Mason, Jackie (1931—)

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Mason, Jackie (1931—)

One of America's most popular and controversial stand-up comedians, Jackie Mason has had audiences convulsing with laughter in radio, television, films, and in one-man shows on Broadway and in London's West End. Mason has had two careers, the first being greatly restricted in 1964, following an alleged obscene act on network television.

After working for several years in Catskill Mountain resorts and small nightclubs, Mason caught the eye of Ed Sullivan, who signed him to a $45,000, six-show contract for his network variety hour. In one of these appearances on October 18, 1964, the show was running late, and Sullivan, off-stage, raised two fingers to try to speed up Mason's act. On-stage, Jackie held up a finger and made jokes about Sullivan's gesture. Although Mason denied it, Sullivan thought it was the finger and canceled the comedian's contract. Although Mason claimed he was blackballed in the entertainment industry, he did appear on Sullivan's show in 1967, followed by a few appearances on variety shows hosted by the Smothers Brothers, Dean Martin, and Merv Griffin. After that, his television career ended until he appeared on Dolly, in 1988, and on Later with Bob Costas, in 1989. In 1989 he also starred in Chicken Soup, one of the highest-rated new sitcoms ever to be canceled in mid-season.

Growing up in a family of rabbis on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Jackie was a cantor until the age of 25, when he was ordained as a rabbi, following in the footsteps of four generations of his grandfathers. Three years later, he quit the synagogue to become a comedian because, he said, "Someone in the family had to make a living." From the beginning of his comic career, Mason's Yiddish accent and tortured New York sentence structure were controversial. Some in his audiences thought him "too Jewish" and others found his material anti-Semitic. The controversy has continued, and in 1994 the NAACP condemned "a set of racist and stereotypical statements about African Americans" made by Mason on the network program, Pat Buchanan and Company. Still, his comedy is most often applauded for its ironic insights about life's contradictions, as well as for Mason's on-target barbs aimed at current follies in politics and life in general.

In 1987 Mason entered a new phase of his show-business career when he took his one-man show, The World According to Me, to Broadway. The playbill for the show stated that "Mr. Mason's material will be selected from the following subjects: U.S. Politics, World Affairs, Hollywood Producers & Celebrities, Dating, Communism, Sex Education, Psychiatry, Hookers, Health Hazards, The Army, The Weather, and, of course the ever popular Gentiles and Jews." The freewheeling formula has worked well, and the comic has continued to sell out theaters on Broadway and in London with such shows as Much Ado About Everything, Love Thy Neighbor, and Jackie Mason Brand New and Politically Incorrect. A London reviewer described his latest show as "One man in a black suit on a black stage with black scenery. When the man is Jackie Mason, sparks fly and the stars of the show quickly become Mason's personality, his ideas, and his ability to connect with an audience." As testimony to his wide-ranging appeal, he sold out his one-man show in a thousand-seat theater in Frankfurt, Germany.

Mason has won numerous awards, including a Tony for his first Broadway show, The World According to Me, and an Emmy for the HBO special, Jackie Mason on Broadway. His Warner Brothers comedy album was nominated for a Grammy and became a smash hit, as did his autobiography, Jackie, Oy! In 1991, he received the highest honor bestowed by the Israeli government for his support during the Gulf War. He also received an honorary degree from the Oxford University Union, an honor shared with Ghandi and U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter and John F. Kennedy.

—Benjamin Griffith

Further Reading:

Inman, David. The TV Encyclopedia. New York, Perigee, 1991.

Mason, Jackie. Jackie Mason's America. Secaucus, New Jersey, Stuart, 1983.

Mason, Jackie, and Ken Gross. Jackie, Oy! New York, Little Brown, 1988.