October 10, 1988 12:00 PM

by Jackie Mason with Ken Gross

Ten years ago few people thought about Jackie Mason at all (they often confused him with Jackie Vernon and Jack E. Leonard). Those who could identify him would probably have said, “Oh, you mean that guy who gave Ed Sullivan the finger when he was a guest on the show? You mean that dirty, troublemaking comedian?” Two years ago a lot of people were thinking about Jackie Mason. Here’s what they were thinking: “How do I get tickets to his Broadway show? This man is the funniest guy in the world.” It was a long road from dirty and vulgar to funniest guy in the world, as this book, co-written by PEOPLE senior writer Ken Gross, attests. Jackie, Oy! is the rabbi-to-riches saga of Mason, who in his 50s has finally become a Big Star. He can’t figure out what took so long. On the other hand, with all the setbacks and tsuris, he can’t quite figure out how it happened at all: “To this day, I still go out and stop people in the street. ‘Excuse me, mister, do you happen to know why?’ ” For Mason, becoming a standing-room-only success on Broadway took almost as long as becoming a comedian in the first place. Raised in the shtetl of New York’s Lower East Side, he was expected to become a rabbi like his father, who had become a rabbi like his father and grandfather. But Jackie, born Jacob Maza, took a summer job as a bus-boy in the Catskills, kept dropping trays, was consigned to lifeguard duty (he couldn’t swim) and decided to join the entertainment roster on amateur night. He tore the house down. “Jackie Mason could always make people laugh,” writes Gross. “He knew that. He could find the twist of humor and insanity in any situation. ‘Look how people take such pride in their car. Did they make it? They can’t even drive it.’ ” To keep peace at home, Mason was indeed ordained a rabbi. But it was clear he was in the wrong profession when he was delivering a sermon on the spiritual dimension in life and began ogling a particularly comely member of the congregation. Jackie, Oy! hardly presents a burnished portrait of the comedian. Alternating Mason monologues and Gross commentary, the book portrays a man always out for the main chance, who makes poor choices, forgets what and when it is convenient to forget, who turns lying into high art, whose carelessness with money is awe inspiring. Frequently, the co-authors argue about the interpretation of an event: “After delivering his own personal Miranda warning…he would allow the girls to give him their hearts,” writes Gross at one point. Replies Jackie: “Wait a minute, hold it. What are we talking about here? A man remains a bachelor and he is suddenly a ‘cold-blooded brute’ (these are not my words)? There were no bachelors before? I could name a few. Sherlock Holmes, for example.” Gross perfectly captures Mason’s speech patterns. He is sympathetic and censorious at the right times. He occasionally overwrites: “The members of the cast sensed a dangerous stubble of insubordination on Jackie’s face.” But this is a remarkable showbiz story and, anyway, the generous sampling from Mason’s act alone makes the book worth the price. (Little, Brown; $16.95)

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