When Jackie Mason says, "I can't believe this success is happening to me," you can believe it. Most comedians trying out a "work-in-progress" would take their act to a comedy club or an out-of-the-way venue to see how it flies. But Mason took time off from his Broadway show, "The World According to Me," to try out some new stuff at the Pantages on Sunday--at $30 a pop for the good seats.
With Mason, new material doesn't mean a new act. It's still about pitiable and deluded Jews miserably at odds with each other and a Gentile world, delivered in the terse combinations of the ring-wise Catskills comic.
Mason doesn't have the reflexes for topical comedy (nobody tells Gary Hart jokes anymore, for example, but Mason does). He's only half an impressionist; his best portrayal remains Ed Sullivan. But that's not why people go to see him, or why he's become one of the most phenomenal success stories in modern American comedy (the Pantages was packed Sunday night).
It isn't enough to say that Mason is a draw because he has the sharpest bait-and-switch technique in the business, or that his quirky little wind-up doll figure and his staccato Lower East Side accent are inherently comical enough to crack an audience's media-hardened heart.
No one can compact a joke or a comedic reference into smaller verbal space than Jackie Mason, but he's far from an inventive genius.
What's truest of Mason's appeal is that the resurrection of this old-time pop-up comedian is also a resurrection of the ethnic, sexual and generational frictions that were once the stuff of our comedy. Mason recalls a time when America snickered over the radio in the privacy of its own home, or we only went out to places with people like ourselves so that we could laugh at people who weren't like us, and weren't there. Or we made the trench warfare of marriage bearable by ridiculing our spouses.
Is there anyone else working today who'd think he could get a laugh, as Mason does, by pointing to someone in the Pantages audience and saying, "This man never saw a Jew in his life. . . . Now I'm talking to a homosexual. . . . "? And actually get the laugh?
And is there anything more dated-sounding than "My girlfriend is one of the most wonderful, remarkable people in the world. To me. But to my wife. . . ." (Shrug.)
Some of Mason's material approaches the classic brevity where humor intersects with folk wisdom, such as his line "My grandfather used to tell me 'The most important thing in life is to guard your health.' So while I was guarding my health, someone stole my money. I later found out it was my grandfather."
Most of it hits heavily at old Jewish stereotypes that, to listen to his audience response, are closer to truth than fiction. ("For 40 years your wife tells you she's tired. She's Jewish. What is she tired from?")
He satirizes a limousine liberal who berates him with, "Thank God for the equality of blacks. . . . Nobody should speak against the blacks; they're as good as anyone." A black approaches the car. The liberal panics, "Quick! Clink the door!" To a man in the audience Mason says, "I don't like to make fun of any denomination. (The blacks) are just as good as you. Even better. Could you buy a Cadillac without a job?"
Jewish hypocrisy, high anxiety and sexual misery are constant themes in Mason's routine, as well as a total lack of industry in the face of the Gentile's incessant "hocking and pocking" in a mechanized, hopelessly alien modern world. (Mason alludes to the Jew as a historical outsider forced to turn to his own businesses to survive.)
"A Jew don't buy a Mercedes as a status symbol," Mason says reassuringly. "Oh, no. It's for the engineering. 'Best engineering in the world,' he tells you. What does a Jew know from engineering? He can't even turn on the radio."
Mason was roundly cheered by an audience that seemed warmed a degree further by self-recognition (lots of entertainment industry types in the house, and lots of gray heads on expensively draped torsos). He exudes a vitality in comparison with our younger comics made passive and uniform by television. But humor bypasses our collective superego. The crude surprise, the dirty little secret Mason tickles awake in us is that there's a kernel of truth in all this comic pictorializing of Jewish self-aversion, black balefulness and frenetic Gentile corporate enterprise.
Liberalism's gentle rains have done nothing to soften the hard roots of our prejudices. Without Reaganism, Mason would have had no comeback.
What else but bitterness would cause Mason to caricature Ed Sullivan 10 years after Ed's death?
But the Sullivan bit is still in the act, a coda that mocks the man Mason feels wrecked his career over an imagined obscene gesture when he once appeared on Sullivan's TV show. Mason won't let go, and with that tenacious mockery we learn the truth whereof he tacitly speaks: Comedy conquers by dividing. Many a true word is spoken in jest; comedy ensures we pretend we don't hear it.