Jackie Mason: Renegade Rabbi

Today we celebrate Jacov Moshe Maza (b. 1928), better known to the world as Jackie Mason. (NB: I’ll be sidestepping the issue of his politics completely. It’s the only way I can do this).

Mason is a last link in two very long lines. One: he is, or was, a FIFTH generation rabbi. Two: he may well be the last of a certain stand-up comedy breed, and by that I mean a major comedian who is a veteran of the Borscht Belt. 

Mason’s parents were from Minsk. He was born in Sheboygan, but raised in New York’s Lower east Side, where everyone still spoke Yiddish, hence his distinctive accent. As a teenager he worked hotels in the Catskills as a busboy and a lifeguard. By the mid 1950s (after college and his fledgling career as a rabbi) he was working those hotels as a comic. In the early 1960s he began appearing frequently on television, as one of an entire generation of Jewish stand-up comedians (just off the top of my head and at random: Lenny Bruce, Alan King, Jan Murray, Shecky Greene, Mort Sahl, Joey Bishop, Jack Carter, Woody Allen, etc etc etc.). During these years you could see him on The Garry Moore Show, The Tonight Show (under both Jack Paar and Johnny Carson), and of course The Ed Sullivan Show. 

In 1964 there occurred the heavily mythologized incident on The Ed Sullivan Show that Mason has always contended hindered his career. He made a hand motion that Sullivan misinterpreted as a middle finger or some other obscene gesture, and he was banned from the show. Mason has claimed that he was blacklisted from show business at that point. Yet in the immediate period AFTER this event, he was booked on The Hollywood Palace, The Mike Douglas Show, The Merv Griffin Show, Hollywood Squares, The Joey Bishop Show, The Dean Martin Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and The David Frost Show. It wasn’t until 1970, six years AFTER that event, and just shy of Ed Sullivan’s own cancellation that Mason disappears from television. If there is an explanation for that, it’s got nothing to do with Sullivan. I think it’s much more likely that he was simply considered drastically unhip in that time of George Carlin, Richard Pryor, National Lampoon, and All in the Family. In 1969, he premiered his first Broadway show A Teaspoon Every Four Years, which was legendary for playing 97 previews and closing following opening night.

Live concert dates filled most of Mason’s time during the 1970s. In 1973, he did a voice over as the funny Jewish robot in Woody Allen’s Sleeper. In 1974 he starred in his first film The Stoolie, co-directed by John Avildson, hot off Joe (1970) and Save the Tiger (1973). In 1977 he performed on several Dean Martin celebrity roasts. In 1979, he was in Steve Martin’s The Jerk (directed by Carl Reiner); in 1981, he was in Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part One. Several other lesser known films followed. It’s hard to make a case for martyrdom even during these years.

Still, it wasn’t until 1986 that Mason became a household name to people of my generation who were too young to have seen him on television during the 1960s. At the age of 58, he had his first hit solo Broadway show, The World According to Me, which ran for two years. This was followed by Brand New (1990-91), Politically Incorrect (1994-95), Love Thy Neighbor (1996-97), Much Ado About Everything (1999-2000), Prune Danish (2002), Laughing Room Only (2003), and Freshly Squeezed (2005). This led to appearances on major talk shows like those of David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, and Arsenio Hall, as well as his own sitcom Chicken Soup (1989), his own talk show (1992), and then a series of his own TV specials. He starred in Caddyshack II (1988). In 2011, he starred in the film Goldberg P.I. And since 1991 he has had a recurring role on The Simpsons as Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky (Krusty the Klown’s father). His most recent performance in that role was in 2019!

To learn more about variety entertainment, including tv variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,