This past weekend we lost a comic legend, Jackie Mason. His irreverent, acerbic and often politically incorrect style of humor offended some people, but many others loved it and thought he was simply hilarious. He performed, with considerable success, in every entertainment medium – movies, tv, Broadway, discography, one-man shows, and books for over 60 years. He won Tonys, Emmys and received a Grammy nomination. Quite simply, he made us laugh.
Yacov Moshe Hakohen Maza was born on June 9, 1928 in Sheboygan, WI, to a family of very strict Orthodox Jews. His parents were from Minsk, Russia. They had emigrated to the US in the 1920s along with the rest of the extended family. He had two sisters and three older brothers. How strict? His father was a rabbi; his grandfather, great grandfather, and great great grandfather had been rabbis; his older brothers became rabbis, and his two sisters married rabbis. That is quite a legacy. Given his family background it was preordained that Jackie would become a rabbi as well. More on that later.
When Jackie was five the family moved to NYC settling, like many other working class families, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. One of the primary reasons for the move was to enable Jackie and his siblings to get a proper religious education in a yeshiva.
Despite the pressure from his family to become a rabbi Jackie had other interests. Years later, he admitted that “I knew from the time I’m 12, I had to plot to get out of this, because this [was] not my calling.” Unfortunately, as long as his father was alive he felt he was unable to do so.
As a teenager he got a job as a busboy at the Pearl Lake Hotel in the “Borscht Belt as the Catskill resort area was known. It didn’t go very well, to say the least. As Jackie later recalled: “Twenty minutes [there] I broke all the dishes. [Then] they made me a lifeguard. ‘But, I can’t swim,’ I told the owner. ‘Don’t tell the guests,’ he [said.]”
Ultimately, Jackie succumbed to the family’s pressure. At 18 he became a cantor. After graduating CCNY with a BA in English and Sociology he attended Yeshiva University, and at 25 he was ordained as a rabbi. When he led his congregations in services he often spiced his sermons with jokes. Soon, as he put it, people began to attend just to hear his jokes, even gentiles. His heart was not in it, but he stayed with it until his father passed away in 1959. Then, he felt free to switch to comedy, because, as he told it, “somebody in the family had to make a living.”
Along with his new profession he changed his name. New profession, new name, fresh start.
The early years were tough. This was the late 1950s and early 1960s, and people were not yet ready for his sarcastic, ethnic style of comedy where he would poke fun at the audience. This was before comedians like Don Rickles and Jack E. Leonard popularized that style of humor. He took jobs at obscure clubs and continued to work in the Catskills, anything to get experience and exposure. His first big break came in 1960 in an LA club where his act was seen by comedian Jan Murray. (Quiz question: What was Jan Murray’s birth name? See answer below.) Murray liked his act and recommended him to Steve Allen who booked him for his late night show. Soon he was appearing in more popular clubs, such as the Copacabana and popular tv shows such as The Perry Como Show, The Dean Martin Show, and the ultimate, The Ed Sullivan Show. Jackie was on his way, or so it seemed.
Jackie wrote much of his own material. Some samples:
- On doctors: “That’s a great profession. Where else can you ask a woman to get undressed and then send the bill to her husband?”
- On trust: “My grandfather always said that I shouldn’t watch my money, that I should watch my health. So, while I was watching my health someone stole my money. It was my grandfather.”
- On fidelity: “Eighty percent of married men cheat in America. The rest cheat in Europe.”
- His assessment of a new hot group called the Beatles: “Four kids in search of a voice who needed haircuts.” Obviously Jackie was lacking as a talent scout.
Jackie’s career was derailed as the result of one incident on the Ed Sullivan Show on October 18, 1964. As reported in Wikipedia and the NY Times Jackie’s routine was interrupted by an unscheduled speech by President Lyndon Johnson. In those days, tv was live, so after the speech the show’s technicians had to rearrange the programming on the fly. Apparently, Sullivan held up two fingers to Jackie indicating he had two minutes left, then one finger indicating one minute left. Jackie, miffed to have had his act interrupted to begin with, responded by holding up his own fingers, and declaring “here’s a finger for you, and a finger for you, and a finger for you.” Mason claimed that he was making fun of the situation and that the two fingers were his thumb and index finger, not the middle finger.
Regardless of whether or not one of Mason’s fingers was the middle finger the salient point is that Sullivan believed it was. He canceled the rest of Mason’s performance. Mason sued him. Eventually, he won and the two eventually reconciled, but the damage was done. At the time, Sullivan was one of the most powerful men in the entertainment industry, and based on his influence Mason was labelled as “unpredictable,” “untrustworthy,” and “obscene.” TV producers and club owners shied away from him. Remember, at that time, everything was live. There was no technology to “bleep out” obscene comments. Mason’s career was stymied for many years. A few years later Sullivan “booked” him for a single performance on his show. Also, Jackie tried Broadway with some success, and appeared in some nondescript movies, such as The Stoolie (1972 and The Jerk (1979), but the damage had been done, and it was not undone until the 1980s. As Mason later lamented, “it took 20 years to overcome what happened in one minute.”
Finally, in the mid-1980’s Mason’s new manager convinced him that the old Borscht Belt comedy was making a comeback and booked him for a one-man show on Broadway. The World According to Me was a big success. It ran for two years. It earned Jackie a Tony and led to an Emmy ,a Grammy nomination and several other awards. The critics loved it. Jackie was back.
It was soon followed by other one-man shows, including my personal favorite, Politically Incorrect, movies, tv appearances and voiceovers. One joke from PI was particularly prescient. Remember, this was 1994. Jackie lamented how one was not permitted to criticize anyone except a tall, white, young, Anglo-Saxon Protestant male. Everyone else, women, blacks, short people, ethnics and old people were out of bounds. When he said it, audiences loved it for its absurdity amid a grain of truth. No one is laughing now.
Eventually, Jackie married, Jyll Rosenfeld, the manager who had resurrected his career. They have one daughter, Sheba, who is also a comedian. Jackie got involved in some controversy in the 1990s when he referred to NYC Mayor David Dinkins and President Obama as schvartzes during his routines. (Schvartze is a mildly derogatory Yiddish word for a black person). Some members of the audience were offended enough to walk out, but that was an example of Jackie’s humor.
In 2005 in a poll of comedians and comedy insiders sponsored by a UK tv station Jackie was voted #43 among comedy acts and #63 among “Comedy Central Presents: 100 Greatest Stand-ups off All-Time.”
Jackie passed away peacefully in his sleep on July 24 at the age of 93. Many tributes poured in, among them:
- Henry Winkler – You put on “truly one of the funniest shows I have ever seen …ever…thank you Jackie, and now you get to make heaven laugh.”
- Gilbert Gottfried – “You were “one of the best.”
- Sean Hannity – “You were “irreverent, iconoclastic, funny, smart, and a great American patriot.”
Quiz answer: Murray Janofsky.