The Forgotten Comedian: Remembering Mort Sahl

When I encountered him, Mort Sahl was opening at The Top Hat, a Windsor, Ontario nightclub better known for take-my-wife-please comedians than it was for Sahl’s cutting-edge brand of satire.

At that point, in the early 1970s, the Montreal-born Sahl had fallen out of favor, taking his gigs where he could get them. Which was probably how he ended up at the Top Hat. This was the guy who had shocked America in the Eisenhower fifties with his acerbic, take-no-prisoners humor, who had been on the cover of Time magazine who, along with Lenny Bruce, had revolutionized standup comedy. Now here he was sitting around in the afternoon before he opened, predicting that the audience was not going to get his humor.

Nonetheless, he rattled away, practically nonstop, much as he would that night, pulling humor and insight from the day’s headlines, impressing with his intelligence and uniquely critical view of the world.  I’m not sure whether it was the energy he expended in his afternoon performance with a reporter or the sparse crowd that showed up for his show, but when he got onstage wearing his usual open-collared shirt and V-neck sweater, he seemed deflated, waving around the trademark newspaper he always brought to his performances, but just going through the motions.

And he turned out to be right. The audience that night didn’t get his humor. My pal Ray Bennett, a fellow reporter who also saw Sahl’s show, remembered him ranting about the Warren Commission Report on the Kennedy assassination to the point where not only wasn’t it funny, it was mostly lost on a Canadian audience.

When the reports came of his death Monday at the age of 94, I must say I was caught by surprise. I hadn’t thought of him for years, the forgotten man of comedy. Most people I talked to about his death didn’t know him at all. Yet there would be no Dave Chappelle or Joe Rogan or any of the other envelope-pushing comedians around today without Mort Sahl. “Comedians have to challenge the power,” he once said. “Comedians should be dangerous and devastating.”

And because he was, they are.


Author of "The Sanibel Sunset Detective" and "The Strange." Ron spends part of the year on Sanibel Island, Florida, where he writes detective novels featuring private eye Tree Callister. When he is not in Florida, he resides outside Toronto, Ontario with his wife, Kathy.

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