Jackie Mason, stand-up comedian dubbed ‘the Bernard Manning of Brooklyn’ – obituary

Jackie Mason - PoPsie Randolph/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Jackie Mason - PoPsie Randolph/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Jackie Mason, the American stand-up comedian who has died aged 93, might have been a much bigger comedy star as a younger man had he trimmed his material to accommodate the politically correct pieties of the day; although his savage jokes were often off-colour, many people found them convulsively hilarious, yet for years he remained stuck on entertainment’s B-list, never quite becoming a household name.

“Too regional”, “too urban”, or having “limited appeal” were among the reasons advanced for his arrested career development, but Mason knew that what the critics really meant was that he was “too Jewish”.

“You have to laugh,” he wrote in his memoirs. “To my family I was not Jewish enough.” His father, a rabbi, spent all his time studying the Talmud, hoping his son would abandon his showbusiness ambitions and become a rabbi too. At the age of 28 he did just that, but after only a couple of years ministering to his congregations in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, it dawned on Rabbi Yacov Maza (as he then was) that this was not the life for him.

After his father died in 1959, Jackie Mason (as he began styling himself) became a full-time stand-up comedian, developing his free-flowing ad-lib style mainly in the so-called Borscht Belt of Jewish resorts in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. But because most of his material poked fun at Jews and Jewishness, the mainly Jewish managers and agents were nervous about booking him.

Short, squat, bleary-eyed, baleful and strangely vulnerable, Mason wrung laughs from assorted ethnic groups, taking on Italians, Poles, the Irish, blacks, Jews and Puerto Ricans (“I go to Puerto Rico every year – just to visit my hubcaps”), as well as un-PC gags about sex, the weather, religion and politics.

Although he earned a reputation for purveying racist, misogynistic humour in the worst possible taste, early in his career, scratching a living at $65-a-time gigs in strip clubs, he was regularly jeered for using material that was too bland. “The budget of this country was $136 billion last year,” went one gag. “Do you know what I gave them? Twelve dollars. Without my $12 they can’t get along? First spend $136 billion, then, if you’re $12 short, give me a call.”

While Mason’s British television debut came in 1963 with a spot on Sunday Night At The London Palladium, he only came to general notice here in 1988 with a five-minute spot in the Royal Command Performance, at which the Queen Mother reportedly became a fan. The following year he returned to London with his one-man show The World According to Me! at the Playhouse.

In The Daily Telegraph, the theatre critic Charles Spencer was so rude about him that Mason sent him a parcel containing a stale bagel and an invitation to lunch. The following year Mason was back, this time at the Palladium, confessing that he found it “awesome to be a big hit in a country I never hoird of”.

This time Spencer had to concede that Mason was “wonderfully funny” on such topics as airline safety, greenhouse gases, the mysterious trendiness of sushi (“even a cat wouldn’t touch it”) and above all the vexed business of healthy eating (“How come everyone in the health-food store looks so sick?”). Mason made a second appearance at the Royal Command Performance, in 1991.

By the end of the 1990s, Mason had mutated from small-time Jewish stand-up into what one British observer identified as “the laughing voice of a hard-edged conservative movement that dances dangerously close to racism, misogyny and homophobia”.

Crowned court jester to the resurgent American right, “the Bernard Manning of Brooklyn”, Mason became one of the most successful stand-ups ever. Even before he broke out into the mainstream, bootleg tapes of his shows were passed round Jewish enclaves in London, Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds, where they were much quoted and admired.

Yet Mason may have vanished into obscurity before he ever got going. A much-heralded television appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in October 1964 was a disaster. When the show was interrupted by an unscheduled nationwide broadcast by President Lyndon Johnson, Sullivan crouched out of shot, frantically trying to get Mason to wind up with a series of hand and finger signals.

Jackie Mason at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles in 1977 - Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
Jackie Mason at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles in 1977 - Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Thrown by this baffling rigmarole, a nervous Mason responded with the flash of a single upturned middle finger, expecting to raise a laugh. Instead, he earned a screaming dressing-down from Sullivan, notoriously censorious about anything even slightly off-colour, and his $45,000 contract for a further six shows was cancelled on the spot.

When he returned to his Manhattan apartment, the phone was ringing. It was a reporter from The Times in London. Dozens more journalists followed, from across the United States and Europe, all asking why he had made such an insulting gesture. The next night he opened at a Brooklyn nightclub where an audience of fewer than 100 sat sullenly around the fringes of an echoing auditorium that could hold 1,000. “Good evening, tables and chairs… ” Mason began.

The following year Mason filed a $3 million lawsuit against Sullivan, and the episode (in which Sullivan had branded him “crude and unpredictable”) continued to dog his career. In New Jersey, his starring appearance in Bernard Kops’s British comedy, Enter Solly Gold, directed by Robert Ludlum, later a successful novelist, was mauled by the critics because Mason kept introducing impromptu jokes into the script.

In Las Vegas, he upset the Mob by making cracks about Frank Sinatra and narrowly survived when three .22 bullets were fired through the glass door of his hotel balcony.

In 1969 Mason sued CBS for $20 million for censoring remarks he made in a television interview about US policy in Vietnam. A comedy he co-wrote about a Jewish accountant, A Teaspoon Every Four Hours, had 97 previews – a world record – and one performance. “I realised it was not a particularly distinguished play,” the British-born critic Clive Barnes noted in The New York Times “when at the intermission I found myself running up the aisle for a cigarette outside. It was not until I got out there that I remembered I don’t smoke.”

More turkeys followed. Mason’s pet film project for a picture to be called The Stoolie collapsed, only to be revived, released and critically panned in 1972. He parted company with his manager, and met Jyll Rosenfeld, who managed his flatlining career as Mason oscillated between the Catskills and seasonal work in Florida and Atlantic City. Another film, A Stroke Of Genius, was made but never released.

For his live stand-up appearances, Mason careered downmarket, playing in seedy New York dives and noisy dens to pay the bills. But as his material became bluer so his earnings grew. Haunted by his father’s repeated execration – “Bum!” – he distributed money lavishly among his family, and paid for his mother’s trip to Israel, only for her to drop dead at her hotel in Tel Aviv.

“On my father’s terms, I was a worthless person,” Mason wrote later, “a transgressor living a worthless terrible life.” He tried not to think about his devout parent because it filled him with guilt. As he toured the United States, he made a point, whenever he was near New York, of joining one of his brothers (all rabbis themselves) for Friday dinner; in turn, they, too, turned out to support Jackie when they could, orthodox Jews in black felt hats, sitting bolt upright and stony faced in brawling theatres or nightclubs, as if afraid they were about to hit over the head by a heavy haunch of ham.

Mason’s career revived in the mid-1980s, when his live show The World According To Me! transferred from Los Angeles to Broadway and later to London, and the critics raved; it became the longest-running one-man show in New York. A subsequent show, Politically Incorrect, ran into copyright problems with the title, but Mason continued to claim it, and the show became one of his most enduring touring productions. He also starred as a Jewish bachelor in a short-lived television series, Chicken Soup, alongside Lynn Redgrave as his Roman Catholic girlfriend.

In 1992 Mason won an Emmy Award for his voice-over of Rabbi Hyman Krustofski in an episode of The Simpsons (he voiced the part 10 times in all, most recently in 2019). In a poll in 2005 he was ranked among the top 50 comedy acts of all time. His film One Angry Man was released in 2010, and another, Jackie Goldberg, Private Dick, in 2011.

He was born Yacov Moshe Maza in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, on June 9 in a year that he never admitted to, but which one biographer deduced to have been 1930 while other sources calculated to be 1928. Descended from a line of distinguished rabbis who had emigrated from Poland, young Jacob, Jackie or Yanki (as he was known to various friends) moved with his family to New York when he was five.

In their gloomy apartment on the Lower East Side, his father, Rabbi Eli Maza, beat him regularly because he refused to study; aged just 12, the boy admitted he was not scholarly and preferred to shoot pool with his friends who gathered on street corners, rather than grapple with big philosophical questions raised by theology.

But by the end of the war, Jackie had started to read – good modern literature mainly – and to attend lectures at the Cooper Union, founded by the man who designed America’s first railway engine and which offered free education to working-class children. He was impressed by visiting speakers such as the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, and eagerly discussed their ideas with his fellow students at City College in Harlem. At home, meanwhile, a sullen silence still prevailed between the teenager and his father.

At City College he was supposed to be contemplating a life in the rabbinate, but in reality he was scoffing non-kosher food, dating girls and secretly planning an entirely different career. In 1953 he graduated with a degree in English and Sociology, and told his father that he had finally determined on a religious vocation.

To finance his studies, Jackie took a summer job at a hotel in the Catskills, clearing tables and acting as lifeguard at the pool, even though he could not swim. At amateur night, he told jokes as a stand-up comedian and found he could make people laugh.

“So this cop starts giving me a ticket for being double parked,” a typical joke began. “I tried to explain, but he don’t wanna listen. He says: ‘Tell it to the judge; you gonna hafta make a personal appearance.’ Look at this, not only is he giving me a ticket, now he’s my manager. So I get before the judge and he says: ‘Guilty or not guilty?’ I figure, he don’t know, why should I tell him?”

By the summer of 1958, having completed his five-year rabbinical course, Rabbi Maza had been officially ordained but returned to the Catskills to moonlight as a hotel social director. Fired for telling an audience of kosher butchers a joke about a fly landing on a butcher’s scale as he weighed a piece of brisket – “I never saw a fly that weighed two pounds!” – he blagged his way into jobs at other hotels and nightclubs nearby, so that by the end of the summer he returned to New York with more than $1,000 in his pocket.

Through his elder brother, Rabbi Maza landed a part-time job leading a tiny Jewish congregation at Weldon, North Carolina, and later ministering in a bigger Jewish temple at Latrobe, Pennsylvania. After the death of his father in 1959, he finally dropped any pretence of piety, pocketed his yarmulke and became a full-time comedian. As Jackie Mason, he was soon back in the Catskills, working the small-time comedy circuit and learning to finesse his act, paying particular attention to timing.

His one-liners played well, and his thick Jewish accent was not a problem, even in California in 1962 when Mason moved to take a residency at a club in Beverly Hills, a job that led in turn to a booking on Steve Allen’s television show. But one of his agents in New York warned him that he was not ready for national television because of his guttural way of speaking, and urged him to take speech lessons. Mason was right to ignore him. He was a hit on television too.

Overnight he was being booked by the top nightclubs at $5,000 a week. An album of one of his live routines, I’m The Greatest Comedian In The World Only Nobody Knows it Yet, rode up the record charts.

More recently, Mason found himself in trouble for expressing robustly un-PC opinions on 21st-century politics and politicians. In 1998 he called President Clinton “a dangerous liar”; in 2004 he reportedly called Islam a “murderous” religion, and in 2009 referred to President Barack Obama as a “schvartze” – a rude Yiddish term for a black person, and an echo of an insult he minted in 1991 when he had to apologise for calling the dapper mayor of New York, David Dinkins, “a fancy schvartze with a moustache”.

Mason lived alone and in style in a Manhattan apartment, expensively but sparsely furnished, mainly with multiple flatscreen televisions. He cared little for the superfluous trappings of success; as he used to observe in his act: “They give you things in these new apartments that mean nothing. Music in the elevator. A great luxury. What would a normal person care if he got music in the elevator or not? 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. I’m running a concert for a guy I don’t even know…

“[Other] things that they give you! Like a walk-in closet. Do you wanna go for a walk in the closet? When was the last time you went to the closet to go for a walk?”

His memoirs, Jackie, Oy!, written with the American journalist Ken Gross, were published in 1989. In 1991 he was admitted as an honorary member of the Oxford Union, joining past recipients including Mahatma Gandhi and Presidents John F Kennedy and Jimmy Carter.

Jackie Mason reportedly married his manager, Jyll Rosenfeld, in 1991, but later denied it, saying “It’s hard to explain”. With the playwright Ginger Reiter, who sued Mason to establish paternity, he had a daughter, the comedienne Sheba Mason.

Jackie Mason, born probably on June 9 1928, died July 24 2021