Around 1982, I went to see Jackie Mason at Dangerfield’s in New York. Mason had slipped into obscurity since the 60s when, legend goes, he made what seemed like an obscene gesture toward Ed Sullivan on the air. His TV appearances had long since dried up.
That night, Mason laid me out on the floor. There were exactly six people in the audience, and two walked out. “Too Jewish,” muttered an aging housewife, as she and her husband left their table. His performance, with barely an audience, was stunning. This throwback Yiddish stand-up would eventually become the only comedian in modern times whose solo act alone became a hit Broadway show.
Several years later, Mason was headlining Carolines, and I filed this report in my Naked City column.
Reprinted from Screw, May 5, 1986:
Jackie Mason is the sharpest stand-up comedian in the business. His craftsmanship onstage can’t be paralleled by younger comics; he plays to the audience like a jazz musician, reinventing a wealth of material, shifting meter with masterful ease. After devastating the audience during his Friday-night late set at Carolines, 8th Ave. & 26th St., Jackie took a table to talk with Naked City.
“I love to see young comedians, there are a lot of kids with bright things to say. Most of them have brighter material than the old comedians. But young comedians are not necessarily good performers. Old comedians might be funnier as personalities, but their material is shallow, meaningless crap about mudder-in-laws; witless one-liners that make no statement, derived from nowhere, went to nothin’. Young kids today often make hilarious comments about social situations, drugs, the mayor, ethnic groups, philosophy. But most of the kids today stink as performers; they have no comedic personality, like Don Rickles or Buddy Hackett.”
Mason, at age 48, ascribes to the old comedy school philosophy of working up through training grounds, which barely exist now. “I had to play bar mitzvahs to make it. New comics aren’t challenged to develop. At a modern comedy club, you don’t have to be a performer, everybody is a college youngster, they sit silent and respectful, you don’t have to be a great performer to reach them. I would have died like a dog if I wasn’t a performer—in bars, in lounges, for lowlifes, wiseguys, pimps, hoodlums. And this was just at a Jewish wedding.”
That’s why young comics often die in the big rooms in Vegas. Mason never got smacked around, even at the toughest wiseguy clubs in the Bronx, where the worst thing that happened was being told to “take a fuckin’ walk.” Jackie Mason, from the last generation to emerge out of the old Lower East Side, became a rabbi, so’s not to disappoint his parents. (He only returns to Ratner’s these days.) His father was a rabbi, and his three older brothers are rabbis to this day. The Yiddish-tinged Lower East Side accent, Mason’s trademark, has never received any flack, except from one source: “Only a Jew will complain. From gentiles I never hear adverse comments. Only Jews say the ugly things to me—‘how long you gonna kid yourself, when you gonna give this up, already, why don’t you retire, what the fuck is the matter with you?’ In my 23 years doing this, I never heard a complaint from a schvartze.”
Half of Mason’s act contains Jew material; here are the most brilliant insights in the biz. “Because if you’re Jewish,” he says in the act, “the first people who’ll reject you, get disturbed by you, get nauseous from you, are Jews who say that you’re too Jewish. I have more trouble from Jews in this business today than I ever had with a gentile. Till I met this Nazi bastard (pointing to guy in first row). . . . All minorities have that sickness. Danny Kaye is a Jew from Brooklyn. You wake him up in the middle of the night, he talks worse than me. But he’s embarrassed by his Jewishness. So as soon as ya give him a job on television or in movies. . .” (Mason prances about the stage singing in European operatic trill)—“The man is fulla shit.”
When asked, Jackie admits a certain number of girls do come on to him, but there certainly isn’t any groupie atmosphere at his shows. Most women are with boyfriends, and there’s no great demand for short Jewish comedians as matinee idols. “Let’s be honest, for every girl who would chase me, there’s a thousand who’ll chase after Woody Allen. They don’t care what you look like when you’re the hottest picture-maker in the world.” Mason is worshipped, however, by the hierarchy of comedians in Los Angeles, where Mel Brooks, Steve Allen, Carl Reiner, and whatnot, all go nuts at his shows. Mason is unimpressed by this, gets embarrassed when they testify to his greatness.
On the immediate horizon for Jackie is his third independent film, produced and co-written by the comedian, who stars. Stiffs is about two brothers, a Jew and an Italian, who own a funeral parlor. Their mother was married twice, and this was the result of those marriages. “Then a third brother, a schvartze, comes in—turns out the mother was fooling around with a schvartze musician. The picture ends with a Chinaman also coming in; she was also fooling around with a Chinaman.”
Raising money for films outside the system is a bitch. “You bother rich Jews till you raise enough. If you can raise it, you make a better picture. There are people who invest in restaurants, in movies. The Stoolie cost a million-and-a-half, Stiffs was $2 million. If you’re aggressive and plead with them, it’s not impossible.”
Too Jewish: A 2 a.m. Power Lunch With Jackie Mason at the Carnegie
It’s hard to juxtapose Mason’s brilliant onstage persona, as a moral equalizer and social critic, with his true personality—that of an amoral, bitter old man. His girlfriend and producer, Jyll Rosenfeld, was so toxic, she could have single-handedly triggered a second Holocaust. Mason enticed writers to scab during the writers’ strike, and was a monstrous time-waster.
Reprinted from National Lampoon, April, 1991:
For a golden moment in 1987, Jackie Mason became the hottest star in Hollywood—even though he hadn’t made a picture there. His Broadway show, The World According To Me, was an unlikely smash. Dozens of writers and producers—and suckers—scurried about developing Jackie Mason projects. The treatment that follows is but one misguided example.
Here I am, finishing a corned beef on rye at the Carnegie at 2 a.m., not looking for any trouble, when in comes Jackie Mason. He has an entourage now—lawyers, press agents, an alter cocker chorus line akin to those who group around Joe Franklin. A short while back, Mason had one sidekick, now he has six, his entourage having risen with his stardom.
I confront him: “Jackie, you never called.”
The comedian looks up from his plate of rugelach indignantly. “Who’re you?” he asks, gazing down at me, though he is seated and I’m standing.
“Josh Alan Friedman.”
Sudden recognition. “Oh, yeah, the kid who was sending me the script. I promised I’d call you the next day, right?” he says, gesturing to the table at large, as if to congratulate his own memory. “I never got it.”
“Jackie, I mailed it three weeks ago. That’s the fourth time I sent it. Don’t you get mail at your apartment?”
“I swear I never saw it.” And then, Mason looks accusingly at one of his Yes Men, makes a disparaging gesture; this is the clown responsible for handling mail.
Every few weeks I’d bump into Mason. He was hard to avoid, a fixture on the sidewalk in front of Columbus, Sardi’s, the Carnegie Delicatessen every night after his show. Before his meteoric rise, I interviewed him for a tabloid. He dreamed of playing a “Jewish detective” in the movies. “Write me a script, any script, as long as I get to be a Jewish detective, and I’ll get you a hundred-thousand dollars.”
Not knowing Jackie would soon be bankable—or that Mason Productions would appear at the top of the Writer’s Guild shit list, I zoomed into production. I was a fan. I’d seen him at Dangerfield’s a few years before World According To Me, where he performed brilliantly, blew off the roof, before a mere six people—some of whom walked out, with the scolding reproach, “Too Jewish!”
With my pal Richard Jaccoma, I concocted the perfect, the only, Jackie Mason vehicle—a remake of The Golem.
“So, how will I ever see this?” asks Mason.
“Tell you what. I live 20 blocks away. Give me 20 minutes, I’ll be back with the treatment.”
“I’ll wait right here, I won’t move from this chair ’till you get back,” swears the famous comedian.
I cab it home, having the cab wait outside my apartment. Searching through my files for a Xerox of The Golem, I’m certain Mason will take off. But he told me at our last sidewalk encounter that he needed scripts desperately, everything he saw was shit, especially detective scripts. Furthermore, he could snap his fingers now to put something into production, as opposed to several years ago, when he first mentioned his detective film aspirations.
I barrel back into the Carnegie waving pages. The air conditioning is strong for September, blowing the scent of pickles and mustard through the air. True to his word, Jackie Mason is waiting.
“Finally, you can read this when you get a moment.” But the future movie star points me to the empty chair alongside him.
“Let’s read this aloud now,” he says, huddling with the table of Yes Men. “I always test comedy material on people first, like dis,” he announces to the sycophants.
Jackie hands the treatment to a man directly in front of him who looks as if he’d been a redhead decades ago. These old boys are high on pastrami and nitrites, cutting the grease with cigars. The fellow garbles his way through the two pages:
Setting: NEW YORK CITY, LATE 1930’s, BEFORE THE OUTBREAK OF WORLD WAR II.
Jackie Mason plays a hard-boiled Jewish detective from the Lower East Side. His private-eye office—with the lettering “Sammy Spaidstein, Kosher Investigator” encased within a Star of David on the glass door—is at 42nd Street and Broadway.
Sammy handles dreary, run-of-the-mill cases, like spying on assembly lines at Matzo bakeries to make sure the rabbi says proper blessings or doesn’t spit in the gefilte fish—just keeping everything kosher. But Sammy longs for more glamorous assignments. Every night, on his way back to the office, he makes his Broadway rounds: waving to doormen, chorus girls and waiters at the Palace, Sardi’s, McGirr’s Poolroom, the Algonquin (period locales unchanged since 1939).
Right across the street from his office, he cruises through Hubert’s Museum & Flea Circus, Broadway’s legendary pits of show biz (a carny arcade in existence 50 years, which presaged Times Square’s decline). Here he schmoozes past Estelline the Sword Swallower, Sealo the Seal Boy, Andy Potato Chips the Midget, Congo the Jungle Creep, Presto the Magician, a schlock Egyptian Mummy exhibit, and his confidant Jack Johnson, the ex-heavyweight champ of the world (who was pathetically on exhibit at Hubert’s before he died).
One evening, a gorgeous woman breathlessly enters Sammy Spaidstein’s office. She wants to hire him to protect her father, a rabbi and Kabbalist. The Nazis (who were staging bund rallies at Madison Square Garden in the late 1930’s) believe her father knows the whereabouts of the mythical GOLEM. According to Jewish legend, The Golem, an eight-foot giant made of clay, slumbers secretly in the ghetto. He is only awakened by the Jewish mystics at a time of great threat to the race.
The Nazis want to acquire The Golem and present it to Hitler. The Fuhrer could then further his conquest of the world without interference.
Sammy takes the assignment from the rabbi’s beautiful daughter. They become romantically entwined throughout Sammy’s cloak-and-dagger pursuits, leading him among the goyim of Germantown, on Second Avenue in the 80’s. Alas, our hero finally stumbles upon the great monster of Hebrew lore: The Golem turns out to be the schlock mummy exhibit at Hubert’s Flea Circus, right under his nose.
Only the rabbi, now held captive by the Nazis, holds the key to reawakening The Golem, savior of the Jewish ghetto. But by accident, Jack Johnson unwittingly triggers The Golem back alive. The Golem herein is a grotesque parody of an eight-foot Yeshiva boy, with shot-glass spectacles and knickers, and the strength of 100 men (vaguely along the lines of Peter Boyle’s portrayal in Young Frankenstein). Sammy and The Golem do battle with the Nazis, wiping them from the face of New York, rescuing the rabbi, and walking off with his beautiful daughter.
Mason is impassive throughout the reading. His entourage chuckles at spots, but eyes him carefully, their laughter becoming throat-clearing when the boss doesn’t respond.
“Okay,” says Jackie, pointing to the first old duke across the table. “What did you t’ink?”
The guy is enthusiastic. “It was funny, like Mel Brooks, unusual idea, could be great.”
Mason points to the second in line, a younger, black-haired guy in some managerial aspect of show biz. “It was like a Spielberg picture with comedy—ya got Nazis, science fiction, adventure. Excellent.”
“Okay, says Mason, casting a nod toward a fat gentleman leaning back with a cigar, whose turn is up: “Too Jewish. They’ll never go for it in the Midwest,” he declares, taking personal objection. “Jackie’s gotta steer clear playing too Jewish, he can’t be ethnic. The movie should have a goy star in it.”
“I’m glad you said that,” shoots Mason, putting his fist down. “That’s what I was thinking to myself, but I wanted one of you to say it.”
“Too Jewish?” I interjected. “Was Annie Hall too Jewish for the Midwest? Is Barbra Streisand too Jewish, was Yentl too Jewish? How ’bout The Jazz Singer with Jolson? Jackie Mason’s whole career is too Jewish, and look where that’s gotten him today.”
Mason turns to me, apologetically: “Listen. I can’t play a Star Wars-type movie, with all that crazy stuff goin’ on, over here, over there. People expect to see me in every day situations, mainstream comedy. Dis is something for Steve Martin, one of those comics, dis isn’t right for me.”
A sincere appraisal and a mercifully fast verdict. I’d had my day in court, and appreciate the swift rejection, so it won’t drag on.
“I disagree,” I say.
“You disagree?” says Jackie, dumbfounded before his witnesses. “You disagree? What if I were to tell some ballet dancer, who loved the classics, that she should be a dancer on Solid Gold, that I disagree with her choice. How can any schmuck tell me what he wants to see me do. There was this guy who wrote out a whole Broadway show for me a year ago. They thought the only way I’d have a chance on Broadway was if there were heavy chorus numbers, change of sets, costumes, chorus girls and routines. I started a reading of the thing, but halfway through I knew it wasn’t right for me. He told me ‘I disagree.’ He t’inks I should do a whole big show, why should I listen to this schmuck? Now I’m the first comedian to ever pull off a one-man show on Broadway.”
It was true that Jackie’s hit featured a bare stage and himself. “Listen, if you don’t think it’s right, case closed, you can’t play something you feel is wrong. We’ll find someone else.”
“Then why can’t I find one good script about a Jewish detective? I see 50 terrible scripts a week, I need one great one.”
“There are some good detective scripts,” I volunteer, “and there could be more if talented writers were actually hired to write them.”
“Name one good detective comedy from the past 10 years,” challenges Jackie.
“Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” yells some screenwriter at the end of the table.
“That stunk,” says Jackie. “I’ll tell you what, there hasn’t been one since The Pink Panther!” Mason puts his fist down again. The guy who worries about being Too Jewish begins an analysis of Get Smart. Both agree these are the only two good detective comedies.
“Furthermore, I can play a romantic lead,” declares Mason. “Why shouldn’t I? That ugly dumb bastard, Dangerfield, was the romantic lead in that last picture, what was it?”
“Back To School,” comes the table.
“Yeah, he gets the goil, that Sally what’s her name, he was a romantic lead. And you mean to tell me this skinny putz wid the big nose and glasses, this bent-over sickeningly ugly weasel, Woody Allen, can play romantic leads, and I can’t? He can sleep with Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow, that’s all he does is romantic leads. Who’s that Hemingway broad?”
“Okay,” I pitch, “you would be perfect for a romantic lead. . . But I have some other ideas. The first Jewish vice president.”
“Why should I play the vice president? Last week some guy came up with a script for me as the first Jewish president.”
“Yeah, but as vice president, it would be more realistic, loaded with anticipation of you being a heartbeat away. You could derive more situations from that.”
“What?! Dis script had me declaring Miami as the new capital. My wife nags, kvetches, why can’t she come out to meet Gorbachev in her fur coat, I make Rosh Hashonah a national holiday.”
“It was too Jewish,” whines the same old advisor.
End note: Mason’s Hollywood career ultimately spawned the TV series, Chicken Soup, and the movie, Caddyshack II.
--Josh Alan Friedman