One of the last remaining performers from the Borecht Belt era of comedy is gone. This weekend, it was announced that comedy legend Jackie Mason had passed away at the age of 93.
Mason was born Yacov Moshe Maza in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. When he was 5, he moved with his family to New York. As a teenager, Mason worked as a busboy in the Catskills Mountains, which we imagine would certainly have an influence on his eventual style of comedy. When you think of who is the quintessential Jewish comedian of his day, Mason would be who you thought of without a doubt.
Throughout the 50’s and the 60’s, Mason would make a name for himself due to various TV appearances and club dates throughout the country. Some of the hit shows of the time period that Mason appeared on include The Steve Allen Show, The Tonight Show, The Perry Como Show, The Dean Martin Show, and The Ed Sullivan Show. Mason performed on the latter show 20 times over the course of its popular run. It was while on Sullivan that Mason had one of his most infamous moments from his career, just as he was reaching a career peak.
On October 18th, 1964, Mason was performing once again on the show. During his act, Mason looked off camera where Sullivan was holding up two fingers allegedly to indicate that he had two minutes left due to the show being pre-empted by an impromptu speech that President Lyndon B. Johnson was about to give. Mason began playing off of that, and while riffing, pointed to Sullivan with his thumb and index finger. However from Sullivan’s angle, it appeared that Mason was flipping him the bird. As you can imagine – especially in those days – Sullivan became incensed. Sullivan banned Mason from the show and terminated his $45,000 contract for 6 appearances.
Following the ban, Mason found himself in hot water and essentially viewed upon as “controversial” by other shows, making it hard to get television gigs. In 1964, The Ed Sullivan Show was one of the biggest things on TV, after all. Mason sued Sullivan for libel, saying he was “defamed,” and brought it to the New York Supreme Court, where it was dismissed. Sullivan and Mason both appealed to the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division.
As for Mason and Sullivan, the story does have a happy ending. Two years after the 1964 incident, Mason was invited back on The Ed Sullivan Show to perform. Sullivan even wound up issuing a public apology, and Mason made 5 more subsequent appearances throughout the 1960’s.
But as for his TV career, the apology and subsequent appearances did little to help. He was blackballed from the industry, leaving him primarily to working in clubs and doing bit parts in movies like The Jerk and History of the World Part I. However, by the mid-1980’s, there was a Jackie Mason resurgence due to a hit Broadway one-man show. And he eventually did get to do more work on television, most memorably as Krusty the Clown’s dad on The Simpsons. His work on the show earned him an Emmy for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance in 1992. So all in all, the story eventually has a happy ending.
Unfortunately, no footage from that specific incident exists on YouTube. However, it has since been widely argued that Mason never did flip off Sullivan.