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CRITIC AT LARGE

Mason And His Needles Sew Laughs

September 18, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

In the distant days when "The Ed Sullivan Show" was a Sunday-night institution, it was broadcast live. The comedian Jackie Mason was a frequent guest, until one evening when, as a friend of Mason's recalled a few days ago, Mason in mid-monologue got the cut-throat signal from the show's floor manager that meant, "Hurry up and get off; we're running late."

Mason flicked back a signal that, in the context of the moment, meant "Shut up, I'm talkin'," but which otherwise carries ruder interpretations. It was his last appearance with Sullivan and in fact a shroud of invisibility seemed to cover him so far as all other television shows were concerned.

That may explain why Mason, who is very much admired by other comedians, has never enjoyed the wide popularity of Don Rickles and Joan Rivers, for example, both of whom also use the insult as an art form and who have had abundant television exposure.

The Sullivan matter might also explain why Mason continues to do a Sullivan takeoff in his act. The bit is funny in itself, and Mason suggests a stiff wooden doll on rockers like a hobby horse, teetering perilously and giving hand signals of confused distress.

The show was canceled in 1971 and Sullivan died in 1974, and many in Mason's audience will only remember other, earlier parodies, not the man himself. Still, for Mason there has to be a sweet note of triumphant survival in it.

And it is a triumphant time for him. He opened in early June in a one-man show of stand-up comedy at the Las Palmas Theatre in Hollywood. (A frequent target of his own insults, he explained that the neighborhood was so rough, people came to see him just to get off the street.)

The engagement was, for more credible reasons, a roaring success, and last week producer Nick Vanoff moved Mason's show, "The World According to Me," to the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills. His reopening, like his opening, drew a crowd of celebrities as various as Bette Midler, John Forsythe, James Stewart, Jane Fonda, Cary Grant, Andy Williams and Karl Malden.

There is, I admit, a contagion of laughter and it is never more contagious than on opening nights, when there are out front enthusiastic well-wishers for whatever happens on stage. I further admit that I laughed myself hoarse along with everybody else.

But I expect I would have laughed as hard if I'd been catching Mason on a non-opening, non-celebrity night.

Trying to decipher my scrawled-in-the-dark and excessively cryptic notes ("concerts," "Reagan stuff," "real me"), I see it is functionally impossible to reproduce the specific sources of all the merriment. One-liners are scarce; topicality is not Mason's bag; his imitations tend toward the amusingly foolish rather than the deadly accurate.

Yet it is no matter. Mason is very ingratiating company for an evening. He offers the great pleasure of watching a thorough professional at work. The old joke about the importance of timing is, of course, no joke, and like any comedian who has gone the distance, Mason clocks the audience with Swiss precision.

His delivery, his pauses, asides, quick recoveries (he blew a line the other night and got a bigger laugh than the line might have) were burnished in I shudder to think how many smoky cellars, hostile, half-empty clubs and ballrooms, in how many one-nighters and industrial conventions in how many towns.

So you are in good, sure hands and you know it, and it is somehow both relaxing and exciting. Mason has sport with his audiences, teasing the front rows in the manner of Rickles. But Mason uses a rubber scalpel, which tickles without cutting.

The night's playbill reports that Mason's material will be drawn from a variety of topics, including dating, Shakespeare, communism "and of course the ever popular Gentiles and Jews."

As Lawrence Christon pointed out in his thoughtful review of Mason's June opening, Mason, a former rabbi from a long line of rabbis, takes a lot of shots at both Gentiles and Jews, fairly well-balanced interdenominationally and ecumenically I thought.

It's obviously a thin and delicate line to ride, and it took awhile, to cite an apt instance, to get agreement that "All in the Family" was diminishing rather than feeding the prejudices it dramatized.

Mason is acknowledging stereotypes; the laughter in his audiences carries the shock of recognition of the stereotypes. But it seemed to me that the real message of the material (and was so understood by his listeners) was that it's OK to laugh; the worst is over. The jokes, some of them, were rooted in the symptoms and sociology of success, but it was success, and survival.

Comedians should never be asked to bear more weight than they can, or want to. Mason's posturings and lecturings are seen to be constructed, as it were, atop a bluff that does not conceal a likable vulnerability and a sort of amiable incompetence.

The effect of his needlings thus seems chiding but not malicious, usefully astringent and cautionary against smugness and insensitivity (an interdenominational sermon if there ever was one).

What I also thought, watching Mason play his audience like a mighty organ, is that laughter has been a defensive weapon for as long as anyone can remember. Most of the great laugh makers have emerged from histories of hard times and oppression in every form. The laughter may lose its bitterness in time, but it retains an edge, and Mason's comedy has an edge.

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