Jackie Mason, the stand-up comic whose career spanned several decades and became a template and poster child of sorts for Jewish self-deprecation, died Saturday at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital the age of 93. His friend, lawyer Raoul Felder, confirmed Mason’s death to the New York Times.
“He died peacefully with several close friends and family at his side,” Felder told CNN, adding that he had been hospitalized for two weeks with breathing difficulties.
“My humor — it’s a man in a conversation, pointing things out to you,” he told the Times in 1988. “He’s not better than you, he’s just another guy. I see life with love — I’m your brother up there — but if I see you make a fool out of yourself, I owe it to you to point that out to you.”
“One of the best,” tweeted Gilbert Gottfried.
Mason built his career out of political incorrectness, with his Jewish-themed humor, social commentary and pseudo-angry persona earning him a spot on Comedy Central’s 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time. Mason had originally become a rabbi in a career that appeared preordained: his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfathers had all become rabbis alongside Mason’s three older brothers. Despite completing his rabbinical studies and heading congregations, Mason knew early his true calling was in comedy. “Somebody in the family had to make a living,” he told Jewish News in 2015. “Every night on stage I feel like I am standing up and giving a sermon to my people so it’s quite similar.”
“My parents never knew I was a comedian; my father was an orthodox rabbi who felt that all his sons should also become rabbis,” he said in 2015. “Being a comedian would be tantamount to being a murderer so to protect him I never told him.” His style unabashedly drew from his Jewish upbringing. “I find it hard to be told (as I often used to be) that I was ‘too Jewish,’ he said in 2015. “This is like saying to a bear, ‘You have too much fur.'”
Mason began his comedic career in the mid-1950s appearing throughout New York nightclubs and resorts in the Catskills, the then-bustling area of upstate New York that produced scores of famous comics. He expanded his audience via national appearances on The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show and through two albums: 1962’s I Am the Greatest Comedian in the World Only Nobody Knows It Yet and 1963’s I Want to Leave You With the Words of a Great Comedian.
It was The Ed Sullivan Show that brought Mason both fame and infamy: During an October 1964 episode, Mason — who was in the midst of a multi-episode contract that paid him $7,500 per monologue — was signaled off-camera by Sullivan to speed up his routine, as the show was about to be preempted by a live speech from then-President Lyndon B. Johnson. Mason, in turn, mentioned the signaling during his routine.
“The studio audience laughed and I started making jokes about fingers,” Mason told the New York Times in 1964. The comedian then, allegedly, pulled out his middle finger. Pointing in different directions, Mason said, “Here’s a finger for you and a finger for you and a finger for you.”
Sullivan immediately banned Mason from the show for the “obscene gesture onstage,” as well as “insubordination and gross deviation from material agreed upon.” Mason’s contract with the Ed Sullivan Show was also terminated, resulting in a lengthy lawsuit between the host and the comedian. While the two later made amends, Mason cited the incident as near-career killing, with the comedian then considered, for the time, an obscene comic. “I had no obscene thoughts in my mind,” Mason said following the episode.
Mason’s career spiked in the 1980s thanks to the popular Broadway show The World According to Me (earning Mason both a Tony and Emmy) and his appearance as the obnoxious Jack Hartounian in Caddyshack II. He returned to Broadway in 1990 with his new show Brand New and performed in six different Broadway shows in total, including 1994’s Politically Incorrect and 1996’s Love Thy Neighbor.
“Ladies and gentlemen, you can’t please everyone,” he said in The World According to Me. “Take my girlfriend – I think she’s the most remarkable woman in the world… That’s me… But to my wife…”
In 1992, Mason won an Emmy for his role of Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky, the disappointed father of Herschel Shmoikel Pinchas Yerucham Krustofsky, aka Krusty the Clown, on The Simpsons; the role mirrored Mason’s own life, as he – like Krusty – was the son of a rabbi who turned to comedy instead of the Talmud. (Mason would return to the role in numerous subsequent episodes.) “I feel like Krusty,” Simpsons writer Al Jean wrote on Twitter. “We will very much miss Jackie Mason.”
“Doing comedy and finding new material is very easy for me,” he said in 2015. “I am an avid reader, I get through at least four newspapers a day and I am a TV news junkie so by the end of the day — with the world in such disarray — it is very easy to find humor in a dozen situations.”
Additional reporting by Daniel Kreps