The day Jackie Mason revealed to me his serious comedy secret

Mason was a yeshiva-trained and an ordained Orthodox rabbi, but he was called to showbiz


A4DG23 Jackie Mason, comic

Jackie Mason, who died on Saturday aged 93, was often asked how much of the high-energy comedian we see on TV and in the press was the real him. “It’s all me,” he would reply.

That was almost certainly true — but there was yet another Jackie.

In 1989, when he was on his third or fourth career revival, I interviewed him for the Guardian. He was bringing his Broadway show The World According to Me to the West End. By then the Borscht Belt was a memory, you could hardly hear Yiddish on the Lower East Side and the only place a Jewish comic could get a gig was doing a one-man show on the Great White Way or Shaftesbury Avenue.

Well, maybe not… but stand-up had been elevated to a performance art and Jackie Mason was a consummate performer.

The interview was excellent. He was forthcoming about his ups and many downs. He walked me through the Talmudic method he used to write jokes. He was yeshiva-trained and an ordained Orthodox rabbi, as were his father, grandfather and a couple of great-grandfathers — as well as his three older brothers. But he was called to showbiz.

His manager and later wife, Jyll Rosenfeld, got in touch a few nights before the London opening to offer me tickets and to invite me to meet the star after the show for dinner. “Jackie liked your article and he likes to unwind after a show and talk to people,” she said.

We met at a gambling club in Mayfair. Jyll went upstairs to the gaming room and Jack and I went to the club’s restaurant. And so began a brief acquaintance.

He asked a lot of questions. I did most of the talking. Many comedians are always “on”. Jackie wasn’t one of them. He was curious about everything: the difference between British and American Jews; British politics; European politics.

He read, listened to the news, remembered what he heard and wanted details and more details. These facts helped solidify the kernel of truth around which he could build a joke.

“It’s like trying to unravel Gemara. I’m trying to unravel things around me. Who am I? What am I? It’s a search for truth,” he said.

He was a quick student, incorporating material on Margaret Thatcher and the poll tax and other things he could have only picked up listening to the morning news. Already past 60, he knew that his style of Jewish comedy was different to the comedy of the new generation of Jewish stand-ups.

“The kids today are college kids,” he told me. “They learn their craft in comedy clubs. People are there specifically to laugh. I learned in burlesque houses and playing barmitzvahs. You had to be a fighter to get people’s attention.”

His show was a hit, and he started visiting London regularly. Whenever he was in town he’d invite me to the gambling club and we’d eat while Jyll played upstairs.

Jackie never gambled. Thought it was crazy. He had spent half his life working in Las Vegas and Atlantic City and had watched people lose money hand over fist.

He invited my wife and I to Bloom’s in the East End. It was a Sunday night, the place was almost empty.

“Where are the Jews?” he asked. I explained that London was like New York. People moved to the suburbs, in this case Golders Green, and didn’t feel like going on nostalgia trips to the neighbourhood their parents had worked like hell to get away from. Plus, there was a branch of Bloom’s in Golders Green.

One of Jackie’s older brothers had flown over with his wife, and they were out with us. Jackie supported all his brothers. They were rabbis with no congregation who studied Talmud all day long. I had married out and my wife is a shiksa paradigm: blonde, blue-eyed. The brother and his wife spent the whole meal not looking at her.

As they were seated opposite us, it meant looking sideways throughout the meal. It was pretty awkward.

The last time I saw him was in 1990. Then, there was another visitor for the after-show wind-down. His name was Shannon Taylor. He was introduced as Meir Kahane’s lawyer. I joked, I didn’t think Meir Kahane would have an Irishman for a lawyer. Taylor explained, “My parents were survivors. Family name is Schneider.

“I was conceived in a DP camp and after they got their American visas, my parents’ flight made a refuelling stop in Shannon, Ireland en route to the US. So, Shannon Taylor.” The conversation became political. Kahane’s politics were racist politics. Things got ugly. Taylor assured me that there would not be an Arab left in Israel in five years (Kahane was shot a few months later and the Arabs are still in Israel). That was too much for me. I got up and left. As I was leaving, I heard Jackie say to Taylor: “For a while, it was a beautiful friendship.”

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