Rabbi-turned-comedian Jackie Mason has died aged 93.
Mason, whose feisty brand of stand-up comedy led him from Catskills nightclubs to West Coast talk shows and Broadway stages, died on Saturday at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, the celebrity lawyer Raoul Felder told the Associated Press.
The irascible Mason was known for his sharp wit and piercing social commentary, often about being Jewish, men and women, and his own inadequacies. His typical style was amused outrage.
“Eighty percent of married men cheat in America. The rest cheat in Europe,” he once joked.
Another Mason line was: “Politics doesn’t make strange bedfellows, marriage does.”
About himself, he once said: “I was so self-conscious, every time football players went into a huddle, I thought they were talking about me.”
His death was mourned far and wide, from fellow comedian Gilbert Gottfried, who called him “one of the best”, to Fox News Channel personality Sean Hannity, who hailed him as “irreverent, iconoclastic, funny, smart and a great American patriot”. Henry Winkler tweeted: “Now you get to make heaven laugh.”
Mason was born Jacob Maza, the son of a rabbi. His three brothers became rabbis as did Mason, who at one time had congregations in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, but comedy eventually proved to be a more persistent calling than God.
“A person has to feel emotionally barren or empty or frustrated in order to become a comedian,” he told the Associated Press in 1987. “I don’t think people who feel comfortable or happy are motivated to become comedians. You’re searching for something and you’re willing to pay a high price to get that attention.”
Mason started in showbusiness as a social director at a resort in the Catskills. He was the one who got everybody up to play Simon Says, quiz games or shuffleboard. He also told jokes. After one season, he was playing clubs throughout the Catskills for better money.
“Nobody else knew me but, in the mountains, I was a hit,” Mason recalled.
In 1961, the pint-sized comic got a big break, an appearance on Steve Allen’s weekly television variety show. His success took him to The Ed Sullivan Show and other programmes.
He was banned from the Sullivan show for two years when he allegedly gave the host the finger when Sullivan signalled to him to wrap up his act during an appearance on October 18 1964.
Mason’s act even took him to Broadway, where he put on several one-man shows, including Freshly Squeezed in 2005, Love Thy Neighbour in 1996 and The World According To Me in 1988, for which he received a special Tony Award.
“I feel like Ronald Reagan tonight,” Mason joked on Tony night. “He was an actor all his life, knew nothing about politics and became president of the United States. I’m an ex-rabbi who knew nothing about acting and I’m getting a Tony Award.”
Mason called himself an observer who watched people and learned. From those observations he said he got his jokes and then tried them out on friends. “I’d rather make a fool of myself in front of two people for nothing than a thousand people who paid for a ticket,” he told the AP.
His humour could leap from computers and designer coffee to then-Senator John Kerry, former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and Donald Trump. He was able to articulate the average Joe’s anger, making the indignities of life seem funny and maybe just a little bit more bearable.
“I very rarely write anything down. I just think about life a lot and try to put it into phrases that will get a joke,” he said. “I never do a joke that has a point that I don’t believe in. To me, the message and the joke is the same.”
On TV, Mason was a reliable presence, usually with a cameo on such shows as 30 Rock or The Simpsons, or as a reliable guest on late-night chat shows. In the UK, he performed in front of the Queen and his Fearless show played London’s West End in 2012.
He portrayed a Jewish ex-pyjama salesman in love with an Irish-Catholic widow portrayed by Lynn Redgrave in a series called Chicken Soup in 1989 but it did not last.
During the OJ Simpson murder trial, the BBC’s Scottish service hired Mason as a weekly commentator. He was also in Caddyshack II, a notorious flop.
Mason’s humour sometimes went too far, as when he touched off a controversy in New York while campaigning for Republican mayoral candidate Rudolph Giuliani against Democrat David Dinkins, who was black. Mason had to apologise after saying, among other things, that Jews would vote for Mr Dinkins out of guilt.
Lawyer Mr Felder, his longtime friend, told the AP that Mason had a Talmudic outlook on life: “That whatever you would say to him, he would start an argument with you.”
Mason is survived by his wife, producer Jyll Rosenfeld, and a daughter, Sheba.