Rabbi Yacov Moshe Hakohen Maza, a.k.a. Jackie Mason, was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, to a family of immigrants from Minsk, and grew up on the Lower East Side of New York City. According to his official biography (Jackie, Oy!: Jackie Mason from Birth to Rebirth, 1988), he was ordained in 1953 by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and worked as a rabbi in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and Weldon, North Carolina. Mason recalled, “I started telling more and more jokes, and after a while, a lot of gentiles would come to the congregation just to hear the sermons.”
After his father died, Mason left his job as a rabbi to become a standup comedian because, as he put it, “Somebody in the family had to make a living.”
In “A Club of Their Own: Jewish Humorists and the Contemporary World,” Eli Lederhendler and Gabriel N. Finder note that Mason wrote most of his material. He also insisted on using his Lower East Side take on English. They cite a Time Magazine critic who suggested Mason spoke “with the Yiddish locutions of an immigrant who just completed a course in English. By mail.” In 1962, as he was starting to make it on national television, the William Morris Agency wanted him to take elocution lessons to get rid of his Jewish accent, but he refused, thank God.
Here’s an assortment of his early material they cite: “That’s a great profession, a doctor. Where else can you ask a woman to get undressed and then send the bill to her husband?” “Money is not important. Love is important. Fortunately, I love money.” “You can’t please everyone. I have a girlfriend. I think she’s the most wonderful person in the world. That’s to me. But to my wife …” “My grandfather always said that I shouldn’t watch my money. That I should watch my health. So while I was watching my health, someone stole my money. It was my grandfather.” “Eighty percent of married men cheat in America. The rest cheat in Europe.”
Mason did not work “blue,” which is why he was almost destroyed by what has come to be known as the “middle finger incident.” He had made several appearances as a guest on The Ed Sullivan Show in the early 1960s, and on October 18, 1964, on The Ed Sullivan Show, Mason allegedly gave the host, Ed Sullivan, the finger while on the air. Sullivan was holding up two fingers, letting Mason know he had two minutes left, meaning he should cut his act short—a speech by President Lyndon Johnson was preempting the show. Mason worked his own fingers into his act in response, commenting on the switch, and pointed at Sullivan with his index finger, then his thumb, but not his middle finger. Sullivan read it differently and was outraged. He dumped Mason from the show, despite Mason’s desperate denials. In fact, Mason argued that he hadn’t even known the meaning of the middle finger gesture—which is questionable. Mason sued, Sullivan counter-sued, Mason won partially, but remained banned from the most popular entertainment show on American television at the time. The ban extended to other mainstream TV shows and for two decades, Mason remained a pariah. Sullivan eventually apologized to Mason on air, but the damage had been done. Mason later said: “It took 20 years to overcome what happened in one minute.”
Mason made his big comeback in 1986, with a two-year run (570 performances) of The World According to Me, his first of several one-man Broadway standup shows. The NY Times’ harshest critic, Frank Rich, wrote: “So sue me … Mason was very, very funny.” The show won a Special Tony Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award, an Ace Award, an Emmy Award, and a Grammy nomination. His special, “Jackie Mason on Broadway” won an Emmy Award for outstanding writing and an Ace Award.
In a 2005 Comedian’s Comedian poll, Mason was voted among the top-50 comedy acts ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders. He still holds the record for the longest-running one-man show in the history of Broadway and London’s West End.
In 1991, Mason called then-NYC Mayor David Dinkins “a fancy schvartze with a mustache.” Mason later apologized. In 2009, Mason referred to then-President Barack Obama as a schvartze in a stand-up routine, and some members of the audience walked out in protest.
Mason was originally a Democrat, but switched to the Republican party, and was a vocal admirer of former President Donald Trump. Mason was also an admirer of Rabbi Meir Kahane and endorsed his plan to encourage Arabs to emigrate. In January 2001, Mason co-founded One Jerusalem, “Maintaining a united Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel.” In 2003, Mason suggested the total expulsion of Arabs from Israel, Judea and Samaria, and the Gaza Strip.
In 1985, writer Ginger Reiter gave birth to her and Jackie Mason’s daughter, now standup comedian Sheba Mason. Reiter sued Mason to force him to acknowledge his paternity. On August 14, 1991, Mason, who was 63, married his manager, Jyll Rosenfeld, who was 37 at the time.