Jackie Mason was the first comedian I ever saw live. This was a huge deal for me, mostly because my family didn’t do things. While I was no older than 14 at the time, nearly 20 years later, I still remember a bunch of the jokes he did, like Jews not being able to go to a show without wondering how much money the comedian is making from ticket sales. Another was about some Jews not being able to afford a Mercedes, but if you asked them why they don’t have one they go, “You think I’d be caught dead driving a German car?!”
Aside for being able to make a young teenager laugh as much as everyone else in the audience, I was so impressed by Jackie’s ability to take simple premises about the differences between Jews and non-Jews (“gentiles”), and make them so universal to everyone. I’m particularly envious of his ability to do that, since now that I perform standup comedy professionally too, primarily for Jewish audiences, I sometimes struggle to relate my material to a more general, non-Jewish crowd. I wonder what conceivable reason non-Jews would even have for owning a crockpot.
Jackie’s rapid-fire delivery and ability to poke fun of every group in a loving way without causing too much outrage is particularly impressive and refreshing, considering the world we’re living in today, where jokes about any ethnicity, religion, or gender are considered offensive. Additionally, he had a brilliant tactic of asking a rhetorical question, such as “Have you ever met any Jew that knew how to fix a car?” pause, and then immediately demand a response from someone in the front row, with a “Hello, mister? Do you know what I’m talking about?”
While he grew up Orthodox, got rabbinical semicha, and served as a pulpit rabbi for a few years, he decided that the rabbinate was not for him, despite being the funniest rabbi by far. And while he wasn’t particularly observant to my knowledge beyond the early part of his life, he was the quintessential Jewish comedian. His routines were chock-full of guttural Yiddish, Hebrew, and Jewish onomatopoeia sounds that many of us associate with our older relatives. His act was an hour-plus of effusive pride in being Jewish, a rarity to find in entertainers.
Before seeing him live, my first real exposure to Jackie Mason was on The Simpsons. As an avid fan of The Simpsons, which certainly shaped my sense of humor more than anything else growing up, the episode where he portrays Krusty The Clown’s rabbinic father, stands out to me. The episode “Like Father, Like Clown (Season 3, Episode 6, but listed as Episode 5 on Disney+) is a pretty perfect storyline, displaying a great combo of humor, heart, as well as a deft handling of Judaism. There are tons of great jokes in it, some of which are just casual asides like Homer’s shock that Mel Brooks is Jewish.
Suffice it to say that I’ve been annoyed for a while at the depiction of Orthodox Jews in TV and movies long before Seth Rogen’s An American Pickle, “dead goyim legs” and Julia Haart. Maybe it’s because so early on in my life, I saw my favorite show, which despite being a comedy, discuss the topic of observance of Judaism in a respectful, thought-provoking way, without mocking its traditions.
Watch the episode, and you’ll notice, aside for Jackie’s Emmy-winning great portrayal and comedic timing, that the writers took the time to try to get Orthodox Judaism right, at least in many ways. And it’s not just the small details like Krusty saying the correct words to a bracha, or bothering to have the correct Hebrew letters on a menu. Bart, Lisa, and Jackie’s rabbi character are citing real, accurate sources from Tanach, Mishna and Gemara. They’re having a real theological and familial conversation about Jewish parents’ expectations of their children, and how they may react to the careers and lifestyles they lead.
Orthodox Jews can come away from watching this episode feeling a real pride that the topic of our religion, which gets so bungled by TV and movies, is treated with sensitivity and authenticity. The story does seem to resemble part of Jackie’s upbringing, making it even more compelling to boot.
Jackie Mason’s humor brought joy and inspiration to generations of comedians and comedy fans, and he will be dearly missed from the world. Did you ever think a Jew could do such a thing? Hello, mister? Do you know what I’m talking about?