Several entertainers booked to co-host "The Mike Douglas Show" arranged to spend their evenings performing at a local club. So it was that comedian Jackie Mason did double duty in Cleveland in July, 1964. "Douglas" turned out to be an easy gig; not so his night job.
When I interviewed him over lunch after his second day on the TV show, he seemed upset by what had happened the evening before when he performed before an audience that was much smaller and less receptive than he anticipated.
"I guess I'm not known in Cleveland," he remarked. "I have a feeling that if I went up to someone here and said, 'I'm Jackie Mason,' the guy would answer, 'So what?' "
He spent the last half of our interview trying out new material and asking my opinion. He was polishing a routine about a baby's first day in the world, and while it was funny in spots, I found myself squirming, not laughing. I felt like a one-person focus group. And I hate focus groups.
Mason originally followed his parents' desire that he become a rabbi. He said he tried the religious life for about 18 months before announcing he was going into show business.
"You can't imagine what a difficult decision it was. All my life my parents had pushed me toward being a rabbi. I never had a choice in the matter. I tried to be a good rabbi, but I just wasn't suited.
"My decision to quit shocked my parents. Suddenly they didn't know me. They didn't trust or respect people in show business, so when I became a comedian it a was a family disgrace. I was a black sheep."
Mason quickly discovered stand-up comedy wasn't for the faint-hearted. In the early '60s, comics often were used as warm-up acts for strippers.
"The only guys who go to those dumps," said Mason, "go to see the girls. The only comedian they'll sit still for is the one who tells dirty jokes. The dirtier the better. I had a clean act – and it just didn't go."
He claimed that one nightclub manager fired him in the middle of his act.
His salvation was the Borscht circuit in the Catskills. The former rabbi was a big success before a predominately Jewish audience. Steve Allen heard about him and booked him on his TV show in 1961. Ed Sullivan followed.
Mason and Sullivan would have a falling out in the mid-'60s. It wasn't long after I interviewed Mason that his career went into a long slump. He bounced back big time in 1986 with a one-man show "The World According to Me." That title pretty much summed up the attitude Mason assumed during a performance where one of his signature lines was, "It's such a pleasure for you to be seeing me."
Mason lent his voice to Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky for several episodes of "The Simpson," most recently the one that aired May 5, 2019. The comedian ded on July 21, 2021. He was 93 years old.