Born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin to immigrant parents, Yacov Moshe Maza was descended from four generations of rabbis, and, along with his brothers, attended a distinguished yeshiva and received rabbinic ordination. But he had second thoughts about following in his ancestors’ footsteps and—taking the name Jackie Mason—launched a career as a stand-up comedian in the borscht-belt tradition. Mason died on Saturday at the age of ninety-three. As Thane Rosenbaum observes:
[T]here were Jewish standup comedians before Mason, but compared to Jack Benny, George Burns, Milton Berle, Rodney Dangerfield, and Don Rickles, Jackie Mason was absolutely and avowedly, “too Jewish.” And his mostly mixed audiences absolutely loved him for it. (Mason’s act sold out London’s West End nightly with a show titled Fearless.) . . . It’s difficult to overstate how influential Mason was to American and Jewish culture. For Middle America, watching The Ed Sullivan Show or The Tonight Show in 1964, Jackie Mason was like Fiddler on the Roof (which opened on Broadway that year) on steroids.
Mason was a Sullivan show mainstay until he wasn’t, having once jabbed his finger in a way that Sullivan interpreted as being flipped. It ruined Mason’s career. Exiled from wholesome commercial TV, he was suddenly unkosher. For nearly two decades he disappeared from American households, consigned to the condominium circuit of Collins Avenue in South Florida.
But Mason eventually staged a comeback, only to have it happen again. He was, as Tevi Troy observes in his observations of Mason’s interactions with, and jibes at, various presidents, the embodiment of “a certain type of New Yorker, one who makes fun of everyone—his own group perhaps most of all.” Eventually, Mason found himself in hot water again, this time over racial insensitivity, and experienced what Rosenbaum calls “a foreshadowing” of cancel culture. John Podhoretz notes an irony:
If you think of hot comedians, you might think of Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle or Bill Burr—incendiary stand-ups who cross political and ideological boundaries as they deliver preacher-like sermons on the worst of the cardinal sins: the sin of humorlessness.
This Jew from Sheboygan always spoke from the perspective of an outside observer, an undisguisable member of a minority group who saw the ludicrousness both in the majority and the way his own community responded to the majority.
In this respect, as in many others, [the African American comedians] Chappelle and Rock are his true descendants, his honorary grandchildren.