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Jackie Mason — my cameo role in his comedy success story

It was the 1980s. Jackie was at the height of his career, performing all over the world to rave reviews. There was no one else like him. If he so chose, he could destroy you with only two words.

My friend Paul Herzich, who was deeply affected by Jackie’s 1963 album, “I’m the Greatest Comedian in the World, Only Nobody Knows It Yet,” became his biggest fan. Paul was studying to becoming a psychotherapist, but comedy was where he wanted to make his mark.

In 1977, Paul opened a small comedy book and record shop in lower Manhattan. Although a commercial failure, the shop received some good reviews and an article in the Village Voice. After the store closed, he began attending international conferences on humor. He still wanted to make a living in the world of comedy, but supported himself by working as a drug counselor. His friend Bert Levitt, also a drug counselor showed some interest in Paul’s experiences in the comedy world and when Paul approached Bert with the idea of opening a comedy club together, Bert liked the idea.

Jackie had made his mark in the comedy world. He played Borscht Belt clubs, “The Tonight Show” and Ed Sullivan — there was the famous miscommunication when Sullivan signaled Mason that he was running short on time; Mason thought Sullivan was giving him the finger, and responded in kind. Sullivan was so offended that he cut off Mason’s performance, and canceled a $45,000 performance contract. The fallout from this incident was so great that Mason was relegated to voice-overs and appearances in mediocre movies.

Meanwhile, Paul and Bert pursued the comedy club idea. They searched for a site, partners and investors. I was supposed to be the accountant, so I used my contacts in the financial world to bring some investors on board and secure some necessary startup loans.

Bert, who owned and operated an antique store, had a customer who told him that she was opening an Italian restaurant on University Avenue that had an upstairs room that she wanted to sublet, and so Comedy U was born. The restaurant and the comedy club blended well. Paul and Bert invested $10,000 each and were able to survive because they both had day jobs. It helped that I donated my accounting services. The biggest expenses were the comedians.

At the beginning, Bert spent much of the time getting the room physically presentable and ready for showtime while Paul scouted and recruited talent, who performed for free.

When Comedy U opened, it ran four nights a week, then gradually increased to become a full-time comedy club. It seemed like “Comedy U” was really going to make it until the owner of the restaurant sold the place to a group that converted it into a Mexican restaurant. Determined not to give up, Paul and Bert started a search for a new venue.

They located a site in Soho on Grand Street, and named the new club “Comedy U Grand. Ray Romano, Joy Behar, Susie Essman and Larry David were among those to do spots at the club. Tom Hanks and Dana Carvey made guest appearances.

Paul carried a heavy load and decided to reduce his involvement in Comedy U Grand, so Bert became the dominant partner while Paul worked on developing a relationship with Jackie Mason. He wanted to penetrate the bubble that surrounded Jackie and gain entrance into his inner circle, if in fact one actually existed. His plan was to attend every Mason performance in Manhattan, approaching him both before and after each performance.

On one such occasion, Paul who was very nervous at first, never knowing how the unpredictable Mason would respond to his repartée, told Jackie that he was a huge fan and that he had memorized his first album verbatim. After several of these encounters with Jackie, Paul felt relaxed enough to invite him to Comedy U Grand. Much to Paul’s surprise and delight, Jackie accepted the invitation and showed up. Paul asked for and received Jackie’s private phone number. This seemed to be the beginning of something beautiful. Or was it?

A question kept popping up in my mind. Why Jackie Mason? The world of comedy is studded with outstanding comics. Why Mason? The answer may lay in the domain of integrity; in this case, the integrity to, for and of the joke. Mason saw himself as being honest and of strong moral principles. He would tell jokes that would make him appear to be a fool if he thought they were funny. He would seemingly get absurdly angry with randomly selected audience members to whom he would ask ridiculous questions and threaten to throw them out when they got stuck for an answer. I don’t think Paul felt that other comics had the same integrity that Mason did.

Plus, Jackie’s lower-class Yiddish accent, coupled with his eloquent but simple expressions, made him appear much less eloquent and intelligent than he actually was.

Over time, Paul managed to become a regular member of Mason’s entourage. His inner circle duties included finding comedians for Jackie’s films, all of which were unremarkable, and serve as a procurer of fans that were anxious to meet him. He preferred female fans to male ones.

Jackie’s favorite haunt was the coffee shop in the Edison Hotel on West 47th Street. He showed up there almost daily for about three years, meeting with fans and other show-biz people. Paul would meet him there often. This relationship continued for decades but as time passed Paul noticed that Jackie was not taking his calls as often as he used to.

It was during this period that the “Jackie’s Maisonette” incident occurred. Paul sold Jackie on the idea of opening a comedy club with his name on it, so that he could hang out there as often as he wanted because it would be his club; his investment would simply be his name while Paul would run the club. Jackie seemed very interested in the idea. A contact of mine, Ron Aigen, developed a business plan, and Paul arranged for all the interested parties to meet at a midtown diner.

Jackie never showed up, so the project never happened. Jackie opened up a short-lived and unsuccessful restaurant and Paul and Jackie never discussed “Jackie’s Maisonette” again.

Meanwhlie, Paul and Bert’s lease terminated on Grand Street; the property owner was willing to give them a new three-year lease, but with rent triple their current amount. The two sides were unable to come to terms and Comedy U Grand closed. Paul had given up day time drug counseling and was managing The Taxi School at FEGS, a nonprofit organization established in 1934 by The Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, to find work for unemployed men and women in New York City. His love was still comedy, though, and he was determined to make his mark in that world. He approached executives at The YMHA on 14th Street about starting a monthly series of programs educating and entertaining their membership about stand-up comedy. The series was titled “The Funny Forum,” and it ran for about three years. During this period, an executive from the United Federation of Teachers who was involved in the administration of the Si Beagle Retired Teachers School approached Paul about teaching a comedy related class at their school, and so a class called “Comedy Appreciation” was born. It continues to this day.

One Forum session dealt with an incident in the 1989 mayoral campaign when Jackie Mason made a racially pejorative statement about David Dinkins. Since this happened around the same time that Spike Lee’s movie “Do the Right Thing“ came out movie, Paul presented a “Funny Forum” program titled “Did Jackie Mason say the Right Thing.” Six stands-ups — three Jewish and three Black — performed short sets then took part in a discussion.

Paul genuinely seemed to think this discussion would be good for Jackie. His manager thought otherwise. When he went to see Jackie perform at the Public Theater, then went backstage, the manager said to Jackie, “Here’s the guy that betrayed you, Jackie” then looked Paul in the eye and said, “you’re just a self-hating Jew.”

Paul, in superb comedic style, let a few seconds pass and blandly responded: “I’m not Jewish.” A shocked look on her face accompanied seconds of stunned silence before she turned to Jackie and asked, “Did you know he wasn’t Jewish?”

Jackie nodded.

“You know, Jackie,” Paul said. “The overwhelming majority of remarks and comments at that Forum session were in your favor.

Jackie must have been convinced because he gave Paul his new telephone number.

After 1989, Paul’s relationship with Jackie ebbed and flowed. As Mason’s health declined, and he was unable to keep up with the workload he carried earlier, Paul continued to see him frequently. Paul often told Jackie that meeting with him was like a physics professor having lunch with Einstein. Yet there were times that Jackie called Paul so often, and wanted to meet so frequently that Paul began to make up excuses as to why he couldn’t come. He sensed what he thought was a mild social neediness and loneliness from Jackie that made it difficult for him to say the truth: “Jackie, I planned to watch a movie and I’d rather do that than meet with you tonight.”

One might say that the tables had turned, that Paul was now putting off Jackie as Jackie had put him off during preceding decades, but in this case Paul felt a deep sorrow for Jackie’s situation. I suspect that Jackie never felt a moment’s concern about how Paul felt when the shoe was on the other foot.

Today, Paul watches comedy in person and on TV to inform his Comedy Appreciation class. He still has comedy pipe dreams, though, and sometimes I wonder about them.

As things stand now, Sam Cohen, who held down the first board position at Zabar’s lox counter for over 50 years, who has been slicing lox for the angels for more than the last 10 years, now has a new customer. I can see him slicing belly lox for Jackie Mason as Mason tells him hilarious stories in Yiddish about his time performing here on earth. And I can very very briefly see myself joining them.

Len Berk is the Forward’s lox columnist. You can find him behind Zabar’s lox counter on Thursdays.

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