Jewish standup comedian Jackie Mason passes away at 93

Mason was one of the last "borscht belt" comedians, continuing the comedy which was famous in the Catskills long after the last resort closed down.

Jackie Mason doing stand-up at one of his highly acclaimed international performances. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jackie Mason doing stand-up at one of his highly acclaimed international performances.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
New York funnyman Jackie Mason — a comedy great who rose to fame in the 1960s and kept Borscht Belt-style gags alive for decades — has died at age 93, reports said Saturday.
Mason’s friend and sometimes collaborator, divorce lawyer Raoul Felder, confirmed the death to The New York Times.
Mason was born Yacov Moishe Maza in Sheboygan, Wis. When he was 5, his family moved to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, then a Jewish neighborhood. He graduated from City College, and considered New York his hometown.
Mason was the son, grandson, great grandson and great-great grandson of rabbis. He followed their footsteps and was ordained a rabbi at age 25, but gave it up after three years. “Somebody in the family had to make a living,” he cracked.
Earlier this year, Mason told The Jerusalem Report that he performed comedy during sermons when he was a rabbi at a shul in Weldon, North Carolina. “Word got out that I was so funny that gentiles started coming to my sermons. At one point I had more gentiles than Jews in the congregation. That is when I realized I would be a comedian,” said Mason.
As a young comic, he gained fame appearing on CBS’ “The Ed Sullivan Show,” which in the 1960s was a family TV staple. One night in 1964, Mason got into trouble when Sullivan held up two fingers to signal that Mason had two minutes left in his shtick.
Mason, goofing around, responded: “Getting lots of fingers tonight.” He followed up with a series of gestures: “Here’s a finger for you, and here’s a finger for you, and here’s a finger for you.”
Sullivan saw the gestures as obscene, and immediately canceled Mason’s contract.
Everyone figured Mason’s career was done — but it was only damaged.
Sullivan later apologized, and Mason still turned up on TV — including a 1969 appearance on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” on CBS. But for most of the two decades after the Sullivan show incident, Mason mainly worked small comedy clubs and Catskills resorts.
His career was fully revived in the 1980s with “The World According to Me,” a smash one-man Broadway show that won a Tony Award and was turned into a TV special and an album.
“Now I am the biggest hit to ever do Broadway,” Mason told The New York Daily News in 1999. “I love playing there because the audiences are so respectful. They’re all friends of mine. Really. I feel that way. So I tell them some jokes for a couple of hours and everybody laughs and has a good time. It’s pure entertainment. Nothing else.”
He turned his enjoyment of success into a joke. “Money is not the most important thing in the world. Love is,” he said. “Fortunately, I love money.”
Mason appeared in several movies, including the 1979 Steve Martin comedy “The Jerk” and “Caddyshack II” in 1988. On “The Simpsons,” Mason voiced Krusty the Clown’s father, who was a rabbi.
Talking to The Jerusalem Post in 2014, Mason expressed satisfaction over his decades-long career.
“I have achieved everything I ever would want to and have gotten enormous recognition all over the world – six Royal Command performances, nominated for a Grammy, won two Emmys, a Tony award, an Obie award, spoke at the British Parliament. Audiences are still giving me standing ovations,” he said.
He briefly made headlines in 2012 when an early morning lovers’ quarrel left his girlfriend in handcuffs. The charges against her were eventually dropped.
Mason was a staunch defender of Israel, and generated controversy in 2015 by slamming what he thought was President Barack Obama’s sympathy to the Palestinian cause. “How often have you heard him say, ‘We have to do something because we have to put a stop to Hamas’ aggressions? To Hamas bombing Israel every day?’ “ he said.
He told The Jerusalem Report, “If you hate Israel, you hate the Jews, plain and simple. So I feel as probably one of the most famous Jews still living today, it is my obligation to speak out on this issue.”
Even with the coronavirus pandemic, Mason was able to find humor, telling the Report that “Coronavirus has had its perks. My wife can’t go shopping so much. So I’m saving a fortune.”
He was also one of the few entertainers to support former President Donald Trump, who he called a “bombastic powerhouse” and a “colorful, dynamic character.”
Information about survivors and funeral services was not immediately available on Saturday.