NEW YORK — Jackie Mason, whose staccato, arm-waving delivery and thick Yiddish accent kept the borscht belt style of comedy alive long after the Catskills resorts had shut their doors, and whose career reached new heights in the 1980s with a series of one-man shows on Broadway, died Saturday in Manhattan. He was 93.
The humor was punchy, down-to-earth and emphatically Jewish: His last one-man show in New York, in 2008, was called “The Ultimate Jew.” A former rabbi from a long line of rabbis, Mason made comic capital as a Jew feeling his way — sometimes nervously, sometimes pugnaciously — through a perplexing gentile world.
“Every time I see a contradiction or hypocrisy in somebody’s behavior,” he once told The Wall Street Journal, “I think of the Talmud and build the joke from there.”
He was born Yacov Moshe Maza in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, on June 9, 1931, to immigrants from Belarus. When he was 5, his father, Eli, an Orthodox rabbi, and his mother, Bella (Gitlin) Maza, moved the family to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where Yacov Moshe Maza discovered that his path in life had already been determined. Not only his father, but his grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfathers had all been rabbis. His three older brothers became rabbis, and his two younger sisters married rabbis.
After earning a degree from City College, he completed his rabbinical studies at Yeshiva University and was ordained. In a state of mounting misery, he tended to congregations in Weldon, North Carolina, and Latrobe, Pennsylvania, unhappy in his profession but unwilling to disappoint his father.
Hedging his bets, he had begun working summers in the Catskills, where he wrote comic monologues and appeared onstage at every opportunity.
In 1960, he caught the attention of fellow comedian Jan Murray, who recommended him to Steve Allen. He became a regular on the top television variety shows.
After dozens of appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Mason encountered disaster on Oct. 18, 1964. A speech by President Lyndon B. Johnson preempted the program, which resumed as Mason was halfway through his act. Onstage but out of camera range, Sullivan indicated with two fingers, then one, how many minutes Mason had left, distracting the audience. Mason, annoyed, responded by holding up his own fingers to the audience, saying, “Here’s a finger for you, and a finger for you, and a finger for you.”
Sullivan, convinced that one of those fingers was an obscene gesture, canceled Mason’s six-show contract and refused to pay him for the performance. Mason sued, and won. The two later reconciled, but the damage was done.
Mason set about rebuilding his career with guest appearances on television. His new manager, Jyll Rosenfeld, convinced that the old borscht belt comics were ripe for a comeback, encouraged him to bring his act to the theater as a one-man show.
After attracting celebrity audiences in Los Angeles, that show, “The World According to Me!,” opened on Broadway in December 1986 and ran for two years. It earned Mason a special Tony Award in 1987, as well as an Emmy for writing when HBO aired an abridged version in 1988.
In 1991, Mason married Rosenfeld, who survives him. He is also survived by a daughter, comedian Sheba Mason, from a relationship with Ginger Reiter in the 1970s and 1980s.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.