‘One Jew Talking?’: Jackie Mason heads to Newark
Sidebar Articles: Jackie Mason at NJPAC
One month before he was to go on stage at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in a one-man show called Freshly Squeezed, Jackie Mason had no doubt he will be a smash.
“I’ve played Newark several times, and I was a sensation each time,” he told NJ Jewish News, speaking by phone from his agent’s office in Manhattan.
In a page devoted to his Saturday, Oct. 14, appearance, the NJPAC Web site describes Mason as “a politically incorrect master of shtick” and says that “the sheer scope of his riffs is a mixture of chutzpah and macho, slicing and dicing everything in sight.”
In this one-man show, which he has been performing since the 2004 election season, he delves into such topics as same-sex marriages, celebrities on trial, and political races.
Before Freshly Squeezed opened on Broadway in 2005, Mason described it as “just me one Jew talking, and that’s it.”
For more than a half-century, this talking Jew has been showing signs of unusual if not outrageous behavior. Born Jacob Maza in Sheboygan, Wis., in 1931, Mason was raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan surrounded by religious Jews. His father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather were rabbis. So are his three brothers. And so was Jackie for all of three years. Then he became a comedian.
“I thought I would make a lot more money. I was a devoted Jew, which I still am, and I’m very proud of my heritage and the traditions and values of Judaism. But I said to myself, ‘A rabbi is like a politician. He has to keep winning over the public. It’s a murderous job for very little money.’ And I said to myself, ‘Religion is beautiful, but cash is king.’”
Mason said his “strictly Orthodox” family “all got nauseous” when he left the rabbinate. “Not only nauseous, also furious. They looked at me like I was a traitor. They couldn’t believe it. If I had become an animal trainer in a circus they would have been happier.”
So he essentially ran away from home to join a different sort of circus in the Catskill Mountains “borscht belt” of New York State.
His first on-the-job training at the Kenmore Lake Hotel and Livingston Manor paid $65 a week, and Mason said he remembers the gig as “an easy, comfortable way to start a career.”
A few years later, in 1962, he was booked on The Ed Sullivan Show, and a gesture he made on live TV before a national audience put that career in jeopardy.
Mason claimed he was mocking a stage manager’s hand-signaled time cues. Sullivan thought the comic was giving the audience “the finger.” Three decades later, Mason said the misunderstanding “put me in the s-house for 20 years,” while the legendary emcee used his broad influence to keep the comedian off TV.
Ultimately, the two men reconciled before Sullivan’s death in 1974. “It was preposterous nonsense,” Mason explained. “He was ignorant of what I was doing. It was a product of a misunderstanding.”
With diligence, the comic worked his way back into the limelight, coming back strong on Broadway in 1988 with a one-man show called The World According to Me. It won him Tony and Ace awards and a Grammy nomination.
Two years later he was back again with Jackie Mason: Brand New.
In 1994 he added his name to his next effort Jackie Mason: Politically Incorrect thus dodging litigation with television satirist Bill Maher whose comedy TV talk show, also Politically Incorrect, was then appearing on ABC.
Since then, Mason has performed in three more Broadway shows before launching Freshly Squeezed Love Thy Neighbor, Much Ado About Everything, and Prune Danish.
Offstage, he has partnered with divorce attorney Raoul Felder in on-line political commentary that appears in Jewish World Review, with views that are often conservative and contrarian.
Unlike many other Jews, Mason came to the defense of Mel Gibson after the actor-director was stopped for suspected drunken driving in Los Angeles last July and, in response, hurled anti-Semitic epithets at a Jewish police officer.
“I wasn’t half as outraged as other people,” Mason said. “I care more about what a person does in his life than what he might have said in a drunken stupor. A lot of people have subconscious hate that might have come out.”
He is currently embroiled in a $2 million lawsuit against Jews for Jesus, who caricatured his face for the front page of a pamphlet they circulated during a proselytizing drive in the New York area last summer. The cover bore the words: “Jackie Mason…A Jew for Jesus?”
“It was a disgusting thing they did,” he said. “Without asking my opinion, they decided to identify me with an organization. What if somebody decided tomorrow that you’re an Eskimo instead of a Jew? It’s a total fraud about my convictions. It distorts who I am and what I am. They have no right to steal your identity and give you a new title just because they feel like it.”
“We treat Mr. Mason respectfully and in no way say that he is a follower of Jesus,” wrote Jews for Jesus executive director David Brickner on the group’s Web site. “Jackie may be as Jewish as a matzoh ball, but Jesus is as Jewish as chicken soup. It is our hope that this issue will not have to go through the courts.”
But what about Mason’s use of the term “schwartze,” the Yiddish word for “black” that many people in and outside the African-American commuity consider a racial epithet?
In 1989, after Mason used it to describe his friend Rudolph Giuliani’s Democratic opponent for New York City mayor, David Dinkins, the Republican candidate distanced the comedian from his campaign.
Some 17 years later, Mason ended the interview with NJJN by defending his frequent use of the word.
“It’s a meaningless expression as a joke. I’ve said the word ‘schwartze’ a thousand times. It’s a joke they give every comedian the license to say,” said Mason. “I’m not serious and it was done in the spirit of fun. I said it in a Broadway show for three years.”
Then Mason addressed his questioner.
“I think you’re a sick man who’s trying to convince yourself you have a good article to write here. You’re trying to multiply a meaningless word like that into a big expression of my character. I think you’re a fake, and I’d rather not even talk to you.”
Then Mason slammed down the phone.
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