Life & Culture

Jackie Mason: Yes, I think I helped break down barriers

Jackie Mason, the legendary Jewish comedian, might be 83 years old, but he's still much in demand.


Jackie Mason, the legendary Jewish comedian, might be 83 years old, but he's still much in demand. Three years after undertaking his Farewell Tour on these shores, he is about to embark on a week-long residency at London's Adelphi Theatre, under the quaint title of Ready To Rumble, with brand new material and a familiar agenda: to prick our pretensions and expose our hypocrisies. As a result, he's busy explaining himself to the world's media. But he's never too busy to speak to the JC.

"I'm happy to do [the interview] because you've got a great publication, everybody reads it, it's a hot place for the Jews, so I'm delighted to do it with you," he says, that Lower East Side accent as thick as ever.

He said goodbye in 2012, and now he's back. What changed his mind? "Nothing," he says. "It was really my farewell show, in the sense that I was working consistently as a comedian. This [run of shows] is not a regular job to me, it's just like a vacation, a few days."

Besides, he reasons, he has a wealth of new jokes, including ones about the UK election. Mason is known for his Republican affiliations. Is he happy that the Conservatives won? "I would never take sides publicly because I don't want to lose any of my customers," he jokes. "I wouldn't say I'm happy but I would say that I'm going to talk a lot about it because I have a lot of funny material about the whole process."

What did he make of the Ed Miliband/bacon sandwich furore?

"Oh yeah, I heard about that," he says. "I think that was ridiculous. His eating bacon had nothing to do with running a country. You could lead a country with bacon or without. A ham sandwich never destroyed America."

Satirical US TV host Jon Stewart said recently, in response to "Bacongate", that a sign of Presidential greatness was an ability to swallow large chunks of pork. Mason would appear to be the one American not in thrall to US comedy's sacred cow. "Jon Stewart can say the most preposterous thing and it's a hit because he's the darling of the left and they can't get over the brilliance of it," he smarts. "Then when you study it you found out he said nothing."

Another celebrity likely to get it in the neck during Mason's forthcoming shows will be Madonna. "Never in the history of the world was a person with so little talent such a big hit," he attests. "Everybody comes to see why she does nothing and still makes money. It should be called 'America's Greatest Mystery'. Like the mystery of how Obama got elected."

Ah yes, the President. Mason has never been a fan. Is he happy his term in office is coming to an end? "I don't think there are many people who are unhappy about it," he decides. "The last year and a half I think he screwed up not only America but half the world. The Middle East is in shambles, there's Russia doing things they thought they could never get away with. Saudi Arabia's moved from their side to our side. Meanwhile, everybody is threatening us and people are burning and killing people all over the world without any retribution or fear because America decided that nothing matters any more. [Obama's] whole life has nothing to do with the Presidency. He makes a speech and goes to a fundraiser. Then he makes another speech and meets with Beyoncé. He never meets with a General, he meets with entertainers, with golfers, with singers, with dancers."

Mason might have emerged during the late-1950s as a "borscht belt" comedian, but his comedy has the relevancy and rapier wit of the younger generation - the likes of Jeff Ross and Sarah Silverman. Is his a polite version of what they do? If Mason did have a contemporary, it probably would have been Joan Rivers. "She was a brilliant comedian and how she died - the mockery they made of her medical attention - was desperately unfortunate. We were different types of comedians, but we were both outlandish."

Outlandish and outspoken: last year, Mason accused singer Rihanna and actress Penelope Cruz of antisemitism, following their criticism of Israel for its response to Hamas in the ongoing conflict in Gaza. "They come from these kinds of antisemitic, low-class backgrounds where a Jew is the most disgusting thing in the world to them," he said. Does he ever fear the consequences of his pronouncements? "I never feared the consequences because it's a free country and I don't believe anybody is going to go looking for me because I said something," he counters. "I don't think a joke is going to be a reason to fear for my life." The late cartoonists of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo might disagree, but still. How concerned is he with the deteriorating circumstances for Jews around the world?

"It concerns me a lot because I notice antisemitism is still a very prominent part of European life. Jews are still perceived as weaklings, and an easy people to attack or abuse, because they feel there will be no retribution. If you attack a Muslim you fear for your life; you attack a Jew you don't feel anybody is going to get even with you."

In America, by contrast, Jews have it easy. "Among white people in the United States, antisemitism is a very small factor. But there's still a much bigger percentage of blacks who are antisemitic than whites. Blacks seem to resent Jews for some psychological reason."

Why does he believe this?

"Because they see a minority that's doing good, and they feel competitive with them in some way," he says. "So even though a black person doesn't exactly knock himself out to get anywhere, and a Jew struggles and sweats to accomplish things, they feel they should be working on the same level."

How have attitudes changed towards Jews in his lifetime?

"Forty or 50 years ago, a Jew was nervous even walking down the street because Catholics hated Jews, and Italians wanted to punch you in the mouth," he recalls. "Jews were not allowed to get a job in a major corporation; they used to have advertisements that read 'White Christian only'. But today it's almost inconceivable that these things could happen.''

There are few comedians who inspire as much affection as Mason. Would it be too far-fetched to suggest he is responsible for improving the reputation of Jews?

"I think I helped in making people understand that Jews are concerned about other people, that Jews are full of love and compassion for the underdog. I think a Jew is more likely to be more helpful to a person with a problem than any other denomination because it's proven that Jews give a lot more money to charities of every kind."

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