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Morton Lyon Sahl (May 11, 1927 – October 26, 2021) was a Canadian-born American comedian, actor, and social satirist, considered the first modern comedian in the United States since Will Rogers. Sahl pioneered a style of social satire that pokes fun at political and current event topics using improvised monologues and only a newspaper as a prop.
Sahl spent his early years in Los Angeles and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area where he made his professional stage debut at the hungry i nightclub in 1953. His popularity grew quickly, and after a year at the club he traveled the country doing shows at established nightclubs, theaters, and college campuses. In 1960 he became the first comedian to have a cover story written about him by Time magazine. He appeared on various television shows, played a number of film roles, and performed a one-man show on Broadway.
Television host Steve Allen said that Sahl was “the only real political philosopher we have in modern comedy”. His social satire performances broke new ground in live entertainment, as a stand-up comic talking about the real world of politics at that time was considered “revolutionary”. It inspired many later comics to become stage comedians, including Lenny Bruce, Jonathan Winters, George Carlin, and Woody Allen. Allen credits Sahl’s new style of humor with “opening up vistas for people like me”.: 545
Numerous politicians became his fans, with John F. Kennedy asking him to write his jokes for campaign speeches, though Sahl later turned his barbs at the president. After Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Sahl focused on the Warren Report’s inaccuracies and conclusions, and spoke about it often during his shows. This alienated much of his audience and led to a decline in his popularity for the remainder of the 1960s. By the 1970s, his shows and popularity staged a partial comeback that continued over the ensuing decades. A biography of Sahl, Last Man Standing, by James Curtis, was released in 2017.
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