‘I’m the ultimate Jew... Well, bigger than Bibi’
Jackie Mason, the former rabbi and diminutive, stocky motormouth with the thick New York Jewish accent, is one of the world’s greatest stand-up comedians. His routines, heavy on the differences between Jews and gentiles, have been making people laugh for over 45 years. As notorious as he is famous, he once made an obscene gesture at America’s leading TV host, Ed Sullivan, live on air. He was also allegedly threatened — with bullets — by Frank Sinatra after poking fun at his then-wife, Mia Farrow.
Almost pathologically outspoken, even in his late seventies Mason remains fearless in his comedy, from pricking the average person’s pretensions to exposing the failings of US politicians. So it is tough to work out how to address the man when he answers the phone from his home in New York. Jackie? Mr Mason? Rabbi Mason? Sir? “No,” he replies in that inimitable, barely penetrable brogue. “You don’t have to give me any fancy titles. I’m just a normal guy from the streets of the Lower East Side. I’m not accustomed to elegant titles and fancy attributes. I’m just an ordinary Jew trying to make a living.” As ordinary Jews go, he has quite a reputation. It could be argued that, Woody Allen aside, he is the one who would come to most people’s minds if pressed to name a well-known American Jew, or just well-known Jew, period. Is he the most recognisable Jew on the planet? “Well,” he ponders the question, wondering where this is leading, referring to himself in the third person as though even he cannot quite believe he is who he is. “By now it’s hard to believe that many people in New York don’t know who Jackie Mason is. I’m as well-known as the guy at the drug store on the corner, and the restaurants, and the buildings. I’m like a fixture, a piece of furniture. “But,” he adds, “I don’t know if I’m the most famous Jew in the world. There are people like Henry Kissinger who are probably more famous, more prominent, than both of us [himself and Allen]. Benjamin Netanyahu is probably more popular than either one of us.” He pauses for a moment to reconsider — after all, Netanyahu is no longer Prime Minister of Israel; he is “merely” the leader of the opposition, the Likud party. “What happened to his career lately?” asks Mason of Netanyahu, assuming his favourite position, that of comic agitator. “You don’t ever hear about it. He looked like a sure thing to become the next Prime Minister, and then this guy [Ehud] Olmert, who was supposed to be finished, stays firm, and suddenly Netanyahu is forgotten about. So maybe you’re right. Maybe Jackie Mason is bigger than him.” Israel must be on Mason’s mind — he is coming to London next week to top the bill at the Israel 60th birthday concert at Wembley Arena. Although he has been performing for more than four decades, Mason has endured through a strange combination of staying the same and adapting to change, which is probably why he appeals to such a broad audience, from mainstream Middle England/Middle-American types to fans of more edgy, alternative comedy. As he explains: “I change my material all the time in order to make sure that it’s as topical as possible. I relate to the issues of the day just like your daily newspaper. I’m a very intensive researcher, I’m a student of everything that’s happening, and I make sure that my material is as fresh as whatever it is that people are talking about at the dinner table. When people go out to a restaurant, they’re not talking about the First World War; they’re talking about what happened last night.” Mason’s determination to remain contemporary has manifested itself of late in the numerous video blogs he has recorded on everything from health and fitness to gun control and the parlous state of the US administration. Does he feel comfortable making political pronouncements? “I must be comfortable, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it twice a week,” he says, explaining that he records the blogs as a series of impromptu monologues, with no preparation. “I don’t spend 10 minutes preparing them. They just come from the heart of what I feel about these issues, about the things that emotionally disturb me.” Is this is a disturbing time for the world? “It’s always a disturbing time because there’s never great righteousness or justice in the world. There’s always a huge amount of unfairness, so if you have any compassion or concern for people who are being taken advantage of, or who are being persecuted… Half of the world right now is at a level close to starvation, and 70 per cent of the world is wretched with diseases of different kinds, and the help of the powerful nations is not going very much to the miserable, suffering souls of the world. If you have any amount of care and concern, it has to disturb you. All you have to do is pick up a paper and you get disturbed in five minutes.” This is something that is hardly, if ever, mentioned about Mason — the moral dimension to his comedy, the sense of suppressed rage at injustice and hypocrisy. In this way, he has more in common with a black American firebrand like Chris Rock than you would expect from a comic who cut his teeth in the early 1960s on the Borscht Belt circuit. And nothing is incurring his principled wrath right now as much as the campaign of United States presidential hopeful Barack Obama. “The truth of the matter is he is the most incompetent character probably of all time, and he’s also one of the great liars of all time,” Mason contends. “Everything about him is a fake and a fraud, and he knows how to embellish everything he says to make him sound profound.” To Mason, Obama’s ascendancy has simply been the result of white liberal guilt. “White people are so guilt-ridden that they feel they have to protect him from any criticism,” he says. “Everybody is desperate to see him become president because they’re frightened of being called a racist.” Not that he is any happier with the prospect of Hillary Clinton becoming president. “There’s only one person who’s less prepared than Obama to be President, and that’s Hillary Clinton,” he says. “Every time she makes any claims about anything, they find out she was either lying or distorting or completely inventing it. There’s nothing that is of integrity in this woman. She was involved in the Irish peace talks? It turns out that she threw two parties and a dance class. The people involved in the peace talks said they never heard from her.” The only candidate that Mason has any time for is Republican Party nominee John McCain. “McCain is a man who’s really qualified to be president,” he asserts. “You might disagree with different issues or opinions, but there’s no doubt about it that the man has the experience and the brains to be president. He’s been in the Senate for 30 years and he’s been involved with every committee. Hillary Clinton, you can’t find one person who can identify anything she ever did, and Barack Obama just came from nowhere: ‘Oh, I think I’ll be president.’ If he was a short Jew who announced it, they would put him in a sanatorium. But white people are always trying to extricate themselves from the guilt-trip of discrimination.” Can he ever envision a time when a Jew might become president? “I don’t think it would be a problem any more, not for young Jews anyway. Old Jews don’t believe it’s possible because they have persecution complexes. They think that the gentiles can never quite accept them. An old Jew can’t believe it because he’s accustomed to being persecuted. Not that he’s imagining it: it’s true that he was always persecuted. But the gentiles accept Jews on every level today.” You can imagine Mason being a hit in Los Angeles and New York, densely populated as they are with Jews. But how do audiences react to him in other towns and cities across America? As it turns out, he often meets greater resistance from Jews themselves. “In the middle of America they’ve always enjoyed me more than the Jews. There’s a lot of conflict among Jews about Jackie Mason. Jews are self-conscious about Jewishness; they get panicky that I’m too Jewish for them. And they’re basically reflecting the fears they have because they want to be accepted by the goyim desperately. They want to lose their identity so that the gentiles shouldn’t see the difference between a Jew and a gentile. There are a lot of Jews who are assimilationists, and they say: ‘I wish you would keep it quiet. It gets me nervous.’” Mason has long made fun of Jews who criticise him on the grounds that he is “too Jewish”. “I’ve heard them say it thousands of times. They say it direct to my face, too: ‘Do you have to sound so Jewish? Are you making fun of the Jews? Are you putting it on?’” How does he respond? “I tell them they belong in a sanatorium.” These days Mason, who comes from a family of rabbis and was himself ordained, observes all of the Jewish festivals, keeps kosher and even, during his current stand-up tour, titled The Ultimate Jew, declined to work on Pesach. So is he really the ultimate Jew? “I don’t know if I’m the ultimate Jew. I was looking for a title that would attract attention. There’s no great design or purpose to it. It’s meant to be sensationalist or provocative; a trick to attract attention to the advertisement.” With his challenging approach, is he the son and heir of Lenny Bruce — the controversial American-Jewish comedian and satirist of the 1950s and ’60s? He is almost affronted by such deep scrutiny of his work. “I never gave any thought about Lenny Bruce or historical reasons for it. It’s not the product of any intelligent methodology of any kind. It’s just an attention-grabber.” Mason seems to be most comfortable with the notion of himself as a humorous observer of the human condition. “I talk about the little trends, the politics, the relationships, in people’s lives. Whether it’s marriage, love, the new house, the new coffees, the new police departments, the new war, or the new president, I look at the foibles of society, behind the pretensions of people, behind the hypocrisy. I try to penetrate to the truth of human behaviour.” He gives an example. “There used to be a time when you fought like anything if you thought your daughter or son was going to marry a gentile. Now the people are less and less involved with their own religion, and it means less and less to them, so now when their child wants to marry a gentile, they’re against it, but they all say the same thing: ‘Listen, it’s her life, not mine, and he or she has a right to be happy. It’s none of my business even though I would have preferred a Jew, but if it’s a gentile I have to make the best of it.’ So I think, how would you feel if she married a negro? You know what they say? ‘Well, there’s a limit to everything.’ What happened to the fact that it’s none of your business if she’s happy? ‘Well, I’m not going to pass away for her to be happy.’” One of Mason’s shows in the ’90s was called Politically Incorrect. Is there anything that he still considers taboo? “Well, the main taboo is the fears that people have about mentioning the word ‘black’ or saying anything that could be considered a criticism or in any way an evaluation about anybody black.” Is he equally aware of the sensitivity, post-9/11, towards the word “Muslim”? “People refuse to say anything about them because they’re afraid if they say a word of criticism about a Muslim, they’ll bomb their house in a second or they’ll kill their children or steal their car or burn down their house. I see that in England especially. Muslims are now abusing the Jews, and there’s nobody to defend them. Attacks on Jews in England are definitely on the increase. And Jews are so intimidated, they’re afraid to complain, and when they do, nobody listens. They are basically afraid to stand up for their rights.” For all that, Mason is not concerned about the future for diaspora Jews. “I’m not worried at all about it,” he says. “Maybe in England it’s a peculiar predicament, but I’m not worried about the Jews in America. Jews in America are very comfortable. There’s nobody threatening them here. There’s practically no antisemitism that anybody could identify in this country. It exists on such a minuscule level that organisations practically have to invent it in order to justify their fighting. But there’s very little prejudice at all with anybody. “There used to be a time when homosexuals were always persecuted or rejected. Today, a faygele walks around with pride because there’s nobody bothering him. Fifty years ago there were practically no black people in the Senate and now maybe 50 per cent of the mayors are black. About 10 per cent of the Senators are homosexuals. Women are highly respected, and Jews are in every power position all over America. There’s a tremendous respect for all minorities to accomplish whatever they please.” Mason disagrees that Jews in America are more readily accepted because they have such a rich history of Jewish entertainers. Nor does he believe there is such a thing as a Jewish comedy gene. “That’s plain nuts,” he says. “It all comes from your environment. If a gentile had the same experience, he would come out with the same attitudes, the same sensitivities, and the same personality. I don’t believe you’re born with something like this. It’s not organic, and I don’t think you inherit it.” There is talk of his forthcoming Broadway performance being his last. On the contrary, he says. “I’m not retiring. I just don’t want to do any more Broadway shows because they’re too taxing. It’s just not worth that much effort any more. Thank God I’ve got a fortune of money and I don’t need it.” The Israel 60th concert is at Wembley Arena on Thursday May 8. Tel: 0844 815 0815