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I interviewed Jackie Mason 25 years ago. Here, for the first time, I tell the story.
I’ve known Jackie Mason for 25 years. Close pals we aren’t. We’re somewhere in the happy acquaintance category, which today means “a glass tea” when he performs in Las Vegas with maybe rugelach, along with a conversation and look see over an article he’s writing.
I first met the comic legend in 1988 when Theater Week, the Broadway “Bible” assigned me to do a major story on the man who prior, hit it big, went down hard after a major meltdown with Ed Sullivan, then came back with a roar on Broadway in his one-man show, “The World According to Me” entering superstardom, a status he’s maintained all these years.
Jackie, not surprisingly, was obsessed with deli.
Our meeting was during the ferocious Manhattan Pastrami War in the summer of '88. To know Jackie is not easy. Despite the “Heh heh” and “Hey mister” accessibility, there’s a curtain he drops. To “know” him is not necessarily to know the man himself.
I did learn it helps to be obsessed over deli. It seems he had an argument with the owners of one of the-then two hot delis, and pulled his business, going to the other. This was big news in the deli world, where slicing for Jackie was an honor, second only to serving the Israeli PM. Even his crumbs brought in business.
There we were in the “rival” deli. Jackie, his group of pals, his relatives at the next table – and a nervous writer next to him– me. He orders in his staccato hecsent: “Listen, bring me a pastrami sanawhich (TO ME) you’ll have half, I’ll have half, also a half glass tea with a nepkin … she’ll also have tea …” and so it went mit the halves around the table. After his long-awaited “revenge-by-success” this was a heppy man holding court.
To Jackie, this was a people's court over which he presided, alternatively as inquisitor, observer, and ultimately final authority over what will or will not become part of his comic world. A tourist from Detroit approached with his nine‑year‑old daughter for an autograph. "So. Are you Jewish?" he asked the hapless fan who said he was Italian. "But your wife – not Italian, right?” Irish. "Ah ha! I knew it!" he exclaims. Most slap‑em‑on‑the‑back‑leave‑em‑laughing comic would turn back to his pastrami by now, after the obligatory fan "shmooze." Not Jackie. "So, what do you do in Michigan?" he inquired scouting material as the flattered fan, who made something for cars no one understands, explained, then left us to “the interview.”
Or so I thought. With a hock and a klop, it was back to table tennis. “So, the Vice-President’s in a hotel room with some guys and a lobbyist. Heh, heh. Maybe they call her a lobbyist because she hangs out in lobbies." The fast‑paced game of Borscht belt badminton was in high gear as Jackie volleyed to improve his serve. Whether deductive logic, debate, argumentation or light deviations into the world of the nose job. (“Is it or is it not polite to ask?"), all were equal in this court as each issue underwent a "but on the other hand" treatment of near‑Talmudic proportion. I learned that “the deli” like all the other places in Jackie Mason's life, is where the complex mill of his mind gets its grist, where kitch turns into kishka.
Oy … two hours and between the pals, the relatives, the fans, I sat with my crumpled questions, not getting a word in which is unheard of given that in my own world I talk under anesthesia. But then, I’m not Jackie Mason. Getting nowhere, we met again. At the same deli. More “hef a pastrami.” More “Shmooie” pals, more strutting down the streets of Manhattan, chest forward, much like a proud peacock replete with red-plumage, “heh-hehing” to strangers who were yelling “Jackie we love you!”
By now, I developed a full-fledged eye tick. The New Yorker was also doing “Mason” and my entire article consisted of “heh heh.” Desperate, I called his PR person and “told on him.”
We made a date to meet alone. On Pastrami overload, I said a silent prayer when I learned his lobby, where we were meeting, was on Park Avenue, which I assumed was deli-free. I was wrong. “Listen … three Israelis opened a deli just lest week across the street. (Oy vey.) And by the way that hat you’re wearing – not good.”
And so I learned that the clown with pisk hates direct confrontation. The hat, I assumed was a dig for telling on him. But, by now, he was wearing down with me – and my refusal to use a tape recorder he could perform to.
Born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, Jackie, or Yacov Moshe Maza was the fourth child of six, destined by family tradition to become an Orthodox rabbi. When he made the decision to stop his studies and run up to the Borscht Belt to hone his distinctive brand of Yiddishkeit humor it was also a serious personal business. “I never told my father. I kept hiding, avoiding,” he said. And his sibs kept his secret.
“And what would your father think of your success now?” I asked. He stopped and thought. “My father would have said, if your son is a thief, does it matter that he was good enough to steal a million instead of ten?” We’re getting somewhere. His Yiddishkeit that often involves unmasking absurdities and hypocrisies through debate, while not officially rabbinical, often has a rabbinical rhythm: In his masterpiece called “The Real Me” he re-enacts a discussion with a psychiatrist over the logic of searching for himself. (“If I don’t know who I am, how will I know who to look for?”)
Known for talking to members of his audience, he may appear to hit on people at random. “It’s not. I watch, and if I feel a person would be uncomfortable, I’d never choose him.” He also taught me my greatest lesson about humor. Despite his casual manner, humor cannot be superfluous. While he may change inflection, the material is tightly choreographed. The lesson? “A wrong word, an out of place word to an audience is like a pimple, a rash.”
These were not his salad days, but “The World According to Me,” was the main course that thrust him into legendary status.
Oh, and in that deli on Park Avenue? The owners went wild kvelling when he walked in and I think called Tel Aviv. Suddenly a lot of their relatives appeared, eager to serve and observe.
We ate – and ate, until the connoisseur, leaned over to me and whispered, “Oy Marnie … is this food chaloshes or what?” So what did he do? He hid bits of the food in napkins which he asked me to hide around the restaurant never to be found, while he thumbed up the owners and stood for endless smiling pictures to put in their window. Hey, they were Jews. And in any war between bad deli and Jews, Jews will win.
He had an odd habit, no doubt born of his show biz re-birth. Before performances, he would peek around the curtain to count the house. “So, eventually they cut a hole, so I shouldn’t be seen,” he explained.
My hunch is he still does it. Listen mister, there’s no need. Just mention his name in Sheboygan and anyone will tell you – Yacov Moshe Maza is and always will be, a hit.