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’m proud of it because it is a reflection of the culture and the character of the Jews as a people. Jewish behavior, Jewish values, Jewish attitudes, everything about the world, the life of the Jew is encapsulated in this kind of comedy. Comedy is only an exaggeration of the truth. And it reflected the basic characteristics of the Jewish personality. So, you saw all the different elements, why and how Jews behave as they do in this country. Comedy doesn’t mean anything if there isn’t a basis of truth in it. Because you wouldn’t laugh at it if you didn’t recognize yourself or your neighbor in it. I’ll tell you a secret. It doesn’t have to be profound to be funny. It doesn’t have to be original to be funny. It’s just funny. My comedy became popular because people in general identify with it. They feel that I’m basically talking about them, and I’m reflecting on their lives; it’s a kind of a mirror of their behavior. Not only that, it’s a commentary on it, an evaluation of their behavior. Comedy has a point of view and basically, you can see what I think of it by the way I express it, by the attitudes of the comedy I find in it. That’s why it becomes a kind of social or psychological commentary. When I talk about the obsession with luxuries that some Jews have, that tells you very much about their whole personality problem: desperation for identity, for status, for position. He is involved in a contest with everybody around him to prove that he’s achieved more than the next person. And the best way he can prove he’s more successful than you is by what he buys, what he owns. And how expensive it is. That’s why Jewish people very often buy a thing for 10 times the money that everybody else thinks it’s worth. They can’t even figure out why they bought it. But because it’s expensive they’re anxious to pay for it to prove to themselves they can afford it and prove to you that they can buy it. That tells you more about a person’s personality than a hundred books. This is the way they achieve respect. If I can buy a $5,000 pocketbook, I suddenly become more successful than you through the pocketbook. What they can afford has become more important than anything else about their behavior. They have two problems. First they have to buy it. Then they have to figure out how to make sure you know it. That’s why Jewish jackets can be 10 times louder than Gentile jackets; that’s why their cars are 10 times longer.
And you came out of a very different tradition when you grew up.
I came from a religious family. I was so absorbed with religion that I didn’t think about material things. We weren’t involved with Jewish contests, with status. There was no status among the Orthodox Jews. How can you judge a person as more successful because he has a more expensive car? A fancier jacket? A bigger apartment? A nameplate on the shoes? You judge a person by how far they went scholastically, if he or she became a philosopher, a thinker, a writer, an artist, a scientist. A grand rabbi. They don’t wait to see his shorts or his shirts. Look at this new pope: how humble he is. He’s already made himself popular.
You were a big hit at the Oxford Union and in the English parliament. You have had an endowment Chair in Judaic and Hebraic Studies at Oxford University for the past 20 years. You have a radio show in England that is top-rated among intellectuals. And you are widely loved in Ireland. You say that you are even more popular in these countries than in America. Why is this the case? Can you talk about your experiences in these countries and how you feel about it?
Whenever you hear an English accent, in your mind you elevate the person to a higher level of intelligence. Because immediately you think you’re talking to Shakespeare. And you’re very honored that an Englishman respects you, because you feel he comes from a higher culture, a finer level of scholarship. He has some kind of a unique education that you can’t identify, but you somehow think it’s on a higher level than yours; you don’t know why. A guy could be a murderer but he says he kills people with an English accent and you can’t believe he killed somebody, because he sounds too cultured to do anything wrong. That’s a better mask than a mask. And ironically they don’t think of Americans as more highly educated than they are.
But they envy Americans because America is such an all-encompassing country and the center of all the popular culture in the world. The English are considered the most cultured people, but the most popular culture is the American culture. It’s ironic that while we worship the British for having Shakespeare and Dickens and what we think of as the great scholars of the world, the operas of the world, everything that represents high culture, the fact of the matter is that we’re 10 times more popular than they are. Cultured people know that they’re speaking to a limited audience. And when they see something that’s universally popular, they can’t help envying it. It’s a big thing to be a star on the stage in England. But the biggest star’s dream is to be a big star in America. In America we don’t dream of being a star in England. I never heard of an American prizefighter, an American actor, a baseball player, anybody, saying that his greatest dream is that he should captivate Leeds. No, what bothers him is that he never played Madison Square Garden.
Dan Shadur talks about his new documentary about life under the Shah, and his parents’ golden years in Tehran