The Wild Career of Jackie Mason

Jackie Mason holds up a copy of his comedy album The World According to Me at the Carnegie Deli in 1987. Photo: Robert R. McElroy/Getty Images

Did you ever notice that Gentiles on vacation are always running and jumping and leaping around? A Jew on a vacation is looking for a place to sit. A Jew sees a chair, it’s a successful vacation.”

Jackie Mason was born Yacov Moshe Maza on June 9, 1928. It was his destiny to become a rabbi, just like his three older brothers, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. He studied at a yeshiva, was ordained, and even led small congregations in Weldon, North Carolina, and Latrobe, Pennsylvania. But Rabbi Maza had another calling: stand-up comedy. He went back and forth between the two disciplines for several years, but after his father’s death in 1959, he left the rabbinate for good. Maza changed his name to Jackie Mason and headed to the Catskill Mountains to become, as he liked to put it, “a sensation.”

Mason had a distinctive performance style: staccato cadence, jabbing hand gestures, and a thick Yiddish accent. He did well in the Borscht Belt but was repeatedly told that his act was “too Jewish” for mainstream clubs. So Mason offered a deal to the booker of a small Los Angeles nightclub called the Slate Brothers: He said he’d work their room for free in exchange for a tryout.

So in March 1960, Mason came out to the West Coast, immediately impressed the club’s owners, and, after his first show, was signed up for a two-week run. Around this time, The Hollywood Reporter caught his act and declared that Mason was “on the verge of crashing the big time.” This was prophetic. The Steve Allen Plymouth Show, then a prime-time NBC-TV variety show, decided to put the young comic on the air. Mason made his television debut on April 11, 1960, just one month after trying his luck in L.A.

After Steve Allen, Mason moved easily to late-night comedy on NBC’s Tonight Show, then hosted by Jack Paar. Mason did a dozen spots for Paar over the next ten months. Other variety and talk shows followed, including The Ed Sullivan Show.

The Ed Sullivan Show was the premiere TV showcase for comedians and singers of that era. Successful shots on Sullivan’s 8 p.m. Sunday-night variety show could lead to high-paying gigs at clubs and maybe even film and television roles. Sullivan adored Mason and contributed some of the liner notes for Mason’s second comedy album, 1963’s I Want to Leave You With the Words of a Great Comedian.

Mason’s agents begged him to get speech and elocution lessons to help mitigate his thick Yiddish accent. He refused. Mason had a stubborn cultural pride and thought that Jewish comics ran away from their Lower East Side ethnic markers. Luckily for Mason, in the early 1960s, the public was embracing Americanized Jewishness as never before. Mel Brooks released his 2000 Year Old Man album, Harry Belafonte recorded “Hava Nagila,” and the nebbishy Allan Sherman would soon dominate the pop charts with a string of comedy-parody albums beginning with My Son, the Folk Singer. Mason’s act was a nice fit for the time. He soon was playing club dates all across the country.

Mason recording his album I Want To Leave You With the Words of a Great Comedian in New York on February 20, 1963. Photo: PoPsie Randolph/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

By the summer of 1964, Mason had appeared on Sullivan ten times and signed on to do six more spots at an impressive $7,500 a pop. The first of these shows, under the new contract, was on the night of October 18, 1964. Unfortunately, two events conspired to nearly derail Mason’s ascending career.

First, the studio audience was populated with teenagers excited to see the U.S. television debut of a new British band, the Animals (they were riding the popularity of their No. 1 hit, “House of the Rising Sun”). Earlier that year, The Ed Sullivan Show had triggered a cultural tidal wave when another British band, the Beatles, made their stunning U.S. TV debut. Teenage rock-and-roll fans were notoriously difficult crowds for stand-ups and comedy teams.

Second, the show was interrupted by a nationwide television address by President Lyndon Johnson (it was just 16 days before Election Day). Johnson’s foreign-policy speech centered on “Red China” successfully detonating an atomic device and thus becoming the fifth member of the nuclear club. The show cut away to the president’s somber speech at 8:30 p.m.

Johnson’s address was supposed to run 30 minutes, but it ran short, so CBS News cut back to The Ed Sullivan Show. This is where the trouble began. It wasn’t clear when the feed was picked up, so Sullivan walked over to Mason, in full view of the crowd, and started waving two fingers, indicating to wrap up in two minutes. Mason was already struggling to connect with the teenagers, so in a split-second decision, he decided to incorporate Sullivan’s hand gestures into his act. Mason playfully improvised around that moment, mimicking Sullivan and saying, “Getting lots of fingers tonight. Here’s a finger for you and a finger for you and a finger for you.” Mason finally got some nice laughs and left the stage.

Unfortunately for Mason, Sullivan believed he had just been flipped off by the 36-year-old comic.

Sullivan wasn’t exactly sure when the CBS News feed had ceased. But after the show wrapped, Sullivan learned that Mason’s finger-jabbing improvisation had indeed gone out live on the air, and he lost it. He berated Mason, cursed him a blue streak, threatened to ruin his career, withheld the money for the performance, and canceled the rest of the contract. Comic and impressionist John Byner, also on the show that night, heard the obscenity-laced barrage through Sullivan’s office door.

This was a comedian’s nightmare. In less than one minute, Mason was banned from the most influential variety show in America and his reputation torpedoed. In addition to being “too Jewish,” Mason was now “too dirty.”

As powerful as Sullivan was, he couldn’t completely blackball Mason. Following the event, Mason performed on other shows (Hollywood Palace, Dean Martin, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin) but felt that his career trajectory had taken a hit. So in early 1965, Mason fought back. He sued Sullivan (and the show’s producer) for libel and defamation. He claimed that he was just trying to have fun and didn’t even know that “the finger” could be construed as an obscene gesture. Mason wanted his $45,000 plus about $3 million more in damages.

Both sides lawyered up. Sullivan’s legal team tried to have the case dismissed but was rebuffed when a Brooklyn judge ruled, after viewing a 16-mm. kinescope of the show, that there was no visual evidence that Mason had flipped off Sullivan with an obscene gesture. To the chagrin of Sullivan’s lawyers, the judge revealed that he was very familiar with Mason’s jabby hand-gesture style since he and his wife had seen the comedian perform in the Catskill Mountains years earlier.

Sullivan eventually apologized to Mason and invited him back on the show two years after the incident. In return, Mason dropped the lawsuit. Mason made another seven appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, between 1966 and 1969, at $7,500 per shot.

But Mason’s career had somewhat stalled. Whether this was owed to fallout from the Sullivan incident, the one-dimensional aspect of his act, the rise of other comics (George Carlin, Joan Rivers, Rodney Dangerfield, and Bill Cosby), or Mason getting in feuds with other performers (including Frank Sinatra), the answer is unknowable. Then, to add insult to injury, Mason helped finance, co-write, and star in one of Broadway’s most notorious flops: a play called A Teaspoon Every Four Hours. The show had 97 previews. It opened on June 14, 1969. It closed June 14, 1969. There was one performance. The reviews were brutal.

In the 1970s, Mason toiled in the wilderness. He went from headlining Vegas casinos like the Aladdin to playing second-rate clubs in Miami and New Jersey. Along with most of the Borscht Belt generation of comics, he now seemed like a relic from another time, an act permanently suspended in amber. Mason still found occasional supporting, cameo, and voice-over work in other comedians’ films like Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973), Steve Martin’s The Jerk (1979), and Mel Brooks’s The History of The World, Part One (1981), but the pickings were slim.

In 1983, Mason declared bankruptcy.

Then, just three years later, he engineered one of the most spectacular rebounds in stand-up comedy history.

With the encouragement of his manager Jyll Rosenfeld (they would eventually marry), Mason decided to repurpose his old nightclub act into a one-man show. He was inspired by another comic, Dick Shawn, who had successfully done that trick. In the mid-1970s, Shawn created a show called The Second Greatest Entertainer in the Whole Wide World. An Off Broadway run gave the comedian some theatrical legitimacy, especially after it scored a Drama Desk Award nomination in 1978. Shawn was able to tour small theaters and colleges for the rest of his life, and Mason and Rosenfeld hoped to repeat that model.

They succeeded in the most spectacular fashion. And it all happened in just six months.

In June 1986, Mason rented out the Las Palmas Theatre in Hollywood and debuted The World According to Me! The show was not a success out of the gate but quickly generated positive word-of-mouth. Three months later, the production migrated to the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills, where it began selling out. Neil Simon called it “the funniest single night I’ve spent in the theater in the last ten years.” Mel Brooks added, “Nobody makes me laugh harder.”

Veteran TV producer Nick Vanoff believed in the show’s potential beyond small theaters and decided to underwrite its move to Broadway. Mason was extremely dubious; after all, he had suffered his most crushing and public humiliation back in 1969 at the hands of New York City theater critics. But this time, it would be entirely different.

On December 21, 1986, the New York Times wrote these career-changing words: “In his one-man show, ‘The World According to Me!,’ which opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson, Mr. Mason gives hilarious testimony to the art of the stand-up comic.”

Heady stuff for a 58-year-old washed-up mountain comic. And it didn’t stop there. During awards season, Walter Matthau presented Mason with a special Tony Award. He called Mason “a profound and hilarious chronicler of our life and times.”

Over the next 20 years, Mason rode the juice of his unlikely Broadway triumph. He successfully toured the U.S., Canada, England, Israel, and South Africa. Hollywood threw him leading roles in a sitcom (Chicken Soup) and a movie (Caddyshack II) — they both fizzled. Not for nothing, Mason did get cast as Krusty the Clown’s father (Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky), first seen in season three of The Simpsons. He took home an Emmy Award in 1992 for his voice work on the show.

But Mason’s home was the Broadway stage, and he kept returning until he ran out of jokes. Every two years or so, Mason would create a new show with names like Much Ado About Everything, Brand New, Politically Incorrect, Love Thy Neighbor, and Prune Danish. The last installment, in 2005, was called Jackie Mason: Freshly Squeezed — Just One Jew Talking.

When it was all done, Mason had performed stand-up comedy, alone on a Broadway stage, more than 1,700 times — by far the most in the history of the American theater. A lot of his routines were sharpened during decades of sweating it out in dead-end nightclubs. Only now, instead of audiences sitting at tables and holding a drink, they were seated in rows of cushy seats and holding a program. Perhaps no one summed up Mason’s wild and improbable career like the man himself. As he explained to the New York Times in late 1986, “In the clubs I was just another character from Brooklyn. And now I’m art.”

The Wild Career of Jackie Mason