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CHICAGO — I covered Jackie Mason’s live shows in and around Chicago for 20 years. This involved a variety of unchanging rituals and mutually assured deceptions.
The first was that Mason (who died July 24 at the age of 93) was doing Broadway shows with titles that had something to do with the actual performances.
In fact, it mattered not whether it was “Jackie Mason: Freshly Squeezed,” “Always Fresh — Never Stale,” (you can discern his insecurities, no?), “No Holds Barred,” “Politically Incorrect,” “Prune Danish” or even “The Ultimate Jew.” People were buying Mason’s old-school stand-up act and he would come out and say pretty much whatever he wanted on that given night.
“I say this the greatest respect,” he’d always add, when he got close to the line, or waddled over to the other side, arms flailing, raspberries blowing and sweet, disarming smile in its usual place.
“Do you understand this?”
Most of the time.
Fresh? Not so much. Never stale? Well, I could always go with that.
He certainly never lost his capacity to offend.
In 2004, I watched a bunch of preshow protesters at the Auditorium Theatre declaring the comedian to be an opponent of the peace process in the Middle East, which of course only fired up Mason to be more himself.
There was a period when Mason nixed several live shows due to TV engagements, infuriating Chicago-area presenters who had to disappoint and, worse, give out refunds. In 2009, his indifference to commitments made gave me the chance to write the headline, “Mason cancels Skokie,” which meant something quite different then from now.
The other convention was that Mason and I would have a phone conversation before he arrived in Chicago.
This went on for years.
I looked forward to these interviews because A) I got an hilarious bespoke comedy performance and B), I had learned that all I had to do in set him off was to pull out the same opening question: “So it’s the same old material in this show, right?”
“Huh? You won’t hear one joke you’ve heard before,” he’d reply. “I’m not like the other Jewish comedians who started telling a joke when they’re 20 and are still telling it when they’re 90. That’s a crime for which people should be put in jail. That’s useless. You wouldn’t go back to somebody’s house to hear the same joke again.”
A decade or so later, I started off with the exact same question.
“This is fresh-squeezed,” he said, indignantly. “You people sit there with clipboards trying to catch me doing the same jokes. You think you can catch me out. You can’t.”
He also came armed with having read every prior review.
“You didn’t like that I hated (Hillary) Clinton,” he once said to me, reading something into my past criticism. “You discerned that my contempt for Clinton was very deep and came from the soul. You were right.”
“If I’m a pilot and you don’t like the way I feel about Bush,” he went on, “does that make me incapable of flying the plane?”
Absolutely not, I said. Touche.
He flew the live-comedy plane pretty well for decades and most every joke landed on his target audience. And there was more self-awareness to him that many realized.
“I don’t feel any less compassion for a Palestinian than a Jew,” he once said to me, in a rare quiet moment, before returning to the kind of jokes that might have suggested otherwise. “I may always be the Jew in the story, but a child is a child.”
May Jackie Mason rest in peace.