Jackie Mason obituary: One of the great American comedians

The comedy pioneer was known for his strong Brooklyn accent, quick-fire gags – and feuds

Jackie Mason (Yacov Moshe Maza)
Born: June 9th, 1928
Died: July 24th, 2021

During the course of his six-decade career, Jackie Mason was declared one of the greatest comedians of all time, by Mel Brooks; played hundreds of sellout shows, on Broadway and in London; won a Tony, an Emmy and was even nominated for a Grammy; and performed for the Queen and the Queen Mother. He also had career-damaging feuds with the TV host Ed Sullivan and the singer Frank Sinatra, the second of which would end with Mason's Las Vegas hotel room being strafed with bullets.

Mason, who has died aged 93, was a pioneer of a modern, personalised form of comedy. Much of his material focused on the differences between Jews and Gentiles, and he seemed to delight in teetering on the edge of racism and – oddly, for a man who called himself "the ultimate Jew" – antisemitism. The Guardian writer Jonathan Freedland, after meeting Mason in 1998, drew parallels between the American and the equally provocative Bernard Manning, who was part-Jewish.

Mason was famously inconsistent and contradictory about personal matters he regarded as trivial – such as his age, and even whether he was married or not

Throughout his middle and old age, Mason caused periodic storms by insisting that there was no racism against black people or Jews in the US, and that both used racism as an excuse for their own shortcomings. He said he believed antisemitism and much racism to be imagined by people whose communities had suffered in the past.


He had no qualms about stereotyping Jews as neurotic, brash, money-minded, materialist and food-obsessed. He had no problems with the notion of Jews being thought of as cerebral, rather than practical, people, either. He claimed that he had never bought anything in a supermarket and knew nothing about business. “It’s a fact,” he would say, “that Gentiles make better coalminers than Jews. Did you ever see a yarmulke with a light on top?”

His comedy targets ranged from expensive restaurants and Lamborghinis – he regarded flashy cars as even more ridiculous than most possessions – to sushi, which he suggested was invented by two Jews who wanted to open a restaurant but could not afford a kitchen.

Mason never used material from other writers and shunned their company, saying that if a comedy writer spent five minutes with him, he would probably spend the rest of his life saying he had “worked with Jackie Mason”. He got his material, he said, from walking around and observing life – and also from reading newspapers and magazines intensively. He made no notes, never formally rehearsed or even prepared for a show. Interviewers were surprised when he would keep talking in his dressing room until the moment the curtain went up.

He was born Yacov to Jewish immigrant parents from Belarus, Bella (nee Gitlin) and Eli Maza, in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, in 1934. Or, as he sometimes said, 1931. Or 1936; he was famously inconsistent and contradictory about personal matters he regarded as trivial – such as his age, and even whether he was married or not. In his 1988 autobiography, Jackie Oy!, he says that he was born "in the fourth year of the 1930s", though when his death was announced his friend the lawyer Raoul Felder confirmed the year as 1928. The family moved to New York when Mason was two, or five, according to his own varying accounts. But it was early enough to ensure that he grew up with the thick Brooklyn accent that became his trademark.

His childhood was happy, he said, but the family was poor. He remembered his father, a rabbi, bringing back parcels of food from weddings and barmitzvahs at which he had officiated. Mason came from a long line of rabbis, and, after gaining a degree at City College, undertook rabbinical studies at Yeshiva University, and in his mid-20s served as a rabbi in Weldon, North Carolina, and Latrobe, Pennsylvania. A joker since his early teens, however, he could not stop peppering his sermons with gags and one-liners, so swiftly left the family tradition to his disapproving father and three brothers, while he became a full-time standup.

Soon he was supporting the whole family financially and he remained generous to them. (“I have enough money to last me the rest of my life,” he would say, “unless I buy something.”) Later, although Mason earned a great deal of money – he was earning $20,000 a week in the early 60s – he lived simply and seemed uninterested in possessions. On the road, he reputedly carried no luggage, buying new clothes in every city and leaving them when he departed.

Mason built his standup career in the 50s in the Borscht Belt – a string of kosher hotels in upstate New York. He was often advised to modify his sometimes impenetrable accent to gain a wider audience, but became mainstream without losing his Brooklyn tones and Yiddish cadences. In 1961 he got a break on the Steve Allen show on TV, and the following year his debut LP declared I'm the Greatest Comedian in the World, Only Nobody Knows It Yet.

Mason regarded comedy as a serious business, because it involved telling the truth as he saw it, even if that cost him in notoriety

Although he was happy to be an iconoclast, the feud with Sullivan, which ended with him successfully suing the TV host for slander, was, by Mason’s account, based on a misunderstanding. He had first appeared on the Ed Sullivan show just before the Beatles (who to him were “just four people in search of a voice”) and was becoming a regular.

One night in 1964, the show had to give way to president Lyndon B Johnson addressing the nation on the war in Vietnam. While he was performing, Mason saw Sullivan counting down three minutes to adjust the timing. Mason mimicked this back to Sullivan, which he interpreted as Mason giving him "the finger". He recounted coming off the stage feeling good and expecting Sullivan to congratulate him.

Instead, he was furious, and though the two made up, the effect of the incident was for him to be blackballed from mainstream comedy for 20 years. Mason had to start again in the clubs, many of them seedy and in remote parts of the US. He made a living, however, and in 1984 converted his club act to a one-man theatre show and had a major success in Los Angeles. It was hailed by Johnny Carson, Cary Grant and Jack Lemmon. Mason claimed that Dustin Hoffman came to see it 10 times.

His resurgence was sealed in 1986 on Broadway, where another show, The World According to Me!, ran for more than two years. Although Mason was then in his 50s, with material that was often criticised as dated, repetitive and predictable, he never looked back. Performing in London in 2012, he admitted he was finding it a strain to develop new material, was reviewed as being well past his best and announced his retirement from live comedy. Nonetheless, he was still playing to packed houses.

Mason's inconsistencies were never resolved. He disliked Jews who changed their name to sound less Jewish – even though he had done exactly that

Mason regarded comedy as a serious business, because it involved telling the truth as he saw it, even if that cost him in notoriety. He was also disarmingly honest about his own motivation for being a comedian. “I am definitely a sick egomaniac,” he said many times. “I definitely need the stage. I definitely need the attention.”

The vendetta with Sinatra in the 80s was even more serious than the problem with Sullivan. “In Vegas,” he later recounted, “everybody would pay homage to him like he was the Pope, but I wouldn’t pay him much attention. I wasn’t the subservient type. But somehow it bothered him that I was the only person in Vegas who was ignoring him.”

Sinatra came to see Mason’s act one day with a group of associates and started heckling. Mason started abusing him back. “I said if you need attention so much, you should be seeing a doctor, not my show.” Sinatra and his group walked out. When Mason was shot at later, he said, the police were not interested in investigating.

Mason’s inconsistencies were never resolved. He disliked Jews who changed their name to sound less Jewish – even though he had done exactly that. He stoutly defended the Jewish people, yet vented the worst types of stereotypes about them.

He became a darling of the resurgent right in America, but eschewed personal property, condemning the hoarding of wealth and claiming to give away two-thirds of his personal fortune. He was a friend of the ultra-rightwing rabbi Meir Kahane, but would distance himself from Kahane's racist views on Arabs, then align himself with the same views in the next breath.

Mason lived wholly for his work; the joke was everything for him. He would simply shrug and say, “I’m an equal opportunity abuser.”

In 1991 he married Jyll Rosenfeld, his manager. She survives him, along with a daughter, Sheba, from an earlier relationship, with Ginger Reiter. – Guardian