Stand-up comedian Jackie Mason, who followed a path from rabbi to borscht-belt comic, died in a New York City hospital on Saturday. He was 93.
Mason’s longtime friend Raoul Felder confirmed his death to NPR. He said Mason was admitted to the hospital two weeks ago and suffered from a variety of ailments, including inflammation of the lungs. There are no indications that COVID-19 was a factor in the comedian’s death.
The sometimes controversial Mason garnered national attention for his quick-witted observational humor, which led to TV appearances and several successful one-man Broadway shows. Mason used stories from his orthodox Jewish background, a thick Yiddish accent and wild gestures to keep his audiences entertained for decades.
Mason didn’t know comedy could be a career
Mason was born Yacov Moshe Maza in Sheboygan, Wisc. to a long line of rabbis. His family later moved New York City, where he originally joined the family trade becoming an ordained rabbi himself.
“I didn’t know there was such a thing as comedians when I was growing up,” Mason told Fresh Air host Terry Gross in 1987. “When I was funny around [the] table in the house, I thought I was the only person who knew how to be funny in this whole world.”
He broke into comedy performing routines at summer resorts in the Catskills in upstate New York. It was there that he mastered the borscht-belt style of standup, known for its heavy reliance on Jewish culture and expressions.
After a rocky start, his career started to take off in the 1960s. But there were some bumps along the way, including a rift with Ed Sullivan, host of “The Ed Sullivan Show,” which ended up in court.
“I was not being blacklisted, but it really put a bad damper in my career. I can’t deny that, because I was a very hot piece of property at that time,” he said on Fresh Air.
He emerged from turmoil and won Broadway acclaim
Mason was able to revive his career in the 1980s with a solo show called “Jackie Mason’s The World According to Me!” It opened on Broadway in December 1986 and ran for 573 performances. He received a special Tony Award in 1987 and an Emmy in 1988 after a shortened version of the show aired on HBO.
Other successful one-man shows followed, including “Jackie Mason: Brand New” in 1990-91; “Jackie Mason: Politically Incorrect” in 1994-95; “Love Thy Neighbor” in 1996-97; “Much Ado About Everything” in 1999-2000 and “Jackie Mason: Freshly Squeezed” in 2005. His final show was called “Jackie Mason: The Ultimate Jew.”
Mason’s controversial humor and embrace of political incorrectness often landed him in the hot seat. He reportedly used a Yiddish word considered to be a racial slur when talking about Black mayoral candidate David N. Dinkins in 1989, according to The New York Times. Twenty years later, he drew attention for using the same word regarding President Barack Obama during a performance in 2009.
There have also been reported incidents of antipathy toward Arabs, in particular Palestinians. In 2002, it was reported that Mason asked not to appear with an Arab-American comedian on stage at a Chicago club. He later issued a statement, denying that he “ever refused to perform with anyone.”
Away from the stage, Mason found success in voice acting. His reoccurring role as the voice of Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky, the father of Krusty the Clown, on “The Simpson” garnered him is second Emmy in 1992.
He is survived by his wife and manager, Jyll Rosenfeld, and a daughter.