Jackie Mason, irascible comedian who perfected amused outrage, dies at 93

Jackie Mason, a rabbi-turned-comedian whose feisty brand of standup comedy led him to Catskills nightclubs, West Coast talk shows and Broadway stages, has died. He was 93.

Mason died Saturday at 6 p.m. ET at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan after being hospitalized for over two weeks, celebrity lawyer Raoul Felder told The Associated Press.

The irascible Mason was known for his sharp wit and piercing social commentary, often about being Jewish, men and women and his own inadequacies. His typical style was amused outrage.

“Eighty per cent of married men cheat in America. The rest cheat in Europe,” he once joked. Another Mason line was: “Politics doesn’t make strange bedfellows, marriage does.”

About himself, he once said: “I was so self-conscious, every time football players went into a huddle, I thought they were talking about me.”

His death was mourned far and wide — including tributes from fellow comedian Gilbert Gottfried, who called him “one of the best,” and actor Henry Winkler, who tweeted: “Now you get to make heaven laugh.”

Started as a rabbi

Mason was born Jacob Maza, the son of a rabbi. His three brothers became rabbis. So did Mason, who at one time had congregations in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Comedy eventually proved to be a more persistent calling than God.

“A person has to feel emotionally barren or empty or frustrated in order to become a comedian,” he told The Associated Press in 1987. “I don’t think people who feel comfortable or happy are motivated to become comedians. You’re searching for something and you’re willing to pay a high price to get that attention.”

Mason is pictured during a visit to London in 1963. The comic got a big break in 1961 with an appearance on Steve Allen’s weekly television variety show. (Asher/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Mason started in show business as a social director at a resort in the Catskills. He was the guy who got everybody up to play Simon Says, quiz games or shuffleboard. He told jokes, too. After one season, he was playing clubs throughout the Catskills for better money.

“Nobody else knew me, but in the mountains, I was a hit,” Mason recalled.

In 1961, the pint-sized comic got a big break, an appearance on Steve Allen’s weekly television variety show. His success brought him to The Ed Sullivan Show and other programs.

He was banned for two years from the Sullivan show when he allegedly gave the host the finger when Sullivan signalled to him to wrap up his act during an appearance on Oct. 18, 1964.

Mason, centre, enjoys a joke with John Lithgow, left, and B.D. Wong, stars of the Tony award-winning Broadway show M. Butterfly, at the Stage Deli in New York in 1988. (Adam Stoltman/The Associated Press)

Mason’s act even carried him to Broadway, where he put on several one-man shows, including Freshly Squeezed in 2005, Love Thy Neighbor in 1996 and The World According to Me in 1988, for which he received a special Tony Award.

“I feel like Ronald Reagan tonight,” Mason joked on Tony night. “He was an actor all his life, knew nothing about politics and became president of the United States. I’m an ex-rabbi who knew nothing about acting and I’m getting a Tony Award.”

Reliable presence on TV

Mason called himself an observer who watched people and learned. From those observations he said he got his jokes and then tried them out on friends. “I’d rather make a fool of myself in front of two people for nothing than a thousand people who paid for a ticket,” he told the AP.

His humour could leap from computers and designer coffee to then-Sen. John Kerry, former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and Donald Trump. He was able to articulate the average Joe’s anger, making the indignities of life seem funny and maybe just a little bit more bearable.

“I very rarely write anything down. I just think about life a lot and try to put it into phrases that will get a joke,” he said. “I never do a joke that has a point that I don’t believe in. To me, the message and the joke is the same.”

Liza Minnelli, right, chats with Mason during a visit backstage at the Neil Simon Theater in New York in 1991. Minnelli had dropped by to congratulate Mason on his new Broadway show, Brand New. (Michael Simon/The Associated Press)

On TV, Mason was a reliable presence, usually with a cameo on such shows as 30 Rock or The Simpsons or as a reliable guest on late-night chat shows. He performed in front of Queen Elizabeth and his show Fearless played London’s West End in 2012.

He portrayed a Jewish ex-pyjama salesman in love with an Irish-Catholic widow portrayed by Lynn Redgrave in a series called Chicken Soup in 1989 but it didn’t last. During the O.J. Simpson murder trial, the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Scottish service hired Mason as a weekly commentator.

Mason’s humour sometimes went too far, as when he touched off a controversy in New York while campaigning for GOP mayoral candidate Rudolph Giuliani against Democrat David Dinkins, who was Black. Mason had to apologize after saying, among other things, that Jews would vote for Dinkins out of guilt.

Felder, his longtime friend, told the AP that Mason had a Talmudic outlook on life: “That whatever you would say to him, he would start an argument with you.”

He is survived by his wife, producer Jyll Rosenfeld, and a daughter, Sheba.

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