In "Much Ado About Everything," his fifth Broadway show in six years, Jackie Mason offers something to offend - and amuse - everyone. Even though he claims time and again that "I don't like to pick on people," the king of Jewish insult humor seems more curmudgeonly than ever. But this brand of put-down comedy doesn't get any better than Mason.
"I don't like ethnic jokes," says Mason, who - after telling one - adds, "That's in poor taste. But I knew you were low enough to laugh." Given the wit that underlies his most devastating remarks, it's hard not to guffaw in spite of yourself, as Mason knocks everyone from Puerto Ricans to the French to the Italians to the Japanese. His description of "Riverdance" as "87 Gentiles doing one step the whole night" sets up yet another ethnic joke, when Mason says it's hard to believe that anyone Irish can remain standing so long.
In view of the politically-correct backlash that Mason has prompted in the past, a certain defensiveness has become a part of his shtick. But as always, a good deal of his routine is based on the differences between Gentiles and Jews. Whereas Gentiles "idolize" Bill Gates and admire his intelligence, Mason says, the Jews' more envious attitude is that "he got lucky. You know what Jews say about a hundred billion dollars? 'Years ago, that was a lot of money.'''
Although much of his material is built around ridiculing elitists for their love of opera and overpriced restaurants, Mason is at his sarcastic best on political figures. Hillary Rodham Clinton is "a brilliant woman," he declares, before explaining, "She's done a lot of things - but luckily, she never got caught."
Even those who find Mason's humor in questionable taste will still be impressed with his dead-on impersonations of Henry Kissinger, William F. Buckley Jr., Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson, who he claims is "the most brilliant man in the world." As Mason rhetorically asks, "Could you make a living without a job?"
Although some of his topics are overly familiar, Mason is so good at these signature pieces that they're worth hearing again. An equal-opportunity offender, he has a genius for uncovering human foibles, and then getting us to laugh at them - as if they were not our own.
I hate writing about Jackie Mason. Don't get me wrong – I certainly don't hate him. If fact, I immoderately love Jackie Mason, looking as he does like a chubby Jewish leprechaun spilling over with the bile of human kindness. What is there not to immoderately love?
No, my problem is not with Jackie Mason but with comedians as a species. They’re very often fine citizens -- well, some. The difficulty is how to write about a comedian without stealing his or her material.
I could make this a screamingly funny review. You would love it so much, you wouldn't need to go and see the show, which would be your loss and not my gain. Unless you sent me the money that you would have spent on tickets. Which you wouldn't.
Now, I could start by saying that Jackie Mason opened at the John Golden Theater last night in a show called "Much Ado About Everything," then make a little throat-clearing joke about the title sounding vaguely Shakespearean.
Then -- and this is the good bit, the part where you would start roaring with laughter -- I could do nothing but quote all of Mason's best jokes, which I laboriously wrote down in the dark.
But I'm not going to do that. If you want to hear all of Mason's best jokes, buy a ticket. You are getting no freebies here. Still, without those freebies, what am I going to write about?
Did I mention that he looked like a Jewish leprechaun? I think I did. Yes, it's right there in the first paragraph. What now?
Perhaps I should mention that my friend Jackie -- he's not really a friend, but he would smile if he saw me in the street, particularly if I happen to be slipping on a banana skin -- is a master of the equal opportunity insult. Point him toward someone, and he'll insult them.
He has two areas of expertise. The first is on the differences between Jews and gentiles. He's very good there. And I know. Being half-Jewish and half-Gentile, who could know better than I do? On this subject, he's tellingly, wickedly funny.
His other specialty is the insecurity of the newly rich. I'm not new, I'm not insecure and I'm certainly not rich, so I'm not a good judge, But I think he's on the ball with his proposition that: "If you make people feel rich, they will feel good and they will buy anything."
He ends with a truculent, "plague on all your houses" stanza about politics. He is no friend of the Clintons, but he's amusing about them. Let me quote just once. It's not really a joke but an observation: "If Abraham Lincoln were the last president rather than Clinton, do you think Donald Trump would be running?”
So he's hilarious. A plus to his show is his vocal impersonations -- from Bing Crosby to Henry Kissinger – which concentrate on abstract intonations instead of words. Great stuff.
A minus is his physical habit of expressing everything by hunching his shoulders, boxing up his body and whirling around like a puppet on a string. The first time it's good (it worked wonderfully for Ed Sullivan). The fifth time it was just OK. The 20th time it became an annoying tic.
But what can I tell you? Mason has a lovely habit of packaging honesty in unexpected parcels. The guy's a hoot.
If not for the inhibiting effect of political correctness, heaven only knows what might become of Jackie Mason. A nice intelligent man he is, but as cab passengers know, he has a tongue on him. So maybe he would be slicing pastrami (it wouldn't be lean) in a deli somewhere instead of convulsing audiences with laughter at the Golden Theater on Broadway in his irreverent new one-jester show, ''Jackie Mason: Much Ado About Everything!''
For the underprivileged who know Mr. Mason solely from his yentalike recorded admonitions to buckle up in taxis, the man is flat-out funny. He is a lustrously polished standup comic, political commentator, topical humorist and, when the audience's eyes are sufficiently clear of laughter-induced tears to savor the expansive vocabulary of his body language, a splendid and nimble mime and mimic.
But much of his humor plays against the goody-goodiness that is the latest manifestation of the puritan streak in American life. Because Mr. Mason knows his First Amendment rights and is more than willing to exercise them, he does not fear to speak what others may pretend they don't even think.
Happily, Mr. Mason's brand of open intolerance is sheathed in wit and tempered by disarming apology, though catholic in its targets, which include Jews, gentiles, Puerto Ricans, blacks, Greeks, Poles and Asian Indians.
''You should be able to laugh at everybody and anybody,'' says Mr. Mason, reminding those who might have forgotten that the United States is a democracy.
On that subject, he has a few words about Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, while not overlooking the Clinton presidency, which, of course, necessitates mentions of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, Vice President Al Gore and George W. Bush (''brilliant, unless you ask him a question'').
Mr. Mason is also a sociologist, so he has a lot to say about dining habits, including the difference between ices and sorbets, pudding and mousse, and espresso and regular coffee (about $20, he figures); the purity and price of bottled water; fat-free food; diets, and Japanese restaurants where patrons applaud chefs who chop fish on their tables.
The penchant for sport utility vehicles has not escaped his gimlet eye, nor have the ubiquitous cell phones, leg room and seat prices on planes and the popularity of Siegfried and Roy, Riverdance and the musical ''Titanic,'' in which, he declares, everyone sang and danced while 3,000 people drowned.
Mr. Mason has a few words to say about Bill Gates and John Glenn, and he speculates on how overjoyed the world might have been had the newspaper been invented after the computer.
Using his own brand of scat and drawing on the expressive vocabulary of his body language, Mr. Mason delivers hilarious imitations of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, James Cagney, Sylvester Stallone and Henry A. Kissinger. Best of all, there is his classic and side-splitting portrayal of his robotic nemesis, Ed Sullivan.
Not all of Mr. Mason's material is brand new. Devotees will recognize bits from previous shows like ''Politically Incorrect'' and ''Love Thy Neighbor,'' including not only the Sullivan and Cagney imitations but also the routines about e-mail and New York's Indian cab drivers. But the vintage material remains funny.
In this time of fears of terrorism and Y2K chaos (two other topics of ''Much Ado About Everything''), those who wake up tomorrow can give thanks that Mr. Mason (if all goes well) is around to make the 21st century safe for democracy and for those who cherish a good laugh.
Despite the title of his fifth Broadway show, Jackie Mason takes on anything, not everything. As he travels willy-nilly over the cultural landscape, what the standup comedian chooses to skewer in "Much Ado About Everything" is nearly as significant as what he omits.
Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky inspires the longest riff, Al Gore and George W. Bush receive a passing glance, and Bill Bradley and John McCain are not mentioned at all. The singing styles of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra are parodied, while those of Puff Daddy and Ricky Martin are still hovering under the comic's radar. Busy with his own show, Mason must have missed "Dame Edna" down the street, but never got over the bad trip of taking in the musical "Titanic" two or three years ago. Likewise, "Riverdance" and "Siegfried & Roy" put lasting crimps in his nightlife. High points of the show include dead-on impersonations of William F. Buckley, the Inkspots, Jesse Jackson, Henry Kissinger and Ed Sullivan.
Ten percent of "Much Ado About Everything" could have been written and performed a year ago, and maybe it was: The show comes to Broadway via a London run. The other 90% seems freeze-dried in another era. Mason, who makes much of his scabrous political incorrectness, rarely delivers on that promise. Oh, he jabs at the First Lady's penchant for changing her political stances: "If she'd taken more positions in the White House," jokes Mason, "that marriage would be in better shape today." Her husband is not a liar: "Only when he talks."
According to Mason, Bill Clinton's greatest accomplishment as president is that he allowed foreigners with AIDS to enter the country. They could come in, he says, "but no one with fruit!" Strangely, having flirted with the politically incorrect, Mason quickly departs this territory, even though the joke provoked the evening's biggest laugh from his assembled fans.
One topic is absolutely sacred: Mr. Mason himself. He tells us that the critics and editors of the New York Times resurrected his career in the late 1980s, when he appeared in his first Broadway show, "The World According to Me." He brags of his seventh command performance before Queen Elizabeth. And he criticizes those who consider him "obnoxious" because he is "too Jewish." No laughs here, but lots of sincere applause.
Much of the show's weaker first half is devoted to various con games of consumerism. They include escargot, Evian, espresso and nouvelle cuisine, for which American xenophiliacs overpay. Mason suggests that airlines call flying coach a Lamborghini, and clean up. And indeed on this subject he is an expert. What David Letterman and Jay Leno offer for free, Jackie Mason calls a Broadway show and prices at $65.