Jackie Mason: interview

Legendary American stand-up Jackie Mason is preparing for his final UK shows. Ben Williams talks to the ‘Ultimate Jew’ ahead of his swansong

Jackie Mason Jackie Mason - © Colby Katz

‘He’ll eat you alive!’ pretty much sums up the response I receive from my colleagues here at Time Out when I tell them I’m interviewing Jackie Mason. They’ve got a point. I’m 23 years old. Mason is 75. The self-styled ‘Ultimate Jew’ has been in the comedy business for twice my lifetime: what could I possibly ask him?

In his half-century as a stand-up Mason has achieved more in the UK than many of our most beloved British comics. He’s notched up a total of eight Royal Command Performances (more than any other American entertainer), has performed at London’s most iconic venues including the Royal Albert Hall, Palladium and Wembley Arena, and in 2003 he became the only comedian to have played the Royal Opera House.

I expect him to shoot down any question I put to him with a sardonic remark, yet I find he’s surprisingly warm. He tells me he should never be taken seriously, but where the onstage persona stops and the real Jackie Mason starts is difficult to tell.  Perhaps that’s the sign of a true comedian; they only have one agenda: to make an audience laugh, no matter what. It’s certainly what this septuagenarian stand-up is aiming for as he prepares to bid Britain farewell with his final UK shows.

Jackie Mason Jackie Mason - © Colby Katz

You’ve spent a lot of time in Britain over the years. Did you ever expect to be so popular in the UK?

‘Everybody I met in America – every agent, every manager; everybody – predicted that I would stink in England. They wouldn’t understand me, they wouldn’t know what I was talking about, they wouldn’t be able to relate to this kind of a personality, because they never heard anybody talk like this or come from a background like this. And I was very, very grateful and thrilled that as soon as I came on the stage, exactly the opposite happened. Because I was so different they got a kick out of it, they found it such a novelty that they started laughing right away and I said to myself, “Thank God!” ’

What are your favourite memories of performing in London?

‘The Royal Opera House was a phenomenal thrill for me. I knew that they very rarely have a comedian there, that it’s a place that has the status symbol of a cultural icon of the country. When a person wants to feel cultured where does he go? A ballet or an opera. And all of a sudden here it is: a Jewish comedian! To me, that was a status symbol of achievement. That, and the Royal Command performances. These are things that became, to me, the symbol of success in England and a symbol of success all over the world.’

Your persona on stage is very high status: you’re the most intelligent person in the room. How did that style come about?

‘I honestly have never had a design for it, I just felt it instinctively. My comedy doesn’t come from any calculations and studies. I can’t pretend that I’m a great student of the art of comedy because anybody that becomes philosophical about humour doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I don’t believe that anybody has come to a conclusion on why something is funny. It’s funny because it’s ridiculous and it’s ridiculous for different reasons at different times.’

Jackie Mason Jackie Mason - © Colby Katz

Over the years you’ve been criticised for statements you’ve made, both on and off stage. Have you ever apologised for anything you’ve said?

‘I was never apologetic for a second because I think anybody who attacked me for anything I said is either a liar, a fake, a fraud or an opportunist. Because there never was for one second in my heart any intention of insulting or abusing anybody. There’s no prejudice or hate or hostility of any kind in my heart. I have nothing but love in my heart and everything I say is just an instrument for laughs. Anybody [who] could see anything wrong or diabolical or venomous or hateful about it is a sick human being looking for attention themselves. The only thing I hate is prejudice and hate. And the only thing I hate more than that is a person who could invent hate in a wonderful person like me. A person like that, if there was any decency in this country, would be shot. People should be shot immediately in the street if they say Jackie Mason is a bad human being. Because nobody can find any time, any place in my life that I hurt anybody in order to better myself and advance my career or feel any kind of animosity towards any human being on this earth who didn’t deserve it. If you punch me in the mouth I hate you. But if you don’t, if you leave me alone, all I have for you is jokes.’

Yet you seem very opinionated about everything from religion to everyday grumbles. How seriously should people take what you say on stage?

‘I don’t think anybody should take anything I say seriously, that’s why I’m a comedian. If I say a word or a line or even a sentence that doesn’t get a laugh then I throw it out because it’s not important to me to deliver a message. I think any entertainer who’s trying to deliver messages should go into a different business. People don’t want to hear your messages or your opinions, they want to get a laugh. So what right do I have to impose it on them? You have no right to sell them something that they didn’t come there to buy. If I came to buy a cookie, don’t give me a watermelon.’

Jackie Mason Jackie Mason - © Colby Katz

You’re outspoken about your Republican views on your YouTube vlog – your motto is ‘If it’s in the news, it’s in the show.’

‘The truth of the matter is I’m not really a determined kind of a Republican. I happen to be talking more about Republicans than Democrats because it gets me more laughs. But I don’t really particularly crusade for one side or the other. I think it’s not my place to promote any agenda. I think you’ll find the jokes I tell about Barack Obama make people think that I’m against him: I’m not against him or for him, I just like to find all the comedy I can find about him.’

The comedy scene – and entertainment in general – has changed a great deal in the time you’ve been performing. What are your opinions of today’s comedy crop? 

‘I can’t believe in the generality that young comedians are no good. Everybody has a nostalgic yearning for the past and the longer he lives the more he tells you how much everything was great many years ago. Everybody tells you as they get old that a baseball player 50 years ago was a hundred times better, the first batter was better; the teacher was better, the guy who fixes the toilet was better; everything was better 30, 40 years ago. They’re driving in a new car that has ten times the comfort of a car that existed 40 years ago but they convince themselves that a car 40 years ago was ten times better. They go for a walk and even the way of walking was somehow better. It’s nonsense to say things were better years ago, because years ago it stunk: there was nothing going on, that was the problem.’

You say that after 50 years in stand-up you still enjoy being on stage. Why have you decided to retire from performing in Britain?

‘I decided to retire from doing complete weeks of shows and any sort of performance on a daily basis. To me, every show is the most important show, and to give everything requires very hard work, intense concentration and effort and time. It has to be new material and it always has to be fresh. It’s too draining to do that on a daily basis. I’ll still perform [in the States], but it’ll be hard to find me because I’ll be performing every once in a while, here and there. I still love it. Let’s be honest about it, every performer loves it. They like to convince themselves they love it because they like to bring happiness to people. That’s the biggest fraud in the world. I’m not that stupid or phoney or crooked that I’m going to pretend I’m doing this just to help people. I’m doing this because I love the idea of being the belle of the ball. I’ve found a way to enjoy my own ego trip while at the same time I’m giving everybody pleasure. What could be a better combination than that? I can’t deny that basically it’s a selfish profession. Why do you think performers never retire? Because in their dying days they want to be on stage because they need the attention. How come a plumber retires? Because hanging around in a toilet is no ego trip. You don’t get any satisfaction or applause in the toilet.’