‘I’m the ul­ti­mate Jew... Well, big­ger than Bibi’

Jackie Ma­son, in Lon­don next week, tells Paul Lester about celebrity, racism and why he won’t vote for Obama

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&books -

JACKIE MA­SON, the for­mer rabbi and diminu­tive, stocky mo­tor­mouth with the thick New York Jewish ac­cent, is one of the world’s great­est stand-up co­me­di­ans. His rou­tines, heavy on the dif­fer­ences be­tween Jews and gen­tiles, have been mak­ing peo­ple laugh for over 45 years. As no­to­ri­ous as he is fa­mous, he once made an ob­scene ges­ture at Amer­ica’s lead­ing TV host, Ed Sul­li­van, live on air. He was also al­legedly threat­ened — with bul­lets — by Frank Si­na­tra af­ter pok­ing fun at his then-wife, Mia Far­row. Al­most patho­log­i­cally out­spo­ken, even in his late sev­en­ties Ma­son re­mains fear­less in his com­edy, from prick­ing the av­er­age per­son’s pre­ten­sions to ex­pos­ing the fail­ings of US politi­cians.

So it is tough to work out how to ad­dress the man when he an­swers the phone from his home in New York. Jackie? Mr Ma­son? Rabbi Ma­son? Sir?

“No,” he replies in that inim­itable, barely pen­e­tra­ble brogue. “You don’t have to give me any fancy ti­tles. I’m just a nor­mal guy from the streets of the Lower East Side. I’m not ac­cus­tomed to el­e­gant ti­tles and fancy at­tributes. I’m just an or­di­nary Jew try­ing to make a liv­ing.”

As or­di­nary Jews go, he has quite a rep­u­ta­tion. It could be ar­gued that, Woody Allen aside, he is the one who would come to most peo­ple’s minds if pressed to name a well-known Amer­i­can Jew, or just well-known Jew, pe­riod. Is he the most recog­nis­able Jew on the planet?

“Well,” he pon­ders the ques­tion, won­der­ing where this is lead­ing, re­fer­ring to him­self in the third per­son as though even he can­not quite be­lieve he is who he is. “By now it’s hard to be­lieve that many peo­ple in New York don’t know who Jackie Ma­son is. I’m as well­known as the guy at the drug store on the cor­ner, and the restau­rants, and the build­ings. I’m like a fix­ture, a piece of furniture.

“But,” he adds, “I don’t know if I’m the most fa­mous Jew in the world. There are peo­ple like Henry Kissinger who are prob­a­bly more fa­mous, more prom­i­nent, than both of us [him­self and Allen]. Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu is prob­a­bly more pop­u­lar than ei­ther one of us.”

He pauses for a mo­ment to re­con­sider — af­ter all, Ne­tanyahu is no longer Prime Min­is­ter of Is­rael; he is “merely” the leader of the op­po­si­tion, the Likud party.

“What hap­pened to his ca­reer lately?” asks Ma­son of Ne­tanyahu, as­sum­ing his favourite po­si­tion, that of comic ag­i­ta­tor. “You don’t ever hear about it. He looked like a sure thing to be­come the next Prime Min­is­ter, and then this guy [Ehud] Olmert, who was sup­posed to be fin­ished, stays firm, and sud­denly Ne­tanyahu is forgotten about. So maybe you’re right. Maybe Jackie Ma­son is big­ger than him.”

Is­rael must be on Ma­son’s mind — he is com­ing to Lon­don next week to top the bill at the Is­rael 60th birth­day con­cert at Wem­b­ley Arena.

Al­though he has been per­form­ing for more than four decades, Ma­son has en­dured through a strange com­bi­na­tion of stay­ing the same and adapt­ing to change, which is prob­a­bly why he ap­peals to such a broad au­di­ence, from main­stream Mid­dle Eng­land/ Mid­dle-Amer­i­can types to fans of more edgy, al­ter­na­tive com­edy.

As he ex­plains: “I change my ma­te­rial all the time in or­der to make sure that it’s as top­i­cal as pos­si­ble. I re­late to the is­sues of the day just like your daily news­pa­per. I’m a very in­ten­sive re­searcher, I’m a stu­dent of ev­ery­thing that’s hap­pen­ing, and I make sure that my ma­te­rial is as fresh as what­ever it is that peo­ple are talk­ing about at the din­ner ta­ble. When peo­ple go out to a restau­rant, they’re not talk­ing about the First World War; they’re talk­ing about what hap­pened last night.”

Ma­son’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to re­main con­tem­po­rary has man­i­fested it­self of late in the nu­mer­ous video blogs he has recorded on ev­ery­thing from health and fit­ness to gun con­trol and the par­lous state of the US ad­min­is­tra­tion. Does he feel com­fort­able mak­ing po­lit­i­cal pro­nounce­ments? “I must be com­fort­able, oth­er­wise I wouldn’t be do­ing it twice a week,” he says, ex­plain­ing that he records the blogs as a se­ries of im­promptu mono­logues, with no prepa­ra­tion. “I don’t spend 10 min­utes pre­par­ing them. They just come from the heart of what I feel about th­ese is­sues, about the things that emo­tion­ally dis­turb me.”

Is this is a dis­turb­ing time for the world? “It’s al­ways a dis­turb­ing time be­cause there’s never great right­eous­ness or jus­tice in the world. There’s al­ways a huge amount of un­fair­ness, so if you have any com­pas­sion or con­cern for peo­ple who are be­ing taken ad­van­tage of, or who are be­ing per­se­cuted… Half of the world right now is at a level close to star­va­tion, and 70 per cent of the world is wretched with dis­eases of dif­fer­ent kinds, and the help of the pow­er­ful na­tions is not go­ing very much to the mis­er­able, suf­fer­ing souls of the world. If you have any amount of care and con­cern, it has to dis­turb you. All you have to do is pick up a pa­per and you get dis­turbed in five min­utes.”

This is some­thing that is hardly, if ever, men­tioned about Ma­son — the moral di­men­sion to his com­edy, the sense of sup­pressed rage at in­jus­tice and hypocrisy. In this way, he has more in com­mon with a black Amer­i­can fire­brand like Chris Rock than you would

ex­pect from a comic who cut his teeth in the early 1960s on the Borscht Belt cir­cuit. And noth­ing is in­cur­ring his prin­ci­pled wrath right now as much as the cam­paign of United States pres­i­den­tial hope­ful Barack Obama. “The truth of the mat­ter is he is the most in­com­pe­tent char­ac­ter prob­a­bly of all time, and he’s also one of the great liars of all time,” Ma­son con­tends. “Ev­ery­thing about him is a fake and a fraud, and he knows how to em­bel­lish ev­ery­thing he says to make him sound pro­found.”

To Ma­son, Obama’s as­cen­dancy has sim­ply been the re­sult of white lib­eral guilt. “White peo­ple are so guil­trid­den that they feel they have to pro­tect him from any crit­i­cism,” he says. “Ev­ery­body is des­per­ate to see him be­come pres­i­dent be­cause they’re fright­ened of be­ing called a racist.”

Not that he is any hap­pier with the prospect of Hil­lary Clin­ton be­com­ing pres­i­dent. “There’s only one per­son who’s less pre­pared than Obama to be Pres­i­dent, and that’s Hil­lary Clin­ton,” he says. “Ev­ery time she makes any claims about any­thing, they find out she was ei­ther ly­ing or dis­tort­ing or com­pletely in­vent­ing it. There’s noth­ing that is of in­tegrity in this wo­man. She was in­volved in the Ir­ish peace talks? It turns out that she threw two par­ties and a dance class. The peo­ple in­volved in the peace talks said they never heard from her.”

The only can­di­date that Ma­son has any time for is Repub­li­can Party nom­i­nee John McCain. “McCain is a man who’s re­ally qual­i­fied to be pres­i­dent,” he as­serts. “You might dis­agree with dif­fer­ent is­sues or opin­ions, but there’s no doubt about it that the man has the ex­pe­ri­ence and the brains to be pres­i­dent. He’s been in the Se­nate for 30 years and he’s been in­volved with ev­ery com­mit­tee. Hil­lary Clin­ton, you can’t find one per­son who can iden­tify any­thing she ever did, and Barack Obama just came from nowhere: ‘Oh, I think I’ll be pres­i­dent.’ If he was a short Jew who an­nounced it, they would put him in a sana­to­rium. But white peo­ple are al­ways try­ing to ex­tri­cate them­selves from the guilt-trip of dis­crim­i­na­tion.”

Can he ever en­vi­sion a time when a Jew might be­come pres­i­dent? “I don’t think it would be a prob­lem any more, not for young Jews any­way. Old Jews don’t be­lieve it’s pos­si­ble be­cause they have per­se­cu­tion com­plexes. They think that the gen­tiles can never quite ac­cept them. An old Jew can’t be­lieve it be­cause he’s ac­cus­tomed to be­ing per­se­cuted. Not that he’s imag­in­ing it: it’s true that he was al­ways per­se­cuted. But the gen­tiles ac­cept Jews on ev­ery level to­day.”

You can imag­ine Ma­son be­ing a hit in Los An­ge­les and New York, densely pop­u­lated as they are with Jews. But how do au­di­ences re­act to him in other towns and cities across Amer­ica? As it turns out, he of­ten meets greater re­sis­tance from Jews them­selves.

“ I n the mid­dle of Amer­ica they’ve al­ways en­joyed me more than the Jews. There’s a lot of con­flict among Jews about Jackie Ma­son. Jews are self-con­scious about Jewish­ness; they get pan­icky that I’m too Jewish for them. And they’re ba­si­cally re­flect­ing the fears they have be­cause they want to be ac­cepted by the goyim des­per­ately. They want to lose their iden­tity so that the gen­tiles shouldn’t see the dif­fer­ence be­tween a Jew and a gen­tile. There are a lot of Jews who are as­sim­i­la­tion­ists, and they say: ‘I wish you would keep it quiet. It gets me ner­vous.’”

Ma­son has long made fun of Jews who crit­i­cise him on the grounds that he is “too Jewish”. “I’ve heard them say it thou­sands of times. They say it di­rect to my face, too: ‘Do you have to sound so Jewish? Are you mak­ing fun of the Jews? Are you putting it on?’” How does he re­spond? “I tell them they be­long in a sana­to­rium.”

Th­ese days Ma­son, who comes from a fam­ily of rab­bis and was him­self or­dained, ob­serves all of the Jewish fes­ti­vals, keeps kosher and even, dur­ing his cur­rent stand-up tour, ti­tled The Ul­ti­mate Jew, de­clined to work on Pe­sach. So is he re­ally the ul­ti­mate Jew?

“I don’t know if I’m the ul­ti­mate Jew. I was look­ing for a ti­tle that would at­tract at­ten­tion. There’s no great de­sign or pur­pose to it. It’s meant to be sen­sa­tion­al­ist or provoca­tive; a trick to at­tract at­ten­tion to the ad­ver­tise­ment.” With his chal­leng­ing approach, is he the son and heir of Lenny Bruce — the con­tro­ver­sial Amer­i­can-Jewish co­me­dian and satirist of the 1950s and ’60s? He is al­most af­fronted by such deep scru­tiny of his work. “I never gave any thought about Lenny Bruce or his­tor­i­cal rea­sons for it. It’s not the prod­uct of any in­tel­li­gent method­ol­ogy of any kind. It’s just an at­ten­tion-grab­ber.”

Ma­son seems to be most com­fort­able with the no­tion of him­self as a hu­mor­ous ob­server of the hu­man con­di­tion. “I talk about the lit­tle trends, the pol­i­tics, the re­la­tion­ships, in peo­ple’s lives. Whether it’s mar­riage, love, the new house, the new cof­fees, the new po­lice de­part­ments, the new war, or the new pres­i­dent, I look at the foibles of so­ci­ety, be­hind the pre­ten­sions of peo­ple, be­hind the hypocrisy. I try to pen­e­trate to the truth of hu­man be­hav­iour.”

He gives an ex­am­ple. “There used to be a time when you fought like any­thing if you thought your daugh­ter or son was go­ing to marry a gen­tile. Now the peo­ple are less and less in­volved with their own re­li­gion, and it means less and less to them, so now when their child wants to marry a gen­tile, they’re against it, but they all say the same thing: ‘Lis­ten, it’s her life, not mine, and he or she has a right to be happy. It’s none of my busi­ness even though I would have pre­ferred a Jew, but if it’s a gen­tile I have to make the best of it.’ So I think, how would you feel if she mar­ried a ne­gro? You know what they say? ‘Well, there’s a limit to ev­ery­thing.’ What hap­pened to the fact that it’s none of your busi­ness if she’s happy? ‘Well, I’m not go­ing to pass away for her to be happy.’”

One of Ma­son’s shows in the ’90s was called Po­lit­i­cally In­cor­rect. Is there any­thing that he still con­sid­ers taboo? “Well, the main taboo is the fears that peo­ple have about men­tion­ing the word ‘ black’ or say­ing any­thing that could be con­sid­ered a crit­i­cism or in any way an eval­u­a­tion about any­body black.”

Is he equally aware of the sen­si­tiv­ity, post-9/11, to­wards the word “Mus­lim”? “Peo­ple refuse to say any­thing about them be­cause they’re afraid if they say a word of crit­i­cism about a Mus­lim, they’ll bomb their house in a sec­ond or they’ll kill their chil­dren or steal their car or burn down their house. I see that in Eng­land es­pe­cially. Mus­lims are now abus­ing the Jews, and there’s no­body to de­fend them. At­tacks on Jews in Eng­land are def­i­nitely on the in­crease. And Jews are so in­tim­i­dated, they’re afraid to com­plain, and when they do, no­body lis­tens. They are ba­si­cally afraid to stand up for their rights.”

For all that, Ma­son is not con­cerned about the fu­ture for di­as­pora Jews. “I’m not wor­ried at all about it,” he says. “Maybe in Eng­land it’s a pe­cu­liar predica­ment, but I’m not wor­ried about the Jews in Amer­ica. Jews in Amer­ica are very com­fort­able. There’s no­body threat- en­ing them here. There’s prac­ti­cally no an­tisemitism that any­body could iden­tify in this coun­try. It ex­ists on such a mi­nus­cule level that or­gan­i­sa­tions prac­ti­cally have to in­vent it in or­der to jus­tify their fight­ing. But there’s very lit­tle prej­u­dice at all with any­body.

“There used to be a time when ho­mo­sex­u­als were al­ways per­se­cuted or re­jected. To­day, a faygele walks around with pride be­cause there’s no­body both­er­ing him. Fifty years ago there were prac­ti­cally no black peo­ple in the Se­nate and now maybe 50 per cent of the may­ors are black. About 10 per cent of the Sen­a­tors are ho­mo­sex­u­als. Women are highly re­spected, and Jews are in ev­ery power po­si­tion all over Amer­ica. There’s a tremen­dous re­spect for all mi­nori­ties to ac­com­plish what­ever they please.”

Ma­son dis­agrees that Jews in Amer­ica are more read­ily ac­cepted be­cause they have such a rich his­tory of Jewish en­ter­tain­ers. Nor does he be­lieve there is such a thing as a Jewish com­edy gene. “That’s plain nuts,” he says. “It all comes from your en­vi­ron­ment. If a gen­tile had the same ex­pe­ri­ence, he would come out with the same at­ti­tudes, the same sen­si­tiv­i­ties, and the same per­son­al­ity. I don’t be­lieve you’re born with some­thing like this. It’s not or­ganic, and I don’t think you in­herit it.”

There is talk of his forth­com­ing Broad­way per­for­mance be­ing his last. On the con­trary, he says. “I’m not re­tir­ing. I just don’t want to do any more Broad­way shows be­cause they’re too tax­ing. It’s just not worth that much ef­fort any more. Thank God I’ve got a for­tune of money and I don’t need it.” The Is­rael 60th con­cert is at Wem­b­ley Arena on Thurs­day May 8. Tel: 0844 815 0815

PHO­TOS: GETTY IMAGES, IS­TOCK

PHOTO: JOHN RIFKIN

PHOTO: SID­NEY HAR­RIS

Jackie Ma­son has al­ways had a po­lit­i­cal edge to his com­edy. On a visit to Bri­tain in 1991 he met Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu ( top), who went on to be­come Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter and who Ma­son con­sid­ers to be pos­si­bly even more fa­mous than he is. He also so­cialised with the then Tory leader of West­min­ster Coun­cil, Shirley Porter, along with ac­tress Mau­reen Lip­man ( above)

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