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
As to the Oxford Union and the English parliament: Because the British envy America, they enjoy seeing an American character like me. And I represented America to them. And Jewish. A Jewish New Yorker is a colorful interesting novelty to them, because they think of it as some kind of exotica. It becomes an experience. It’s like going to the circus: You see tricks you never saw before. And this is a trick they know they can’t see in England. So, I saved them a trip to America by coming to them, and they got a kick out of it as soon as I said “Hello.” Before I went over, everyone thought I would bomb. Because they couldn’t imagine it. Since Americans have an inferiority complex toward England since they see it as the culture capital and we’re supposed to be the street corner capital. So, they all felt the British would look down on me, they wouldn’t enjoy it, they wouldn’t know what I was talking about. I felt they were full of crap because all I knew was that whenever I spoke to an Englishman, he laughed.
When you went over you were that sure it would work?
I felt positive of it, right. What were the most popular sitcoms in America? The blacks. But it took them 50 years to get on television with a black sitcom because the executives thought whites would never identify with a black family situation or black characters in their own world. They thought it was a different world from the whites and they would never understand it or enjoy it. And it was exactly the opposite. Because it was so different was the reason they liked it so much. They thought the opposite. It was a stupid supposition to start with.
Tell me about your experiences going to Israel during the Gulf War. I know you almost got killed. Why did you go? What were the soldiers’ reactions?
The Jews were all nervous and scared about what might happen because nobody was able to predict the level of danger that would be involved. All they knew was that the Arabs had scud missiles that could come down at any time and place. The Israelis had some kind of system that was supposed to intercept and block these missiles. But we didn’t know how effective they would be and what would happen to the country. There was a real fear that they could wipe out the whole state of Israel. Everybody in Israel got panicky, and a lot of people started leaving the country. When I took the plane coming in, the plane was packed with people coming out. And when I told the Israelis I was coming, they looked at me like I was a maniac. They didn’t know if I was such a great patriot or just a nutcase. The Israeli embassy initially discouraged me from going. Because they couldn’t imagine someone coming into Israel at a time like that. But I was insistent. I felt it was a moral obligation for a Jew to show support at a time like that when the fate of the state was imperiled.
When we arrived, I was surprised: I thought no one would notice my arrival during a time of war. But I was treated like a hero: Generals, admirals, colonels, representatives of the whole government, the mayor of Tel Aviv; all kinds of people in the highest echelons of the government congratulated me and said how much they appreciated my coming there at a time like that. They were obviously very surprised.
You were the only star to come over?
Yes. The moment the press conference started, a scud hit the building nearby. People got killed. They pulled us upstairs to safety. Although there was no such thing as safety; nobody knew what building would get bombed. Every night the bombs went off around 5 or 6 o’clock. Everybody would run out of the dining room and never pay a check. During the day they took me around to visit the troops and army generals. They had the situation room at the Tel Aviv Hilton with the IDF giving briefings on the scuds and the battles. I got the briefings first.
What was it like entertaining the troops?
Just like you saw Bob Hope doing it before the army camps. They laugh before you tell the jokes. They were more anxious to show their appreciation than they even cared about the jokes. So, they were applauding to let me know how happy they were to see me and how thrilled they were that I came to them.
Were you secretly afraid the Israelis might lose?
Never. It never entered my mind. Nobody in Israel was afraid of that. They were just concerned about the uncertainty, the fear of gas missiles, the scuds. Everybody was desperately worried about that. They never thought it would destroy Israel, but they didn’t know where the hell they would fall. Everybody was waiting to hear the sirens. Everybody in Israel had a gas mask. They knew you had to jump out of the way.
Ariel Sharon was the housing minister then. You went to visit him?
He was always crazy about me. We had often spoken about Israeli politics. His opinions of everything. He always confided in me; it was off-the-cuff conversations. So, we go visit him. It was in the afternoon. We had our gas masks and everything. I met with Uri Dan and Sharon and we kibbitzed. I said to my wife Jyll, “We’re probably safest here with Sharon.” So, I said to Sharon, “If there’s an attack, where do we go for safety?” Sharon said, “What do you mean, ‘where do you go?’ ” I said, “Don’t you go somewhere?” Sharon said no. Like he was saying, “If I get killed, I get killed.” It didn’t seem to bother him. There was no safety where he was. No protection of any kind. The house wasn’t a fortress, no tanks or guns. You just saw a Jew in a little building, like an accountant in a little office. He admitted to me if a missile struck, we’d be wiped out in a second. I said other people had all kinds of precautions. He said, “I don’t.” I said, “Then what the hell am I sitting here for?” If he could get killed, who’s going to save me?
Dan Shadur talks about his new documentary about life under the Shah, and his parents’ golden years in Tehran