Mort Sahl: How the Comedy Legend was ‘Canceled’ For JFK Conspiracy Theories
The late Mort Sahl is widely regarded as one of the most influential stand-up comedians of all time; his 1955 record At Sunset is considered “the earliest example of modern stand-up comedy on record,” And it’s hard to imagine satirical institutions like The Daily Show and The Onion existing without Sahl’s pioneering political comedy, which often found him riffing on modern headlines while combing through a physical newspaper on stage.
Sahl was also an early victim of cancel culture – and not the “winning Grammys and selling out stadiums” type of cancellation; audiences and media establishments objectively turned on him. Sahl’s career was dramatically impacted, not because he committed a crime or made inappropriate comments on a dictograph, but because of his theories concerning the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
This may seem like a weird reason for a comedian’s career to take a hit, but Sahl became a very vocal critic of the official narrative, arguing that JFK’s death was the result of an elaborate conspiracy perpetrated by the CIA.
This wasn’t just a hobby; Sahl actually began working with New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison – aka, the dude Kevin Costner played in the movie JFK. Garrison even “deputized” Sahl to “help investigate an alleged government coverup.” He was, according to reports, Garrison’s “number three guy” for 10 years.
As the result of their investigations, Garrison tried and ultimately failed to convict a guy named Clay Shaw, who was charged in 1967 with “participating in a CIA- and/or FBI- and/or Cuban-backed right- and/or left-wing conspiracy to assassinate the president.” The jury only deliberated for one hour before Shaw was acquitted.
Around the same time that he made his views on the Kennedy assassination known, Sahl’s club invitations “dried up.” and he faced “virtual banishment from television for nearly 20 years.” According to Sahl, his earnings dropped from “$1 million a year” to “about nothing.” Roger Ebert once wrote about how he went to a comedy show, and his friend actually got up and left when Sahl came on stage, purely because of his belief that “the CIA assassinated John Kennedy, and that Clay Shaw was up to no good down there in New Orleans.”
This wasn’t just a matter of Sahl’s private politics affecting his celebrity. He made his JFK theories a part of his act, reading aloud and deriding excerpts from the Warren Commission Report on Kennedy’s death to confused audience members and “staging sketches quoting government testimony.”
Sahl also told Playboy magazine that he believed that the government had a secret “assassination bureau” and used his connections with The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to secure Jim Garrison a guest spot – after which “Carson never listened to Sahl again.”
As The New York Times stated: Sahl “went strange after the assassination of John Kennedy… the talk shows stopped wanting to hear him go on about the grassy knoll, the two autopsies, the washed-out limousine, Lee Harvey Oswald’s marksmanship, Jack Ruby’s friends. He wasn’t funny.”
To be fair, Sahl had a bit of a “comeback” following the Watergate scandal when a “dark view of American leadership better matched the national mood.” Also, presumably, because the idea of criminal government dickery didn’t seem quite so far-fetched. Later, the popularity of Oliver Stone’s JFK brought Sahl’s views into the mainstream, which he capitalized on in his act.
Although this was, arguably, material more successfully mined by Jerry Seinfeld…
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