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
Which comics make you laugh, living and dead?
There are hundreds of comics that make me laugh. Right now among the young comedians there’s a tendency to depend on vulgarity, filth, and dirt. But just because they depend a lot on dirt doesn’t mean they’re not funny. When they’re not filthy, a lot of them have a lot of hilarious things to say. As a matter of fact, I think the young comedians are funnier because they depend on more knowledge and sophistication. They’re much more intelligent and educated than the comedians that started out in my day. In my day they had a poolroom, a street-corner mentality. Most of them didn’t go to college; they had no real education. Their mind wasn’t in the direction of information, knowledge, study, or learning. Being street-corner people, their comedy was limited to contact humor among people on the corner. But today comedians are so much more intellectually aware, they’re so much more intelligent. Someone who becomes a comedian today usually just came out of college. He studied to be a dentist or a lawyer and then he saw it was a rough life getting started. So, he started to hang out with his friends in a comedy club because that’s where the pretty girls were. And he started to notice that comedians got girls easier than other people. That being on the stage was an attraction. Not only that; you didn’t have to get up in the morning to make a living. So, he started to become attracted to the idea of telling jokes. Be a playboy and have a good time and enjoy life at what you do.
But George Carlin was a genius and a favorite of mine. He used to come to my shows and I came to his. We were cordial acquaintances, not exactly friends. He sent me his tapes and he asked me for mine. We worked in similar ways, but he did it in a dirty way and I did it in a clean way. We both commented on human behavior, reflected on life in general. Comments about society, democracy, pretentiousness, lawlessness, the difference between good and evil, hate and love, the story behind the scenes. What a man is really like compared to what he pretends to be. All the sicknesses of people. Phoniness, crookedness, everything. This is my field.
Were you astonished at how quickly you became a success?
I would say I was astonished. Because I didn’t know where I was going career-wise. I didn’t really have any career ambitions when I started out. All of a sudden things started to move. It moved very fast, and I was just keeping up with the fact that I was catching on. I was just having a good time watching it move. I didn’t know where it was going and I had no sense of direction, because I knew nothing about show business. I’d been a rabbi for almost two years.
You thought it would be hypocritical to continue to be a rabbi?
I wasn’t as religious as I thought a rabbi should be. I didn’t want to pretend I was a strictly Orthodox man. I didn’t want to compromise by working as a Conservative rabbi. In my opinion the purity of the religion shouldn’t be compromised. I said to myself, either you’re purely dedicated or you shouldn’t be here at all.
That means you believed deeply in Judaism.
Yes, but I didn’t want to make the sacrifices necessary to practice it.
Because you were a believer, you didn’t want to violate it.
Yes, I had too much respect for it. It’s a beautiful thing, the things it represents. All the values. If you compromise any of them, you shouldn’t be in it.
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