Jackie Mason dies at 93

Mason started as a rabbi whose sermons were full of jokes rather than theology


Jackie Mason, the last of the Borscht Belt comedians, died on Saturday in New York, aged 93. Renowned throughout America and the UK for his trademark rasping New York accent and his penchant  for saying the unsayable, Mason’s comedy sprang, he always said, from his first career — as Rabbi Yacov Moshe Maza, following in the footsteps of his great-grandfather, grandfather, father and three older brothers.

But Mason, who held an Orthodox rabbinical semicha and, indeed, was rabbi to several American congregations, was unhappy and restless in that position. As he said himself, his sermons became more and more full of jokes and less related to Jewish theology.

Eventually, three years after his father died, Mason jumped ship and tried to make it on his own as a comedian, writing his own material and doing whatever jobs he could. It was the early 1960s and Mason’s brand of observational material — often pointing out the comedic differences between Jews and gentiles, and exaggerated for effect — had a mixed response. Some audiences loved it; elsewhere he was fired by managements who did not understand the material.

But Mason got his break into television and became one of the highest earners on the entertainment circuit. At least twice, however, his “shoot-from-the-lip” attitude got him into trouble — once on the Ed Sullivan Show and once when he tangled with Frank Sinatra.

The Sullivan row happened because Mason’s monologue was over-running and Ed Sullivan, standing behind the camera, hand-signalled to him that he had two minutes left. Mason responded by making fun of the signal, one finger at a time — and an outraged Sullivan accused the comedian of an obscene gesture. Mason always denied it but it certainly blighted his career: he unsuccessfully sued Sullivan for libel and, though he returned to the screen, even receiving an apology from Ed Sullivan, he had to deal with the fall-out, in which he was branded unreliable and volatile.

His run-in with Frank Sinatra had potentially more threatening consequences: after Mason made jokes about the singer’s marriage to Mia Farrow, many years his junior, Sinatra reportedly sent thugs to Mason’s back-stage dressing room and bullets were fired through the glass door of his hotel dressing room in Las Vegas.

In the 1980s a series of one-man shows — beginning with “Jackie Mason’s The World According to Me” — made him a huge, if improbable, success, earning a Tony and an Emmy award, and bringing him to the notice of UK audiences for the first time.

In one of his best-known segments from his Broadway shows, Mason attempted to demonstrate the difference between Jews and non-Jews. He would tell his audience: “The truth is that in this country, Jews don’t fight, they don’t. They almost fight, they almost fight. Every Jew I know almost killed somebody. They’ll always tell you, ‘If he said one more word!’” — [pronounced “woid”] — “he would have been dead today. I was ready. I was waiting. One more word!’ What’s that word? Nobody knows.”

Jewish men, he insisted, would look at menus and ask themselves aloud: “Do I like this?”

Mason also famously became the voice of The Simpsons’ Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky

Arriving in Britain and keen to make his act topical, Mason would quiz his interviewers about the political situation in Britain, entertaining his audiences with astute take-downs of British government decisions. Many such interviews, including one with the JC, took place in a casino, “because of the free food”. Voiced in that gravelly New York growl, often impenetrable at times, his comments were hugely popular.

Not always popular, however, were some of Mason’s political opinions of which he made no secret. He was a supporter of the far-right extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, and tried to persuade successive generations of Israeli leaders to expel all Arabs from the country. He was also one of the very few entertainment figures to give public endorsement of Donald Trump.

Mason’s personal life was singular. In 1977 he met a would-be actress and writer, Ginger Reiter, and had a long-time affair with her which resulted in the birth of a daughter, Sheba, in 1985. But Mason vehemently denied paternity and it was only after three years of court action by Reiter that he acknowledged his daughter. Today, as Sheba Mason, she is herself a stand-up comedian and has appeared as her own mother in a play that Reiter wrote about the relationship. Mason, reportedly, went to see the production, and enjoyed it.

In 1991 he married his manager, Jyll Rosenfeld. She was 37 at the time to his 63, but the marriage remained steady, and she is credited for much of the success of his later career.

When his death was announced on Saturday night tributes poured in from the entertainment industry, lauding him as the funniest of funny men.

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