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In Memory of Jackie Mason, Fearless Borscht Belt Comedian

It’s difficult to overstate how influential Mason was to American and Jewish culture.
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July 25, 2021
Jackie Mason (photo: Carl Lender, Wikimedia Commons)

Long before “political correctness” had any meaning, legendary comedian Jackie Mason turned ethnic and racial humor into art—without the culture threatening him with cancellation.

Today, he is dead at 93.

Thank God this former rabbi left the pulpit and took his Yiddish accent, Jewish wit, jabbing finger and graceful stage movements on the road to comedy clubs, TV variety shows, movies and Broadway theaters in a truly mercurial career that lasted for well over half a century.

Unlike the three filmic iterations of “The Jazz Singer,” this clergyman turned entertainer didn’t entirely give up the tools of his rabbinic trade. Mason was a one-man Purim spiel, with sermonizing shtick that was rapturously gut busting. His observational humor had both Talmudic wisdom and a taste of the shtetl. Of course, there were Jewish standup comedians before him, but compared to Jack Benny, George Burns, Milton Berle, Rodney Dangerfield, and Don Rickles, Jackie Mason was absolutely and avowedly, “too Jewish.”

And his mostly mixed audiences absolutely loved him for it. (Mason’s act sold-out London’s West End nightly with a show entitled, “Fearless.”) Mason delivered rimshots as if blowing a shofar. Sometimes he dazzled with a cantorial riff. He was all borscht-belt gone mainstream, a trifle traif comedy act that spared no one and had them all laughing.

It’s difficult to overstate how influential Mason was to American and Jewish culture.

It’s difficult to overstate how influential Mason was to American and Jewish culture. For Middle America watching The Ed Sullivan Show or The Tonight Show in 1964, Jackie Mason was like “Fiddler on the Roof” (which opened on Broadway that year) on steroids. Woody Allen, whose standup career coincided with Mason’s, was all Freud and Marx (Groucho, not Karl), the kind of Jewish-American cultural imprint that depended on anxiety and perversion, which came to define Jewish comedy and even literature (see Philip Roth).

Mason, however, showcased a funnier, ballsier and more topical Sholom Aleichem—an otherworldly tummler who conjured a Chelm wit, with a dash of Delancey Street, dissecting human foibles and contradictions like a Yiddish Mark Twain.

Stout like a boxer, he delivered his punchlines with knockout precision. He impaled Jews (husbands and wives, the big talkers and the self-haters), poked away at Protestants, Blacks, Puerto Ricans, and Indians (not the native kind, but immigrants from India who competed with Jewish doctors), United States Presidents, pretentious aesthetes who ate sushi and drank Perrier. He spared no one: Jewish dining and Gentile drinking habits; Jews who couldn’t program a VCR or fix a car and non-Jews who never saw a line they wouldn’t stand in uncomplainingly for an eternity; and slavishly obedient Jewish husbands and their domineering wives who couldn’t find the kitchen.

He was a terrific mimic of political figures, from the Kennedys to Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger and Jesse Jackson.

His impersonation of Ed Sullivan was comedic ballet, and it was laden with meaning. Mason was a Sullivan show mainstay until he wasn’t, having once jabbed his finger in a way that Sullivan interpreted as being flipped. It ruined Mason’s career. Exiled from wholesome commercial TV, he was suddenly unkosher. For nearly two decades he disappeared from American households, consigned to the condominium circuit of Collins Avenue in South Florida.

And then a miracle happened to this former rabbi, a Job out of a job, suddenly materializing Lazarus-like in a one-man Broadway show.

And then a miracle happened to this former rabbi, a Job out of a job, suddenly materializing Lazarus-like in a one-man Broadway show. Mason was given a second chance, and he was too shrewd not make his comeback part of the act—reminding audiences each night of the Sullivan debacle, and thanking them for his resuscitation.

Mason would go on to win both a Tony and Emmy for “The World According to Me.”

The show began with a tryout in Los Angeles in 1986. It became a hot ticket, mostly among star-studded fans rooting for Mason’s revival. (I sat behind Mel Brooks.) Three more Broadway shows would follow.

Mason’s improbable show-biz comeback was itself a feel-good Hollywood movie. (Executives at Warner Brothers, Netflix, and Disney: get ready for incoming pitches this week.)

Ultimately, Mason faced a foreshadowing of the cancellation culture—decades before the humorless and grievance-obsessed of today exerted their social media powers like network censors.

It wasn’t the “N-word” that did Mason in, but the “S-word”: Once for Mayor David Dinkins, and then years later with President Barack Obama. Yes, it’s Yiddish for “black person,” but as Woody Allen once came to his defense: context should matter. Mason was, after all, a Catskills comedian. That word was once the cornerstone of hundreds of jokes—not Klan rallies, but comedic bits. Jews never spoke that word in a hatefully derogatory way. After all, they identified with the cause of civil rights. They were founders of the NAACP and its Legal Defense Fund. A Jewish lawyer, acting pro bono, defended the Scottsboro Boys all the way to the Supreme Court. Jews comprised the single largest white contingent of the Freedom Riders.

Of course, none of those exculpations matter anymore. There are no alibis or acquittals in the cancel culture.

Mason’s career was a case study in the rise and fall of assimilation. His experience was an object lesson in what was to come. It would get even worse, given the many A-list comics who nowadays refuse to play colleges, knowing that any booking is bound to get either cancelled or the entire act shouted down.

Mason lived a long life, but his death, mercifully, came at the right time. The gift of laughter today is a high-risk venture. God didn’t need another rabbi, but during his prime, Mason appeared at the right time and left an enduring legacy.

After rendering a withering satirical takedown of an ethnic group, including his own, he was known to quip: “I shouldn’t have just joked like that. After all, it’s not my nature to insult anyone.”

We know, Jackie.

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