Jackie Mason, 93, dies; turned kvetching into comedy gold

By William Grimes

Jackie Mason, whose staccato, arm-waving delivery and thick Yiddish accent kept the borscht belt style of comedy alive long after the Catskills resorts had shut their doors, and whose career reached new heights in the 1980s with a series of one-man shows on Broadway, died Saturday in Manhattan.

Mason’s death, at a hospital, was confirmed by his longtime friend, lawyer Raoul Felder, who said the comedian was 93.

Mason regarded the world around him as a nonstop assault on common sense and an affront to his personal sense of dignity. Gesturing frantically, his forefinger jabbing the air, he would invite the audience to share his sense of disbelief and inhabit, if only for an hour, his very thin skin.

“I used to be so self-conscious,” he once said, “that when I attended a football game, every time the players went into a huddle, I thought they were talking about me.” Recalling his early struggles as a comic, he said, “I had to sell furniture to make a living — my own.”

The idea of music in elevators sent him into a tirade: “I live on the first floor; how much music can I hear by the time I get there? The guy on the 28th floor, let him pay for it.”

The humor was punchy, down-to-earth and emphatically Jewish: His last one-man show in New York, in 2008, was called “The Ultimate Jew.” A former rabbi from a long line of rabbis, Mason made comic capital as a Jew feeling his way — sometimes nervously, sometimes pugnaciously — through a perplexing gentile world.

“Every time I see a contradiction or hypocrisy in somebody’s behavior,” he once told The Wall Street Journal, “I think of the Talmud and build the joke from there.”

He was born Yacov Moshe Maza in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, on June 9, 1928, although other sources give the year as 1931, to immigrants from Belarus. When he was 5, his father, Eli, an Orthodox rabbi, and his mother, Bella (Gitlin) Maza, moved the family to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where Yacov Moshe Maza discovered that his path in life had already been determined. Not only his father, but his grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfathers had all been rabbis. His three older brothers became rabbis, and his two younger sisters married rabbis.

“It was unheard-of to think of anything else,” Mason later said. “But I knew, from the time I’m 12, I had to plot to get out of this, because this is not my calling.”

After earning a degree from City College, he completed his rabbinical studies at Yeshiva University and was ordained. In a state of mounting misery, he tended to congregations in Weldon, North Carolina, and Latrobe, Pennsylvania, unhappy in his profession but unwilling to disappoint his father.

Hedging his bets, he had begun working summers in the Catskills, where he wrote comic monologues and appeared onstage at every opportunity. This, he decided, was his true calling, and after his father’s death in 1959, he felt free to pursue it in earnest, with a new name.

He struggled at first, playing the Catskills and, with little success, obscure clubs in New York and Miami. Plagued by guilt, he underwent psychoanalysis, which did not solve his problems but did provide him with good comic material.

Nevertheless, he found it hard to break into the nightclub circuit in New York — in part, he claimed, because his act made Jewish audiences uncomfortable. “My accent reminds them of a background they’re trying to forget,” he later said.

While performing at a Los Angeles nightclub in 1960, he caught the attention of fellow comedian Jan Murray, who recommended him to Steve Allen. Two appearances in two weeks on “The Steve Allen Show” led to bookings at the Copacabana and the Blue Angel in New York.

Mason’s career was off and running. He became a regular on the top television variety shows, recorded two albums for the Verve label (“I Am the Greatest Comedian in the World Only Nobody Knows It Yet” and “I Want to Leave You With the Words of a Great Comedian”) and wrote a book, “My Son the Candidate.”

After dozens of appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Mason encountered disaster on Oct. 18, 1964. A speech by President Lyndon B. Johnson preempted the program, which resumed as Mason was halfway through his act. Onstage but out of camera range, Sullivan indicated with two fingers, then one, how many minutes Mason had left, distracting the audience. Mason, annoyed, responded by holding up his own fingers to the audience, saying, “Here’s a finger for you, and a finger for you, and a finger for you.”

Sullivan, convinced that one of those fingers was an obscene gesture, canceled Mason’s six-show contract and refused to pay him for the performance. Mason sued, and won.

The two later reconciled, but the damage was done. Club owners and booking agents now regarded him, he said, as “crude and unpredictable.”

“People started to think I was some kind of sick maniac,” Mason told Look. “It took 20 years to overcome what happened in that one minute.”

Mason’s career went into a slump, punctuated by bizarre instances of bad luck. In Las Vegas in 1966, after he made a few ill-considered remarks about Frank Sinatra’s recent marriage to the much younger Mia Farrow (“Frank soaks his dentures, and Mia brushes her braces,” one joke went), an unidentified gunman fired a .22 pistol into his hotel room.

A play he starred in and wrote (with Mike Mortman), “A Teaspoon Every Four Hours,” went through a record-breaking 97 preview performances on Broadway before opening on June 14, 1969, to terrible reviews. It closed after one night, taking with it his $100,000 investment. He also invested in “The Stoolie” (1972), a film in which he played a con man and improbable Romeo. It also failed, taking even more of his money. Roles in sitcoms and films eluded him, although he did make the most of small parts in Mel Brooks’ “History of the World: Part I” (1981) — he was “Jew No. 1” in the Spanish Inquisition sequence — and “The Jerk” (1979), in which he played the gas station owner who employs Steve Martin.

Rebuffed, Mason set about rebuilding his career with guest appearances on television. His new manager, Jyll Rosenfeld, convinced that the old borscht belt comics were ripe for a comeback, encouraged him to bring his act to the theater as a one-man show.

After attracting celebrity audiences in Los Angeles, that show, “The World According to Me!,” opened on Broadway in December 1986 and ran for two years. It earned Mason a special Tony Award in 1987, as well as an Emmy for writing when HBO aired an abridged version in 1988.

“I didn’t think it would work,” Mason said. “But people, when they come into a theater, see you in a whole new light. It’s like taking a picture from a kitchen and hanging it in a museum.”

In 1991 Mason married Rosenfeld, who survives him. He is also survived by a daughter, comedian Sheba Mason, from a relationship with Ginger Reiter in the 1970s and 1980s.

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