SO LONG JACKIE...

By Kari Rosenberg - Thursday 9th 2012f February 2012


Any rabbi worth his weight in chopped liver knows the best way to move a congregation is to make them laugh. Whether lamenting low shul attendances or promoting a ladies guild bridge night, their sermons often turn into thinly disguised stand-up routines.

Jackie Mason is the chief rabbi of comedy. To the 'manna' born, his three brothers, father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great grandfather were all members of the kosher cloth. Mason himself was ordained at 25, only to quit the family business for showbiz three years later, because "someone in the family had to make a living".

Changing his name from Yacov Maza - "Maza was too complicated for a non-Jew.
When I went on television for the first time, the announcer said "And here he is, Jackie Mason!" which is my American name and it stuck" - he is often referred to as the King of Jewish comedy. How does the 75-year-old stand-up veteran feel about the title?

"I am referred to as The Ultimate Jew. I take great pride in that. However, I don't do 'Jewish' comedy, I do comedy. If I make people laugh - whatever the subject matter of my comedy, whoever the audience, whichever country - then I'm happy."

So what makes Jewish comedy so distinct? "Our great ability to make humour out of our years of persecution and prejudice. To go through what the Jewish people have gone through over the centuries, and still to come out laughing means you've got to have a fantastic sense of humour - and that's what we have. Of course I'm the most unique."

The humming, huffing comedy hero is in London for his farewell tour, called Fearless! And he's arrived armed to the teeth with hours of brand-spanking new material. "I'm more concerned about being topical than other comedians," he says. "Every show I do is brand new. I make sure my act is just as relevant as today's newspapers."

Is this really a farewell tour - or just so-long for now? "Yes. I will no longer do extended runs with seven shows a week and, sadly, won't be coming over to Britain again. It is really too exhausting.

"But I am definitely not retiring from performing and will always do one-nighters. So fly over to the States - and if you see the show, come and say hello to me afterwards. Better still, leave a message! No amount of money could get me to do another new one-man show. Having said that, I would take a call from Bill Gates. This will be my ninth one-man show and I think it might be my best. Come along and I'll prove it to you!"

Jackie won't be winding down now that he's taking a step back. "I won't be golfing, skiing or hiking, that's a definite. I've done benefits for many charities all my life and I will continue to do that. I just did a big push for the Israeli Ambulance Service which always needs help. I may also come over to Britain for charity events or private functions like the one I did for Alan Sugar - although I'm not sure he'll be able to afford me next time.

"And I'll be watching the US elections - that's entertainment enough for anyone. I'll just be waiting to see who wins so that I can start making jokes about them. Believe me, there's plenty to laugh at on either side."

Who will he be voting for in the White House race? "I've always believed in the motto: 'Never discuss religion or politics because you always wind up offending someone.' Unfortunately, I've never managed to follow my own advice, so even without answering your question I've offended too many people already."

Jackie insists there are no taboo subjects, only taboo ways of tackling them. And his newest show will be no different. "I'll be covering Obama, Romney, Gingrich, plus David Cameron and the other one - his deputy - who looks about 12-years-old, and social issues, the economic crisis, the collapse of the euro, the Oscars. If it's in the news, it's in the show!"

By embracing rather than avoiding controversy, Jackie runs the risk of offending his audiences. "I don't set out to upset people," he says. "I simply talk about human behaviour and the values we all live by."

London's weather may have taken a sudden turn for the snowy, but Brits jump at the chance of seeing Jackie whatever the weather. "They are more responsive than Americans," he reveals. "In their personal lives the British are more dignified and reserved. They can't even say hello without thinking they're disturbing someone. In fact, they're so restrained it's hard to tell whether they're still living. But they make the greatest audiences in the world, maybe because it's the only time they feel free to express themselves. It's a pleasure to perform here."

"A good comedian can perform anywhere as long as he is aware of what is pertinent and interesting. I find people are pretty much the same all over the world. Although I don't think I'd be a big hit in Syria."

Are Brits harder to offend than Americans? "I don't think so, although they are less willing to offend. Everyone is so polite. An Englishman could be passing away in the middle of the street and he still apologises for bothering anyone."

In a classic case of life imitating cartoons, the comedy king starred as Krusty The Clown's father Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky in a legendary episode of the Simpsons. Hyman rejects his son for playing the fool rather than going to shul, a reaction Jackie's only too familiar with. "It's the story of my life," he muses. "My father was miserable after I became a comedian, so I promised not to be too successful or too funny and assured him I wouldn't earn a living from it.

"Then my family became proud of my success. When you're living in a fancy house thanks to someone else's money, it's hard to stay mad at them. If I stopped telling jokes tomorrow the kids wouldn't go to college, their weddings would be a lot smaller and they'd have to go for long walks instead of driving the car."

The multi-millionaire may have turned his back on the family business, but he still takes great pride in his heritage. "All my values come from my religion," he says. "Judaism teaches charity, brotherhood, compassion and concern for your fellow man and makes you a much better person.

"It teaches people to think and care. It's no accident that we are a tiny minority yet have the biggest percentage of Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winners. Jews have more influence in the intellectual spheres of life than any other religious group."

After poking his sharp shtick at topics his rivals won't touch for almost half a century, audiences around the world will certainly miss Jackie's uniquely hilarious brand of fearless fun.

- Fearless! runs for a limited five week season at the Wyndham's Theatre in the West End from 13 February to 17 March. Monday to Saturday 8pm and Saturday matinee at 3pm.