Celebrating the Life of Mort Sahl: Canadian Comedian Dead at 94

Mort Sahl, a celebrated stand up comedian, dies at age 94. (Courtesy of Facebook)

Mort Sahl, a celebrated stand up comedian, dies at age 94. (Courtesy of Facebook)

On Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021, comedian Morton “Mort” Lyon Sahl passed away at the age of 94 in his home in Mill Valley, California. Sahl was born in Montreal on May 11, 1927, to Harry Sahl and Dorothy Schwartz. The family moved to Los Angeles in the late 1930s, where Sahl attended Belmont High School. When he was 15, Sahl dropped out of high school and tried to enlist in the military by lying about his age. His mother pulled him out three weeks later and enrolled him back in Belmont to finish his studies.  

After graduating, he enlisted in the military to serve in World War II. He immediately resisted the authoritarian systems by growing a beard, refusing to wear a cap and joining a newspaper that often criticized the U.S. military. He was honorably discharged in 1947 and enrolled in the University of Southern California, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in civil management. During his graduate studies, Sahl dropped out of school to become an actor and comedian. 

Between 1950 and 1953, Sahl struggled with his work. He tried and failed to get jobs at Los Angeles nightclubs and even auditioned for NBC, who told him he would never make it as a comedian. He later moved to New York City, where he wrote short stories and novels that went unpublished. While trying to sell his plays and novels, he had no luck. During this period, he worked as a car salesman and messenger in order to keep himself afloat. 

In 1953, things began to change. Sahl began dating Sue Babior and moved back to California with her. He began working at  Hungry I, a nightclub in San Francisco owned by Enrico Banducci. There, he began to attract large crowds of people and the attention of television personalities with his political commentary. His edgy yet laid-back performance regarding McCarthyism is what caught  the attention of Eddie Cantor, a film comedian who took Sahl “under his wing.” 

While other comedians were very hesitant to discuss politics, Sahl made it his platform. Satire became his main style, as he  made jokes about the hot-button issues plaguing the news cycle. Other comedians began to take inspiration from his style of comedy, including Woody Allen, George Carlin and Richard Pryor

It wasn’t just Sahl’s style of satire that changed the game of comedy. While most professional comedians wore a suit and tie on stage, Sahl refused the “traditional” dress code just like he did while in the military. During his sets, he wore a V-neck sweater with  khaki pants and had a newspaper tucked underneath his arm. Steve Allen, the creator of The Tonight Show, complimented Sahl on his appearance. 

In the 1960s, the assassination of President Kennedy fascinated Sahl so much he joined the District Attorney’s investigation to find the killer. The New York Times attributes this fascination to the fact that he was blacklisted after he gave his true opinions in one of his sets. The return of the satirical comedy style in the 1970s inspired Sahl’s comeback. 

From then on, Sahl went on tour all over the world, making TV show appearances. In the 1980s, he continued headlining for clubs owned by Enrico Banducci. In 1988, Sahl performed in a one-man off-Broadway show entitled “Mort Sahl’s America,” which received rave reviews from critics, including the New York Times. In 1991, he was given his own show, “Mort Sahl Live.” 

Regarding his personal life, Sahl was married and divorced three times. In 1955, he married Babior, whom he divorced three years later. In 1967, he married actress China Lee and they had one son, Mort Sahl Jr. They divorced in 1991, and their son died in 1996. In 1997, he married Kenslea Ann Motter, and they divorced in 2009. 

Comedy Central has placed Mort Sahl 40th on their list of the 100 greatest stand-up comedians of all time. He is ranked between Billy Crystal and Jon Stewart. A biography about his life, titled “Last Man Standing” was published in 2017 by author James Curtis.