UPDATE: I stand corrected — many of Sahl’s early albums now appear to be available via iTunes.
Last month, the University Press of Mississippi published Last Man Standing: Mort Sahl and the Birth of Modern Comedy by James Curtis, who has previously written biographies of W.C. Fields, Spencer Tracy, and others. Keep an eye out for it.
Sahl stands in a unique place in American comedy and political humor. Not only was he a pioneer of stand-up comedy, taking the form from Vegas auditoriums and Borscht-Belt hotels into the nightclubs and jazz scenes of the 1950s, engaging more intimately with the audience than ever before (and paving the way for Lenny Bruce, Nichols and May, Richard Pryor, Woody Allen, and others). He also engaged with the post-war political scene, offering keen, incisive, and often hilarious observations on current affairs from his own unique perspective (and paving the way for today’s Jon Stewart, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, and Bill Maher). But even today — at the age of 90, Sahl continues to perform — he is unique, spinning his routines from a combination of newspaper headlines and personal observation.
His work was preserved on several records, none of which remains in print, unfortunately, and Robert B. Weide’s 1989 documentary for PBS, Mort Sahl: The Loyal Opposition, is hard to find. Below, however, is one of the best of them: Mort Sahl at the Hungry i, recorded at the San Francisco nightclub and released by Verve Records in 1960. Though the references are dated, of course, his approach remains fresh and the perspective still resonates. Hypocrisy remains hypocrisy, regardless of what the calendar says. Onward.