Jackie Mason died on July 24. He was 93. With his passing came plaudits from all corners of the country for a comedian who spent over 60 years entertaining audiences cracking about Jewish culture with a pronounced Yiddish accent.
I’ve been a fan of Jewish comedy for as long as I can remember. As a kid I laughed at all the Borscht Belt staples: Henny Youngman, Jack Benny, Shelley Berman, Totie Fields, Myron Cohen, and the off-color Belle Barth. Into my teens and for decades afterwards it was Don Rickles, Shecky Greene, Buddy Hackett and a Rickles-like comedienne named Pudgy, who had her fifteen minutes. Following them were the new breed — Robert Klein, David Brenner, Billy Crystal and of course, Rodney.
I was lukewarm with Alan King, Joan Rivers, and the late Mr. Mason. King’s stories, like Sunday Morning Coffee, went on forever; Rivers was a screamer; and after a while, Mason’s accent and caustic material wore on me. However, taking nothing away from him, Mason’s climb to the top of the business was challenging and ultimately impressive.
My generation will always remember Jackie Mason for his October 19, 1964, appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show when, during Mason’s act, Sullivan from behind the curtain held up his index finger indicating to Mason he had one minute left. That night the show was shortened on the fly to clear time for a national address by President Johnson. Mason’s alleged response to Sullivan was to hold up his middle finger. The Ed Sullivan Show was live. Everyone watching, including me, saw Mason gesturing with his hands, but nobody knew what it was about. Sullivan went ballistic and banished Mason from the show, canceling his ongoing contract. When you’re trying to break into the business, that’s a slot you really can’t afford to lose. You don’t tug on Ed Sullivan’s cape. Except this time Ed was wrong. Mason sued Sullivan for libel and slander and eventually was exonerated as tape of the show didn’t substantiate what Mason was accused of doing. In fact, the court said he did nothing of the kind. Two years later Sullivan had Mason back on the show and apologized. But the damage was done; it took Mason almost twenty years to once again get regular television work.
Jackie Mason wasn’t supposed to be a comedian. Like his father and three older brothers who were rabbis, that was to be Mason’s lot in life, too. Born Yacov Moshe Maza, he grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, attended City College of New York and was ordained as a rabbi at Yeshiva. He served as a rabbi for two years with congregations in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Strange things started to happen at a Rabbi Yacov Moshe Maza Shabbat service: non-Jews started to regularly attend and fill the synagogue. Not that they had conversion in mind, instead, they loved the young rabbi’s sermons, a prelude to his later stand-up shtick. When officiating weddings and bar mitzvahs, he started telling jokes. Mason once cracked, “The jokes started getting better so I charged a cover and a minimum.” Fortunately, he didn’t do brisses.
Good-bye to Yacov Moshe Maza and Torah study. Hello to Jackie Mason and the comedy biz for this now retired rabbi. Plus the stand-up gig checks were much better than rabbi-pay.
Mason had been on the fast track to comedy stardom in the early 1960s but the incident on the Sullivan show slowed the ascent to a crawl. He struggled to get air and stage time for decades. He co-wrote and starred in a 1969 Broadway comedy called “A Teaspoon Every Four Hours,” a distasteful, non-politically correct even for the times play about a Jewish father who discovers that his son is dating a Black gentile woman. The play came out of previews with reviews so bad that the show closed after one night. Finally, fifteen years later, in the mid-80s Jackie Mason returned to Broadway with his one-man show, “The World According to Me.” The show won a Tony Award and tickets were tough to find. In his late-50’s, the ex-rabbi went mainstream and finally became a comedic mensch.
My infatuation with comedy is something that has been with me all my life. In 2006, thanks to Shecky, Rickles, Hackett, Brenner et al and even Jackie Mason, it came full circle for me. By then the kids’ college tuition bills ended, my career was doing well, the mortgage was paid, and life was turning onto the back nine. It was time to try things I always wanted to do. Stand-up comedy was one of them.
One Sunday morning, before Sunday Morning Coffee was born but while drinking Sunday morning coffee and living in Birmingham, Alabama, a story in the local newspaper caught my eye. It was about a comedian in nearby Atlanta who organized and taught stand-up comedy classes. A new one was forming and for the reasonable cover of $350 it seemed like something I wanted to try. In essence, it was a stand-up comedy fantasy class.
The sessions ran four consecutive Mondays. Each was four hours in duration in a hotel meeting room in the Buckhead section of Atlanta. Following the four weeks was a dress rehearsal and then on stage in front of a live audience at an Atlanta comedy club. With no pretense to quit my day job I figured, why not?
I enrolled but I didn’t want to tell Andi what I was doing. The plan was to surprise her and bring her to Atlanta on the night we performed. That plan lasted about as long as Schumer walking into a Trump fundraiser.
This is the way it went one September 2006 Monday morning:
Andi: “What are you doing today?”
Me: “Busy day. I’m going to the office, be home about one to change clothes and then leaving for Atlanta at two. I’ll be back home about midnight.”
Andi: “Oh, really! I don’t remember you telling me that. What’s going on in Atlanta?”
Me: “I’d rather not say but in about a month you’ll find out. And by the way, I’ll be gone for the next three Mondays too.”
Andi: “No you won’t.”
Two and a half hours each way, 330 miles round trip, four weeks in a row to fulfill a wild fantasy. I got the spouse stink-eye. You know what it looks like. I deserved it. I had to spill.
If Rickles and Shecky and Brenner could do it, heck if even an ex-rabbi could get up after being knocked down and do it, why couldn’t an ex-racetrack operator now in the medical assistance business? How difficult can it be? You stand there and tell jokes. People laugh. It seemed like an easy game. I never gave much thought to what made the great ones great— they were actually funny.
Jeff Justice was our comedy class professor. He even looked funny, as opposed to being funny looking. Retired from a career in club comedy he moved into the corporate motivational speaking world billing himself as a ‘humor’ resource director. He did his comedy class workshops when he had time. Twenty of us showed up for that first class. None of us knew what to expect. The first hour we were taught how to properly remove the microphone from its stand and then in the same motion how to seamlessly place the stand behind you when you walk onto the stage. Not everyone aced it. That was followed by three hours on how to construct jokes. It was a long, thought provoking ride home.
By the time we got to our live graduation performance a month later, we had spent the previous three weeks authoring four minutes of our own original material. All of it had to be clean. No shits or fucks allowed. Justice told us we could be funny and be clean. I still wanted to say shit or fuck. It’s empowering. Each week our homework was polishing our monologue with what we learned in class the week before. Four minutes doesn’t sound like much but it’s an eternity when you are struggling for material and can’t use shit or fuck.
I finally crafted a three-part routine: business travel woes; a parody about some old English expressions the Brits still use, and of course the back-then-obligatory Viagra take-off. I missed the class dress rehearsal because I was in Vegas on a guys family trip. Instead, I went over my final routine looking out the window of a room at the MGM Grand with Justice critiquing me over the phone.
The show at Atlanta’s Punchline comedy club sold out over two weeks prior to our October 23, 2006, date. The room held about 300 and once the first one sold out, they added a second show the next night. That also sold out. Obviously, we all had scores of friends and cousins.
Of the twenty who started the class a month earlier, fourteen actually made it to the stage. Not too bad. It was easy to walk away, tougher to stay with it. That entire day was nerve-racking for me. I went to the Medjet office mumbling my routine. I drove over to Atlanta with Andi and her mom. They never stopped yacking. I mumbled my lines under my breath driving for almost three hours over the din of the two of them in an animated conversation about nothing. We got to the Punchline early. They dropped me off at the club and went to eat. I was too nervous to hold down food. Instead, I spent the next hour, no kidding, walking the parking lot, rehearsing my four minutes. I would walk around talking to myself. Over and over. A mental health van would have carted me away. I’m not sure I shouldn’t have been committed anyway getting myself into this mess at 56. I wanted to be the first one on stage just to get it over with. Justice slotted me sixth. The wait for my stage call was excruciating. Like ordering fried clams at a Howard Johnsons. You knew they would get there; you just had no idea when. Same feeling I felt waiting for the first five of my classmates to finish their acts.
Finally I could say it in front of a live audience: In the States a guy tells his date, “I’ll come by your place to pick you up at 6:30.” In the U.K. it’s “I’ll be over at half six to knock you up.” Or a true story about how poorly trained our service personnel has become. Me: “I want to make a reservation to pick up a car in Chicago and return it in Milwaukee.” Avis agent: “Can you tell me what states Chicago and Milwaukee are in?” Or another true one about the taxi in Baltimore that charged me a $1 surcharge. I asked the driver what it was for? He said, “for picking you up.” I screamed back, “You’re a taxi, that’s what you do. You pick people up! You gotta decide whether you want to charge me for the ride or picking me up but not both. They seem to go together.” The four letter word ban precluded me from telling the whole story.
The night turned out to be exactly what professor Justice told us it would be: an adult recital. Hundreds of familiar faces, family and friends, all there to do one thing: laugh, even if we weren’t funny. And most of us weren’t.
The second night was much easier. Nerves and tension yes but nothing like opening night. Less laps around the parking lot rehearsing. A different crowd. Same jokes, same laugher. I asked Andi if she wanted to go with me. “Nah, I saw enough last night, I don’t need to go back.” Makes a bloke feel so proud.
After our graduation and getting a comedy diploma, I did seven more performances on my own during the winter of 2007. Five comedy clubs in Birmingham and two in Atlanta. Got paid, too. Not much, which is what I deserved but enough to add ‘professional comedian’ to the obit. When doing it for real, four minutes of stage time turned into six or eight. That’s a long time. Way too long when you don’t have material. A few of my gigs were good, most of them, not-so-much. I even got heckled. I could have stayed home for that. I learned the hard way to know your audience. Political humor, travel and satire of European culture does not play well with a Tuesday night hat-wearing, good ole boy Alabama crowd who wants to talk hunting, fishing and carburetors. I knew nothing about hunting, fishing or carburetors. My burgeoning stand-up career quickly became a sit-down.
So when Jackie Mason died two weeks ago, reading about his background and how, despite all the obstacles tossed his way, he succeeded, I realized it didn’t really matter whether I liked his work or not. Having been on that stage myself and humiliated, what Mr. Mason and the thousands like him achieved, truly is an art and a skill. It’s a hundred-times harder than it looks.
As for me, I probably should have been a rabbi.