He may be America’s greatest living comedian, but if you relied on British television you might never have heard of Jackie Mason. In this country, he must be the most underrated stand-up in the business. You have to see him live — and the opportunities are getting rarer. Three years ago Jackie Mason came to London on a farewell tour. This summer he returned to the West End for another — positively final — one-man show. “I’ve reached the age when people are afraid to buy a ticket in advance,” he says as he comes on stage. It’s a joke, of course, but he really is 83.
Mason’s long forehead sits above jutting eyebrows and heavy-lidded blue eyes undimmed by age. An accentuated nose and deep lines around a mocking mouth augment his comic persona. He is dressed in black; his hands shine luminously against the darkened stage. For the next two hours his face and a microphone are all he has to reduce the audience to helpless laughter.
How often do British comedians make fun of Barack Obama? Mason shows him no mercy. “Obama said, ‘You can’t go into Crimea’ and Putin said, ‘I am going into Crimea’ and Obama said, ‘It’s up to you’.” Jackie mimics the way Obama relies on his teleprompters (or tchotchkes, as he prefers to call them): “Without them he can’t even say hello.”
Jackie Mason has made an art form of getting wound up and the more wound-up he gets, the more exuberant is his Yiddish. He never bows to political correctness, and nobody is spared from his satire, including not only David Cameron, both Milibands and Hillary Clinton, but gay and black people and anybody else that other comedians tiptoe around. He certainly doesn’t spare his audience. “All these are jokes, Mister,” he says to one unlucky man in the front row. “Do you even know what I do for a living?” To another: “As a man who doesn’t look too intelligent, what would you say?”
He likes taking the world of celebrities down a peg or two. Should the Oscars be the biggest media event of the year, he wonders. “You could put an end to cancer, and it would mean nothing compared to the fact that an actor made a movie. What’s more important: a movie or a toilet?” When people come out of a movie, he concludes, “Some liked it and some didn’t. But when people come out of a toilet — they’re the happiest people in the world.”
Time and again he turns to his favourite schtick: the Jews. “This show is already too good for these prices. Are any gentiles in this audience?” A loud “yeah” sounds from the (actually very diverse) audience. “This is a good time to get out,” he says. “Gentiles always love me.” His melodious voice drops. “I only have trouble with Jews. Half of the Jews are crazy about me and the other half says —ach, he’s so Jewish, I can’t take it. Why does he have to sound so Jewish, can’t he talk like a noymal person? Jews are the only people embarrassed by a Jewish accent. Never heard a Jew say I don’t like him, he sounds too Spanish, but Jewish — ach. Makes them feel like a refugee.”
Mason’s routine sounds improvised, but it’s carefully crafted and his comic timing is still spot-on. “No Jew is ever comfortable and happy,” he says. “When the show is over, the gentiles will stand up and walk out, there will be no problem. The Jews will get up and say, there’s something wrong with my leg. When I walk like this, I don’t feel it, but when I go like that, I do. I’ve never seen a completely healthy Jew. If it’s not bothering you, it’s bothering your wife.” The audience loves it.
Born Yacov Moshe Maza in Wisconsin, Mason grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. At the age of 25 he was ordained a rabbi, like his three brothers, father and grandfather before him. At services, he used to tell jokes to highlight a point. Before long, people mainly came to hear his jokes. Gentiles came too. “Everybody said: ‘Rabbi, why don’t you become a comedian?’ Then I said to myself, maybe that’s a great idea.”
From humble comic beginnings in the Borscht Belt in upstate New York, Mason rose to be a star in the 1960s. He became a regular performer on The Ed Sullivan Show, shared a stage with the Beatles (“four kids in search of a voice who needed haircuts”), and had a row with Frank Sinatra. His persona epitomises generations of Jewish humour.
Though Jackie Mason is still underrated in Britain, he has achieved more than many British comedians. He has done eight Royal Command Performances and shows at the Royal Albert Hall and Royal Opera House. But he has always been an outspoken defender of Israel. Not everybody likes that here — least of all the BBC.
A story from the Talmud comes to mind. A rabbi is walking through a Persian market when the Prophet Elijah appears to him. The rabbi asks Elijah: “Is there anyone here who merits a place in the world to come?” Elijah points at two men walking by. Burning with curiosity, the rabbi asks them what they do for a living. “Jesters,” they say. No doubt Jackie Mason knew this story when he switched careers. But he ends his show just as a rabbi might: by blessing and thanking his audience.