The Forward goes backstage at “702 Punchlines and Pregnant:”
Every weekend, Ginger Reiter, a redheaded high school English teacher from South Florida, flies to New York to watch a stage production re-creating her 10-year love affair with Borscht Belt comedian Jackie Mason. Even stranger, her role in the production is played by the love child that she and Mason produced.
No, this is not some strange new form of therapy.
It’s more intense than that. It’s a musical.
The show, “702 Punchlines and Pregnant,” was written by Reiter and her daughter, Sheba Mason, a budding stand-up comedian. It’s a punchy, upbeat production that has had a long life and a few incarnations over the decades, as Reiter has attempted to come to terms with the drama surrounding the birth of her daughter in 1985 — a birth that led to a contentious paternity suit that eventually forced a resistant Mason to acknowledge Sheba as his own.
“A lot of comedy comes from pain,” said Sheba Mason, a petite woman sporting platform shoes, along with large hair and lips that are markers as great as DNA that she is her father’s daughter. “And if we didn’t get anything else from him, at least we have a good show.”
Jackie Mason has never publicly addressed the fact that he has a daughter. But after a paternity test showed with near certainty that he was the father, Mason paid child support until Sheba turned 18.
His manager didn’t return calls requesting comment for this story.
Reiter, who won’t give her age but says she is “older than Brooke Shields and younger than Goldie Hawn,” first met Mason in 1977 at a Miami Beach deli. The comedian was in town, performing for the winter season, and Reiter said he began an on-again, off-again relationship with her. Reiter is a playwright and a composer of songs in addition to a longtime teacher.
In 1983, Reiter wrote the first version of the show as a musical describing the relationship between her and Mason, which had yet to produce a child. She said Mason came to see this version, performed at a Florida synagogue, and loved it.
Here’s Mason’s response to that play, according to Reiter, who does a spot-on imitation of the comedian’s trademark staccato: “I don’t understand why you think this is so interesting. A man and woman, they go out. They go to an early bird special. What’s so interesting about it?”
In the first version of the show, Reiter played herself. At one point, she even put a pillow underneath her shirt, pretending to be pregnant, and said the pregnancy was “wishful thinking.”
Then she actually did have a baby, and it wasn’t funny anymore. Reiter said Mason stayed in touch for a year. He even visited with little Sheba, but then, just as his new one-man show, “The World According to Me,” was going up on Broadway in 1986, Mason had his brother and sister contact Reiter and let her know that he no longer wanted anything to do with her. The ensuing paternity suit dragged out for three years after that.
In 1989, Reiter revived the play, this time dragging a sleepy 4-year-old Sheba onstage at the end, proof of the union described in the show. Years later, when Sheba was 17, Reiter rewrote the musical so that Sheba could play the role of her mother. And now, in a production that began last summer and has found a home in the basement of the Broadway Comedy Club, in Midtown Manhattan, Reiter, this time with writing help from Sheba, has produced a new version that she says is the closest to perfection.
At the start of each performance, before she begins playing her mother, Sheba talks to the audience as herself, joking about the strange fate of being Jackie Mason’s daughter: “I only wish I had a better-looking comedian as a father — like Woody Allen.”
The first half of the play consists of a series of jokey songs describing the beginning years of the relationship, with the character of Reiter looking increasingly desperate to hold on to Mason. Then, after an intermission, the show turns dark as Mason retreats from fatherhood. It includes numbers such as, “I Never Met This Yente,” sung by the actor who plays Mason. Reiter said she never meant to make her former lover look bad, and in fact, much of the show is devoted to the perils of celebrity and what might have driven Mason to act so coldly and avoid commitment.
What is surprising, though, is the lightness with which both Reiter and Sheba treat what could be seen as quite a painful history. Onstage and off, both seem to respect Mason. In a closing monologue, speaking as herself, Sheba says she would consider herself lucky if she had a “one pinky’s worth” of her father’s talent, though he has never spoken to her and she has heard that he has denied to some people even having a daughter.
“From the time I was a baby, I never really knew him,” she told the Forward. “A lot of children have to go through divorces and see their fathers leave. So in a way it was better that he was just never around at all; I never experienced a sense of loss. And my mother always fostered in me that sense of understanding. I don’t know whether that was right or wrong for a mother to do. … But she never instilled a sense of resentment in me.”
Sheba met her father only once — on the street, by accident — and she says he was dismissive of her, an experience that she has turned into a shtick for her stand-up routine. She has been performing at various comedy clubs, she said, virtually every night for the past five years since arriving in New York City.
“I ran into him on the street, and he actually recognized me,” Sheba said. “And I know he did, because he ran the other way. Then I went to see him, and he said, ‘Come to see my show.’ So I came to see his show, and they wouldn’t let me in. Then they gave me his phone number, and they told me it was changed. Then I went to his house, and they told me he moved.”
Both mother and daughter try to treat the story casually, as just good source material for the stage. In fact, Reiter has moved on and is married to a Florida cantor. But the sadness that the show tries to exorcise does still creep in at times.
“It still bothers me that Sheba lives six or seven blocks away from him, and that she hears that he goes out for coffee with other people and he has never invited her. That bothers me,” Reiter said. “Does the play help with that? Not really.”
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman