Comedian Jackie Mason—Who Turns 82 Sunday—Is Still Really, Really Funny
But in an in-depth interview with Tablet Magazine, he also gets serious about Israel, anti-Semitism, and why Italians love him
I met Jackie Mason for the first time a few months ago at the kosher Great American Health Bar on West 57th Street in Manhattan. My friend Mike Fiorito went up to him and told him a joke. “What kind of a shmuck tells me a joke?” Mason said. I introduced myself and gave him my card. A month later he called me. We’ve been shmoozing together ever since.
Mason looks like his pictures from 20 years ago, with black hair and sad, alert eyes. He is intelligent, youthful, and nimble and strides across the street without looking right or left. Usually, he doesn’t have to. Wherever he goes, he is a conspicuous celebrity. Every time we walk down a Manhattan street together, he is greeted like a rock star by scores of people from all ethnic groups who go crazy at the sight of him. They run up to him and embrace him. Before he was 25, Mason left the hearth in Sheboygan, Wisc., and made his way to the Catskills, where he became an overnight sensation. He has remained a star in a much broader arena ever since.
What does it mean to you to be a Jew?
It means that the chances are you are going to be a more intelligent person, and you’ll have more decency, and you’ll help people whether they deserve it or not. And no matter what crime any person from any denomination commits, somehow you’ll always convince yourself it’s your fault.
Why have you stayed so identifiably Jewish in your accent and your subject matter?
I didn’t emphasize my Jewishness because I wanted to. I just happen to have been raised in a family where everybody happened to talk like this, so why would I talk like somebody else? And it’s not true that my act is about Judaism. It sounds like Judaism, but my act is about all kinds of people, but because I sound so Jewish, people are too stupid to separate the sound from the substance.
How did you become attracted to comedy?
I became attracted to it because I was a rabbi. And I started to tell jokes in my sermons.
As everybody told me how funny I was, I said to myself: I’ll try it. And I also didn’t want to get up at eight o’clock in the morning. Come the summertime, I found out that all the Jews went to the Catskill Mountains for the summer, and it would be more fun to go to the Catskills than do what I was doing. And while I was there, I saw I could get a job there. Everybody who was going to college was paying for tuition by working as a busboy or a waiter there. So, I said I’ll do that too. It was a way to make a living. I started as a busboy, but I stunk as a busboy because the dishes were very heavy to carry. They kept flopping out of my hands. The boss came over to me. He liked me because I was a character on the grounds; I was funny to the people, and everybody was enjoying me. So, he didn’t want to lose me altogether. So, he said to me, “Would you like to be a lifeguard?” I said to him, “I’ll be honest with you. I don’t swim too good.” “Do you swim at all?” I said, “Very little.” He said, “You don’t have to tell anybody. Nobody has to know. Keep your mouth shut.” So, I became a lifeguard. It started to become known among the guests that I couldn’t swim, and it became the big joke of the place. Everybody threatened to push me into the pool. People started to tell jokes about it: “Hey, my kid can’t swim. Do you want to be responsible? It’s going to be your problem if he drowns.”
Then they started to have amateur nights. Anybody could get up and entertain. Now they call them “Open Mike” or “Karaoke.” So, then I told all the jokes about being a lifeguard. I said, “I want to warn everybody here. If you can’t swim, be careful. If you go into the pool, you’ll be endangering your life and you’ll also be endangering the life of the lifeguard.” Those were the jokes I was telling. Then I started to play other hotels because I was a hit there as a comedian. I got $25. Very quickly I started to move up from the small hotels to the middle hotels to the very top hotels. By the time the season was over I was playing Grossinger’s and the Concord. In one season, I went from $25 a show to $135 a show.
Did you take notes for your comedy, or was it directly out of experience?
It was out of experience; I’m not going to lie to you. But I didn’t just walk on the stage of the Concord and take a chance of just telling a joke. I was thinking all day about ideas for comedy. I didn’t write down much of it, but I gave myself notes and lines and ideas in my head. I figured out a routine, and I worked on it to perfect it.
Do you feel out an audience?
Every comedian feels out an audience. As you’re telling jokes if they’re not laughing at this, you change the subject. Don’t you do that in a conversation? An intelligent conversationalist doesn’t sit there and watch the guy fall asleep.
Have you experienced much anti-Semitism in your life?
I did 45 years ago, but I haven’t in the last 30 because the Gentiles in America have changed from looking down at a Jew 40 years ago to looking up to a Jew today. They used to condescend to a Jew; now they apologize to me for not being a Jew. They say their sister-in-law is a Jew, they’re married to a Jew, they’re trying to move into a Jewish neighborhood, they want to be a Jew. The only anti-Semitism that I suffer from today is from Jews.
Would you agree that you have never really been a “Catskill, borscht belt” comedian? Whitney Balliett in his profile of you in The New Yorker in 1988 said that your comedy is “contagious, rampaging surrealism. It immediately lifts [your comedy] from its purposed level of Catskills comedy (which it has never been anyway) to that giddy plane where W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers sport.”
Your question is based on the preposterous, popular assumption that Catskills comedy is either crude, simple, or lowbrow. Actually the opposite is true. It comes from the embarrassment that the Jewish people always felt about being the refugee without status: an outsider and an imposter who never quite belonged in America. I don’t think of it as a compliment when people say I’m not a mountains comic. I started as a Catskills mountain comedian, and if people would understand what that means, they would see why I’m proud of it.
Can you explain why you’re proud of it?
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