Jackie Mason (1928-2021)

Jackie Mason Dies: Rabbi Who Later Rose To Fame As A Comedian, Actor & Author Was 93. Remember him from his first spat with Ed Sullivan back in the early 1960s. There used to be many people I knew at the time who spoke with the same accent. Now there are virtually none. He is part of the passing of an entire generation of Yiddish-speaking migrants to English-speaking countries – the US, Canada, Australia – who once represented what it meant to be Jewish – he was, of course, born in the United States so may even have had a typically American accent when not before an audience. I am sad to see him go, but I also miss that generation of Judaism who truly knew how sometimes fatal it might be to maintain your religion.

Jackie Mason, the rabbi who later cultivated careers as a comedian, actor and author, died in a Manhattan hospital on Saturday, according to the New York Times. He was 93.

Mason’s longtime friend, attorney Raoul Felder, confirmed his passing to the Times. A cause of death was not disclosed.

Mason was born Yacov Moshe Maza in Sheboygan, Wisconsin on June 9, 1931 1928. While the son of Belarusian immigrants would ultimately earn fame and accolades for his work on stage, he initially looked to pursue the path of a rabbi, at the behest of his family. He was ordained after completing his rabbinical studies at Yeshiva University, working as a rabbi in both North Carolina and Pennsylvania. He decided to pursue a career as a writer and performer following the death of his father in 1959.

Mason was also well known his work on Broadway. He wrote and starred in a number of plays and one-man shows including The World According to Me, which earned him a Special Tony Award, as well as an Outer Critics Circle Award, an ACE Award, an Emmy and a Grammy nomination.

Mason featured on the film side in titles such as The Stoolie (1972), Steve Martin’s The Jerk (1979) and Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I, also appearing in TV series including his own 1992 talk show, The Jackie Mason Show30 Rock and The Simpsons. On Fox’s long-running animated series, he voiced Rabbi Hyman Krustofski, the father of Krusty the Clown. The role brought him his second Emmy in 1992, for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance.

Over the course of his career, Mason also penned a number of books including 1999 autobiography Jackie, Oy!, on which he collaborated with Ken Gross.

Mason is survived by his wife Jyll Rosenfeld, as well as his daughter, the comedian Sheba Mason. Plans for a memorial have not yet been revealed.

Another post on Jackie: Jackie Mason: 1928 -2021, May He Rest In Peace (Videos).

And then there is this which is the best of all: Remembering Jackie Mason by Tevi Troy. Here is his take on the Ed Sullivan episode.

Unfortunately for Mason, the potentially career-making Sullivan show nearly became career-ending in 1964, when the program was about to be preempted by a Lyndon Johnson speech. Sullivan held up fingers to indicate how much time Mason had, and an irritated Mason responded by displaying fingers to the audience, saying, “I’ve been getting lots of fingers tonight. Here’s a finger for you, and a finger for you, and a finger for you.” The prickly Sullivan felt Mason had given him the finger and banned him from the show for two years. Worse, Sullivan privately vowed, “I will destroy you in show business.” He largely did. In later years, Mason—who denied deploying the middle digit in the way Sullivan saw it—believed he had been blacklisted more broadly in the entertainment world. He hit a further setback in 1969, when CBS cut some of his jokes from The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. He sued CBS, arguing that the deletions fostered the perception of him as a “censored comedian.”

Sullivan later apologized to Mason, and Mason did eventually return to the show, but the reputational damage was done. For two decades, he labored largely as a has-been rather than the rising star he had been in 1964, even declaring bankruptcy in 1983. “It took 20 years to overcome what happened in one minute,” Mason complained.

He did overcome it, though, with a triumphant return in a 1987 one-man Broadway sensation, The World According to Me. His timing was perfect: Borscht-belt jokes, which had gone out of style in the 1960s with the rise of the hippies and the Me generation, had come back into favor. Mason’s act was not unlike that of the fictional Austin Powers—frozen in time and reappearing a few decades later exactly as it was. Jokes that Mason told on The Ed Sullivan Show in the early 1960s had them rolling in the aisles in late 1980s New York. He was on top of the world again and loving it, appearing on magazine covers and hanging out with celebrities, including a young Donald Trump, whom he visited numerous times in Trump Tower and for whom he emceed a book release for The Art of the Deal in 1989. He also got involved with politics, which both elevated his profile and gave him new headaches.

Everyone’s success looks easy from the outside but it’s always a roller coaster. To die at 93 still beloved and remembered is a sign of a life well lived. I hope he enjoyed himself while he was amongst us, at least most of the time. Let me end with this:

He described his transition from rabbi to comedian via a fictionalized but typically humorous bit, noting that he started telling jokes to keep the congregation interested. Word got around, and gentiles started coming just to hear his jokes. Eventually, he joked, his congregation was all gentile, and he started charging an entrance fee.

One of my dearest closest friends is about to go into palliative care. Mortality is one of life’s certainties. Another certainty is that for the vast majority of us, life does not last long enough.

עליו השלום

1 thought on “Jackie Mason (1928-2021)

  1. Pingback: Jackie Mason (1931-2021) - The Rabbit Hole

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