Mort Sahl was arguably the most influential comedian of the postwar era; a provocative political satirist, he singlehandedly revolutionized the comedy medium to create an art form with a scope and impact far beyond mere slapstick and gags. Sahl's conversational, free-associative style -- an amalgam of anecdotes, one-liners, and pithy asides -- forever elevated the standup stage from its humble, toothless beginnings into a respected forum for eye-opening social commentary, and in the process opened the door for future legends ranging from Lenny Bruce to George Carlin to Woody Allen.
Morton Lyon Sahl was born on May 11, 1927, in Montreal, Quebec. From his formative performances at San Francisco's Hungry i club onward, he broke all the rules; at a time when standup consisted of tuxedo-clad lounge lizards blitzing the audience with gags, Sahl appeared on-stage dressed in his trademark sweater, a rolled-up newspaper clenched tightly in hand. His act was free-form and tense, veering between clever, endearing topical jabs and vicious swipes; his routines knew no partisanship, attacking liberals and conservatives alike with equal furor. Both Richard Nixon and Adlai Stevenson were targets on his 1958 debut record, The Future Lies Ahead, a jittery, far-ranging affair that also tackled topics ranging from air raids to Dave Brubeck (for whom Sahl frequently opened) to his famed "intellectual hold-up" bit.
Given the topical nature of his work, Sahl wrote new material almost constantly, and he recorded frequently. As the 1960 presidential campaign heated up, he issued a flurry of albums including 1960: Look Forward in Anger, A Way of Life, the Top 25 hit At the Hungry i, and The Next President, on which he promised "Whoever the President is, I will attack him." Although liberals were vocally supportive of Sahl during the years in which he bashed Dwight Eisenhower, few were prepared when he set his sights on John Kennedy; following 1961's iconoclastic The New Frontier, a record laced with brutal JFK barbs, Sahl's career faltered under the weight of considerable political backlash.
Although he turned the topicality down several notches for 1962's On Relationships (which featured as its cover star actress Joan Collins), Sahl continued to struggle; his contract with the Reprise label was soon dropped, and he was restricted to club appearances and low-paying collegiate gigs for several years. Following the Kennedy assassination, he resurfaced with a vengeance with Anyway...Onward, a caustic appraisal of the Lyndon Johnson administration. Still, despite hitting the comeback trail, he did not record again until 1973's Sing a Song of Watergate, followed by several decades of club performances and Hollywood script doctoring. In 1997, he released Mort Sahl's America, his first recording in nearly a quarter century. ~ Jason Ankeny