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Jackie Mason, one of the last borscht belt comedians, dies at 93

Jackie Mason, the sometimes-controversial standup comedian who unapologetically embraced Jewish themes and political incorrectness, achieving a national profile through a series of successful one-man shows on Broadway without substantial work in film or television, died Saturday in Manhattan. He was 93.

Close friend and family spokesman Raoul Felder confirmed his death in a phone call with NBC News. He said Mason had been in the hospital with various illnesses for more than two weeks. Covid-19 was not a factor.

“He died peacefully in his sleep with his wife and a few friends by his side” at Mount Sinai Hospital, Felder said.

“He had a great life,” he said. ” The trajectory of his life was amazing. He was active a year before his death. He was still writing. He had a very keen mind. He had knowledge in different fields.”

Comedian and actor Jackie Mason, shown in 1963, died at age 93 on Saturday in Manhattan, New York. Asher / Getty Images

Mason was one of the last of the Borscht Belt comedians, and he married that sensibility to strong views on racial and ethnic politics.

He also recurred on “The Simpsons” as the voice of Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky, the father of Krusty the Clown, winning his second Emmy for his efforts in 1992 and most recently voicing the character in a 2014 episode. He also appeared as himself in a 2007 episode of “30 Rock.”

In the 2004 TV special “Comedy Central Presents: 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time,” he was ranked No. 63.

The comic received a 1987 special Tony Award for his highly successful solo effort “Jackie Mason’s The World According to Me!,” which ran for 573 performances. (He received an Emmy for writing the show after it aired on television in 1988.)

The one-man Broadway outings that followed included “Jackie Mason: Brand New” in 1990-91, “Jackie Mason: Politically Incorrect” in 1994-95, “Love Thy Neighbor” in 1996-97, “Much Ado About Everything” in 1999-2000 and “Jackie Mason: Freshly Squeezed” in 2005. His final one-man show, “Jackie Mason: The Ultimate Jew,” skipped Broadway.

Variety wrote of “The Ultimate Jew”: “The show is one long jab at the world’s hypocrisy, dusted with one-liners from the ‘take my wife, please’ vaults. Mason can be painfully old-fashioned, like when he tells the millionth joke about expensive restaurants serving small portions, but he doesn’t seem to care. For an aging crowd often ignored by the entertainment industry, the comedian’s refusal to be modern — and his mockery of modern ways — may be a comforting show of solidarity.”

“It’s harder to be amused,” Variety continued, “when Mason turns to minority groups. Inevitably, his barbs are about the foolishness of those who are not like himself and his aging, Jewish fanbase.”

Various recordings of his live performances proved quite successful on television or home video.

He defended his caricature again and again by saying it was his right to be “politically incorrect,” but they certainly did not endear him to minority groups. He denigrated then-New York City Mayor David Dinkins by using a Yiddish defamatory word for an African American — a term he used frequently in his act — generating controversy.

Mason made his feature debut in 1972 as the star of “The Stoolie” and later starred in “Caddyshack II” in 1988. The Washington Post declared that he looked “meek and miserable” in the part and was “upstaged by the gopher puppet.” In 2010 he starred as himself in the film “One Angry Man,” a courtroom dramedy that he also wrote.

He had supporting roles in a few other films, including Steve Martin vehicle “The Jerk” and Mel Brooks’ “The History of the World: Part I.”

On television he starred in the brief sitcom 1989 “Chicken Soup” and hosted 1992’s “The Jackie Mason Show,” which saw panelists address the topics of the day with irreverence in a manner that made the program something of a precursor to Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect,” which premiered the following year. (Comedy Central, which hosted the Maher program, was unhappy, however, when Mason came out with his 1994 one-man show “Jackie Mason: Politically Incorrect” and sued the comic, seeking unsuccessfully to force a name change.)

Jacob Moshe Maza was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, but grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He was ordained as a rabbi — there had been many in his family — but ultimately resigned from his post at a synagogue to become a comedian.

He brought an early version of his insult-heavy humor to a Borscht Belt hotel in the mid-’50s, but the audience was not ready for the sort of comedy that Don Rickles would later make more acceptable.

Mason made several appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” during the 1960s, but his relationship with Sullivan soured over Mason possibly having given the finger to Sullivan during one show; Mason sued Sullivan for libel and won, and the publicity helped his career at the time. Over the course of the decade he also appeared repeatedly on “The Joey Bishop Show” and “The Merv Griffin Show,” among others.

He made his Broadway debut in 1969 with the play “A Teaspoon Every Four Hours,” which he co-wrote. It ran in previews for 97 performances but upon opening closed after a single outing.

His career hit its stride with his first solo effort on Broadway, “Jackie Mason’s The World According to Me!,” in 1986.

Mason is survived by his wife, Jyll Rosenfeld, whom he married in 1991, and a daughter.

Diana Dasrath contributed.

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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