Comedian in the Cross-Hairs: The FBI Investigation into Mort Sahl

Today’s post was written by Gregory Tavormina, Archivist with the Special Access and FOIA Program (RF) at the National Archives in College Park, MD.

Newspaper clipping from FBI file 94-HQ-51223-8 ([FBI Headquarters] – 94-HQ-51223 [Classification – Research Matters] [Mort Sahl] (NAID 365107580). It originally appeared in the February 8, 1960 New York Times article “Anyway, Onward with Mort Sahl” by Herbert Mitgang

Mort Sahl was considered one of the first “modern” comedians. A contemporary of Lenny Bruce, he greatly influenced later stand-up comics ranging from George Carlin and Richard Pryor to Woody Allen and Dave Chappelle. He is best remembered for pioneering modern political satire in the form of commentary. In that sense, he was a precursor to today’s “News Comedians” such as John Stewart, Bill Mahr, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, and John Oliver. It was this political comedy that would eventually draw scrutiny from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Born Morton Lyon Sahl on May 11, 1927 in Montreal, Canada to Jewish parents, his father Harry Sahl relocated the family to Los Angeles where he worked for the Department of Justice as a clerk and stenographer from 1934 to 1940[1]. During WWII, Mort wore his ROTC outfit to school and even lied about his age to join the military. He eventually enlisted in the Army Air Forces but chafed against its strict regimen. His criticism of the military in  newspaper articles landed him three months of “kitchen patrol.”      

After his time in the service, Mort Sahl attended Compton College and later the University of Southern California. He graduated in 1950 with a Bachelor of Science in public administration and a minor in civil engineering. He dropped out of graduate school with the intention of becoming a playwright. In 1952, Sahl performed stand-up comedy for the first time at the “hungry i,” a San Francisco nightclub with a bohemian atmosphere. This appearance propelled him towards stardom, and he performed in nightclubs across the country (there were no comedy clubs back then) and even appeared on the television shows of Steve Allen[2] and Jack Paar[3].

Then in 1958 – at just 30 years old, he debuted his comedic play “The Next President” at the Bijou Theatre on Broadway. He had no set act: he improvised monologues, accompanied by a prop newspaper concealing a note card that listed recent news topics of possible discussion. His fast-paced commentary irreverently skewered current events and prominent individuals, although it was perhaps delivered more subtly than by comics today. At one point during the set, Sahl mentioned FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s new book, referring to it by the false title, “How to Turn Your Friends into the FBI for Fun and Profit.” When Hoover was informed of this jab, he was not amused. The FBI investigation into Mort Sahl had begun.  

On April 10, 1958, FBI inspector G.A. Nease sent a memorandum to Deputy Clyde Tolson relaying the Hoover joke and intention to have an agent  attend the show. Four days later, the Special Agent in Charge (SAC) at the New York FBI Field Office informed Hoover of their findings, reiterating much of the previous information in a matter-of-fact way. The agent also noted that:

[i]n his patter, SAHL talks to Colonel ABEL,[4] the Greenwich Village Bohemian who was a Russian spy for six years before the FBI caught him. Continuing on this event much is stated about how Colonel ABELs [sic] Bohemian friends knew he was a Russian spy from the very beginning.[5]

The report closed, perhaps hopefully, by stating “The Next President” was not well-attended and could shut down if sales did not improve. Enclosed with the report was the copy of Playbill[6]which was handed out to the FBI agent sitting in the theater.

94-HQ-51223-2 (Enclosure) of the FBI agent’s copy of Playbill

“The Next President” did indeed fold. According to a May 13, 1958 column by Dorothy Kilgallen in the Washington Post and Times-Herald, the show “…flopped, cost him close to $20,000, and Uncle Sam is pressing hard for two years’ back taxes. One of his associates appears to be guilty of mismanagement of funds, and to top it all, Mort is bitter over his former wife’s plans to marry one of his best pals.”[7]

The clipping of Kilgallen’s article from 94-HQ-51223-4.

While the closure of the show might have been a setback for Sahl, his popularity continued to grow alongside the number of his critics. He was appearing twice a week on NBC’s “Night Live” radio program.[8] Inspector Nease forwarded a May 23, 1958 column by Jack O’Brian in the Northern Virginia Sun to Deputy Tolson.[9] The column noted that Sahl recently appeared on the Tonight Show with Jack Paar (Johnny Carson would take over in 1962), and was to be a guest on NBC’s “Wide Wide World”[10] hosted by Dave Garroway. The FBI had in fact also monitored Sahl’s “Wide Wide World” appearance. A fellow critic of Sahl, O’Brian  lamented:

On the subject of using Nixon’s misfortunes in South America[11] as the peg to hang gags on, you somehow get the idea from the Sahls and others commenting purportedly humorously or wittily thereupon, that some degree of satisfaction should be taken out of the fact that the Vice President of the United States was attacked[12]

In subsequent correspondence between Hoover and Judge Irving Kaufman[13] from June 20 to July 1, 1958, Kaufmann said he complained to television executives “General” David Sarnoff[14] and Robert Sarnoff[15] about Sahl. He exclaimed:

You and I know that General Sarnoff is a great American and opposes with fervor Communists and Pro-Communists.[16] As for myself, I am getting a little sick and tired of these snide remarks, supposedly humorous, heaping ridicule on the FBI and on you. I am familiar with this tactic and I know it for what it is… We must do something about this devious line of attack upon the FBI. These people are getting clever in that they believe that an attack of ridicule rather than a frontal attack is just as devastating. It spreads disrespect for the law by causing people to laugh at the FBI – the greatest law enforcement agency the law has ever known.[17]

On June 8, 1959, Vice President Richard Nixon, upon hearing that Sahl might have a “somewhat questionable” background, instructed the FBI via his staff member Loie Gaunt[18] to prepare a background memorandum on Sahl.[19] Two days later, Hoover replied to Nixon[20], citing, among other things, a February article from the New York Times where Sahl explained: “I matured in that idealistic time in the Nineteen Forties when Franklin Roosevelt was President, there was a war on against Nazi Germany , and the Democratic party’s social policy reigned. All these had an effect – still do – on my thinking.”[21]

In his closing, Hoover outlined the crux of his argument why Sahl posed a threat to America:

Two individuals, who have furnished reliable information in the past regarding Communist Party activities, have expressed the opinion that individuals such as Sahl can do a great deal more damage to the American self-confidence in a few sharply barbed witticisms than could be done by all the “ravings and rantings of a dozen Fosters[22], Brothers, Lovestones[23], etc., in the course of fifteen to twenty years.” As an example, they stated that once the average young American facing induction into the Army gets the general point of view that the Army is run by a bunch of “bubbling [sic] idiots” or that the military apparatus is incapable of doing anything for him or his country, the basic damage has been done and whether logical arguments can be brought to bear in defense of the criticism thus rendered is a relatively pointless question.[24]

However, much of the FBI’s thinking and true focus during Sahl’s investigation can be gleaned from what was collected, commented on, or omitted. While passages of Sahl’s act mentioning Hoover were frequently underlined, a clipping[25] about his trip to the Soviet Union that could provide insight into Sahl’s probable political views received no such treatment or comment:

(3) “I mentioned Time magazine and they just glowered at me, just like at home.” (4) “I gather their society is not aimed at consumer goods.” (5) “They’re still fighting the last war – of course, I know we’ve been accused of fighting the next one.” (7) “You should have seen the hell raised when I tried to reach the NBC correspondent in Moscow.”

Although Mort Sahl had his critics, they were outnumbered by his admirers, who continued to see and hear him on stage, television, radio, and later, movies. He recorded the first modern comedy album, titled The Future Lies Ahead, and was the first comedian put on the cover of Time magazine in 1960. In addition, he hosted the first Grammys in 1959 and co-hosted the Oscars in 1960. A 1959 New York Times article by Herbert Mitgang[26] noted that Sahl supposedly earned about $5,000 a week. That’s approximately $2,759,623 a year in 2024 dollars.[27]

Unlike Hoover or Nixon, who deemed Sahl’s humor as “Sick Comedy,”[28] some of his targets were able to appreciate it and took his cracks and jabs in stride. An article from the Waukegan News-Sun editorial staff appeared in the Hollywood Reporter on March 8, 1960.[29] They told how Sahl performed at the 75th annual meeting of the Inland Daily Press Association in Chicago: “[w]e liked him immensely – in spite of the fact that more than a few of his verbal darts about the foibles of the newspaper business smacked home (it didn’t hurt when we laughed).”

Senator John F. Kennedy Visits with Mort Sahl. (National Archives, NAID: 348292854)

Sahl’s popularity began to wane in the early 1960s. He was an equal opportunity offender, skewering Republicans and Democrats alike. No matter who was in office, Sahl considered himself part of the “loyal opposition.” Like Hoover, President Kennedy did not appreciate jokes at his expense. His father Joseph Kennedy, Sr. supposedly pulled some strings and Sahl was effectively blacklisted. After Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Sahl questioned and criticized the findings of the Warren Commission Report[30] in his performances. By 1964, much of his audience disappeared and his income had fallen to $13,000 a year.  

While his career as a comic stalled, Sahl’s interest in the Kennedy Assassination was so great that it led to a new chapter as a political activist. In 1967, ABC sent him to New Orleans to meet with District Attorney Jim Garrison,[31] who believed Lee Harvey Oswald was part of a cabal to assassinate Kennedy. While Sahl was supposed to discredit Garrison, Sahl came to believe him. Garrison deputized Sahl as an assistant district attorney and Sahl became an investigator in the case of Clay Shaw,[32] the only American who went to trial for JFK’s murder (later exonerated).

Much of the remainder of Mort Sahl’s FBI file consists of complaints to the FBI from citizens outraged at his appearances on various shows such as The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour[33] in 1969. By this point, Sahl was commenting on the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. One angry letter read:

Last night, while watching the “Smothers Brothers” show on Television a fellow came on between the halves of the show and insulted the President of the United States, Mr. Nixon and yourself. He openly admitted he was a left winger and said that the country was turning left quite rapidly. Television has to censor this sort of think or illiminate [sic] it completely. This is what gives aid and comfort to the enemy. In the last month or so Television has gotten out of hand and if it can’t censor itself it will have to be censored by someone with authority.[34]

In the 1970s, Sahl continued to perform on stage around the country, but never regained the height of his former popularity. Sahl married three times and had one son, who died tragically young. For his 80th birthday in 2007, many famous comedians such as Jonathan Winters[35] and George Carlin hosted a tribute for him. The following year he moved to Mill Valley, California, where he befriended neighbor Robin Williams. Sahl died October 26, 2021, at age 94.

Mort Sahl’s legacy was dragging stand-up away from the “yuck-yuck” jokes of the Borscht Belt[36] circuit. As actor and comedian Albert Brooks explained,[37] “[e]very comedian who is not doing wife jokes has to thank [Sahl] for that… Most young people have no idea who he was but he was one the few comedians who yanked comedy out of vaudeville-type humor into the modern age. One of the very first to just talk to the audience. We’ll miss you Mort.” 

Promotion photo for “Mort Sahl’s America” at the Tiffany Theatre in West Hollywood, which ran from July 17-August 31, 1996. Photo Credit: Suzanne Karp Kreps. (University of Maryland, Library of American Broadcasting. Broadcasting & Cable Photo Archive, Box 294)

[1] 94-HQ-51233-8

[2] For more information, see: The Steve Allen Show. (2024 Feb. 27). The Steve Allen Show. Wikipedia.

[3] For more information, see: Tonight Starring Jack Paar (2024 Mar. 16). Tonight Starring Jack Paar. Wikipedia. 

[4] For more information, see:

[5] 94-HQ-51233-2 ([FBI Headquarters] – 94-HQ-51223 [Classification – Research Matters] [Mort Sahl] NAID 365107580)

[6] For more information, see: Playbill. (2024 Feb. 17). Playbill. Wikipedia.

[7] 94-HQ-51223-4

[8] 94-HQ-51223-7

[9] 94-HQ-51223-5

[10] For more information, see: Wide Wide World. (2022 Jan. 19). Wide Wide World. Wikipedia.

[11]For more information, see: Department of State, Office of the Historian. Vice President Richard M. Nixon’s Trip to South America, April 27-May 15, 1958. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960, American Republics, Vol. V.

[12]  94-HQ-51223-5

[13] For more information, see: Irving Kaufman. (2023 Dec. 29). Irving Kaufman. Wikipedia.

[14] For more information, see: David Sarnoff. (2024 Mar. 19). David Sarnoff. Wikipedia.

[15] For more information, see: Rober Sarnoff. (2024 Feb. 4). Robert Sarnoff. Wikipedia.

[16] For more information, see: McCarthyism. (2024 Mar. 24). McCarthyism. Wikipedia.

[17] 94-HQ-4-5046-188

[18] For more information, see: Richard Nixon Foundation. (2020 June 27). Remembering Loie Gaunt. Richard Nixon Foundation.

[19] 94-HQ-51223-9

[20] Ibid.

[21] 94-HQ-51223-9

[22] For more information, see: William Z. Foster. (2023 Dec. 10). William Z. Foster. Wikipedia.

[23] For more information, see: Jay Lovestone. (2024 Mar. 15). Jay Lovestone. Wikipedia.


[25] 94-HQ-51223-A

[26] For more information, see: Herbert Mitgang. (2024 Jan. 17). Herbert Mitgang. Wikipedia.; 94-HQ-51223-8

[27] H Brothers, Inc.(2024 Mar. 26). Calculate the Value of $260,000 in 1959. Dollar Times.

[28] For more information, see: Sick Comedy. (2023 Feb. 21). Sick Comedy. Wikipedia.

[29] 94-HQ-51223-10

[30] To read the report, see: Warren Commission Report: Table of Contents. (2018 Oct. 29). Warren Commission Report: Table of Contents. National Archives Website.

[31] Jim Garrison. (2024 Mar. 5). Jim Garrison. Wikipedia. 

[32] For more information, see: Donated Papers of Clay Shaw. (2016 Aug. 15). Donated Papers of Clay Shaw.

[33] For more information, see:The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. (2024 Mar. 2). The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Wikipedia.

[34] 94-HQ-51223-18

[35] For more information, see: Jonathan Winters. (2024 Mar. 4). Jonathan Winters. Wikipedia.

[36] For more information, see: Borscht Belt. (2024 Mar. 3). Borscht Belt. Wikipedia. 

[37]PA Media. (2021 Oct. 7). ‘Funniest of them all’: tributes paid to Mort Sahl after death aged 94. The Guardian. ; Benjamin Ivry. (2021 Oct. 27). For Mort Sahl, being Jewish meant being part of the opposition. The Forward. 

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