He was born Yacov Moshe Maza on June 9, 1931, in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. When Mason was five years old his family moved to New York City. He grew up in a family surrounded of rabbis, including his father and three of his brothers. At age 25, Mason was ordained as a rabbi. It was not until 1957, after the death of his father, that Mason began his career as a comedian. Mason first began performing on the Borscht Belt, and then went on to New York City nightclubs. His appearances, during 1960, on the Steve Allen’s “Tonight Show” furthered his career to the top nightclubs.
In 1962, Mason gained notoriety by supposedly giving Ed Sullivan “the finger” on a live telecast of Sullivan’s weekly variety show. However, Mason denied that he made the obscene gesture. Mason later retaliated against Sullivan with a libel suit in the New York State Supreme Court and won. Nevertheless, this scandal greatly hurt Mason’s career for several decades.
Mason had to work his way up again, with club appearances and television guest spots. However, by the early 1980s, Mason opened his one-man comedy show, The World According to Me in Hollywood and Beverly Hills. The show became such a huge success, that in December 1986, the show premiered on Broadway. Mason received a Special Tony Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award, an Ace Award, an Emmy Award, and a Grammy nomination. for his show.
He portrayed a Jewish ex-pajama salesman in love with an Irish-Catholic widow portrayed by Lynn Redgrave in a series called “Chicken Soup” in 1989 but the sitcom was cancelled.
In 1990 and 1991, Mason again was on Broadway, this time with his successful two-act show Brand New, which won him his second Outer Critics Circle Award. In 1994-95, he appeared in another show, Politically Incorrect. He followed this with several other one-man shows: Love thy Neighbor (1996–97), Much Ado About Everything (1999–2000), Prune Danish (2002), ackie Mason: Freshly Squeezed (2005), and The Ultimate Jew (2008). He holds the record for the longest-running one-man show in Broadway history and the longest-running stand-up show in the history of London’s West End.
In a 2005 poll to find the Comedian's Comedian, Mason was voted #43 among the top-50 comedy acts ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders. He was also ranked #63 in “Comedy Central Presents: 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time.”
In November 2005, Mason started a daily talk show, “The Jackie Mason Show,” which airs nightly on the CN8 network on Comcast cable television. He later hosted a nationally syndicated radio program.
Mason made cameo appearances on television and was the voice of Rabbi Hyman Krustofki in “The Simpsons” for which he won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance. He performed in front of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and his show “Fearless” played London’s West End in 2012. He appeared in several movies, Sleeper (1973), The Stoolie (1974), The Jerk (1979), History of the World, Part I (1981), and Caddyshack II (1988).
“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.”
Mason sometimes got himself into trouble with his comments. In 1991, while campaigning for GOP mayoral candidate Rudolph Giuliani against Democrat David Dinkins, who was Black, Mason said Jews would vote for Dinkins out of guilt. He later apologized.
Mason was also known as a fervent supporter of Israel. He co-founded the organization One Jerusalem to defend against the Oslo peace agreement to divide the city into the Jewish and Palestinian capitals. Mason believed Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel. In an interview with Times of Israel in 2016, Mason said, “without Israel, Jews from all over the world would have no chance to survive.”
“I have a great identification with Judaism as a religion and as a culture, and all the values that created such a great history, and the Jewish contribution to the betterment of all humanity. Everything about my attitude and my thoughts were impacted greatly by being raised in this culture. My observations… of all of humanity express themselves in my comedy,” he said.
On August 14, 1991, Mason married his 37-year-old manager Jyll Rosenfeld. Mason died on July 24, 2021, at the age of 93. He was survived by his wife and a daughter.
Sources: “Jackie Mason (1934 - ),” American Jewish Historical Society.
American Jewish Desk Reference, (NY: Random House, 1999), pg. 468-9.
“Jackie Mason,” Wikipedia.
“Legendary Jewish comic Jackie Mason dies at 93,” Times of Israel, (July 25, 2021).
“Jackie Mason, a Rabbi-Turned-Comedian, Dies at 93,” AP, (July 24, 2021).