(September 6, 2011 / JNS)
This outspoken comic has made the transition from Broadway and cassette tapes to feature films and YouTube, where he goes by the name “The Ultimate Jew.” Mason has a point—he was ordained as a rabbi and comes from a family full of them.
Over the course of almost 50 years in comedy, how have you stayed relevant? What do you think are the most significant changes in the comedy business?
“I stay relevant because I’m naturally curious about everything. I read six papers a day. I’m a news junkie. I’m up on every current issue. I don’t think comedy has changed at all except for using more filthy words but otherwise nothing has changed. There are always the good comics and the bad ones.”
What inspired your two recent films, Jackie Goldberg: Private Dick and One Angry Man?
“I was tired of doing Broadway and wanted to change the pace. I also think I’m one of the greatest actors that ever lived. Laurence Olivier had nothing on me.”
What do you have planned for the next 10 years?
“I’m starting a new one-man show in London next year after Passover and then will tour it around Europe and bring it back to the United States. I’m also doing a special about my Ed Sullivan days, which I’m very excited about.”
What inspires Jews to be comedians? What advice would you give the current crop of Jewish comedians?
“They used to be Jewish when I started in the business but now there are not nearly as many. Most Jews today go into investment banking or law. Jews who did go in to comedy did so to find a way out of their poverty. As for advice I’d say convert, but it’s a major operation.”
If you had a pulpit this year, how would you approach your sermon? How would you strike an appropriate balance of seriousness and comedy?
“I always approach my comedy with an important point and purpose then I find the ironies in the situation. As a young rabbi in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, I did just that and was so funny that Gentiles started coming to my services every week. In my opinion comedy is a serious business and if you are good at your craft you know how to balance it.”
What were the challenges of acting at such a young age, on “Blossom”?
“I think overwhelming is a good word to describe what it was like to be a teenager in the public eye and functioning in an adult world, for all practical purposes. I was a quirky kid even if I hadn’t started acting at 11, so I don’t think that it was hard, necessarily, I don’t feel like I was experiencing any tremendous hardship. It was not an ugly set, ‘Blossom’ was a very pleasant experience for the most part. My mom was with me all the time, which can be a good thing or not a good thing, but it was a pretty good thing. So I felt very protected.”
What inspired your return to acting?
“I had my first son when I was in grad school and I got pregnant with our second son the week that I filed my dissertation, and honestly after we had our first son, my husband and I were both in grad school. We really fell in love with being with our kids, and with parenting kind of a specific way, and we realized that us being research professors was probably not going to facilitate that. So honestly our decision was largely based on what we wanted our lives to look like. I know it sounds crazy, but the acting world is more flexible in terms of time.”
Your character on “The Big Bang Theory,” Amy Farrah Fowler, also has a doctorate in neuroscience. Do the writers ever ask for your contribution to the script, given your background?
“I wouldn’t say that they come to me and need my advice but I am often asked to fix anatomical things if they’re not quite right. I think that I may slightly twitch when I see something in the script that’s not correct in terms of neuroscience. In general, it’s almost always perfect.”
The High Holy Days are a time to reflect on your observance of Judaism and make personal commitments for the future. How are you looking to grow this year?
“I’d like to study a little bit more about the ba’al teshuva experience—what it means for people, what it looks like, and also sort of what the course of it looks like, because it’s not a label that I ever took on for myself but it kept sort of being ascribed to me. I guess I fall under that title but I really feel the need to sort of intellectually take it apart and find out a little more about what taking on halakha means when you never have versus people obviously who were born into it.”
What do you feel are the biggest differences in High Holy Days observance across denominations? How do you approach this time of year?
“I like to say that I really found Judaism at our [UCLA] Hillel and I wish that it existed as a shul and as a community, because it’s not just for students, our High Holy Day services, it’s open to the community, and although I may prefer in my personal life to not sit with men throughout the year, I have to say I’m still at the phase of my life where I do embrace the values of our Hillel and I find a tremendous sense of comfort in hearing the davening that I heard as I was becoming more observant. So, there’s not a lot of women who wear hats, but I’m one of them, and that’s the complexity of the Jewish experience.”
U.S. Rep. Barney Frank
The former chair of the House Committee on Financial Services and its current ranking Democrat, Frank knows a thing or two about the economy. But this Massachusetts legislator often makes a mark with charisma—twice, a survey of Capitol Hill staffers published in Washingtonian dubbed him the brainiest, funniest and most eloquent member of the House.
What is the most important piece of legislation you have worked on over three decades in Congress, and why?
“The financial reform bill [Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010], because the lack of adequate financial regulation clearly was a very significant factor in causing the economic crisis, and really the impetus of this, by the way, was very bi-partisan. It came out of a request that was originally made by George Bush’s economic team in 2008.”
Day to day, how big of a role does humor play in your job?
“It is helpful in getting your point across. It’s not comedy just for its own sake. Look, there’s a great wealth of commentary out there and if you can say something that’s kind of funny and pointed, you have more chance of it breaking through.”
Now that the debt ceiling crisis is resolved, what course do you think our economy will take?
“We have this complicated problem. We need to reduce the debt over a longer term, but we have to not cut back short-term, because we have a job problem.”
The High Holidays are a time for serious self-reflection. If America were to look itself in the mirror, what is the first thing that needs fixing?
“I think recognizing that it’s time for us to say to the rest of the world ‘We have been carrying you with our military budget basically since the end of WW2, and we’re very proud of what we’ve done, but we can’t afford to do it anymore and there’s no need to do it anymore.”
What does this time of year mean to you?
“Now what it means is a time of rest, it’s a break. [The Clinton impeachment of 1998] was a terrible time, it was all turmoil, and I was in the midst of this fight, and the day that his testimony was broadcast, that he had to give to the special prosecutor, was Rosh Hashanah. And I remember saying ‘you know what, this is great … It was a reason not to have to comment, it was a day away from the turmoil. And then by the day after I had more chance to relax, compose myself, whereas otherwise I would have been under the gun, ‘but what do you think of this, but what do you think of that.'”