R.I.P. Jackie Mason, clown prince of puncture comedy
Granted, the man was no poster child for fidelity, maybe. We never met so many women who, when we dropped the name Jackie Mason -- as opposed to other known… female appreciators -- would confide airily, “Yeah, he asked me out, too.” Even though he was reputedly, and in the memorial squibs on Google and everywhere else, married since the early 1990s.
It was always sort of…hazy. After all, here he was, asking them out. Maybe he was, as the furphy had it, separated?
He hung out in our neighborhood, particularly one favorite patisserie, the now-closed, Au Bon Pain. We went with him to a couple more favorite hangouts, where the wait-staff, particularly the women, knew him by his first name, knew his likely orders, knew him well enough to ask solicitously if the table was to his liking, his chair comfortable, the table setting acceptable. He asked me if I had a cell phone. “Of course,” one answered. “Could I make a call?" he asked. “Sure,” (Who wouldn’t say that?)
But every fellow comic who wandered by, and there were at least three, in my own earshot, got the same question/request.
“Jackie,” we asked, “why don’t you GET a cell phone, instead of asking everyone and the waitress to use theirs,” we asked, maybe a tad impertinently, but pertinently.
“Why should I?” he shot back. “I don’t need one.”
This was a really funny person, a former rabbi, scion of a family of rabbanim. His elder brother officiated at a wedding we were quite close to. Anyone who frequented Broadway for the past 30-odd years, however, would tell you how screamingly hilarious were Mason’s one-man nonstop laughter-packed extravaganzas over the years. It didn’t matter either whether you knew his shtiks. You still ended up roaring so hard your stomach hurt from rolling, gasping laughter.
Didn’t matter, either, whether you were Jewish, his favorite go-to on many a topic, or Gentile, another vein of hilarity to mine for all observational nuggets of comedic gold. Everyone convulsed with his rat-a-tat fast, heavily accented or feigned delivery, sometimes in false Hindu, or British tones, sometimes in condescending haute social-climber modes.
When you walked with him on the New York street, and you’d meet up with a friend or associate, he’d assess the person with an appraiser’s eye for beauty or whatever trait, then ask his usual, “You Jewish? You gotta be Jewish…” --which he meant as an intro to some further ethnic infra-dig joke the person usually laughed with.
He pilloried OJ Simpson’s “Not guilty” travesty verdict. You could no longer think Simpson innocent once you underwent Mason’s blood-spattered spiel onstage on the gore that drenched The Juice on the subject of the murder of Ron Goldman and Simpson’s nearly beheaded lovely wife, Nicole Brown.
Mason was equally devastatingly on point about the Israeli-Palestinian situation, the Vietnam War, Iraq/Iran, Bubba Clinton, and Monica, the string of Presidents and their foibles and fair ladies he’d observed during his long (not long enough) tenure on this earthly coil.
Once, I ordered a plate of food in his company. He ordered a black-and-white cookie. As I forked in some food, he picked noncommittally at my food. Quite a bit. I asked why he didn’t order a plateful for himself. “I’m not hungry,” he responded neutrally. He then gave me the cookie. “But,” I protested, “don’t you want this cookie? You ordered it…?” He looked penetratingly at me, “Do you think for one minute I would give you this cookie if I wanted it?” My digestion was interrupted time and again to laugh and chortle, as he never stopped being deadpan hilarious. Even when he chided me for being five minutes late, wounding him, apparently, to the quick. Never have I been upbraided so scaldingly as by his razor tongue barbs. Oy, vey.
On the phone, he was always in a hurry to set up appointments but wouldn’t settle to a proper conversation. “Wait a minute, Jackie,” I commented once, “what’s your hurry already?” Moment of silence. Not long. “At these prices--?”
You couldn’t get through three minutes without a fast comeback, a retort, a multi-language (Yiddish or a dash of slang, or some foreign-sounding made-up word) riposte, reducing the recipient to a gale of giggles.
Somehow, as with Rush Limbaugh, recently gone from our midst, I never considered the possibility -- even though I know that death does, in the end, claim all of us -- his passing, at the age of 93 (who knew? I’d have guessed he was in his 70s, or at the most, 80s, but I’m a notorious bad guesser), was, frankly, sudden. And unfair.
Frankly, it’s hard to say Boruch dayan emes in respect of the going-away of this masterful, magical joker, this stocky tummler of tummlers . His disappearance from the scene, without a caustic doubt, makes the world less tolerable, does the opposite of amplifying our lives, lightening our leaden or litigable load.
You won’t see it, because this appears in regular print, but in his honor, it was scripted in the typeface known as Jokerman. The least I could do.
Jackie Mason, born Maza, a one-time rabbi -- a forever comedian -- is now Missing. Sadder for us all that he won’t be here to comment on the latest government outrage and shanda.
We’ll miss him, Borscht Belt or no, he was the funniest, keenest, sharpest. most evocative natural comic I’ve ever been blessed to have spent time with. And that’s no gelacht’er.
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