I’m sad. My favorite comedian Jackie Mason died last night. He reportedly was 93 and he was no longer performing. His passing still leaves a void.
Mason inspired me, not only because of his inimitable comedic chops but also his comeback from adversity. He got a taste of the big time in the 1960s, was exiled for a couple of decades after pissing off Ed Sullivan, and then came roaring back with successful one-man plays on Broadway.
My body hurt from laughing so hard after seeing one of those plays. I loved Mason’s irreverence, and his fearlessness poking fun at ethnic groups, particularly Jews. Mason said he made Jews uncomfortable because he was “too Jewish” but noted he performed for Queen Elizabeth, and she found him quite funny. I would have killed to witness Her Majesty watching a Mason performance.
I can’t do justice recounting my favorite Mason routines because his delivery was what made his routines so delightful. You can watch one of his Broadway shows here but be forewarned: It’s too politically incorrect for today’s cancel culture. I’m pleasantly surprised the New York Times gave him a deserving obituary rather than focus on some earlier controversies and Mason’s support for Donald Trump.
I had a brief encounter with Mason when he was at the peak of his comeback career. I saw him twice at two New York restaurants I frequented within a matter of weeks, and then again at P.J. Clarke’s, a famous Irish bar and restaurant on Third and 55th in midtown New York. It was around 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning and Mason was eating dinner with a few friends. I had a few drinks in me and confidently approached his table.
“Mr. Mason, I’m a huge fan of yours, but this is the third time in a matter of weeks that I’ve run into you in a restaurant. I’m concerned you might be stalking me. I hope that’s not the case.”
Mason gazed at me with a look of disbelief that clearly said, “Who the f… are you?” I walked away rather proud of my boldness to humiliate myself with a lame attempt at humor before one of the funniest persons that ever lived.
I dabbled in comedy while living in New York, and for a brief time I was a macher in the New York comedy world.
My first foray was in the early 90s. My social life was miserable, with every woman I dated invariably telling me that I was “a really nice guy,” but they found me “very intense.” I set out to prove that behind the intensity lurked a very funny guy.
So, I enrolled in a comedy course. The Village Voice was doing a story about aspiring comedians and a reporter came to our class to watch us perform in front of each other. He liked my act and dubbed me, “A Canadian Woody Allen.” I long bragged that I garnered a favorable review even before I performed on stage. (In those days, a comedian being likened to Woody Allen was the highest of compliments.)
Making it in comedy was brutal, particularly in New York City when I ventured into the business. To gain experience, one had to do so-called “Open Mics,” where various bars around town would allow you to perform at off hours providing you purchased at least one drink. The only people attending Open Mics were mostly other comedians, who didn’t listen to other performers because they were too focused on mastering their own routines. An industry rule of thumb was that if no one laughed at your jokes at an Open Mic, it didn’t mean they weren’t funny.
The most notorious Open Mic was Wednesday evenings in the back room of a bar called the Kon-Tiki, a tacky dive on 34th Street. The place attracted the very worst comedians, and it was painful sitting through most of the acts. But sometimes amidst the carnage you’d hear a gem.
One comedian who was bombing badly suddenly talked about the time he performed in the Deep South and how the crowd couldn’t relate to a Jewish New Yorker. Hoping to find some common ground, he said, “Heil Hitler” and gave the Nazi salute.
“Wrong hand you moron,” an audience member shouted back.
I still laugh at that joke.
Another way to get stage time was to do “Bringer Shows,” where the leading New York City comedy clubs would give you five minutes of stage time squeezed in among acts performed by accomplished headliners if you brought at least 10 people to watch you perform. I did these shows sparingly because it was a huge imposition asking friends to attend a show with a cover charge and two drink minimum to watch you perform. It was also stressful: If one of the invited ten didn’t show, I’d lose the stage time and I’d have to tell my friends their featured act was cancelled.
Doing these comedy shows, I learned the economics of the comedy club business. In those days, even established comedians were paid only $25 to do a 10- to 15-minute set. All the comedy clubs were in midtown, or the Upper East and West sides and the weekday shows typically started at 9 pm. I worked out a deal with a downtown bar to give me $75 to host a comedy show in their back room at 7 and they’d keep the entire gross of the drinks. My friends and colleagues were mostly heavy drinking journalists, so the arrangement proved quite lucrative for the bar. There was no need to impose a two-drink minimum.
I used the $75 to attract three big name comedians and rounded out the show with amateurs I thought were talented. My intent was to provide stage time for myself but running the room and managing the comedians was quite stressful and I never once performed.
Word quickly spread among established comedians that my show was attracting a great audience, and soon I was getting calls from marquee names asking for slots and offering to work for free. Al Lubel, one of my favorites, did a test run of the routine he performed in his first appearance on the Tonight Show later that week. Among the then amateur comedians who performed in several of my shows was Jim Gaffigan, who has since achieved considerable stardom.
The highlight of my comedy act was a routine I developed about having grown up in Canada, where women were attracted to nice men and “appreciated good beer.“ I’d then segue into my slow and painful discovery that there was nothing more repulsive to a New York City woman than a “really nice guy.” I likened the transition to playing touch football all my life, and suddenly finding myself in the NFL. New York, I declared, was “The Super Bowl of Mating.”
The act was based on some insight a female bartender offered me one night after I got dumped yet again, and it contained an unexpected line that invariably would bring down the house. Longtime SNL performer Darrell Hammond, complimented me on the originality of my routine and encouraged me to keep performing. I imagine millennials today would find my act offensive and comedy clubs would. issue apologies promising to never again give me stage time.
I received other accolades as well, but one audience compliment proved quite sobering.
I had just performed a set that went well and was enjoying a martini at the service bar in the front of the club. A tourist from Minneapolis approached me and told me how much he enjoyed my act.
“You know what makes you so funny?” he volunteered. “Watching you it’s hard to believe those jokes are actually coming out of your mouth. You seem really intense.”
It was a watershed moment, and I never performed again. I didn’t have the drive or the confidence to quit my day job and pursue a career in comedy liked Mason and Lubel did. Mason was previously an ordained rabbi with a congregation and Lubel abandoned a promising career as a lawyer. I opted to redouble my efforts on running my PR firm, something I never enjoyed but was good at.
Best to leave comedy to the real pros.
R.I.P. Jackie Mason, and give my best to your Borscht Belt buddies Rickles, Youngman, Burns, Reiner, Buttons, Berle, Amsterdam, and Caesar. You guys were all legends, and I imagine you’d be saddened if you knew how humorless and sterile American comedy has become. Laughter has become a lost art and you don’t hear much of it these days.