A late night looking back on the life and career of Mort Sahl

At 86, the Canadian-born Mort Sahl shows no signs of stopping his satirical look upon and obsession with American politics.

Sahl put on three late-night shows last week at New York City’s CafĂ© Carlyle, opening his stand-up performances with an updated plea: “God bless Barack Obama, long may he waver.”

He may not pace the stage, and it may take him a few more moments to get there. Once he does, standing in front of the cafe’s piano, in his classic red V-neck sweater, clutching that day’s local newspaper, he’s still equally at ease tossing out a topical joke as he is in letting us know that not all conspiracies are theories. Of course, that was a lot easier this past Friday night, in the wake of renewed revelations that the National Security Agency has been collecting our private phone records and online communications for years.

Caught mid-thought in the above photograph, Sahl’s outstretched hands and finger-waving may conjure in your minds the image of a politically-minded comedian young enough to be Sahl’s son. Sahl has made pointed jokes about politics, of course, since 64-year-old Lewis Black was just an impressionable kid.

Sahl graced the cover of TIME magazine on Aug. 15, 1960.


Seven years later, when 1967’s “Summer of Love” and the Vietnam War were part of the paradoxical 1960s that would precede the tumult that was to come the following year, Mort Sahl went on TV to explain the political spectrum from left to right. Roll that clip.

Sahl’s own personal politics had him hired by Joseph Kennedy to punch up political speeches for John F. Kennedy; then, following President Kennedy’s assassination, Sahl worked for New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison and his attempt to prove that Lee Harvey Oswald was not the lone gunman who shot and killed JFK.

Sahl spoke openly last week about his changing relationship with the Kennedy family and saga. He also regaled audiences with tales of working with the late Sydney Pollack on his 1995 movie remake of Sabrina, his adoration for the recently deceased Jonathan Winters, crafted jokes from that day’s headlines in the New York Times and made mockery of the New York Post, and threw out punchlines ranging in timeliness from Lewinsky to Liberace.

Woody Allen is often quoted as citing Mort Sahl as his inspiration for starting stand-up comedy. Woody brought wife Soon-Yi to watch Sahl on Friday night. Dick Cavett introduced Sahl the night before.

He wrapped up his hour-plus set by taking questions from the audience. At midnight Friday, Sahl told an audience of 50 what he’d tell his younger self should he be confronted with him once more, what he thought of today’s political comedians and stand-up in general (Sahl embraced that old-school saw that kids these days curse too much), and offered a piece of advice good for any comedian of any age: “Stand your ground, fight it out.”

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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