Mort Sahl: Ripped from the Headlines


Tribute today to the great stand-up comedian Mort Sahl (1927-2021).

Sahl was part of the generation that revolutionized comedy starting in the late years of Eisenhower’s presidency (others included Lenny Bruce, Nichols and May, and Woody Allen). Until I got to see clips of him in action, I always doubted I would find him funny. This thing of walking on stage with a newspaper, “not having any material”, and discussing politics. But that doesn’t convey it. He was one of those people who’s just a funny guy, like the people you know in real life who say funny things. Funny things just came out of him. So he could talk about what was essentially a serious topic, and funny things would just bubble up. Nowadays, the airwaves are rife with comedians Sahl has influenced: Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, Keith Olbermann, etc. But Sahl’s shadow isn’t just political. What’s really revolutionary about him was that improvisational aspect, the informality of a man just standing on stage in a sweater (instead of a suit or a tuxedo as was common back in the day), so relaxed, just talking and trusting that funny things would come out. And they did.

I found this EXCELLENT bit today from 1967, Vietnam underway but still pre-Tet, the domestic horror of 1968 still in the future. The bit is not only educational as history, but of course also very funny.

For more on show biz history please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville FamousAnd stay tuned for my next book Vaudeville in Your Living Room: A Century of Radio and TV Variety, coming November 2023.


  1. Hi Trav – I saw Mort Sahl hold forth two times a few years back at the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley, CA. He was hard of hearing but mentally sharp. The appearances were more along the lines of a history lesson than the blazing standup comedy brilliance seen in the Hollywood Palace clip, but fascinating nonetheless. In the Q&A I asked Mort if he knew Jonathan WInters and he paused and broke into a big grin. . .”Johnny Winters” (second big grin) . . . did you know that Winters was a Republican?” I didn’t ask Mort about his friendship with Lenny Bruce or if he got to know jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charlie Mingus, etc back in his Hungry I days. Get those questions in when you have a chance!


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