Jackie Mason has just finished a stuffy interview with a "shiksa" at the elegant Regina's Restaurant on San Francisco's Geary Street, across from the Curran Theater, where his "Jackie Mason: Brand New" is in a six-week run. I'm next.
"You're Jewish, yeah? Listen, let's go to David's (delicatessen). We'll have a cookie. You can't get nuttin' here."Mason parades down the street, smiling and waving at the occasional passersby who recognize him, admiring every pretty woman he sees, comparing San Francisco to New York ("Where are the Jews?") until we reach David's. Apparently Mason has already established a rapport here. The owner welcomes him and later brings his wife over to chat.
Meanwhile, with opening night just behind him, Mason has already begun pummeling critics, saying, "If dey wanna show how deep they are, how they can examine every joke and tell you ethnic-this and ethnic-that, listen, I don't care. Dat's up to dem, so they can show that - big deal - dey're intellectuals.
"But at least they should say what a hit I was - dat de audience was thrilled. What I can't stand is de critic who has a problem, who makes it sound that what he didn't like nobody liked, instead of dat I was a big hit wit' everybody else! And while he's krechtzing, de audience is hilarious."
"I loved your show," I tell Mason. He beams.
Then he goes on to discuss self-conscious Jews.
"What I can't stand is the yenta who comes up to me after a show and says, `That's funny to me, but what do you say to them?' Dey can't imagine a gentile will enjoy a Jewish comic. Dey convince demselves de gentiles won't enjoy it if a Jew talks and sounds like a Jew."
The waitress arrives. Mason says he wants a cookie. He says he'll go to the baked-goods display in the window and pick out a cookie himself. He returns with a Napoleon. I order a macaroon.
"You tell a Jewish girl she looks Jewish," Mason continues, "she'll stab you right in the heart. She wants to look Hawaiian or Italian or Chinese, anything. People are hypocrites."
These are familiar topics for the little round Jewish man who has, in the past 4 1/2 years, reached the stardom that was all but destroyed in 1964. That was the year Mason, appearing on Ed Sullivan's TV show, was charged by Sullivan with making an obscene gesture. The story went that Mason, told to cut the length of his act, gave Sullivan the finger on camera.
Mason has for years maintained that tapes showed Sullivan to have been mistaken and that he apologized to Mason a year later. But the damage was done.
"I wasn't a big star in '64, but I was ready to burst out. And Ed Sullivan - that destroyed me immediately. I became just a working comedian. People felt I was a fraud. It destroyed all confidence dey had in me. Listen, people enjoy watching somebody cave in. People enjoy helping you make it, and dey enjoy even more you caving in. Does anybody have sympathy for Donald Trump?"
But, admits Mason, while Sullivan proved the villain of his career, the TV host was also the hero, the man who put Mason on national television when other producers shied away from the heavy Jewish accent that distinguished Mason's borscht-belt act.
"After `The Goldbergs' till `Chicken Soup' (Mason's short-lived 1989 sitcom with Lynn Redgrave), dey never did a sitcom involving Jews. The executives don't deny it. Dey're Jews. Dey admit they basically have an emotional problem. When dey put a black person on TV, dey feel like a civil-rights crusader. Dey tell demselves, `I'm a wonderful person.' Dey (the producers) come from Brooklyn, too, but dey try to talk poifect.
"Part of feeling successful for a Jew is getting away from my accent. You think it's an accident dat every Jewish producer marries a shiksa? Dey all want a tall shiksa from Utah. How come dey don't have male friends from Utah?"
I ponder that, then point out that, to Mason's credit, he has just married Jyll Rosenfeld, a Jewish woman. Mason, formerly a confirmed bachelor, waves it off with a frown.
In a near whisper, he says, "Eh, she's been my manager for 17 years. So I'm closer to my money. I don't live in the same apartment wit' her. It's an open kind of marriage.
"She enjoys the idea of being married. I like to help out a Jewish girl. She's always been so devoted to me. So I married her. Listen, I give to the Jewish Appeal, too."
It's funny, but I point out that, for a newly married man, Mason doesn't sound particularly romantic. He thinks about that and wonders if maybe I shouldn't write it, but then says it's OK.
With Mason, you can never be sure what's for real and what's shtick. When Mason, campaigning against David Dinkins in the New York mayor's race, called Dinkins "a fancy schvartze," it made front-page news. Mason said it was just part of the act, and left the political scene.
But Mason did pick up the label of being politically conservative. Now he denies that he is. In fact, he calls conservatism "the most idiotic thing in the world.
"The trouble is that liberals kept giving money for nothing. It didn't help anybody. For years I used to give money to my brother-in-laws. It didn't help them. I was giving money for nothing. It didn't help them. You give 'cause you are guilt-ridden.
"But the conservatives give to nothing. They're against all the social programs. That's sick. The conservatives blame the liberals as an excuse to do nothing. There's waste in the Defense Department, too. Do the conservatives want to eliminate it (the department)? You gotta help people. People don't stop existing because of waste.
"Bush is not ashamed to veto unemployment insurance. People are out of work. They haven't got money for a plate of soup."
Mason is quick to jump on the soapbox. But it isn't quite so easy to get him talking personally about his life. When he does, the jokes stop, and he stares off into space. The cherubic round face, now topped with reddish-brown curly hair, becomes solemn, even grim.
We were talking about his being a rabbi, just like his three brothers, his father, his grandfather and more generations back. How many? "Thousands," he says.
"I never had it in my mind to be a rabbi," he says. "I always felt like a hypocrite. I would stand up there in front of the congregation, and I would say, `The pleasures of the flesh should be rejected.' Den a blond goes by, and I lose my place. I always felt crooked doing it (being a rabbi)."
But Mason's father was a stern, solemn man who had no use for other careers, especially something as crass as show business.
"I lied to him. I thought to myself, I didn't tell my father to be a comedian, and he shouldn't tell me to be a rabbi. But I didn't have the guts to tell him. So I lied. That's OK. If you tell the truth and it hurts, that's sadistic. If it destroys a human being, what good is the truth?
"I made up all kinds of lies. It was easy. He lived a very insulated life. My brothers knew what I was doing, but they kept quiet."
Before he quit the rabbinate, Mason led congregations in Weldon, N.C., - 100 Jewish families - and Latrobe, Pa. He was funny, and the congregations loved it.
"They said, `You should be a comedian.' So I went to the Catskills. And that's how it started."
I ask Mason if his father, now deceased, would have been proud of his show-business success.
"Not for a second," he says. "The spiritual was all that counted. Everything I do is a violation of spiritual behavior."
Does Mason feel bad about the split?
"No. I'm happy he never found out about me. I can't suffer because my nature was not religious."
Mason still conducts High Holiday services in various parts of the country, where Jews line up to see him. But he calls himself "a semi-atheist. I found out when I was 12. I dunno what happened. I realized I just don't believe. What God? I don't see him in my neighborhood. So I can't swear there's a God, and I'm taking chances."
Mason does go into a rhapsodic appreciation of Jewish life and its values, and then he takes on anti-Semitism as an attack on Jewish values and achievement.
"In a brutal society, they attack people they feel are the weakest. It's because of jealousy and because the Jews look defenseless. When you're a brute, you attack your wife, your children, whoever can't hit back."
During his 25 years of ostracism, battling bankruptcy, Mason tried to rebuild his career in a variety of ways. "I tried to be like Woody Allen, to make my own movies. Maybe I could make myself a celebrity again. I was desperate, like a Jewish girl getting old and trying to get married. But they all failed. One, `The Stoolie' (directed in 1974 by John G. Avildsen, who later directed `Rocky'), was good. It got good reviews, but it bombed."
Another flop was the TV series "Chicken Soup."\