Died: July 24, 2021.
JACKIE Mason, who has died aged 93, was an acerbic and forthright comedian, whose shtick of amused outrage maintained an unreconstructed attitude over a career that stretched over more than half a century.
As a stand-up, his former calling as a rabbi held him in good stead, with his Jewishness a key part of his act. This was delivered in a thickset Yiddish-inflected Brooklynese that never left him.
His one-man shows filled theatres, won Tony awards and saw him nominated for an Olivier award. As a satirist he was compared to Mark Twain, and his contemporary Mel Brooks declared him one of the greatest comedians of all time.
In the 1960s, Mason was a major draw on the American TV circuit, before being kept off The Ed Sullivan Show for two years after being accused of giving the host the finger when Sullivan gave him a three-minute countdown to start winding up his act.
There was a conflict, too, with Frank Sinatra in the 1980s, after the singer and his associates heckled Mason during his act in Las Vegas. Mason answered back, and Sinatra left. The comedian was later shot at in his hotel room by persons unknown; three bullets lodged in the mattress just moments after he had been sitting on the bed.
Author James Kaplan, in his Sinatra biography, Sinatra: The Chairman, recounts that Mason had been poking fun at the singer’s hair transplant and elevator shoes, and had long been mining material from Sinatra’s marriage to the much younger Mia Farrow.
After the bullets episode, he toned down the Sinatra jokes – but then, one night, he said on stage: “I have no idea who it was was tried to shoot me … After the shots were fired, all I heard was someone singing, ‘Doobie, doobie, doo’.”
Mason remained a provocateur, winding up liberal sensibilities with routines that were unabashed in their portrayal of racial stereotypes. As he moved into more formal theatre spaces on Broadway and in London, his staccato growl may have appeared anachronistic to some, but he remained a major box-office draw. This was despite several controversies regarding his political views and affiliations.
Fired by a fierce individualism, he avoided working with outside writers. His routines were unscripted and not formally rehearsed. This gave his topical observations a personalised edge, even as they strayed into politically incorrect if sometimes contrary territory.
Outside of the live arena, he appeared in films such as The Jerk (1979), History of the World: Part 1 (1981), and Caddyshack II (1988). On television, he starred with Lynn Redgrave in a short-lived sit-com, Chicken Soup (1989), and did guest slots on the likes of 30 Rock (2007).
He also appeared in The Simpsons, making eleven appearances between 1991 and 2019 as Rabbi Krustofsky, father of Krusty the Clown. This saw him awarded his second Emmy. Other curveballs saw Mason hired by BBC Scotland in 1995 as a weekly commentator during the OJ Simpson murder trial.
It was stand-up, however, that gave Mason his drive. He was typically candid about his motivation for grabbing the spotlight, and called himself a “sick egomaniac.”
Despite his pugnacious front, Mason seemed to be aiming for something higher. As he once said, “I’m trying to get to the core essence of things, trying to separate lies from truth.” As he explained to Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs in 2012, “In order to be funny you have to understand what’s going on in the world, and you have to know the basic situation in order to make comedy out of it.”
Born Yacov Moshe Maza in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, Mason was the fourth and final son of six children to Belle (nee Gitlin) and Eli Maza, who had come to America from Minsk during the 1920s.
The family were strict Orthodox Jews, and came from a long line of rabbis, including his father. The family moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in New York City, when Mason was a young child.
As a teenager, he worked as a busboy and a lifeguard in the so-called Borscht Belt resorts in the upstate Catskill Mountains region, primarily visited by New York Jewish families. At 18 he became a cantor.
After graduating from the City College of New York in 1953 with an English and Sociology degree, he studied at Yeshiva University, and was ordained as a rabbi, serving in Weldon, North Carolina, and Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
His earliest routines developed in the synagogue, as he dropped increasing amounts of jokes into his sermons. He eventually stopped being a rabbi to move into comedy full time. As he put it, “Somebody in the family had to make a living.”
Mason worked the hotel and nightclub circuit in the Borscht Belt, and was already earning a more than healthy living before he made his first national TV appearance in 1962, on the Steve Allen Show. Appearances on The Perry Como Show and The Dean Martin Show followed.
In 1962, he released his debut record, I’m the Greatest Comedian in the World, Only Nobody Knows It Yet.
While effectively blackballed from the mainstream for two decades following the Ed Sullivan Show incident, Mason moved back into the clubs before eventually scaling up his act for theatres. The World According to Me! (1986) ran for two years, and saw him win a Special Tony award as well as his first Emmy. His next show, Brand New (1990-1991) was equally acclaimed.
Other shows included Politically Incorrect (1994), Love Thy Neighbour (1996), and Much Ado About Everything (1999), with the latter nominated for an Olivier during its London run. Later shows included Freshly Squeezed (2005), The Ultimate Jew (2008), and Fearless (2012). The title of the latter show summed up Mason’s attitude to the end.
He is survived by his wife of thirty years, Jyll Rosenfeld; and his daughter, Sheba, from a relationship with Ginger Reiter.