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Jewish Journal

Up Front

by Michael Aushenker

June 11, 1998 | 8:00 pm

I don't know why they love me so much [in England]. Over there, I played the London Palladium for a month. It was just announced that I was going to play there, and the show has practically sold out. Here, I'm told I'm too Jewish; over there, they love me. Go figure that out."

The World According to Jackie Mason By Michael Aushenker, Community Editor

If anyone was preordained to be a rabbi, it was Jackie Mason. Born in Sheboygan, Wis., in 1937, the Yiddish-accented comedian comes from four generations of rabbis. All three of his brothers are rabbis. And, once upon a time, Mason himself was a rabbi, teaching Talmud in far-out places like Lathrop, Pa., and Walden, N.C.

But, at the age of 27, Mason's life took a detour from destiny. Disillusioned with Modern Orthodoxy, he quit his congregation and hit the road as a stand-up comedian. His career was temporarily stalled in the 1960s following an infamous appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," during which he made a hand gesture that Sullivan construed as a personal insult directed at him.

It was in the late 1980s when Mason's career blossomed anew with an award-winning one-man Broadway show, "The World According to Me." Along with his subsequent shows -- "Jackie Mason: Politically Incorrect" and "Jackie Mason: Brand New" -- the opinionated humorist has rode his runaway monologues to international success. Mason has even parlayed his old-school Jewish persona into limited success on TV (the thankfully short-lived sitcom "Chicken Soup") and cinema (the long-forgotten and dubious sequel "Caddyshack II").

However, it's on stage, before a packed audience, where Mason's wit is a force to behold.

These days, Mason co-hosts "Crossing the Line" with celebrated attorney Raoul Felder. Currently in its third year, the topical celebrity panel show appears on PBS stations around the country.

This month, Mason will break in his latest one-man show, which is bound for Broadway and abroad. The comic will offer his unique, unfettered take on such topics du jour as the Lewinsky affair; Sen. John Glenn in space; Microsoft founder Bill Gates; and Viagra. Catch Mason at The Comedy Store on June 17-20, 22, and 24-28.

IS MASON REALLY JEWISH, OR IS IT FOR THE ACT? [laughs] "As far as I know. Unless my father and mother lied to me...."

MASON WAS A RABBI; SAM KINISON, A PREACHER -- WHAT GIVES? "I don't see any connection between religion and comedy. It's like saying once you were a fireman and now you're a doctor."

HONING HIS ACT ON THE BIMAH: "I used comedy to make a speech at a wedding or a bar mitzvah. [At times, a rabbi] is more of a social director. He's not a very popular rabbi if he's not entertaining. People come to a religious place, but they don't want to hear about religion. Most Gentiles go to a bar, the Jews go to temple."

"TOO JEWISH": "Only Jews say to me that I'm 'too Jewish.' They'll never say a comedian is 'too Italian' or 'too Spanish,' because they would feel like bigots. They don't feel accepted. They always feel that they have to impress the Gentiles. But then they say they're proud to be Jewish. It's nuts. It's a sickness."

PERSECUTION COMPLEX: "A lot of Jews are shocked when Gentiles laugh at my humor. They wonder, how could they understand my humor. What is there not to understand? It's in English. The humor is universal. It's only Jewish paranoia that makes them say that.... This is the self-hate that Jews suffer from. They can't understand about being accepted. When Jews hear a Jewish accent, they get panicky.... They still can't believe Gentiles will accept them, so they still imagine persecution if someone finds out they're Jewish. If a Jew loses a job, he'll say its anti-Semitism."

GENTILE MAN'S AGREEMENT: "Jews have always been in control of the studios, yet there was never a Jewish character in a movie. Even now, when you look back, you can count them on your hands.... They'll show [every other race], but they'll never show you a Jewish character. It's all one big Jewish sickness. They're always nervous about showing Jews. A Jew is always some kind of a complete lunatic character, whose Jewishness makes him some kind of a crazo."

JEWS IN SPACE: "Woody Allen cannot depict a Jew as a normal person. Mel Brooks makes the Jew a character who doesn't belong in front of normal people. He becomes a Chassidic clown or a sick weirdo. That's the only way [Brooks] could depict a Jew: If he's a moronic character, if it's showing to a Gentile audience that it's a nut case.... It's Jewish self-loathing."

DON'T THROW A "JEWISH PRIDE" PARADE JUST YET: "There's definitely been some progress. Thirty years ago, you would never have a show called 'Seinfeld.' There would never be a Jew called Streisand; she would have changed her name.... It's changing but not changing that much. They can admit they're Jewish, but they're a lot more proud to marry a shiksa ."

HE'S PERFORMED FOR THE QUEEN MOTHER, QUEEN ELIZABETH II, PRINCE CHARLES -- CAN WILLIAM AND HARRY BE FAR BEHIND? "I have no idea. I don't know why they love me so much [in England]. Over there, I played the London Palladium for a month. It was just announced that I was going to play there, and the show has practically sold out. Here, I'm told I'm too Jewish; over there, they love me. Go figure that out."

WHAT IF SOMEONE FLIPPED JACKIE THE ONE-FINGER SALUTE ON LIVE TV? "I don't know if I would ban him from the show, but if it was intentional, I wouldn't want to have him over for dinner. I never did that to Sullivan. He imagined it.... As far as I'm concerned, he made an issue out of nothing. I think he was a wonderful guy."

A HORSE WAS A HORSE: "Back then, if you made a dirty gesture, they had contempt for you. Today, you're a hero, you're a hit.... Madonna will sleep with a horse if she has to.... It's a whole different kind of morality."

"CHICKENED" OUT: "I didn't care about 'Chicken Soup.' I was nauseous doing the show... I can't take selfish people. I did it out of decency, to fulfill my contractual obligations. From day one, I wanted out of it...I hated doing a sitcom. All of a sudden, I found myself being a prisoner of someone else's dictates. I felt like I was captured in Vietnam, and I couldn't remember what I did to deserve this. If I had a choice right now between a prison camp or a sitcom, I'd pick the prison camp."

BUT WOULD HE DO ANOTHER SITCOM? "I didn't go into show business to stand in a warehouse at 4 in the morning and repeat lines 40 times for a director. The whole process is very arduous, and there's no way to get around it. It's like working in a coal mine. What's the difference whether it's my coal mine or someone else's coal mine, it's still a coal mine."

"CADDYSHACK III"? "If they do it, it'll be without me."

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