Comedian Jackie Mason once set a dubious Broadway record with his "A Teaspoon Every Four Hours." It ran 99 previews and one performance, after which he said, bitterly, "The critics were waiting for me: 'Who is this gross Jew from the mountains, he doesn't belong on Broadway.' " It's the wounded animal that strikes the lethal blow. Mason has healed enough to try another show, "The World According to Me" (which opened Thursday at the Las Palmas). Whether or not the theater is effete when it comes to the rough-and-tumble of stand-up comedy (and that's debatable), it does have special demands. It's unfortunate that Mason doesn't meet enough of them; over the last 25 years or so he's had one of the most tortuous and courageous careers in comedy, and in his way, he's one of the best of a kind.
That may be why so many luminaries from the world of comedy showed up at his opening--Jackie Mason has no dispensations to give, no lettres de cachet for a big upcoming movie or opening slots on a cable special for limelight-hungry colleagues.
Milton Berle was there. So were Dom DeLuise, Steve Allen, Pat McCormick, Mel Brooks. It was homecoming week for the old guard, and for much of the evening Mason had them going. He'll say what a lot of people are afraid to say about being a Jew in the modern world. When he prefaces a remark by noting that a culture that begins by feeling persecuted and alienated will inevitably become more aggressive, that's abstract enough for people to accept. When he gets more particular, however, especially in his pointed remarks about differences between Jews and Gentiles, people start to squirm.
"If a Gentile is out of a job," he says, "he's unemployed. If a Jew is out of a job, he's a producer." Mason marvels at the man who can be a mover in the business world only to come home coweringly to his virago of a wife, "a yenta without a job."
Jackie Mason, former rabbi nee Yacov Moshe Maza, hits the nerves of the Jewish community, particularly that segment which has found its way into the higher echelons of the business of show business. Mason plays off his own ethnic stereotypes the way Paul Rodriguez plays off Mexican-Americans or Redd Foxx plays off being black ("Every Jewish mother wants her son to be a doctor. Or if he's a little retarded--a lawyer"; or, "We (the Jews) could've had the Suez Canal, but it didn't have a boardwalk"). He defines himself by being particular, not by being assimilated.
He opened by saying, "I'm gonna be a sensation in this show and I'm not interested in your opinion. If you think I stink, there's something wrong with you." That was a theme throughout, the braggadocio that might've been a parody of vaunting show-biz egos, but also seemed a measure of self-defense (next to Shelley Berman, Mason is one of the touchiest figures in comedy).
He hasn't lost his incomparable rhythm and crispness. He has the superior ability to plant a joke in one spot and have it pay off down the line; he can be comedically intricate (his psychiatrist routine about "finding the real me . . . but how will I know?" still holds up), and he has a great sense of when to build and when to let go.
"The World According to Me" appears to have been inspired by Dick Shawn's "The (Second) Greatest Entertainer in the Whole Wide World" (Mason even alludes to Shawn). But where Shawn--who has had a theatrical career--uses absurdist elements of the theater as a backdrop for the nightclub routine he's been developing over 30 years, Mason, despite a few props, just has the routine.
Much of it is dated. He does a wonderful impersonation of Ed Sullivan, but a lot of his audience after opening night's old pros won't have a clear recollection of who Sullivan was. A section on folk singing falls flat--it's from a different era, and he doesn't offer a connecting bridge. He does a lot of mimicry, and with the exception of James Cagney, whose smallish, lithe body was similar to Mason's, the impressions don't work. He offers vocal pitch and rhythms, but nothing of what his people say. From Al Jolson to Henry Kissinger, everyone grunts with a tongue so thick that it sounds like he has a sock in his mouth.
Unlike Mort Sahl, Mason has never been able to filter his considerable social concerns into fine-tuned comedy. In a way, he is the comic from the mountains (meaning the Catskills) who won't ride a theme if a lollipop of a joke doesn't appear soon. The great comedian uses the joke to get at the truth; Mason short-circuits the truth to get to the joke (his around- the-world segment is a perfect example in its perfunctoriness).
He is one of the few ethnic comedians (before ethnic was in) to refuse to renounce his past. It isn't an abstract matter for him to talk of persecution and alienation--he feels it, he's used it in the past, and that's why his bravado now seems so thin.
When he sat at the edge of the stage opening night and said how scared he had been during the opening, you believed him and saw how, like most other people who go into entertainment, he thirsted for approval. Mason hasn't retooled his material to fit the theater, or the time he shares with us in 1986. At the end, he seemed self-embattled, too emotionally complex and comedically unfocused to have gained the visceral lifeline through which an audience nurtures its psychic emissary, the performer. He looked alone up there.
Performances Wednesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays 7 and 10 p.m., Sundays 3 and 7 p.m. at Las Palmas Theatre, 1642 N. Las Palmas, (213) 466-1767. Runs indefinitely.