‘The Ed Sullivan Show’: Jackie Mason Sued Ed Sullivan Following the Finger Incident

Ed Sullivan had exacting standards when it came to guest appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, and those who crossed the host very rarely came away unscathed. However, there was one circumstance where Sullivan went for the jugular and came away burned — he accused Jackie Mason of giving him the finger during a performance that had to be cut short. Here’s what went down, and how Jackie Mason and Ed Sullivan tried to patch things up. 

What went down on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’

Ed Sullivan
Ed Sullivan | Arthur Schatz/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

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Ed Sullivan and Jackie Mason were at loggerheads after an incident on The Ed Sullivan Show on October 19, 1964. That evening, President Lyndon Johnson was slated to give an address to the nation. 

As a result, Sullivan was forced to interrupt his show at the halfway point, which included a portion of Jackie Mason’s performance for the night. The network eventually returned to the show, following Johnson’s address. 

Sullivan was anxious to make sure that the timing of the show worked out following the interruption, and held up two fingers to Mason off-camera, indicating that he had two minutes remaining. He then reduced it to one finger. 

Mason, evidently feeling annoyed and harried by Sullivan, started riffing on fingers. He joked that he was “getting lots of fingers tonight.” He then pointed at the audience while saying, “Here’s a finger for you and a finger for you and a finger for you.” 

When Mason came off stage, Sullivan was convinced he had just been given the finger. Mason clarified that he meant no obscenities, and Sullivan was not convinced. 

Jackie Mason and Ed Sullivan made up

Jackie Mason
Jackie Mason | The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

The matter escalated, with Ed Sullivan and Jackie Mason at odds over the entire situation. Sullivan quickly canceled Mason’s $45,000 contract with The Ed Sullivan Show

“I will destroy you in show business,” Mason claims Sullivan said. Sullivan claimed Mason had exhibited “insubordination and gross deviation from material agreed upon.”

Mason then made it clear that he intended to “sue for everything I can get.” Jackie Mason was true to his word, and sued Sullivan for $3 million, claiming libel. The case even made it to trial, and after reviewing footage, the court found in favor of Mason, determining that he had not flashed Sullivan the finger.  

Ed Sullivan sucked it up and brought Jackie Mason back on the show in 1966, and made an apology to the comedian. Mason, despite winning the court case, often felt that he lost out in the long run, as clashing with Sullivan doesn’t look good in the public eye. 

Not the only controversial guest appearance

Ed Sullivan
Ed Sullivan | Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Jackie Mason was far from Ed Sullivan’s only controversial guest. Previously, Sullivan had refused to host Elvis Presley, and only did so when his competitors earned increased ratings for having The King on their show. 

Sullivan was concerned over Presley’s gyrations, and while he went uncensored on most of his performances, he was shot only from the waist up during a 1957 appearance. 

“Presley’s appearance brought Sullivan 70,000 letters from viewers, with Elvis and his movements losing the count, 40,000 to 30,000, the columnist estimates,” the International News Service reported at the time.