Jackie Mason, A Comedic Virtuoso

Jackie Mason was born Yakov Moshe Maza in 1928 in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, the fourth son in a family of six children of strict orthodox Jews. Mason came from a long line of rabbis which included his three older brothers, his father, his grandfather, his great grandfather, and his great great grandfather. His parents were born in Minsk, and emigrated to the United States in the 1920s. When Mason was five his family moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan so that he and his siblings could have a yeshiva education. His parents and their friends all spoke Yiddish.

He wrote “for 65 cents you could go to the Paramount theater and see a movie and then, out of the ground, an orchestra would rise up! Out of nowhere. I can still hear the announcer’s voice “and now ladies and gentlemen Benny Goodman and his Orchestra. Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller. I couldn’t believe the band rising out of the ground, the music so thrilling, so wonderful; it made your hair stand on end. Once, Eddie Cantor paid a visit to my high school. What an event! The police had to bring him in. Thousands of people lined the streets to catch a glimpse. Eddie Cantor was a great hero on the Lower East Side. One of our own. You couldn’t imagine.

I began to hang out with the boys on the corner already by the time I was 11. I was hiding the yarmulke in my pocket so I should appear American because I would hear them say “here comes the rabbis son”.

“Learn!” my father would say. The more he said it, the less I studied. I was hanging around street corners shooting pool and learning about politics and boxing. Finally he blew his top, he said “sit down, learn”. I said “I learned enough.” He said “Do you want to learn yes or no?” I said “I don’t.” He was flabbergasted. “You don’t? Why not?” I told him “I’m not interested.” He couldn’t understand, he said “you’re not interested in learning? This is the only thing we’re on this earth for; this is the only reason for life; this is why God made us with a brain. You are saying that everything in life that means anything to me and your family for generations, the scholarship of our people, the learning, you’re rejecting it? You’re telling me you’re rejecting the whole history of our people, you’re not going to be a rabbi, a scholar? You’re going to be a bum? God means nothing to you?” And then he started to pinch me, to bump me. I was a kid. 12. But I could feel his fury, his rage. “I’ll teach you that you’ll never say that to me again!” He was hitting me by now. I was screaming in pain and agony because he was hurting me. “I’ll teach you! You’ll never say that again! You lowlife! You bum! You common bum, filthy animal!” And he belted me and hacked me and banged me and I was choking with tears. I was gagging from crying so much and pleading for mercy and screaming but it didn’t stop my father. He kept doing it, intense, intense, intense. Hits in the mouth, banging over the head. He had hit me before but nothing like this. This was a violent, crazy, insane type of beating. And then at the end of it he told me “sit down and learn! You’re going to learn whether you like it or not. For the rest of your life. No son of mine is going to be a traitor to God and holiness.” I remember looking at him and saying to myself “this man will never get away with this. He’ll never make me learn!”

As a teenager Mason worked at resorts in the borscht belt of New York’s Catskill mountains as a busboy, lifeguard, and activities director. In 1953 Mason graduated with a bachelor of arts degree with a double major in English and sociology from the City College of New York. At age 18 he became a cantor and at age 25 he was ordained as a rabbi. He led congregations in North Carolina and in Pennsylvania.

In 1959 Jackie’s father died. Jackie was 31 and was overcome with guilt. While all the other members of the family sat Shiva, Jackie withdrew into his room. He stayed there for more than a week, refusing to come out and refusing to display his grief. Finally at the end of the period of mourning he emerged pale and trembling, having buried his father in his own way. But it didn’t work. Rabbi Eli Maza, wagging that accusatory finger would remain with his son forever. Three years after the death of his father Mason resigned from his job as a rabbi to be a comedian.

Mason wrote most of his own material. He performed at New York City nightclubs and made his first national TV appearance in 1962 on the Steve Allen show, then the Tonight show, the Perry Como show, the Dean Martin show, and the Gary Moore show. When Mason got his first opportunity to appear on TV his agents wanted him to shed his heavy Yiddish accent. “We advise you that it is our opinion that you should not appear on this program. We think that you have a very bright future, you are a very funny man, but you are not ready for national television. We implore you to take speech lessons and learn the techniques of how to reach an American audience first. Mason wrote: “I looked at the signature. Sure enough, a Jew. The idea that a Jew not a gentile led the attack was maddening. Always the Jews with the same excuse: ‘the Gentiles won’t get it.’ Always the Jews were terrified of the reaction of inviting attention to their Jewishness.”

Once Jackie became successful and was earning good money he set up one sister’s husband in a cleaning store, he opened a kosher deli for another and when that failed when that failed, a real estate office. He bought everyone in the family television sets and sent $200 a week home for expenses. He planted seed money for each of his nephews’ education. He rented an apartment for his mother in Forest Hills, Queens and paid for his mother’s trip to Israel; she went with one of her daughters. One night, in a Tel Aviv hotel room she died of a heart attack. He refused to attend his mother’s funeral. It was that mental quirk: if he didn’t see it maybe it didn’t happen.

In 1964 on the Ed Sullivan show, Sullivan was letting Mason know by holding up two fingers that he had only two minutes left. Mason began to make fun of the situation and pointed towards Sullivan with an index finger and thumb but not, as Sullivan mistakenly believed, his middle finger. Sullivan banned Mason from future appearances, worth the equivalent of $393,000 in 2021. To clear his name Mason filed a libel suit at the New York Supreme Court on the grounds that Sullivan had defamed him. Mason was banned from the show for two years until Sullivan publicly apologized. Mason later appeared on the show five times, but the damage was done. It took Mason the next 20 years to regain the upward momentum of his career because people were afraid that he was unpredictable and could cause trouble.

As a child Mason had helped contribute to the blue and white collection boxes spread around in Jewish communities to buy land in Palestine for a Jewish national homeland. There stirred in every Jewish heart a flutter of pride when that fragment of land became a nation. And that pride exploded when, despite all forecasts that they would be hurled into the sea, the tiny nation defeated five Arab armies. The Israelis lived under the unsheathed sword of sworn enemies.

In 1967 during the Six Day War Jackie decided to travel to Israel to encourage the troops. Jackie could not sit idly by, making jokes while Israel was at war. When his manager asked “What about Caesars Palace in Las Vegas? You’re supposed to appear. You’re getting 12 1/2 thousand a week; it’s the most you’ve ever made.” Jackie replied “Are you kidding me? Jews are dying over there. Do you believe that I am that despicable a character that I would for a second consider the consequences to my own career when the fate of my people hangs in the balance by a slim thread?

Volunteers who wanted to fight were clamoring with great difficulty to get into Israel but they were turned away from Israeli consulates and embassies around the world. Jackie and his manager were finally able to travel to Israel. When they landed and looked out the window Jackie could see the name of the airport in Hebrew. He wrote “People tell you what it feels like to land in a Jewish country a whole country of Jews! But there is no way to explain the feeling. You see on the buildings Hebrew letters. Hebrew! Letters that I learned as a boy on the Lower East Side in Hebrew school. Here they are on official buildings, on military aircraft. Not something you have to hide from the goyim so they won’t beat you up on the way home from school. Official Hebrew letters! Nothing prepares you for that. We sat there in the airplane looking out the window and our hearts were in our throats. We couldn’t speak. We could hardly breathe.”

On the way to his performance they were in a jeep on the road to Hebron. They could see smoke in the distance. The area was not safe. There were still mines and snipers. Mason said “My heart was in my throat but I didn’t want to show fear, not after what these boys have been going through. Here was death and sacrifice.” They put on the show in the captured barracks of the Trans Jordan troops in Nabulus. The exhausted soldiers stood, holding their automatic weapons, their faces smeared with the smoke and grime of battle, their eyes still looking at death. They were the paratroopers, the elite, the soldiers who took back the Wailing Wall. What would his father think now? What would he say if he could see Jackie standing there on that sacred soil bringing comfort to the soldiers of Zion? They were big, big soldiers with red berets. They had just destroyed seven armies and liberated Jerusalem.

In 1991 during the Gulf War an Iraqi launched SCUD missile landed in Israel. Mason closed his one-man show and the next day flew to Israel to show support for the embattled troops.

Jackie tried so hard for so many years to advance his career beyond the Catskills, Miami Beach and Las Vegas. There were talk show pilots that he couldn’t sell, sitcoms that never got further than a lunch date with a network underling, movies that never got released, concerts that went half sold, and plays that opened and closed after one performance. He fired managers and nagged agents and questioned people everywhere about what they would like to see, what he should do with himself. Jackie was like a scientist possessed, trying one experiment after another tirelessly. He wanted what he could never have: his father’s approval.

1974 Jackie met Jyll Rosenfeld. He was 46, she was 20. They eventually married and remained together until Jackie’s death. It wasn’t long before she rolled up her sleeves and got involved in Jackie’s business. Gradually Jyll began helping more and more with his career. She needed him like the father she never had. She accepted the other women and the unequal terms. She adored him and simply wanted to be around him. And she made herself indispensable, becoming in charge of his money, attending to his appointments, and reading his contracts. She needed someone to care for and he needed care.

Mason wrote: “I was frustrated and anxious and very depressed. Everything I tried went nowhere. I was tired and I didn’t have the spirit to do everything by myself anymore. She got right into it seeing if she could overcome my sub-star problem. And she was amazing, making 40 calls in an hour to tax accountants and lawyers, to organizations and managers.” And even with Jyll working as hard as possible, the failures continued to occur one by one. He was struggling and working hard and getting nowhere. He was 50 years old and he could not see the breakthrough coming. With time running out he knew that he had to succeed. To draw 400 or 500 people a night was not enough to mitigate turning his back on his father. At night he had nightmares in which he saw himself alone at a table with no audience at all.

It was Jyll’s idea for Jackie to do a one-man show: Jackie Mason’s The World According to Me! He began performing the show first in a theater in a seedy part of Hollywood, then Beverly Hills, and finally starting in 1986, he performed six one-man shows on Broadway, which earned him a special Tony award, an Outer Critics Circle award, an Ace award, an Emmy award, and a Grammy nomination, a Drama Desk nomination, and a nomination for a Lawrence Olivier award for best entertainment for its run in London. Mason also won a prime time Emmy award for his voiceover as Rabbi Hyman Krutofski on the Simpsons TV show in which he appeared in eight episodes. He holds the record for the longest running one man show in Broadway history and the longest running standup show in the history of London’s West End.

Mason appeared in over 200 self written videos on YouTube, in which he gives his opinions on current events and politics. His daughter, Sheba Mason was born in 1985 and is also a comedian. Mason died in 2021 at the age of 93.