A lot of people ask what it takes to be a stand-up comic — I’ll be honest, I have absolutely no idea. What I do know is that whatever it is, a lot of people love to think they’ve either got it or they can get it. I was honoured to be in six Royal Command Performances and so of course I met Her Majesty the Queen a few times. After about the third time, she started to talk like me, tell a few jokes. Now, I’m not saying she owes her popularity to me — God forbid — but let’s be honest, when you add together the number of people who come to see her when she’s touring the world and the crowds that come to watch my show …that’s a lot of people. And I hear her jokes aren’t too bad either, hers and her husband’s — so maybe we do all have a bit of funny inside of us.
One thing is for sure, for as long as there have been human beings there has been comedy. For example, the bible is full of jokes, if you look hard enough. I don’t know exactly where, and anyway I prefer to use my own material, but what was it Moses said? ‘Worries go down better with laughter and soup.’ No wait, I think that may have been my Uncle Irving, but the fact of the matter is that laughter is an essential part of the human condition and all that comics do is remind us of this. When you think about it, we have been an essential part of the history of human civilisation since the very beginning — in fact, I’d like to ask for a few extra dollars from each reader of The Spectator, just as a way of saying ‘thank you’.
So how tough is it to become a comic? I can only tell you that in my early days I certainly struggled. I felt like a second-class citizen compared with my brothers, who were all rabbis and very learned, and I was convinced I wasn’t as good a rabbi as them and couldn’t ever be. So I tried to find another line of work. I said to myself, ‘Why not be a comedian?’ (What I should have done was to go into business with Bill Gates or Warren Buffett but in those days who knew?)
I started playing clubs and bars and I would go anywhere just to prove I was a hit. But those early days were tough and business for my act was generally poor. The owners would always greet me and try to cheer me up. ‘Business is picking up! A lot of calls.’ And then when bookings turned out to be bad they’d always have an excuse. ‘They dug up the road last Tuesday’; ‘It’s three weeks before Thanksgiving’; ‘They’re last-minute shopping.’ Two o’clock in the morning, they’re shopping. No stores are open but they’re shopping, shopping, shopping.
And the weather was always to blame. ‘But the weather’s good,’ I’d say.
‘Yeah, now it is, but it’s going to get worse.’
‘When? Soon. Next Friday.’
I would play towns where they’d never even seen a Jew before and they came just to see this colourful person talking in an accent they couldn’t understand. I went to places like Des Moines, Iowa; Eggley, Idaho; Spearfish, South Dakota — you read the list; it sounds like the menu in an Australian restaurant — but it was an education for me. And what was interesting to me was that everyone was very pleasant and hospitable, even though they had literally no idea what I was talking about. In those days people would even invite me to their homes just to be friendly and I would accept just to be polite; and because I didn’t know anyone and I was hungry.
As it happens this was a huge mistake — and to this day I don’t feel comfortable in somebody else’s home. You become a prisoner because they’re giving you a meal — nearly always the most terrible fried food, which you still suffer from days later — and you’re forced to listen to the worst jokes in the world and stay respectful. Next thing you know, they take out the pictures. ‘This is my aunt when she was two; she was a beauty. You can’t tell from this picture. This is Uncle Harold. You can’t tell from this picture, but he looked the spitting image of George Clooney.’ Everybody was handsome and gorgeous, only they didn’t have those particular pictures. They only had the ones where they looked miserable and ugly.
And the truth is, I found it difficult to join in — in the end, I mostly preferred my own company. And this is perhaps another quality of comedians — to some extent we are outsiders. We have to be. A good comic must be able to step outside the group, and just watch and observe; to be happy on his or her own and then not be afraid to say what he sees; in other words, to tell the truth. Comics, jesters, fools — whatever you want to call them — have always done that and sometimes it can be a lonely thing to do …in particular, if you do my kind of comedy where you have to keep up with current events and what you have to say can upset some people (I always say ‘if it’s in the news, it’s in the show’). But a good comedian can’t afford to be afraid, and that can feel uncomfortable — until you step out on to the stage and hear laughter, which is probably the best sound in the world.
So maybe the other thing a comedian needs is persistence. You have to believe in yourself and you have to stick to what you’re doing, no matter what. Whether you’re lonely (which you will be), or the audience stays away (which they did) or they tell you that you’ll never be a hit (for a whole variety of reasons, none of which makes sense at the time). And then one day, for no apparent reason, you hear that sound, the roar of the crowd. For me it came quite late in my life when I was well into my …let’s just say I was older than is usual. And I still don’t understand it; my act was basically the same stuff I’d been doing for 30 years. Why? I asked everyone. Why now? Why did it take so long? I couldn’t get an answer. I don’t even know if there is an answer. But what I do know is that now that I’m a hit, every time I meet someone they tell me how much they always loved me, like their father and grandfather before them, and if only everyone else had listened to them. Maybe so, but now I’m a sensation I don’t need them. Wait a minute, I do need them — because without them I wouldn’t be such a sensation. So that’s my final rule: enjoy the good times but be thankful for the people who make them possible. Oh, and try to avoid fried food.
Jackie Mason is live at the Adelphi Theatre, London, from 1 to 6 June. He has been an actor and stand-up comedian and for more than 50 years, and won an Emmy for his voiceover work on The Simpsons.