Known for his delivery and voice, as well as his use of innuendo and pun, Mason's often-culturally-grounded humor has been described as irreverent and sometimes politically incorrect. A critic for Time wrote that he spoke to audiences: "with the Yiddish locutions of an immigrant who just completed a course in English. By mail."
He was born Yacov Moshe Maza in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, the fourth and last son (and first one born in the United States) in a family of six children in a strictly Orthodox Jewish family. Mason came from a long line of rabbis, which included his father, his grandfather, his great-grandfather, and his great-great grandfather.
His father Eli and his mother had both been born in Minsk, and had emigrated to the US in the 1920s with the rest of Mason's family from Minsk; his father died in 1959. A Jewish refugee organization helped his father find a position in Sheboygan, as it needed a rabbi. When Mason was five years old his family moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City, largely so that he and his siblings could pursue a yeshiva education, where he grew up on Henry Street, Rutgers Street, and Norfolk Street. There, his parents and their friends all spoke Yiddish.
As a teenager, Mason worked as a busboy at resorts in the Borscht Belt in New York's Catskill Mountains. He recalled: "Twenty minutes, at the Pearl Lake Hotel. I broke all the dishes. They made me a lifeguard. 'But I can’t swim,' I told the owner. 'Don’t tell the guests,' he says."
In 1953 Mason graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in his double major of English and Sociology from the City College of New York. At age 18 he became a cantor, and at age 25 he received semikhah from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and was ordained a rabbi (as his three brothers, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had been), in Latrobe, Pennsylvania (30 miles east of Pittsburgh). He then led congregations as their rabbi in Weldon, North Carolina (which had 100 Jewish families) and Beth Israel Congregation in Latrobe. He said that in synagogue, "I started telling more and more jokes, and after a while, a lot of gentiles would come to the congregation just to hear the sermons." Three years later, after his father died, he resigned from his job as a rabbi in a synagogue to become a comedian because, he says, "Somebody in the family had to make a living."
Mason almost exclusively has written his own material. A sampling of his humor is his commentary on doctors: "That's a great profession, a doctor. Where else can you ask a woman to get undressed and then send the bill to her husband?" And his commentary on what is important in life: "Money is not important. Love is important. Fortunately, I love money." As well as his ruminations on pleasing people: "You can't please everyone. I have a girlfriend. I think she's the most wonderful person in the world. That's to me. But to my wife ..." And on trust: "My grandfather always said that I shouldn't watch my money. That I should watch my health. So while I was watching my health, someone stole my money. It was my grandfather." And on fidelity: "Eighty percent of married men cheat in America. The rest cheat in Europe."
He was a comedian at the Fieldston Hotel in Swan Lake, New York, in the summer of 1955. Mason was let go because his act was considered too far ahead of its time. The patrons had never been exposed to a comic who seemed to be ridiculing them. A few years later, Don Rickles came along, but by then audiences had become open to this type of humor throughout the Borscht Belt. He adopted his stage name after appearing on the Barry Gray radio show. He performed at New York City nightclubs (where he was earning as much as $10,000 ($77,000 in current dollar terms) a week), and then on The Steve Allen Show (his first national TV appearance; in 1962) and the Tonight Show with Steve Allen, as well as on The Perry Como Show, The Dean Martin Show, and The Gary Moore Show. The William Morris Agency advised him in 1962 to take elocution lessons so that he could shed his heavy Jewish accent, but he refused.
Mason made several appearances as a guest on The Ed Sullivan Show during the 1960s. He claimed to have been on the first episode to feature the American television debut of the Beatles, although research does not bear this fact out. Mason revealed during his appearance on the BBC show Desert Island Discs that at the time he did not think much of the group, referring to them as "four kids in search of a voice who needed haircuts". In 1962 he came out with his initial LP record, a best-seller entitled "I'm the Greatest Comedian in the World, Only Nobody Knows It Yet," and then in short order he came out with "I Want to Leave You with the Words of a Great Comedian."
On October 18, 1964, in an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, Mason allegedly gave host Ed Sullivan the finger on air. Footage of the incident shows Mason in the middle of doing his stand-up comedy act and then looking toward Sullivan, who had placed himself directly behind the camera, commenting that Sullivan was signaling him. Sullivan was reportedly letting Mason know (by holding up two fingers) that he had only two minutes left, and to cut his act short, as the program was about to cut away due to having been partly pre-empted by an impromptu speech by President Lyndon B. Johnson that the show carried.
Mason—clearly distracted—began working his own fingers into his act to make fun of the situation, and pointed toward Sullivan with an index finger, a thumb, but not (as Sullivan mistakenly believed) his middle finger. Sullivan was clearly infuriated by this, and banned Mason from future appearances on the show, canceling Mason's $45,000 ($347,000 in current dollar terms), six-appearance contract. Mason denied knowingly giving Sullivan the middle finger; he later said that he had never even heard of the middle finger gesture at that time. To clear his name, Mason filed a libel suit on the grounds that Sullivan had defamed him at the New York Supreme Court, which he won, and his victory over Sullivan was confirmed by the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division (which also reinstated three additional causes of action against Sullivan) in June 1966. He was nevertheless banned from the show for a period of time. Sullivan asserted that Mason was unpredictable and could not be trusted. Because of Sullivan's influence, he was branded as unreliable, volatile, and obscene, and he failed to get substantial TV work for the next two decades.
Mason was given a single comeback appearance on Sullivan's TV program two years later, and Sullivan publicly apologized to him, but the damage was done. At that time, Mason opened his monologue by saying, "It is a great thrill ... and a fantastic opportunity to see me in person again." Mason later appeared on the show five times: April 23, 1967; Feb. 25, 1968; Nov. 24, 1968; Jul. 22, 1969; and Aug. 31, 1969. Mason later said: "It took 20 years to overcome what happened in one minute."
In 1969, Mason made his Broadway theater debut as Jewish widower Nat Weiss in the comedy play A Teaspoon Every Four Hours, which he wrote with Mike Mortman. It held the Broadway record of 97 previews and closed after its official opening performance (a preview record only succeeded by Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark with its 182 previews prior to opening). He acted in the movies The Jerk (1979) and History of the World, Part I (1981).
In 1986, Mason made a triumphant return to Broadway in the two-year run of The World According to Me which ran for 367 performances in its first run and 203 performances in its second run at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, his first of several one-man theatrical shows. It was well received both by critics and the public; even Frank Rich, the generally harsh reviewer of The New York Times, wrote: "So sue me ... Mason was very, very funny." It won a Special Tony Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award, an Ace Award, an Emmy Award, and a Grammy nomination. His special Jackie Mason on Broadway won an Emmy Award for outstanding writing and an Ace Award.
He then acted in the sports comedy movie Caddyshack II (1988).
In 1990 and 1991, Mason again was on Broadway, this time with his successful two-act show Brand New, which ran for 216 performances at the Neil Simon Theatre, which won him his second Outer Critics Circle Award. Critic Clive Barnes of The New York Post praised the "brilliant" comic and his "totally new from top to tuchis" humor. Critic Mel Gussow of The New York Times remarked on the "exact meeting" between performance and material in which Mason engaged in a comic attack on everyone, including himself, cutting them all down to size.
In 1992, Mason won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance for his voice-over of Rabbi Hyman Krustofski in The Simpsons episode "Like Father, Like Clown", making him the first guest star to win an Emmy for his role. Mason has also appeared in The Simpsons episodes "Today I Am a Clown," "Once Upon a Time in Springfield," "The Ten-Per-Cent Solution," "At Long Last Leave," and "Clown in the Dumps;" the latter episode focuses upon Rabbi Krustofski's death and its effects on his son, Krusty the Clown.
One of his Broadway shows, his two-act Politically Incorrect (1994–95) which ran for 347 performances at Broadway's John Golden Theater. Critic John Simon of Time wrote: "His method is hyperbole and reductio ad absurdum, but always informed by bitter reason. His irony is a spotlight illuminating our absurdities; his zingers are scalpels laying bare the sickness under the skin. There is a unifying thrust, a focus, a structure: an attack on both liberal hypocrisy and conservative apathy, and on the climate of political correctness that makes it impossible to attack anyone but WASPs.... Mason is a true satirist in the mold of ... Mark Twain ...." It was performed during the same period that Bill Maher's late-night, half-hour political TV talk show Politically Incorrect was on the air. Maher brought a lawsuit against Mason's production, which was dismissed as frivolous. Mason was able to use this show title, and it is one of his most successful road productions. Between these shows, Mason played the lead in a short-lived television interfaith sitcom called Chicken Soup alongside Lynn Redgrave.
Mason also put on the Broadway one-man shows Love thy Neighbor (1996–97) which ran for 225 performances at the Booth Theatre (critic Lawrence Van Gelder of The New York Times described Mason's routines as "roaringly funny"), Much Ado About Everything (1999–2000; nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award for Best Entertainment) which ran for 183 performances at the John Golden Theatre (critic Van Gelder of The New York Times described Mason as "convulsing audiences"), Prune Danish (2002; nominated for a Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event), Jackie Mason: Freshly Squeezed (2005; for which he was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance), and The Ultimate Jew (2008).
In a 2005 poll to find the Comedian's Comedian, Mason was voted among the top-50 comedy acts ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders. He was also ranked #63 in "Comedy Central Presents: 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time". He holds the record for the longest-running one-man show in the history of both Broadway and London's West End.
His full-length courtroom dramedy motion picture One Angry Man was released in 2010 throughout the US and Canada. Mason's latest film Jackie Goldberg: Private Dick (2011; original title Jackie Goldberg Private Dick) was a direct-to-DVD release, released by FilmWorks Entertainment.
Mason was a Democrat, but is now a registered Republican.
Mason was an admirer of Rabbi Meir Kahane. He openly endorsed Kahane's plan to pay Israeli Arabs unwilling to accept Israeli sovereignty to emigrate. He also served as the honored speaker at a fundraising event for a yeshiva founded by Kahane.
In January 2001, Mason co-founded the organization One Jerusalem in response to the Oslo peace agreement. Its stated cause is "Maintaining a united Jerusalem as the un-divided capital of Israel."
Mason, in 2003, counseled Israeli leaders to consider the total expulsion of Palestinians from Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip. Mason and Raoul Felder wrote, "We have paralyzed ourselves by our sickening fear of World Opinion, which is why we find it impossible to face one simple fact: We will never win this war unless we immediately threaten to drive every Arab out of Israel if the killing doesn't stop." They added: "We are brain-dead if we accept the idea that we have to guess which Arab is our next killer. We are not obligated to victimize ourselves by letting the Arabs play Russian roulette with Jewish lives. Israelis are constantly asked the same obnoxious question: 'How can you throw the Arabs out? where would they go?' The answer is, if they don't care whom they kill, why are we obligated to care where they go?"
On August 14, 1991, Mason married his 37-year-old manager Jyll Rosenfeld.
Sheba Mason, born in 1985, is the daughter of Jackie Mason. She is also a comedian.
In 1991, Mason was criticized by African-American organizations such as the NAACP when he called New York City mayor David Dinkins "a fancy schvartze with a moustache". He later apologized. In 2009, Mason also referred to Barack Obama as a schvartze during one of his stand-up routines, which prompted members of the audience to walk out.
On August 28, 2006, Mason filed a lawsuit against the group Jews for Jesus for using his likeness in a pamphlet. His image was used next to the tag line "Jackie Mason...a Jew for Jesus!?" Mason said in court papers filed in New York:
Mason asserted that the group was using his image and fame to gain attention and converts. The group responded to the suit by saying, "Shame on him for getting so upset about this." The lawsuit was settled in 2006, with Jews for Jesus apologizing.
On March 30, 2012, Mason said that a friend at the time, Kaoru Suzuki-McMullen, attacked him while leaving his apartment on West 57th Street in Manhattan. Suzuki-McMullen said she was attacked by Mason, but she was arrested. On May 12, both sides agreed to drop the matter and all charges were dropped against Suzuki-McMullen.The Ed Sullivan Show (1961–68) – frequent guest appearances
Sleeper (1973) – Voice of robot tailor (uncredited)
The Stoolie (1974) – Roger Pitman
The Jerk (1979) – Harry Hartounian
History of the World, Part I (1981) – Jew #1
Jackie Mason Radio Show live from Rum Runner Bay, Miami Beach (1982) – produced by John L. Woolley
Caddyshack II (1988) – Jack Hartounian
Chicken Soup (1989) – Jackie Fisher
The Simpsons – Rabbi Hyman Krustofski in eight episodes:
"Like Father, Like Clown" (1991)
"Today I Am a Clown" (2003)
"Once Upon a Time in Springfield" (2009)
"Treehouse of Horror XXII" (2011)
"The Ten-Per-Cent Solution" (2011)
"At Long Last Leave" (2012)
"Clown in the Dumps" (2014)
"The Nightmare After Krustmas" (2016)
The Fairly OddParents episode "Beddy Bye/The Grass Is Greener" (2003) – Harvey Sandman a.k.a. The Sandman, a.k.a. The Mattress King
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy – The Quandary Phase (2005) – The East River Lifeform
The Jackie Mason Show (2005–11) – Host (originally aired on CN8: The Comcast Network; repeats currently airing on JLTV)
30 Rock episode "The Collection" (2007) – himself (small guest appearance)
The Drinky Crow Show episode "Aspire" (2009) – Mort Cooper
One Angry Man (2010) – Jackie Mason
Jackie Goldberg: Private Dick/ Goldberg - P.I. (2011) – Jackie Goldberg
Answer Me This! Episode 206 (2012) – Jackie Mason
Graham Norton BBC Radio 2 Show (2012) – Jackie Mason
When Comedy Went to School (2013) – Jackie Mason
Jackie Mason's The World According to Me! (1988)
An Audience with Jackie Mason (1990)
Jackie Mason on Campus (1992)
Jackie Mason at the London Palladium (1996)
Jackie Mason: A Night at the Opera (2002)
I'm the Greatest Comedian in the World, Only Nobody Knows it Yet! (1962)
Don't Blame the Bossa Nova (single)
I Want to Leave You with the Words of a Great Comedian (1963)
The World According to Me! (1987)
Brand New (1991)
Politically Incorrect (1994)
Live at the London Palladium (1997)
All New! Much Ado About Everything (2003)
Prune Danish (2002)
The Unholy Tour
Freshly Squeezed (DVD) (2005)
The Ultimate Jew (2008)
Jackie Mason's the World According to Me! (1986–88)
Jackie Mason: Brand New (1990–91)
Jackie Mason: Politically Incorrect (1994–95)
Love Thy Neighbor (1996–97)
Much Ado About Everything (1999–2000)
Jackie Mason: Prune Danish (2002–03)
Jackie Mason: Freshly Squeezed (2005–06)
Jackie Mason: The Ultimate Jew (2008)
Jackie Mason: Fearless (2012)
Jackie Mason. Jackie Mason's America. Carol Publishing Group, 1983.
Jackie Mason. Jackie, Oy!: The Frank, Outrageously Funny Autobiography of Jackie Mason. Robson, 1988.
Jackie Mason, Ira Berkow. How to Talk Jewish. Macmillan, 1991.
Jackie Mason and Raoul Lionel Felder. Schmucks!: Our Favorite Fakes, Frauds, Lowlifes, Liars, the Armed and the Dangerous, and Good Guys Gone Bad. Harper Collins, 2009. ISBN 978-0061126123
Mason has appeared in over 200 self-written video blog entries on YouTube, in which he gives his opinions on current events and politics. He has also experimented with podcasting, and in February 2012 appeared on the cult British podcast Answer Me This!, to promote his West End stand-up show, Fearless.
Mason received a special Tony Award in 1987 for The World According to Me!.
Mason won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program for his 1988 HBO special The World According to Me (also known as Jackie Mason on Broadway). He also won a 1992 Emmy Award for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance for his role as Rabbi Krustofsky on The Simpsons, shared with five of the show's regular cast members.
Mason also won a CableACE Award for Writing in a Comedy Special, and was nominated for Performance in a Comedy Special, for The World According to Me.
In DePatie-Freleng Enterprises' animated cartoon series The Ant and the Aardvark, the Aardvark's voice was performed by John Byner as an imitation of Mason.