Sheba Mason is a comedian with a famous father from whom she’s been estranged nearly all her life, but that hasn’t stopped her from following in his shuffling footsteps. One of Sheba’s go-to lines is: “Jackie Mason is a great comedian, but I wish I was the child of a better looking comedian — like Woody Allen … or Rosie O’Donnell.”
It’s a joke that’s funny on a couple different levels.
For years, the elder Mason refused to acknowledge publicly that he was Sheba’s father. Once a court-ordered paternity test determined it more than 99% certain that the Borscht Belt icon was the father, his attempts to avoid paying child support were scuttled. But the stance was always untenable for the simple fact that Sheba resembles her famous father quite a bit, not least in the physical mannerisms and halting delivery that aid her comedy. And therein lies at least part of that joke’s beauty.
The other part of that joke’s beauty is that Jackie Mason has never been mistaken for the world’s sexiest man. And yet, women were just as drawn to him as he was to them. Sheba’s mother, Ginger Reiter, recounted to the Chicago Tribune in 2017 that during their relationship, Mason would leave suits and ties in her closet, but unbeknownst to her, there were women all over Miami Beach who had Mason’s suits and ties in their closets.
Instead of getting mad, Reiter distilled the material from her nearly decade-long relationship with the Tony-winner and turned it into a musical comedy, which her daughter would reprise years later as “Both Sides of a Famous Love Affair: The Jackie Mason Musical,” a show that brought Sheba Mason a successful three-year off-Broadway run and jump-started her burgeoning stand-up career.
In that play, Sheba plays Reiter, and it’s about as shtick-filled an affair as any Jackie Mason fan might expect. The songs have names like “Ode to the Early Bird Special” and “I Never Met This Yenta.”
But the underlying story of Sheba Mason’s relationship to her father and to comedy is anything but by-the-numbers.
On one hand, there’s a father who disavowed her, at least publicly, for much of her life and, at one point, compelled her mother to sue him for unpaid child support (which he did, ultimately, pay in full); on the other, there’s a father who was one of the most beloved Jewish comics of his era, whose name still carries cache (even though it might be argued that a pronounced and public lurch to the right politically has diluted that cache somewhat, in recent years) and a daughter who is unabashed about using that name for all it’s worth to aid her own comedic aspirations.
One might think that a tricky emotional dilemma to navigate.
“Actually, it’s not really tricky. I’m his daughter, you know? As a baby I looked like him. I still look like him — that’s why I dye my hair blonde,” said Sheba, who recently turned 34, laughing. “He took a blood test, he was court ordered to pay the child support and he did, and, you know, I’m his daughter, it’s my heritage. So I feel absolutely comfortable using his name.”
“I mean, why not?” she continued. “If I play a synagogue, I say, ‘They couldn’t afford Jackie Mason, so they hired me.’”
As with her father, self-deprecation isn’t shtick for Sheba Mason, it’s instinct. Born in Miami and raised in Boca Raton, far from the Broadway stages where the elder Mason would orchestrate a storybook career turnaround, Sheba Mason somehow managed to inherit a lot of her father’s comedic tics.
“His syntax and stuff is so funny. I don’t know if it’s a Jewish thing, but people have told me that I kind of have a little bit of that,” she said.
For all that’s happened between father and daughter personally, one thing that’s certain is the daughter’s admiration of her father’s talent and an undeniable attraction the comedic milieu where he forged his craft.
“When you think he had seven or eight one-man Broadway shows and each of them is almost two hours of material, it’s incredible,” said Sheba, who found a love for stand-up after moving to New York to be an actress.
“I said to myself, ‘Why am I working so hard trying to get cast as an actress when I can be onstage every night on my own?’” she recalled. “I just fell in love with the whole scene of comedy, comedians and their attitudes about everything. And I loved being alone onstage and not having to rely on anyone else — it was my writing and my personality.”
As for her mother, who started the onstage tradition of talking about Jackie Mason, Reiter went on to marry a South Florida cantor.
Sheba joked, “She likes Jews, what can I tell you?” JN