Jackie Mason has never looked his best on a platform. In 1989, when he was supporting Rudolph Giuliani in his unsuccessful bid for mayor, the comedian was forced to withdraw from the campaign after making statements perceived as derogatory to blacks. More recently, he drew the censure of the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League for saying on a syndicated radio show that blacks are more prone to violence than whites.
After the Giuliani contretemps, Mr. Mason issued an apology in which he said: "What's funny on the stage can be insensitive when it's said off the stage and in the world of politics."
Now, in his third one-man show on Broadway, "Politically Incorrect" at the John Golden Theater, Mr. Mason is no longer expressing contrition. He is volubly on the defensive, never a comfortable position for a comedian, and he spends much of the show's first act attacking his attackers and defending his right to perpetuate the comic sociology of ethnic stereotypes that has always formed a large part of his repertory.
With the Golden's stage ablaze with white stars on a blue background, Mr. Mason, pacing before a red podium, presents himself as a patriotic champion of the right to free speech. The stage is clearly not just a venue for a cozy evening of acerbic stand-up comedy; it is indeed a platform, from which Mr. Mason presents an often uncomfortable exercise in self-justification, in which a genuine rancor seems to rear its head.
The idea behind the show was probably a mistake. The charm of Mr. Mason's monologues has always hinged on a self-deflecting, double-edged irony. His perspective has been that of the archetypal Jew, blithely considering, with absurdist exaggeration, the ways in which different insular ethnic groups perceive each other. It was a self-contained comic world, born of the borscht belt, with a self-imploding logic that defanged its potential offensiveness.
In "Politically Incorrect," Mr. Mason's expressly polemical posture has torn that fabric apart, letting the light of offstage reality cast some fairly unattractive shadows. Not every statement has a punch line anymore. In an indirect reference to accusations from groups like the Anti-Defamation League, he says earnestly that when a Jew wants to prove he's a civil rights crusader he attacks Jackie Mason. "Do you judge every word from a comedian in literal terms?" he asks. "Why are they sick enough to make an issue out of it?"
Why on earth, he continues, would black people find his use of the word "shvartzer" offensive? "If I thought it were offensive to black people, would I say it? Do I want to get killed in the middle of the night?" He mentions the film "White Men Can't Jump," and asks us to imagine the brouhaha that would arise if a movie came out entitled "Shvartzers Can't Fly."
That last line is vintage Mason; it's funny, because it points out the ridiculousness of a certain double standard. But in supporting his belief that "you can't talk to anybody about anything anymore without getting into trouble," he delivers some tedious broadsides against affirmative action, minority job quotas and, most wearingly, feminism. To be complaining about having to address single women as Ms., a form of address Mr. Mason delivers with a virulent hiss, or to say that women's rights advocates are the ones "who can't get a date," seems painfully passe in 1994.
Mr. Mason insists, without apparent irony, that stereotypes are based on genuine "cultural differences" that "have nothing to do with civil rights." No one, he says, returning to his comic mode, blames black people for the fact that there's never been a Chinese tap dancer. "They love to press a shirt."
Mr. Mason also doesn't manage to do much that's new with subjects that have become enduring staples on late-night talk-show monologues: that "vicious yenta" Tonya Harding and the Menendez brothers, who inspire a spiel on the theme that you have to be "retarded" to get on a jury.
When he steps off his self-serving soap box, he can still be an irresistibly funny stand-up artist. No other comic performer has quite the physical brio of Mr. Mason, who uses his arms the way a conductor uses a baton, to punctuate the rhythms of a routine.
Dealing with his stock-in-trade dissection of Jewish foibles, he is truly hilarious, imitating the contorted walk of a Jewish man rising from his seat at intermission and finding a whole anatomy of shifting aches and pains.
And in the show's second act, largely devoted to a mostly uninspired attack on the Clinton Administration, he is engaging on the subject of Presidential adultery (though he has done this routine before). And in the evening's high point, he examines the ways in which different Presidents, from Richard M. Nixon to Mr. Clinton, tell lies, giving trenchant life to their self-betraying gestures. With Mr. Clinton, he adds, it's harder to tell the difference; Mr. Nixon, at least, "had the decency to twitch a little."
Actually, in the age of Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern, Mr. Mason is a relatively cautious avatar of political incorrectness. He has a loyal cult audience, who may find much to enjoy here. Still, the embracing spirit of acceptance that always seemed to underlie Mr. Mason's humor has been eclipsed this time by something that feels like real hostility.
He concludes the evening with a particularly sour diatribe against the incompetence of Indian taxi drivers, of whom he says, "There is nothing lower on earth." Riding home from the theater, I had an Indian taxi driver and I felt guilty as sin about what I'd just listened to. I cannot imagine that was Mr. Mason's intention.