Jackie Mason, a Tony and Emmy-winning stand-up comedian so identified with Yiddish humor he named his YouTube channel, “TheUltimateJew,” died on Saturday at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. Mason was 93.
Mason won a Special Tony Award in 1987 for his first one-man show on Broadway, The World According to Me! He’d follow that up with an Emmy the following year for Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program for HBO’s broadcast of his show as Jackie Mason on Broadway. In 1992, Mason would earn his second Emmy, this time for Outstanding Voiceover Performance, for the role of Rabbi Hyman Krustofski (Krusty the Clown’s father) on The Simpsons.
But the comedian spent many years not only waiting to perform, but then also later for a second and third chance at mainstream fame and recognition. Perhaps ironically, Mason never quite earned the respect that Rodney Dangerfield did, despite Dangerfield’s “no respect” schtick, as well as Mason taking over the gregariously wealthy outcast role for Dangerfield for 1988’s Caddyshack II.
But first, Mason had to wait for his first chance at comedy success.
Born to Belarusian immigrants as Yacov Moshe Maza in Sheboygan, Wis., on June 9, 1928, he and the family relocated to New York City when young Jackie was five. He became a rabbi and served congregations in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, because rabbinical studies and service were the family business, from Jackie’s paternal ancestors to his three older brothers. Though young Jackie worked at Catskills resorts in the summers behind the scenes, he yearned to be onstage. He’d wait until his father died in 1959, however, before changing his name to Jackie Mason and launching his stand-up career.
The 1960s were the best of times and most infamous of times for Mason, as he became a regular on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Everything came to a head, or rather, a finger, in October 1964.
According to The New York Times account of the incident at the time, Sullivan and CBS executives alleged Mason had made “obscene gestures oncamera,” as well as “insubordination and gross deviation from material agreed upon” after dress rehearsal and before the show went on the air.” They banned him from the show and not only cancelled a contract they had with Mason for $45,000 for six appearances, but also withheld the $7,500 he was owed for that episode. What happened? Something to do with President Lyndon Johnson pre-empting or impacting the telecast, which led to Sullivan, offstage, giving Mason two fingers to indicate he had two minutes remaining in his set, then one finger a minute later. Mason responded in the moment with his own finger routine, onstage and still on the air.
While flashing and waving his own fingers, Mason told the audience: “Here’s a finger for you and a finger for you and a finger for you,” and also thumbed his nose at the camera. But he told The Times at the time he didn’t mean any offense.
Mason would sue the Sullivan show and win. But Mason’s reputation in the industry took a big hit.
Even though Sullivan apologized and brought Mason back on the show in 1966, Mason mocked Sullivan and impersonated the host on that episode.
Through the 1970s and most of the ’80s, he’d get some small parts from friends in comedy. Among them, a gas-station owner who employed Steve Martin’s character in The Jerk, and the role of “Jew No. 1” in Mel Brooks’ History of the World: Part I. But it wasn’t until 1986 when Mason mounted his first of six Broadway shows that he’d be back in the mix in a big way, with top prizes from the industry to boot.
He’d make multiple voiceovers on The Simpsons as Krusty’s father, and attempt to keep up with technology with his own YouTube channel, although he hadn’t posted any new videos in the past four years.
He’s survived by his wife and manager, Jyll Rosenfeld, as well as a daughter, comedian Sheba Mason, from a previous relationship.
Rest in peace, Jackie.