Any rabbi worth his weight in chopped liver knows the best way to move a congregation is to make them laugh. Whether lamenting low shul attendances or promoting a ladies guild bridge night, their sermons often turn into thinly disguised stand-up routines.
Before retiring after 50 years of full-time stand-up at the end of 2012, Jackie Mason was the chief rabbi of comedy. To the ‘manna’ born, his three brothers, father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great grandfather were all members of the kosher cloth. Mason himself was ordained at 25, only to quit the family business for showbiz three years later, because “someone in the family had to make a living”.
The humming, huffing comedy hero was in London for his farewell UK gigs last year. He arrived armed to the teeth with hours of spanking new material. “I’m more concerned about being topical than other comedians,” he told me before opening night while sipping on an orange juice in the lobby of the lush Grosvnor Park Hotel on London’s Park Lane. “Every show I do is brand new. I make sure my act is just as relevant as today’s newspapers.”
According to Jackie, there are no taboo subjects – only taboo ways of tackling them. “If you make fun of death and destruction, you’re obviously going to upset people. Seeing the kind of suffering that took place on 9/11 is a horrible experience for any decent human being. Now people are walking around afraid of what the future may hold. Nobody knows what’s going to explode in the next 10 minutes.”
Embracing rather than avoiding controversy, Jackie ran the risk of offending his audiences. “I don’t set out to upset people,” he said. “I simply talk about human behaviour and the values we all live by. I talk about people who pretend they’re not materialistic, then show off their new Guicci jacket and people who buy a $80,000 sports car just to say ‘look I’ve got a Lambrogini!”
He may think a warm day in London is “as rare as seeing a Palestinian at a barmitzvah”, but Brits jumped at the chance of seeing Jackie whatever the weather. “They are more responsive than Americans,” he said. “In their personal lives the British are more dignified and reserved. They can’t even say hello without thinking they’re disturbing someone. In fact, they’re so restrained it’s hard to tell whether they’re still living. But they make the greatest audiences in the world, maybe because it’s the only time they feel free to express themselves. It’s a pleasure to perform here.”
In a classic case of life imitating cartoons, the comedy king starred as Krusty The Clown’s father Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky in a legendary episode of the Simpsons. Hyman rejects his son for playing the fool rather than going to shul, a reaction Jackie’s only too familiar with. “It’s the story of my life,” he muses. “My father was miserable after I became a comedian, so I promised not to be too successful or too funny and assured him I wouldn’t earn a living from it.
“Then my family became proud of my success. When you’re living in a fancy house thanks to someone else’s money, it’s hard to stay mad at them. If I stopped telling jokes tomorrow the kids wouldn’t go to college, their weddings would be a lot smaller and they’d have to go for long walks instead of driving the car.”
The multi-millionaire may have turned his back on the family business, but he still takes great pride in his heritage. “All my values come from my religion,” he says. “Judaism teaches charity, brotherhood, compassion and concern for your fellow man and makes you a much better person. It teaches people to think and care. It’s no accident that we are a tiny minority yet have the biggest percentage of Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winners. Jews have more influence in the intellectual spheres of life than any other religious group.”
Jackie is now a cultural as much as comedic phenomenon. He’s addressed Parliament and received an honorary degree from Oxford University, which now runs the Jackie Mason Lectureship in Contemporary Judaic and Hebraic Studies. He’s hosted numerous royal command performances (“The Queen admired my performance so much she’s taken up talking Yiddish”), lectured in Israel, Britain and New York and was handed an award for ‘Bravery, Commitment And Valour To The State Of Israel’, the highest honour the Israeli government can bestow upon an individual, after closing his Broadway show to fly to Israel during the Gulf war.
He may not have possessed the visual energy of Russell Brand or irreverence of Jimmy Car,r but Jackie Mason word-painted true comic masterpieces at each and every performance. Poking his sharp shtick at topics his rivals won’t touch, audiences around the world fell in ‘laugh’ with his outrageous observations for more than half a century.
He may have once swapped synagogue for showbiz, but the preacher turned performer still delivered the most divine comedy.