When I was growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in the suburbs of Chicago, there were basically two comedians whom everyone watched.
One was Eddie Murphy, whose 1987 comedy special, Raw, was an instant hit. The other was Jackie Mason, whom the New York Times credits for keeping “the borscht belt style of comedy alive long after the Catskills resorts had closed,” but whose comedy was far edgier and more daring than that quaint, nostalgic description allows.
Mason passed away this weekend at the age of 93, but remained active and outspoken despite his age. He had, after all, been “rediscovered” at the end of a career that was presumed to have died in the era of black-and-white television.
By then, he was too hardened by experience to care what people thought. That made his comedy subversive, and hilarious.
In Mason’s Emmy-winning special, The World According to Me!, Mason skewered political figures who were considered almost untouchable — at least on the left — even then. He did memorable, slapstick impressions of Teddy Kennedy, for example, and Jesse Jackson (“I don’t fly, I don’t go, I don’t die, I don’t know!”).
His targets were nonpartisan, however: he mocked Henry Kissinger with an almost obscene impression, and poked fun at Moshe Dayan, Israel’s one-eyed general. (Mason’s joke: if Dayan’s patch had been on the other eye, Israel would never have seen the Arab armies.) He mocked the Reagan administration over the Iran-Contra affair: “Well, maybe it was small arms, it was only for short people.”
There was a point in the show during which Mason turned down the volume a bit and sat on the edge of the stage, recalling the unfortunate event that nearly wrecked his career. In 1964, during an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show that was interrupted by a presidential address, he appeared — to Sullivan, at least — to give the host the middle finger.
That seems rather tame now, given that foul language later became ubiquitous in standup comedy, and the fact that comedians are “canceled” today for jokes about race, gender, religion, and sexuality that were once standard fare.
Mason ran into trouble on that front later in his career, referring to President Barack Obama in 2009 by the Yiddish term “schvartze,” which can be a derogatory term for a black person, and which the Times refused even to print in its obituary.
Mason said at the time, via TMZ: “I’m an old Jew. I was raised in a Jewish family where ‘schwartza’ was used. It’s not a demeaning word and I’m not going to defend myself.” He was done apologizing: after suffering twenty years in obscurity because of a joke about a finger, Mason had developed a sense of invincibility, a refusal to submit to political correctness.
That sense of defiance emerged in 2016, when Mason openly supported Donald Trump. He was one of the few celebrities to do so, and did so in spite of claims by the left that Trump was somehow antisemitic.
Mason, raised on the rough streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan in a family of Orthodox rabbis, understood the difference between someone who was really “good for the Jews,” as the saying goes, and someone who merely said the right things to court Jewish votes.
He even recorded an exclusive video for Breitbart News (above), sending a message to anti-Trump comedians, and celebrities: “Despite your ridiculous behavior, I want to say to you from the bottom of my heart that I wish you a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hannukah, a Happy New Year, and may God bless you that you should turn into a normal person.”
Jackie Mason was, to hear him tell it, the last normal person left — the first, and perhaps the last, cancel culture survivor.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News and the host of Breitbart News Sunday on Sirius XM Patriot on Sunday evenings from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. PT). He is the author of the recent e-book, Neither Free nor Fair: The 2020 U.S. Presidential Election. His recent book, RED NOVEMBER, tells the story of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary from a conservative perspective. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.