Jackie Mason defined a version of modern Jewish life for us

He caricatured everyone and everything, so we could all laugh with him


NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 22: Jackie Mason has lunch on 6th Avenue in Manhattan on March 22, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Bobby Bank/WireImage)

“Well, well, it’s certainly a pleasure to see me in person”. So began Jackie Mason’s seminal show The World According To Me (1988). And it always was a pleasure to see him in person – or, “in poysson”, as he would say in his inimitable New York accent. 

Audiences who packed to see him everywhere from The Catskills to the London Palladium would be treated  to his long monologues on Jewish life, much of which has become so celebrated it has slipped into modern Jewish parlance and has almost defined what it means to be a modern Jew: obsessed with food (“Have you ever seen the way a Jew walks into a restaurant? Like a Partner!”); terrified of bars and guns (“He knows that’s it’s not his field, and that’s it”); and incompetent at any form of manual labour, unlike Gentiles who can change tyres and do DIY (“Whenever a Jewish car breaks down you’ll always hear the same thing – It’s stopped?! Then a fight breaks out …”).

Jackie Mason was the ultimate “unwoke” comedian, who revelled in stereotypes, to show up what he considered to be important home truths and haimische wisdom. Sensing he had gone too far for many a modern audience, he frequently paused to pick on someone and ask with a smirk, “you understand this?” - or to implore that, “anyone who thinks I’m making this up is clearly not too intelligent a person”.

He gloried in caricature, at pains to show how and why the typecast existed, as a response to persecution or discrimination. And so one could laugh freely at his sending-up of everything from the hapless Jewish husband to the imperious Jewish wife (as well as politicians, sportsmen and everyone in between from Jesse Jackson to Michaelangelo), knowing that the jokes had heart and soul, and came from a place of love and authentic social history.

Jackie Mason was born into a family of Rabbis and spent his young life studying in Yeshiva and speaking Yiddish and beginning life as a Rabbi. His mocking of modern fads (psychiatry; sushi; wine-lovers; anything overpriced or pretentious) reflected his roots and his belief in graft and grit. He reserved a special scorn for Jews who tried to hide their Jewishness in this regard – whether it be buying a boat (“there’s no bigger Schmuck on this earth than a Jew with a boat”) or giving their children pointedly non-Jewish names (“so you end up with … Tiffany Lipschitz”).

But as a Rabbi, he couldn’t keep a straight face. As he was fond of telling audiences, his sermons were so funny and became so popular that before long “the Gentiles kept coming and coming and there were no room for the Jews”. His segue into comedy - which began in the Borscht Belt, progressed via the Ed Sullivan Show and ended up with packed tours of enormous arenas worldwide – was to our eternal fortune. 

He will be remembered more than anything for the sketches which have become written into the fabric of modern Jewish life: the Jewish mother whose son is a lorry driver and doesn’t know how to tell her friends (“He’s a controller in the trucking business!”); the huge size of the portions in Jewish restaurants (“And no matter what size the cake is, they always say the same thing: what happened to the portions in here?”); and the doctor (“in what other business can a man tell a woman to get undressed and send the bill to her husband?”).

Jackie Mason wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea: he was politically to the Right and would be at pains to wind up the liberal establishment, particularly in later years as he became increasingly exasperated with political correctness, liberal antisemitism and American Jews’ assimilation. But as he always said, you can’t please everyone: “Take my girlfriend - I think she's the most remarkable woman in the world. . . . That's me . . . But to my wife . . .”.






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