The word ‘legend’ gets thrown around too casually in our social media-fueled culture.
But when one of your Mill Valley neighbors passes away, as one did today at the age of 94 after a career that saw him break ground as a pioneering stand-up comic who was widely regarded as the father of political comedy – ‘legend’ doesn’t quite say enough.
Mort Sahl, a self-described political radical and speechwriter for both President Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson, was the first comic to appear on the cover of Time magazine, the first non-musician to receive a Grammy award and a host of the Grammys in 1959.
In a dash of local flavor marking his decision to make Mill Valley his home 13 years ago, and the Throckmorton Theatre his home stage, with the day’s rolled-up newspaper in hand, per his tradition, Sahl was a 2014 Milley Award winner.
According to Lucy Mercer, founder of the Throckmorton Theatre where Sahl plied his trade well into his tenth decade, Sahl passed away at his home in Mill Valley today. “He died really from old age, his body was gradually wearing out,” she says. “He was at home, where he wanted to be. He did not want to be ‘warehoused,’ as he put it.”
Born in Montreal in 1927, Sahl began performing at the hungry I music club in San Francisco’s North Beach in the early 1950s, before comedy clubs even existed. Sahl’s 1955 performance with Dave Brubeck, which was recorded and released, without Sahl’s permission, and was sold as Mort Sahl At Sunset, was recognized in 2011 by the Library of Congress as the first stand-up comedy record album. Sahl also performed at the hungry I nightclub alongside other jazz musicians, including Vince Guaraldi, then a resident of Enchanted Knolls in Mill Valley.
Sahl continued to take the stage to perform until just a few years ago, pouncing on the day’s headlines in his usual acerbic, illuminating way. For longer than most current comedians have been alive, Sahl was at the forefront of political comics who who wield humor as a blunt object against politicians, often pairing with fellow late comedy great Dick Gregory at the venue’s regular Tuesday comedy night show.
“An inveterate contrarian and a wide-ranging skeptic, Sahl was a self-appointed warrior against hypocrisy who cast a jaundiced eye on social trends, gender relations and conventional wisdom of all sorts,” wrote Bruce Weber in the New York Times. “Conformity infuriated him: In one early routine he declared that Brooks Brothers stores didn’t have mirrors; customers just stood in front of one another to see how they looked. Sanctimony infuriated him: “Liberals are people who do the right things for the wrong reasons so they can feel good for 10 minutes.”