Obituary: Jackie Mason – Comedian (93)

Photo: FILE – Actor/comedian Jackie Mason stands beside a bus displaying a sign advertising his TV show, 1992. Mason, a rabbi-turned-jokester whose feisty brand of standup comedy got laughs from nightclubs in the Catskills to West Coast talk shows and Broadway stages.(AP Photo/File)

He kept the borscht belt style of comedy alive long after the Catskills resorts had closed and eventually brought it, triumphantly, to Broadway.

24 July 2021 | William Grimes | New York Times | Additional archive material added from YouTube and Best of Jokes

Jackie Mason, whose staccato, arm-waving delivery and thick Yiddish accent kept the

style of comedy alive long after the Catskills resorts had shut their doors, and whose career reached new heights in the 1980s with a series of one-man shows on Broadway, died on Saturday in Manhattan.

Mr. Mason’s death, at a hospital, was confirmed by his longtime friend, the lawyer Raoul Felder, who said the comedian was 93.

I was so self-conscious, every time football players went into a huddle, I thought they were talking about me.

Jackie Mason

Mr. Mason regarded the world around him as a nonstop assault on common sense and an affront to his personal sense of dignity. Gesturing frantically, his forefinger jabbing the air, he would invite the audience to share his sense of disbelief and inhabit, if only for an hour, his very thin skin.

“I used to be so self-conscious,” he once said, “that when I attended a football game, every time the players went into a huddle, I thought they were talking about me.” Recalling his early struggles as a comic, he said, “I had to sell furniture to make a living — my own.”

The idea of music in elevators sent him into a tirade: “I live on the first floor; how much music can I hear by the time I get there? The guy on the 28th floor, let him pay for it.”
Jackie Mason “Luxury Apartments” on The Ed Sullivan Show. October 28, 1962

I have enough money to last me the rest of my life, unless I buy something.

Jackie Mason

The humor was punchy, down-to-earth and emphatically Jewish: His last one-man show in New York, in 2008, was called “The Ultimate Jew.” A former rabbi from a long line of rabbis, Mr. Mason made comic capital as a Jew feeling his way — sometimes nervously, sometimes pugnaciously — through a perplexing gentile world.

FILE - In this Jan. 27, 1987, file photo, Jackie Mason poses in his dressing with a globe as he stars in his own Broadway show in New York. Mason, a rabbi-turned-jokester whose feisty brand of standup comedy got laughs from nightclubs in the Catskills to West Coast talk shows and Broadway stages, has died. He was 93. Mason died Saturday, July 24, 2021, in Manhattan, the celebrity lawyer Raoul Felder told The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Carlos Rene Perez, File)
FILE – In this Jan. 27, 1987, file photo, Jackie Mason poses in his dressing with a globe as he stars in his own Broadway show in New York
. (AP Photo/Carlos Rene Perez, File)

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

Describing his comic style to The New York Times in 1988, he said: “My humor — it’s a man in a conversation, pointing things out to you.”

“He’s not better than you, he’s just another guy,” he added. “I see life with love — I’m your brother up there — but if I see you make a fool out of yourself, I owe it to you to point that out to you.”

Money is not the most important thing in the world. Love is. Fortunately, I love money.

Jackie Mason

He was born Yacov Moshe Maza in Sheboygan, Wis., on June 9, 1928, to immigrants from Belarus, although other sources give the year as 1931. When he was 5, his father, Eli, an Orthodox rabbi, and his mother, Bella (Gitlin) Maza, moved the family to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where Yacov discovered that his path in life had already been determined. Not only his father, but his grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfathers had all been rabbis. His three older brothers became rabbis, and his two younger sisters married rabbis.

“It was unheard-of to think of anything else,” Mr. Mason later said. “But I knew, from the time I’m 12, I had to plot to get out of this, because this is not my calling.”

After earning a degree from City College, he completed his rabbinical studies at Yeshiva University and was ordained. In a state of mounting misery, he tended to congregations in Weldon, N.C., and Latrobe, Pa., unhappy in his profession but unwilling to disappoint his father.

My grandfather always said, “Don’t watch your money, watch your health.” So one day while I was watching my health, someone stole my money. It was my grandfather.

Jackie Mason
Jackie Mason Isn’t Double Parked, He’s Just Far From The Curb | The Ed Sullivan Show. January 13, 1963

Hedging his bets, he had begun working summers in the Catskills, where he wrote comic monologues and appeared onstage at every opportunity. This, he decided, was his true calling, and after his father’s death in 1959 he felt free to pursue it in earnest, with a new name.

He struggled at first, playing the Catskills and, with little success, obscure clubs in New York and Miami. Plagued by guilt, he underwent psychoanalysis, which did not solve his problems but did provide him with good comic material.

Nevertheless, he found it hard to break into the nightclub circuit in New York — in part, he claimed, because his act made Jewish audiences uncomfortable. “My accent reminds them of a background they’re trying to forget,” he later said.

Why is it that they have Bibles in every motel room? Why should a man want to read the Bible when he’s with a woman alone in a motel room? Why would he be interested? Whatever he’s praying for, he’s already got!

Jackie Mason

While performing at a Los Angeles nightclub in 1960, he caught the attention of his fellow comedian Jan Murray, who recommended him to Steve Allen. Two appearances in two weeks on “The Steve Allen Show” led to bookings at the Copacabana and the Blue Angel in New York.

Mr. Mason’s career was off and running. He became a regular on the top television variety shows, recorded two albums for the Verve label (“I Am the Greatest Comedian in the World Only Nobody Knows It Yet” and “I Want to Leave You With the Words of a Great Comedian”) and wrote a book, “My Son the Candidate.”

After dozens of appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Mr. Mason encountered disaster on Oct. 18, 1964. A speech by President Lyndon B. Johnson pre-empted the program, which resumed as Mr. Mason was halfway through his act. Onstage but out of camera range, Sullivan indicated with two fingers, then one, how many minutes Mr. Mason had left, distracting the audience. Mr. Mason, annoyed, responded by holding up his own fingers to the audience, saying, “Here’s a finger for you, and a finger for you, and a finger for you.”

Sullivan, convinced that one of those fingers was an obscene gesture, canceled Mr. Mason’s six-show contract and refused to pay him for the performance. Mr. Mason sued, and won.

The two later reconciled, but the damage was done. Club owners and booking agents now regarded him, he said, as “crude and unpredictable.”

I was so self-conscious, every time football players went into a huddle, I thought they were talking about me.

Jackie Mason

“People started to think I was some kind of sick maniac,” Mr. Mason told Look. “It took 20 years to overcome what happened in that one minute.”

Mr. Mason’s career went into a slump, punctuated by bizarre instances of bad luck. In Las Vegas in 1966, after he made a few ill-considered remarks about Frank Sinatra’s recent marriage to the much younger Mia Farrow (“Frank soaks his dentures and Mia brushes her braces,” one joke went), an unidentified gunman fired a .22 pistol into his hotel room.

A play he starred in and wrote (with Mike Mortman), “A Teaspoon Every Four Hours,” went through a record-breaking 97 preview performances on Broadway before opening on June 14, 1969, to terrible reviews. It closed after one night, taking with it his $100,000 investment. He also invested in “The Stoolie” (1972), a film in which he played a con man and improbable Romeo. It also failed, taking even more of his money. Roles in sitcoms and films eluded him, although he did make the most of small parts in Mel Brooks’s “History of the World: Part I” (1981) — he was “Jew No. 1” in the Spanish Inquisition sequence — and “The Jerk” (1979), in which he played the gas-station owner who employs Steve Martin.

Rebuffed, Mr. Mason set about rebuilding his career with guest appearances on television. His new manager, Jyll Rosenfeld, convinced that the old borscht belt comics were ripe for a comeback, encouraged him to bring his act to the theater as a one-man show.

After attracting celebrity audiences in Los Angeles, that show, “The World According to Me!,” opened on Broadway in December 1986 and ran for two years. It earned Mr. Mason a special Tony Award in 1987, as well as an Emmy for writing when HBO aired an abridged version in 1988.

“I didn’t think it would work,” Mr. Mason said. “But people, when they come into a theater, see you in a whole new light. It’s like taking a picture from a kitchen and hanging it in a museum.”

Ladies and gentlemen, you can’t please everyone. Take my girlfriend – I think she’s the most remarkable woman in the world… That’s me… But to my wife…

Jackie Mason

In 1991 Mr. Mason married Ms. Rosenfeld, who survives him. He is also survived by a daughter, the comedian Sheba Mason, from a relationship with Ginger Reiter in the 1970s and 1980s.
Jackie Mason “Astronauts, Ed Sullivan, Alfred Hitchcock & JFK” on The Ed Sullivan Show. June 16, 1963.

“The World According to Me!” generated a series of sequels — “Politically Incorrect,” “Love Thy Neighbor,” “Prune Danish” and others — which carried Mr. Mason through the 1990s and into the new millennium.

He published an autobiography, “Jackie, Oy!” (written with Ken Gross), in 1988. He also found a new sideline as an opinionated political commentator on talk radio. In the 2016 presidential campaign, he was one of the few well-known entertainers to support Donald J. Trump.

Mr. Mason’s forays into political commentary caused him trouble. He was reported to have used a Yiddish word considered to be a racial slur in talking about David N. Dinkins, the Black mayoral candidate, at a Plaza Hotel luncheon in 1989. Mr. Mason was a campaigner for Mr. Dinkins’s opponent, Rudolph W. Giuliani. Mr. Giuliani said the incident was blown out of proportion, but dismissed him from the campaign. Mr. Mason at first refused to apologize but did so later.

He drew attention for using the same word regarding President Barack Obama during a performance in 2009.

Appearances on the cartoon series “The Simpsons,” as the voice of Rabbi Hyman Krustofski, the father of Krusty the Clown, confirmed his newfound status (and earned him a second Emmy). Not even the 1988 bomb “Caddyshack II,” in which he was a last-minute replacement for Rodney Dangerfield, or the ill-fated “Chicken Soup,” a 1989 sitcom co-starring Lynn Redgrave that died quickly, could slow his improbable transformation from borscht belt relic into hot property.

“I’ve been doing this for a hundred thousand years, but it’s like I was born last Thursday,” Mr. Mason once said of his career turnaround. “They see me as today’s comedian. Thank God I stunk for such a long time and was invisible, so I could be discovered.”

Michael Levenson contributed reporting.


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