Jackie Mason: Onetime rabbi who became a stand-up star

His wry jokes about modern life and Jewish cultural identity struck a chord with the audiences around the US

Matt Schudel
Thursday 29 July 2021 00:01
<p>The comedian was a Tony and Emmy Award-winner, was a best-selling author and had recurring hits on Broadway</p>

The comedian was a Tony and Emmy Award-winner, was a best-selling author and had recurring hits on Broadway

“My ambition all my life was to be a star,” Jackie Mason once said, but few stars had a slower or more roundabout path to fame. He didn’t become a stand-up comedian until he was about 30, after giving up his original name, Yacov Maza, and his original profession as a rabbi.

The brash edge of chutzpah was always there – Mason’s first comedy album was called I’m the Greatest Comedian in the World Only Nobody Knows It Yet – but he was as surprised as anyone when his astringent jokes about modern life and Jewish cultural identity finally struck a chord with the audiences.

He was in his fifties – his exact age was always a matter of conjecture – when he became a sensation with the 1986 Broadway debut of his one-man show Jackie Mason’s The World According to Me!

Mason, who was a Tony and Emmy Award-winner, was a best-selling author and had recurring hits on Broadway, has died aged 93.

Mason worked on the Borscht Circuit of Jewish hotels in the Catskill Mountains of New York before becoming a fixture on TV variety shows. In 1964, his career was almost derailed during an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, a popular variety series. Under a tight schedule, Sullivan had held up two fingers, then one, to signal to Mason the number of minutes remaining for his act.

“I’ve been getting lots of fingers tonight. Here’s a finger for you and a finger for you and a finger for you,” Mason said, jabbing his index finger in the air.

Sullivan thought he was making an obscene gesture with a different finger and reportedly told him, “I will destroy you in showbusiness.”

Mason’s $45,000 contract with Sullivan was cancelled, and he had trouble finding work in clubs. He filed a $3m libel lawsuit before reconciling with Sullivan and returning to his show after two years. Still, the stigma lingered.

“I was suddenly considered obnoxious, arrogant, vulgar, unstable, abnormal,” Mason told The New Yorker in 1988.

When he joked about Frank Sinatra’s marriage to the much-younger actress Mia Farrow, Mason found himself the target of violence. Shots were fired into his hotel room, and an unknown assailant approached him as he sat in a car, punching him through an open window, breaking his nose and warning him to stop making fun of Sinatra.

In the wake of the Sullivan debacle, he continued to search for a spotlight. After seeing a performance in a theatre by comedian Dick Shawn, Mason’s manager suggested a similar format.

Jackie Mason’s The World According to Me! opened at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre in December 1986 and was an immediate hit. The performance was similar to what he had done for decades in nightclubs: Mason alone on a stage, telling jokes and nonstop stories that tumbled through his tortured psyche and came out in a Yiddish-inflected New York accent.

The difference was the venue.

“When people saw me in a nightclub, they would laugh their heads off,” Mason told the Chicago Tribune in 1987. “But they would write me off as just another nightclub comedian, which is not of any great artistic significance to them. But when that same person sees you in a legitimate theatre, where yesterday he saw Shakespeare and the next day something in French and the day after that Peter O’Toole, he places Jackie Mason in that category and thinks: ‘I must be seeing the same thing; I must be seeing an art form.’”

With John Lithgow (left) and BD Wong in 1988

He would toss insults at his audience, like Don Rickles, make jokes about sex that stopped just short of crudeness. In a bit about the absurdity of TV weather forecasters predicting an 80 per cent chance of rain, he asked, “Did anyone ever buy 80 per cent of an umbrella?”

Above all, Mason kept returning to the subject that was a lifelong obsession: an exploration of what it meant to be Jewish in America.

“The truth is that in this country, Jews don’t fight, they don’t,” he said in one segment of The World According to Me! “They almost fight, they almost fight. Every Jew I know almost killed somebody. They’ll always tell you, ‘If he said one more word!’” – pronounced “woid” – “‘He would have been dead today. I was ready. I was waiting. One more word!’ What’s that word? Nobody knows.”

The effect of Mason’s comedy was heightened by his rapid delivery, vocal modulations and deliberate repetition. One joke rolled into another, building a steady, growing wave of laughter in the audience. New Yorker jazz and arts critic Whitney Balliett described his act as “contagious rampaging surrealism”.

A comic bit about visiting a psychiatrist became a madcap tale of wordplay and philosophical absurdity – the Marx Brothers filtered through Abbott and Costello.

“I went to a psychiatrist,” Mason said in one version of the routine, “and I’m not ashamed to admit it, because I did not know who I was. He took a look at me; right away he said, ‘This is not you.’ And I said, ‘If this is not me, then who is it?’ He said, ‘I don’t know either.’ ‘Then what do I need you for?’ He said, ‘To find out who you are; together we’re going to look for the real you.’ And I said, ‘If I don’t know who I am, how will I know who to look for? And even if I find me, how will I know it’s me? Besides, if I want to look for me, what do I need him for? I can look myself. Or I can take my friends. We know where I was.’”

Mason at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, California, in 1977

Mason was born Yacov Moshe Maza in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, on 9 June 1928. (His date of birth was confirmed by close friend and family spokesman Raoul Felder, and census records.) His parents were recent immigrants from present-day Belarus and spoke Yiddish at home. Within a few years, amid the Depression, they moved into a crowded tenement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

At least four generations of men in his family, including his father, had been Orthodox rabbis. Mason and all three of his brothers followed that tradition. He graduated from City College of New York and studied for the rabbinate at Yeshiva University in New York and was ordained by his mid-twenties.

He was a recreation director at a Jewish hotel in the Catskills, while working on a comedy routine at night. Only after his father’s death in the late 1950s did he become a full-time comedian. Mason said much of his humour derived from his studies of the Talmud and other Jewish religious texts.

“The Talmud is the study of logic,” he told The Wall Street Journal in 1987. “Every time I see a contradiction or hypocrisy in somebody’s behaviour, I think of the Talmud and build the joke from there.”

By the early 1960s, he was appearing in top nightclubs, on The Steve Allen Show and making recordings. Seeking to broaden his career, he produced and starred in a wry 1972 crime drama, The Stoolie, and took small roles in the Steve Martin comedy The Jerk (1979) and Mel Brooks’s History of the World, Part I (1981). He co-starred with Lynn Redgrave in a short-lived ABC sitcom about an interfaith romance, Chicken Soup (1989).

He won Emmy Awards for a 1988 televised version of The World According to Me! and in 1992 for a recurring voice role in The Simpsons as Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky, the father of the cynical children’s TV show host Krusty the Clown. He had a best-selling 1988 autobiography, Jackie, Oy! and published other books.

For years, Mason was a self-confessed “womaniser” who had no interest in settling down, and he fought legal claims by Ginger Reiter, a Florida dancer and teacher, that she had given birth to his daughter. In 1990, after a court-ordered paternity test showed a 99.94 per cent likelihood that Mason was the girl’s father, he agreed to pay child support through her 18th birthday but otherwise had no contact with the girl. She became a comedian under the name Sheba Mason.

In 1991, Mason married his longtime manager, Jyll Rosenfeld, who survives him, along with a brother and a sister.

For all his struggles along the way, Mason achieved the thing he had sought to be all along. He was a star at last, with the prizes, Broadway accolades and the wealth that went with it.

“I don’t care about money,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1987. “I give it to the families of my three brothers and two sisters. We’re very close. I have enough to last me the rest of my life. Unless, of course, I want to buy something.”

Jackie Mason, comedian, born 9 June 1928, died 24 July 2021

© Washington Post

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