Around 1982, I went to see Jackie Mason at Dangerfield’s in New York. Mason had slipped into obscurity since the 60s when, legend goes, he made what seemed like an obscene gesture toward Ed Sullivan on the air. His TV appearances had long since dried up. That night, Mason laid me out on the floor. There were exactly six people in the audience, and two walked out. “Too Jewish,” muttered an aging housewife, as she and her husband left their table. His performance, with barely an audience, was stunning. This throwback Yiddish stand-up would eventually become the only comedian in modern times whose solo act alone became a hit Broadway show. Several years later, Mason was headlining Carolines, and I filed this report in my Naked City column.
Reprinted from Screw, May 5, 1986:
Jackie Mason is the sharpest stand-up comedian in the business. His craftsmanship onstage can’t be paralleled by younger comics; he plays to the audience like a jazz musician, reinventing a wealth of material, shifting meter with masterful ease. After devastating the audience during his Friday-night late set at Carolines, 8th Ave. & 26th St., Jackie took a table to talk with Naked City.
“I love to see young comedians, there are a lot of kids with bright things to say. Most of them have brighter material than the old comedians. But young comedians are not necessarily good performers. Old comedians might be funnier as personalities, but their material is shallow, meaningless crap about mudder-in-laws; witless one-liners that make no statement, derived from nowhere, went to nothin’. Young kids today often make hilarious comments about social situations, drugs, the mayor, ethnic groups, philosophy. But most of the kids today stink as performers; they have no comedic personality, like Don Rickles or Buddy Hackett.”
Mason, at age 48, ascribes to the old comedy school philosophy of working up through training grounds, which barely exist now. “I had to play bar mitzvahs to make it. New comics aren’t challenged to develop. At a modern comedy club, you don’t have to be a performer, everybody is a college youngster, they sit silent and respectful, you don’t have to be a great performer to reach them. I would have died like a dog if I wasn’t a performer—in bars, in lounges, for lowlifes, wiseguys, pimps, hoodlums. And this was just at a Jewish wedding.”
That’s why young comics often die in the big rooms in Vegas. Mason never got smacked around, even at the toughest wiseguy clubs in the Bronx, where the worst thing that happened was being told to “take a fuckin’ walk.” Jackie Mason, from the last generation to emerge out of the old Lower East Side, became a rabbi, so’s not to disappoint his parents. (He only returns to Ratner’s these days.) His father was a rabbi, and his three older brothers are rabbis to this day. The Yiddish-tinged Lower East Side accent, Mason’s trademark, has never received any flack, except from one source: “Only a Jew will complain. From gentiles I never hear adverse comments. Only Jews say the ugly things to me—‘how long you gonna kid yourself, when you gonna give this up, already, why don’t you retire, what the fuck is the matter with you?’ In my 23 years doing this, I never heard a complaint from a schvartze.”
Half of Mason’s act contains Jew material; here are the most brilliant insights in the biz.
“Because if you’re Jewish,” he says in the act, “the first people who’ll reject you, get disturbed by you, get nauseous from you, are Jews who say that you’re too Jewish. I have more trouble from Jews in this business today than I ever had with a gentile. Till I met this Nazi bastard (pointing to guy in first row). . . . All minorities have that sickness. Danny Kaye is a Jew from Brooklyn. You wake him up in the middle of the night, he talks worse than me. But he’s embarrassed by his Jewishness. So as soon as ya give him a job on television or in movies. . .” (Mason prances about the stage singing in European operatic trill)—“The man is fulla shit.”
When asked, Jackie admits a certain number of girls do come on to him, but there certainly isn’t any groupie atmosphere at his shows. Most women are with boyfriends, and there’s no great demand for short Jewish comedians as matinee idols. “Let’s be honest, for every girl who would chase me, there’s a thousand who’ll chase after Woody Allen. They don’t care what you look like when you’re the hottest picture-maker in the world.” Mason is worshipped, however, by the hierarchy of comedians in Los Angeles, where Mel Brooks, Steve Allen, Carl Reiner, and whatnot, all go nuts at his shows. Mason is unimpressed by this, gets embarrassed when they testify to his greatness.
On the immediate horizon for Jackie is his third independent film, produced and co-written by the comedian, who stars. Stiffs is about two brothers, a Jew and an Italian, who own a funeral parlor. Their mother was married twice, and this was the result of those marriages. “Then a third brother, a schvartze, comes in—turns out the mother was fooling around with a schvartze musician. The picture ends with a Chinaman also coming in; she was also fooling around with a Chinaman.”
Raising money for films outside the system is a bitch. “You bother rich Jews till you raise enough. If you can raise it, you make a better picture. There are people who invest in restaurants, in movies. The Stoolie cost a million-and-a-half, Stiffs was $2 million. If you’re aggressive and plead with them, it’s not impossible.”
© 1986, 2009 Josh Alan Friedman