Mort Sahl, Whose Biting Commentary Redefined Stand-Up, Dies at 94

Morton Lyon Sahl was born in Montreal on May 11, 1927. His father, Harry, ran a tobacco shop, though he had grown up in New York as an aspiring playwright, and by the time Mort was 7, Harry Sahl had moved the family to Los Angeles and found work as a clerk for the Department of Justice. At 15, Mort joined the R.O.T.C. and left high school, lying about his age to join the Army; after two weeks, his mother, Dorothy, got him out.

After high school, he enlisted again and served in the Army Air Forces in Alaska, where his anti-authoritarian impulse first flowered. He edited a base newspaper called Poop From the Group, which needled military structure and routine and which earned him, he said, 83 straight days of mess-hall duty.

Following his discharge, he attended Compton Junior College and the University of Southern California, earning a degree in city management, and then followed a young woman — Sue Babior, whom he would eventually marry — to Berkeley. Prompted by Ms. Babior, he approached the owner of the hungry i, Enrico Banducci, for a performing gig, though it was mostly a music club. He got a tryout.

“I didn’t tell anyone, but I didn’t think he was so great,” Mr. Banducci recalled in “Seriously Funny.” He added: “I really looked at him and said, ‘Poor kid, he looks so skinny.’ I thought for 75 bucks a week he can’t hurt the place.”

Mr. Sahl’s early performances stayed away from politics. But within weeks he was commenting on the national scene, and that’s when his audience began to build.

He twitted Dwight D. Eisenhower for his dullness. Senator Joseph McCarthy became a favorite target: “Joe McCarthy doesn’t question what you say so much as your right to say it.” Lines from his act began appearing in newspaper columns, and when Herb Caen, the powerful San Francisco Chronicle columnist, gave Mr. Sahl’s act his imprimatur, his popularity took off.

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