If you ever visit Wisconsin, whose motto is bizarrely just ‘Forward’, make sure you take a drive to Sheboygan.
Sheboygan has a history that includes being the ancient home of Native American tribes like the Potawatomi, Ottawa, Winnebago, and Menominee. And, the Chippewa, who gave Sheboygan its name. Well, actually, they called it Shawb-wa-way-kum, but, hey, settlers.
It was also the last refuge of the Oneida, Stockbridge-Munsee, and Brothertown people, after the Americans decided to trick them from their homes and put them somewhere else where they didn’t want to be.
Once the tribes had given up living, migrants from other parts of the United States, and escapees from the Irish famine, from German repression and Dutch anti-Protestantism, and from far-flung Slovenia, moved in to Sheboygan, many taking up lumbering, the felling and processing of trees, not the slow-moving, awkward bumbling shuffle around town.
One people who couldn’t settle in Sheboygan in the nineteenth century were African Americans, because Sheboys (which is only a guess, because Sheboygan doesn’t seem to have a demonym) decided to ban people of color in 1887.
Anyway, by the 1920s, Sheboygan was a far more multicultural town of around thirty-thousand souls, including a thriving Jewish population, with synagogues, hazzans, bagels, Volvos, and rabbis.
One such rabbi was Rabbi Eli Maza, born in Minsk, now the eleventh most populous city in Europe, and capital of Belarus, who led his congregation with enthusiasm, philosophical sermons, and just a little humor.
And, it’s here that this story begins.
Because Rabbi Maza had a son, also destined to be a rabbi, as had his grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great grandfather, and who’s name was Yacov Moshe Hakohen Maza, though he changed it for the stage, to Jackie Mason.
For his time, Mason, who stood one meter sixty-five centimetres, and had a career that spanned sixty-six years, was a giant of comedy.
But it didn’t start with comedy, it started with the Torah.
At the age of five, Rabbi Maza moved his family to Manhattan, New York City, so his sons could celebrate Jewish religious life at a yeshiva school, and maintain Yiddish as their first language. During holidays, Mason went to work as a busboy, a restaurant worker who sets tables, removes used plates, and supports the wait staff, in the Catskill Mountains, where Jewish families would often spend warm summer nights with friends, family, and a host of Jewish comedians whose culturally-rich humor they could absolutely relate to.
He recalled that in ‘twenty minutes, at the Pearl Lake Hotel, I broke all the dishes. [So] they made me a lifeguard.’ He mentioned he couldn’t swim, and was told to keep schtum.
Eventually, Mason graduated with a degree in English and sociology, and became a cantor, a prayer leader, before receiving semikhah, and finally being ordained as a rabbi, along with his three brothers. It was as a rabbi that Mason realized his calling wasn’t bending over and following the first five books of the Hebrew bible with a yad, but being funny.
‘I started telling more and more jokes,’ he said, ‘and after a while, a lot of gentiles would come to the congregation just to hear the sermons,’ and so, he resigned his post as a rabbi to become a comedian at the age of thirty.
‘Somebody in the family had to make a living,’ he said, and he did.
Beginning on the famous Borscht Circuit in New York as a recreation director, Mason wrote most of his own material, delivering his gags rapidly, with one joke flowing into the next, in what was described as ‘contagious rampaging surrealism’, as the groundswell of audience laughter gathered and rose.
After refusing to change his thick Yiddish accent when the William Morris Agency suggested he do so, because he sounded, one critic said, like ‘an immigrant who just completed a course in English. By mail’, he went on to insult as many people as possible, including the Beatles, who he quite accurately described as ‘four kids in search of a voice who needed haircuts’.
He performed on all the big shows across every network in the United States, appearing on The Steve Allen Show, The Tonight Show, The Perry Como Show, and The Dean Martin Show, earning as much as $85,000 a week (in 2021 value), but also never being far from controversy.
In 1964, he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, and gave the host the middle finger after Sullivan had shown him two digits as a way to interrupt his performance for an impromptu Presidential speech. Mason, jabbed fingers back, saying, ‘I’ve been getting lots of fingers tonight. Here’s a finger for you and a finger for you and a finger for you.’ He always claimed it was an index finger or a thumb, but never the middle finger, but that didn’t stop him losing a contract worth almost $400,000 (in 2021 money) and being branded ‘unpredictable’ and ‘unreliable, volatile, and obscene’, and missing out on television work for nearly twenty years.
‘I was suddenly considered obnoxious, arrogant, vulgar, unstable, abnormal.’
He also counter-heckled Frank Sinatra during his show in Vegas, making fun of Sinatra’s marriage to the far younger Mia Farrow, a state of affairs that has strangely dogged Farrow’s life, until Sinatra and his mob left angrily. That evening gunshots were fired into his hotel room, and he was punched through the open window of his car, which broke his nose but not his resolve.
His brand of humor was absolutely of his time, and there’s really no way to defend it today as being either politically incorrect or not offensive, yet many found themselves smiling at his performance even when they didn’t want to. The only thing that can be said is that he was nondiscriminatory, targeting every usual suspect for a mid-twentieth century comic; objectifying women, mocking marriage, and making light of infidelity.
‘Eighty percent of married men cheat in America. The rest cheat in Europe.’
More than this though, Mason understood one vital element that helped him win a Special Tony Award for his one-man show, The World According to Me!, an Outer Critics Circle Award, a Grammy, and three Emmys, and high praise for the other six one-man shows that he wrote and performed on Broadway.
His ambition, he said, was always to be a star, and he became one using his confident swagger - his chutzpah - to comment relentlessly on the bizarreness of his own culture, of that special brand of quirkiness you find when you dig deep into the schmaltz of Jewish cultural identity, and ‘what it meant to be Jewish in America.’
‘The truth is, that in this country, Jews don’t fight, they don’t, they almost fight, they almost fight. Every Jew I know almost killed somebody. They’ll always tell you, ‘If he said one more word! .. he would have been dead today. I was ready. I was waiting. One more word!’ What’s that word? Nobody knows.’
Mason's career broadened into television and movies later in life, when he produced and starred in The Stoolie (1972), and appeared in the Steve Martin comedy The Jerk (1979), Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I (1981), the sitcom Chicken Soup (1989), and became the voice of Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky in The Simpsons.
When he died a few months ago, he’d come a long way from leading prayers in the synagogue, but a very short way from the Talmud that he’d studied so carefully in those early years, because the Talmud, he said, was the study of logic, ‘and every time I see a contradiction or hypocrisy in somebody’s behaviour, I think of the Talmud and build the joke from there.’
It’s unclear what Mason died of, but he did once say that ‘it's no longer a question of staying healthy. It's a question of finding a sickness you like.’
I hope he found one.
Photo by Cottonbro