters and were judged solely on the quality of their performance. The Beatles' overwhelming success made it essential for credible rock acts to write their own material and bring a point of view to their work.
In this clip from "The Ed Sullivan Show," you get a full dose of what made Sahl special. He seems like he's just a guy casually talking about stuff, but the writing is tight. He tells an elaborate, made-up story about his service in the Korean War even though he was long out of the Air Force by the time the war began. He sells the story like it's completely true, even dropping in a reference to the 52-20 Clubs that offered returning veterans $20 a week for up to a year while they were looking for a permanent job.
After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Sahl was caught up in trying to find out exactly how the president died. He even joined New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison's investigative team.
Sahl lost his audience during those years and spent the last few decades of his life working mostly out of the national spotlight. That lowered profile doesn't change the enormous impact he had at his peak and the ongoing influence he has on comedy today.
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