Musical Explanations 3/31: The Sad Fall of Jackie Mason
Nothing dates faster than comedy, and there is nothing sadder than a comedian past his sell-by date. Has time ever been so cruel to a celebrity as it's been to Jackie Mason? Had died twenty years ago, he'd be remembered as one of the funniest, most brilliant, most influential comedians of modern history - and now he's just a grouchy old bigot, a shandeh, a naar, total embarrassment to the comic genius and pride of a people he once was. In his old age, when he should be every bit the legend Mel Brooks now is, he's gone from menschllichker macher to schmutziker mamzer.
Search for Jackie Mason on youtube, and you can find a hundred-odd videos of Jackie Mason spewing unfunny op-eds uploaded directly to youtube that are nothing but right-wing bile, barely watched by anyone. Every one of them's introduced with Hava Negila played with the kind of bass riff that tells you he thinks he's being contemporary, but lost touch with what contemporary was more than thirty years ago.
It's especially sad, because Mason did as much as anyone to set the stage for the innovations of modern comedy up to this very moment - now more than ever. Watch him as the occasional Fox news sideshow commentator and you'd never know that this pint-sized fascist was once a giant. How could a man who spoke English so incomprehensibly handle it so brilliantly? Mason's old routines are clear influence for everybody who's anybody in comedy, not just George Carlin and Seinfeld, but Colbert and Louis CK too.
The bitterest irony of all is that the comic who inherited by far his spirit most directly is Stephen Colbert - the comic whose open-minded beliefs stand most clearly in contradiction to Mason's hate. Colbert's comedy draws from the exact same wellspring as Mason's, perhaps directly from Mason himself. Had Mason stayed the liberal he clearly was in his earlier career, he would probably be the most lionized living legend of comedy.
Both Colbert and Mason draw on that same source, irony in its most direct form - saying one thing and meaning another, often the exact opposite. When Mason focused on politics, a subject upon which he clearly as knowledgeable as any comedian has ever been, he would, like Colbert, approach from the open-minded liberal vantage point, and would pretend to praise and support right-wing politicians like Nixon and Reagan and then deliver punchlines that indirectly reveal that he loathed them. Colbert's irony comes from modern American life, but Mason's irony clearly comes from the rabbinic tradition in which he grew up. Mason may have been born in Sheboygan Wisconsin, but he grew up on the Lower East Side, and clearly spoke Yiddish as a first language. His father was an orthodox rabbi, his grandfathers were orthodox rabbis, all his brothers were orthodox rabbis. When Mason is ironic, the cadence isn't just Yiddish, it's Talmudic. There is a specific cadence to many of the Talmudic tractates where Orthodox Jews follow one interpretation of the Torah with precisely the opposite interpretation. It's a commonly shared assumption, at least among less observant Jews, that Charedi Jews give the word in the middle of the tractate the exact same emphasis when you get to the word in the middle "EPES!" ("BUT") which is usually accompanied by a shoulder shrug and a stuck up thumb that suddenly comes down. Over and over again, you see that ironic gesture in Mason's body language. How someone who grew up in so many layers of ironic tradition could stop being ironic and believe the very things he used to send up is a thought that can lead to despair.
In retrospect, you could probably tell that Mason would have this trouble earlier in his career, because Mason was always an asshole, but early in his career it was in the best possible way. When he first began in the fifties, he had enormous trouble because no comedian would ever be so acerbic. One of Mason's favorite tricks was to pick on someone in the front row of the audience and check with the guy to see if every joke is funny - it was as though the ultimate in Jewish neurosis came on the stage and as though he was angrily saying to the audience "Why am I not good enough for you?".When Don Rickles came on the scene a few years later, he did similar things and made insult comedy popular, but when Jackie Mason first insulted everyone from the audience to famous people, his audiences were shocked.
Ten years later, he'd become huge hit already, but he got himself practically banned from television for years because when Ed Sullivan held up his index finger from offstage to indicate that he had one minute left, Mason thought Sullivan was giving him the middle finger, and gave it to him right back while he was still on the air. It began a series of legal troubles for him that ended with a libel lawsuit against Ed Sullivan and his show, which Mason won, but the damage was done.
The real bad behavior began when he was a much older man, and the trouble just got worse and worse. In 1991, he referred to New York's mayor, David Dinkins, as a 'schvartze with a fancy mustache.' In 2003 he advocated the forcible expulsion of all Arabs from Israel, including the occupied territories. In 2012, he got into a physical altercation with a female friend, both sides claimed that the other initiated the fight, the charges were eventually dropped, but there's no way that anyone can believe that a snarling old man like Mason isn't capable of psychotic rage.
Every young Jew knows a Jackie Mason - maybe he's your bigoted grandfather or great uncle or cousin, maybe he's just a cantankerous old pot-stirrer in your shul, but every young Jew knows a couple old Jews who were unassailably liberal by the standards of 1965, but stood completely still while the world evolved and begrudges the world their mildly less privileged place within it. Sometimes he went by the name of Saul Bellow, or Milton Friedman, or David Mamet, or Irving Kristol, or Martin Peretz, or Joe Lieberman. He is almost always male, and sees himself as your superior by right of the fact that he's male and elderly. He assumes he should always be obeyed and differed to, not because of his virtue, but by virtue of being himself. He sees himself as much more liberal than his goyisher brethren in the white male community, and unlike them, he sees the liberation of women and blacks as a fundamental right. But he sees it as a right that should only be ascertained as a reward for good behavior. To ask for anything more is, to his mind, to be a parvenu, to not know your place, to be 'uppity.' Women can report abuse to the police now, blacks don't get lynched, 'So vat's de problem? Vy dey so angry?' In his dotage, Mason has become the voice of a particular substrata of white male rage in its Jewish variety. In the age of long-delayed Jewish prosperity, it was enough for many to assuage their liberal guilt by voting for Adlai Stevenson and contributing a few dollars to the SLC in the early 60's, so what's the problem now?
The clip I listed above comes from 1988. You can already see the open-mindedness of Mason's act fraying like an old rug. When it's brilliant, my god, it's electric as only the greatest of the great can be. But Mason was always a comedian who relied on stereotypes. Above all, he was a self-stereotyper, in incarnation of the ghetto Jew who was always willing to take a shot at himself before he takes a shot at anybody else lest the goyim beat the crap out of him again. The plurality of his comedy makes fun of Jews in everything from our little foibles to our grandiose self-delusions. Within it, you can hear in embryo the comic voices of both Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. But along with the self-stereotyping comes stereotyping of everybody else, and even in this midpoint in his career when he was in his mid-to-late fifties, you can hear Mason going to places that were terribly close to outright bigotry, even by the standards of 1988. He was not saying anything that can't be heard in most Jewish houses even today, but it doesn't make it any easier to take.
To our generation, Jackie Mason will probably be remembered most as Rabbi Krustovsky, the long-estranged father to Krusty the Clown. In a moment last year that was all too symbolic, Rabbi Krustovsky became one of the few characters The Simpsons ever killed off. That's just one of many ironies about Jackie Mason's presence on The Simpsons, but the largest of them all is that Krusty the Clown's biography is basically ripped from Jackie Mason's - a comic who rebelled against his Orthodox family that expected him to become a Rabbi. An atomically self-destructive performer who'll do anything to remain in the limelight. A walking anachronism whose comedy clearly dates from another age, yet stubbornly refuses to age gracefully.
As a friend pointed out when he heard I was writing about Mason, he is only 84, but he seems at least 100. Every decade, the toupees get more elaborate while the skin withers ever further. Mel Brooks is five years older than Jackie Mason, but he seems ten years younger and is every bit the comic icon Mason deserved to be, celebrated for his lapses into bad taste rather than alienated for them. Woody Allen is four years younger, his hugely productive career is still going strong, though his ethical lapses are of another order entirely from Jackie Mason's. Show business will forgive a sex criminal. In another ten years, maybe it'll even forgive Bill Cosby; but it will not forgive a Republican.
In the terms of comic genealogy, Mason is of the same generation as Woody Allen and Bill Cosby. There is something, there's always been something, about comedy that draws out the most dangerous personalities. The job of a comedian is to push every conceivable boundary and find our weak spots. They are the frontier workers of our culture, working on our most sensitive fault lines. They inspire more love than anyone else in the arts, and consequently also inspire more hate. Comedy is virtually the only artform that demands a completely visceral response from the viewer - if you don’t laugh, the comic fails. No artform takes more courage to practice, no artform runs a greater risk of failure, no artform requires more refinement and evolution, and in no artform is the humiliation of failure so obvious. It therefore follows that the people attracted to comedy are the biggest risk-takers. They’re often the smartest and most interesting people in the world, and they’re often the most dangerous too. To be a good comic, there must be a hole in your life so deep and empty that only the sound of laughter can fill it. Jackie Mason is everything a comic is, was, and should be, and that's why he will never be an icon.