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How Jackie Mason remade the world of Jewish stand-up comedy

In the middle of the last century, American stand-up comedy became a subsidiary of the Jewish cultural-industrial complex. But the secret of its extraordinary success was that while its practitioners were obviously Jewish, their material was never too overtly Jewish.

Except for Jackie Mason.

The great names of the stand-up scene — Joan Rivers, Woody Allen, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Lenny Bruce — largely eschewed material in which their heritage took center stage. Sure, there was Bruce’s riff on who crucified Jesus — “Morty did it” — but examples like that, of a Jew speaking as a Jew, were the exception, not the rule. So Mason’s shtick — he was a Jew who told jokes about Jews in the questioning rhythms of Yiddish speech — stood out.

Mason, who died Saturday at age 93, was interested in comic investigation into the meaning and hypocrisies of modern life through the prism of Jewishness, an identity that was the central fact of both his onstage and off-stage personas. The jokes were so funny that even non-Jews got them.

His work was mostly about Jews of his generation and background — just a boat ride removed from the shtetl — trying to accustom themselves to the modern world, in which many had money and security for the first time in their family’s history. He wasn’t the first to find comedy in being a Jew suddenly allowed into a previously barred world. The Jewish poet and essayist Heinrich Heine wrote to a friend in the 1820s that “I try to tell my grief and it all becomes comic.”

But the approach Mason took to that insight was entirely his own. His method derived from his yeshiva training and his rabbinic family background: he was descended from four generations of rabbis, his three older brothers were rabbis, and he himself was ordained at Yeshiva University and briefly led congregations in rural parts of North Carolina and Pennsylvania. In 1989, flush with the success of his third or fourth comeback and a Tony award for his one-man show on Broadway, he told me “A lot of my comedy comes out of my Talmudic study, trying to unravel Gemara.”

“I’m trying to unravel things around me. Who am I? What am I?”

The simple answer was: a Jew in a Christian world. But Mason understood that to be really funny, he needed to ask specific questions about being a Jew in those circumstances. After enough questions you get to the absurd — and that’s funny.

He riffed an example for me: “Why does a Jew have a boat?”

Jews don’t like to sail, he said. The Jew takes you to the waterfront, shows you the boat, then says “let’s get something to eat.”

“So why does he have a boat?”

Because only gentiles sell boats. “So he buys it from him, so the gentile knows he has money.”

The rabbi in him, the moral guide, is never far from the surface in his comedy. By making people laugh about the relentless desire for possessions and wealth and the need to show people “I have this,” Mason was trying to remind them of how absurd Jewish life in modern America had become.

Some in the Jewish community objected to the way Mason used the word “Jew” constantly. To an assimilated Jewish audience, the word itself implied negative stereotypes, and suggested that all Jews are the same. What Mason was really doing, though, was conjuring up the idea of an every-Jew as opposed to an every man. His view was that Jews were simply different; that cultural difference was what his comedy was about.

Mason had little time for Jews who were overly assimilated, who were not out and proud when it came to their Jewishness. And as the decades went by, his views about younger Jews began to color his routine. They cut themselves off from their roots, he told me, and “they cut off their names, noses and anything else they’ve got.”

But Mason also knew that Jewish identity has never been a fixed thing. Even in Israel, he used to joke, they don’t know the answer to the question, “What is a Jew?”

In his career, he saw American answers to that question change. His generation of Jewish-Americans took the first steps to wealth and assimilation; their idea of Jewishness was different from that of their children and grandchildren, and the comedian never quite bridged that generation gap.

The world changed. The Catskill resorts went out of business. It was almost impossible to hear Yiddish spoken on Orchard Street. Mason’s routines became more brittle. The sweet spot where the questioning reached the absurd and then the comic became elusive.

I asked him once about his comedy and the comedy of the next generation. Interestingly, he didn’t reference a Jewish stand-up in his answer. “The morality’s changed,” he said. “The society’s changed. But comedy hasn’t changed. What Eddie Murphy is doing is not that different from Groucho Marx.”

Jews were just one kind of outsider. The world is full of others, he knew, and existential absurdity enough in all their lives to keep you laughing through all of yours.

Michael Goldfarb is the author of “Emancipation: How Liberating Europe’s Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance”

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