Though in later years he fell from fashion, his rabbinical style in early routines felt very much like live comedy’s native tongue
If Jackie Mason could speak to us now, he’d surely be reporting back on the amusing ways in which Jews do the afterlife. But if we’ll never get to hear that particular hot take (“If it’s in the news,” he used to say, “it’s in the show”), in his long career in comedy Mason made sure to cover his people’s every other trait and proclivity. If anyone ever doubted that Jewish America had created standup comedy as we now know it, Mason – born Yacov Moshe Maza – stood as living proof.
That’s part of what made his shows compelling long after his opinions curdled and his comedy fell from fashion. The theatres he played in were like Tardises spinning us back to the so-called Borscht Belt of the Catskill mountains in the 1950s, where Jewish America spent its summers laughing at Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Jack Benny – and Mason himself, who worked as a busboy and a lifeguard there before turning his hand to jokes. He was good at them, so he quit working as a rabbi – a career path followed by his three brothers and all their male forebears – and the rest was comedy history.