Jackie Mason, the sometimes-controversial standup comedian who unapologetically embraced Jewish themes and political incorrectness, achieving a national profile through a series of successful one-man shows on Broadway without substantial work in film or television, died Saturday in Manhattan. He was 93.
Close friend and family spokesman Raoul Felder confirmed his death in a phone call with NBC News. He said Mason had been in the hospital with various illnesses for more than two weeks. Covid-19 was not a factor.
"He died peacefully in his sleep with his wife and a few friends by his side" at Mount Sinai Hospital, Felder said.
"He had a great life," he said. " The trajectory of his life was amazing. He was active a year before his death. He was still writing. He had a very keen mind. He had knowledge in different fields."
Mason was one of the last of the Borscht Belt comedians, and he married that sensibility to strong views on racial and ethnic politics.
He also recurred on “The Simpsons” as the voice of Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky, the father of Krusty the Clown, winning his second Emmy for his efforts in 1992 and most recently voicing the character in a 2014 episode. He also appeared as himself in a 2007 episode of “30 Rock."
In the 2004 TV special “Comedy Central Presents: 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time,” he was ranked No. 63.
The comic received a 1987 special Tony Award for his highly successful solo effort “Jackie Mason’s The World According to Me!,” which ran for 573 performances. (He received an Emmy for writing the show after it aired on television in 1988.)
The one-man Broadway outings that followed included “Jackie Mason: Brand New” in 1990-91, “Jackie Mason: Politically Incorrect” in 1994-95, “Love Thy Neighbor” in 1996-97, “Much Ado About Everything” in 1999-2000 and “Jackie Mason: Freshly Squeezed” in 2005. His final one-man show, “Jackie Mason: The Ultimate Jew,” skipped Broadway.
Variety wrote of “The Ultimate Jew”: “The show is one long jab at the world’s hypocrisy, dusted with one-liners from the ‘take my wife, please’ vaults. Mason can be painfully old-fashioned, like when he tells the millionth joke about expensive restaurants serving small portions, but he doesn’t seem to care. For an aging crowd often ignored by the entertainment industry, the comedian’s refusal to be modern — and his mockery of modern ways — may be a comforting show of solidarity.”
“It’s harder to be amused,” Variety continued, “when Mason turns to minority groups. Inevitably, his barbs are about the foolishness of those who are not like himself and his aging, Jewish fanbase.”
Various recordings of his live performances proved quite successful on television or home video.
He defended his caricature again and again by saying it was his right to be “politically incorrect,” but they certainly did not endear him to minority groups. He denigrated then-New York City Mayor David Dinkins by using a Yiddish defamatory word for an African American — a term he used frequently in his act — generating controversy.
Mason made his feature debut in 1972 as the star of “The Stoolie” and later starred in “Caddyshack II” in 1988. The Washington Post declared that he looked “meek and miserable” in the part and was “upstaged by the gopher puppet.” In 2010 he starred as himself in the film “One Angry Man,” a courtroom dramedy that he also wrote.
He had supporting roles in a few other films, including Steve Martin vehicle “The Jerk” and Mel Brooks’ “The History of the World: Part I.”
On television he starred in the brief sitcom 1989 “Chicken Soup” and hosted 1992’s “The Jackie Mason Show,” which saw panelists address the topics of the day with irreverence in a manner that made the program something of a precursor to Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect,” which premiered the following year. (Comedy Central, which hosted the Maher program, was unhappy, however, when Mason came out with his 1994 one-man show “Jackie Mason: Politically Incorrect” and sued the comic, seeking unsuccessfully to force a name change.)
Jacob Moshe Maza was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, but grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He was ordained as a rabbi — there had been many in his family — but ultimately resigned from his post at a synagogue to become a comedian.
He brought an early version of his insult-heavy humor to a Borscht Belt hotel in the mid-’50s, but the audience was not ready for the sort of comedy that Don Rickles would later make more acceptable.
Mason made several appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” during the 1960s, but his relationship with Sullivan soured over Mason possibly having given the finger to Sullivan during one show; Mason sued Sullivan for libel and won, and the publicity helped his career at the time. Over the course of the decade he also appeared repeatedly on “The Joey Bishop Show” and “The Merv Griffin Show,” among others.
He made his Broadway debut in 1969 with the play “A Teaspoon Every Four Hours,” which he co-wrote. It ran in previews for 97 performances but upon opening closed after a single outing.
His career hit its stride with his first solo effort on Broadway, “Jackie Mason’s The World According to Me!,” in 1986.
Mason is survived by his wife, Jyll Rosenfeld, whom he married in 1991, and a daughter.