Mort Sahl, comedian who played influential role in shaping modern stand-up, dies at age 94

Mort Sahl, the influential comedian credited by many with shaping modern political stand-up, died Tuesday, the Associated Press reported. He was 94.

At the peak of his career in the 1950s and ’60s, Sahl was seen as a voice of the counterculture, and his comedy influenced a generation of comics from George Carlin to Woody Allen, the AP said.

The beloved comic died peacefully at home of old age in Mill Valley, California, a friend, Lucy Mercer, said.

Comedian of counterculture

Born in Montreal, Canada, and raised in California, Sahl had his big break at a beatnik club in San Francisco, the hungry i, in 1953, according to reports.

At a time when many comedians told self-deprecating jokes about their personal lives, Sahl’s irreverent commentary on current events was considered groundbreaking.

He had a subversively relaxed look to match: while contemporaries wore tuxes, Sahl came out on stage in a sweater, with a newspaper in hand.

Over the course of his life, he befriended presidents from JFK to Ronald Reagan, the AP noted, but none were spared by his wit.

An equal opportunity offender, he once quipped of liberals, “Liberals are people who do the right things for the wrong reasons so they can feel good for 10 minutes.” As for conservatives: “A conservative is someone who believes in reform, but not now,” he said, according to the BBC.

Shaper of modern stand-up

After JFK’s assassination in 1963, Sahl’s career went into a decline as his comedy began to focus on what he considered a cover-up of a plot by the CIA, the AP reported. But many credit him with pioneering a more intellectual form of comedy, making stand-up a platform for attacking the status quo, something that many now take for granted.

“Every comedian who is not doing wife jokes has to thank him for that,” actor and comedian Albert Brooks told the AP in 2007. “He really was the first, even before Lenny Bruce, in terms of talking about stuff, not just doing punch lines.”

Sahl married three times, according to The Sun, and had one son — with his second wife — who died in 1996 at age 19.

“I don’t have the image of myself as a comedian,” Sahl once said. “I never said I was one. I just sort of tell the truth and everybody breaks up along the way.”

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