Not many Jewish rabbis change careers to become comedians. In fact, Jackie Mason might be the only one of his kind. Born Yacov Maza in 1931, Jackie was raised in the Lower Eastside of Manhattan. All the men in his family became rabbis, going back four generations. His older brothers were rabbis, and Jackie himself was ordained at the age of 25. But three years later he quit because, in one of his famous one-liners, 'someone in the family had to make a living.'
Jackie first performed on the Catskill summer resort circuit, along with other Jewish comics of his generation who gained so-called 'Borscht Belt' fame. In the early 1960s, he became a popular regular on The Ed Sullivan Show, but that ended abruptly when he made a hand gesture in front of a live audience, offending the host. This famous incident not only earned him banishment from the Sullivan show but made it difficult for him to find work for years.
But Jackie came back with a vengeance in the 1980s when his one-man show 'The World According to Me' took Los Angeles, Broadway, and eventually Europe, by storm. There weren't even Standing Room Only tickets available to see Jackie's trademark lethal political satire and fearless commentary on life. It won every award possible: Tony, Outer Critics Circle, Ace, Emmy, and Grammy. Other one-man shows followed suit. Jackie's fame solidified, with only two less-than-successful ventures, including a TV sitcom called 'Chicken Soup.' Jackie did not write his own material for the show, a mistake he was never to repeat.
Because of Jackie's outspoken support of the state of Israel, he has sometimes suffered criticism, but no one denies the brilliance of his political humor. He has co-hosted for years on the PBS talk show 'Crossing the Line', as well as a BBC radio show, both on political subjects. Oxford University has conferred two honors upon him, one being the award of Fellow of Humanities and the other an honorary degree from the Oxford Debating Society. The latter degree has been conferred upon only three other non-Oxford graduates: Ghandi, John F. Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter.
Controversy does find Jackie, and vice versa. In 2002, Jackie objected to a Palestinian comic opening for him at a famous Chicago comedy club. Much was made of this in the press, but Jackie stated he did not feel comfortable with someone whose material he was not familiar with. In 2003, the New York Times slammed his new show 'Laughing Room Only' as stepping over the 'fine line between humor and hate speech.'
None of this has hurt Jackie Mason's popularity. Tickets sell out almost immediately for any of his performances around the country and in Europe. Politics is only one of the subjects he turns his sharp wit upon. His routine about buying coffee at Starbuck's, for instance, has become legendary. Jackie Mason, quite simply, is one of the funniest men in the world.