Jackie Mason, who kept Borscht Belt comedy alive, dead at 93

Jackie Mason, a throwback to the Borscht Belt style of comedy that was punctuated by a thick Yiddish accent and arm-waving delivery, died Saturday in New York City. He was 93.

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Mason’s death, at a Manhattan hospital, was confirmed by his longtime friend, lawyer Raoul Felder, The New York Times reported.

Mason was one of the last of the Borscht Belt comedians who performed in New York’s Catskill Mountains, combining his comedy with strong views on racial and ethnic politics, Variety reported.

“My humor -- it’s a man in a conversation, pointing things out to you,” Mason 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.”

Mason’s political incorrectness, combined with an innuendo-laden style of delivery, earned him a spot at No. 63 on Comedy Central’s 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time, Rolling Stone reported.

He defended his routine by saying it was his right to be “politically incorrect,” Variety reported. He used a Yiddish defamatory term for Blacks to describe then-New York Mayor David Dinkins, the website reported. It was a term he used frequently in his act.

Mason, who once was a rabbi, also had a role on “The Simpsons” as the voice of Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky, the father of Krusty the Clown, Variety reported. The role helped him win his second Emmy Award in 1992, the website reported. Mason also appeared as himself in a 2007 episode of “30 Rock.”

Mason’s father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfathers had all become rabbis, along with Mason’s three older brothers, Rolling Stone reported. After completing his rabbinical studies and heading congregations, Mason realized his future 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.”

Mason caught the attention of fellow comedian Jan Murray at a Los Angeles nightclub in 1960, the Times reported. Murray recommended him to Steve Allen, and his appearances on “The Steve Allen Show” led to bookings at marquee nightclubs such as the Copacobana and the Blue Angel.

Mason became a regular on the major television variety shows of the 1960s, but he had a disastrous incident on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on Oct. 18, 1964, according to the Times.

A speech by President Lyndon Johnson pre-empted the show, and Sullivan, standing offstage while Mason performed, indicated with two fingers to the comedian how much time was left.

An annoyed Mason held up his own fingers, saying, “Here’s a finger for you, and a finger for you, and a finger for you.”

Mason made his feature film debut in 1972 as the star of “The Stoolie” and later starred in “Caddyshack II” in 1988, Variety reported. In 2010 he starred as himself in the film “One Angry Man,” a courtroom dramedy that he also wrote.

He had supporting roles in “The Jerk” and “The History of the World: Part I.”

Mason was born Yacov Moshe Maza in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, on June 9, 1928, to immigrants from Belarus, the Times reported, although other sources give the year as 1931. He grew up in Manhattan.

Mason began working in the Catskills after his stint as a rabbi, writing comic monologues and appearing onstage whenever he could, the newspaper reported. He decided to pursue comedy after his father died in 1959.

“I’ve been doing this for a hundred thousand years, but it’s like I was born last Thursday,” Mason once told the Times. “They see me as today’s comedian. Thank God I stunk for such a long time and was invisible, so I could be discovered.”


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