Jackie Mason: Politically Incorrect

at the Briar Street Theatre, through January 7

The Trips: A Madras Parable

Jenny Magnus and Beau O’Reilly

at Link’s Hall, December 1, 2, 8, and 9

Last Friday I came this close to hissing a performer. It was Jackie Mason, and it was during the first 20 minutes of his act, when he launched into a series of fag jokes–jokes told to illustrate the point that “you can’t make fun of homosexuals.” They reminded me a lot of the old cartoon where Bugs Bunny is boxing Elmer Fudd. Just before the match begins, Bugs asks the referee to tell him again which punches are allowed and which aren’t. Can I punch him here? Bugs jabs Fudd in the nose. Here? He pokes Fudd in the eye. Down here? Rabbit punch to the kidneys. No, the referee says, but you can punch him here (jab to the stomach) and here (blow to the chin) and here (left to the head). OK, got it, Bugs says as Fudd twirls and passes out.

When Mason asked someone in the front row “Are you a homosexual person?” the audience roared. He looked out at us innocently–or at least as innocently as a wrinkled, baggy-eyed gnome with dyed red brown hair can look. He explained to us that “there are a lot of homosexuals–crowds.” Again the audience roared. Then he launched into a speech about how the only group you can make fun of are white Protestant American gentiles: “They’re the only ones without an organization.” For a moment it looked as if Mason were arguing for fairness and brotherhood. But then he was back on homosexuals. Ten minutes later he capped his shtick with, “What is the worst thing a faygeleh can do to you?” He used the Yiddish word but pronounced it FAG-ala so even us goys would get it. “Make love to you? Tell me it isn’t.” At this point my wife sighed. “I’m leaving at the intermission,” she said. “Give me a call at the office when he’s finished.”

There are people who find Mason’s stance daring, brilliant, even intellectually liberating. And they’re not just the Jewish equivalent of the redneck sons and grandsons of the Klan I left behind in Missouri. “Mason’s cause,” John Lahr burbled in the New Yorker a year or two ago, when this show was on Broadway, “is intellectual freedom.” He’s right, in a sense. Mason’s whole act is based on the premise, borrowed from Lenny Bruce, of winning laughs by joyfully skipping through taboo territory, speaking the unspeakable.

Of course Mason has the right to say whatever repulsive thought rises to the surface of his swampy brain, but I have an equally strong right to say that something wicked and dangerous has crept into his act since I last saw him perform, a few years ago at the Shubert. Mason’s shtick has always been speaking the unspoken resentments of his lily-white, conservative, retirement-age audience. And, boy, do they have a lot of resentments–against blacks, against gays, against Hispanics, against affirmative action. Whatever it is, they’re against it. Lenny Bruce used to do the same thing, exposing the crowd’s unacknowledged prejudices in routines like his parody of the Lone Ranger, where the townspeople discover that “the masked man is a fag” and turn on him. But Bruce was a sacred fool intent on exposing the evil in our souls as the first step toward redemption. He talked dirty to influence people, to break through his audience’s complacency and denial as the first step to correcting social problems.

Mason’s act is a narcotic. He flatters complacency and praises denial. He reveals the hate in his audience’s souls and then, like Rush Limbaugh, revels in the hate. Though Mason calls his show Politically Incorrect, hinting that he’s an ideological free spirit, in fact he toes the Republican party line. It’s OK to hate gays, because they make us feel uncomfortable. It’s OK to hate blacks, because they’ve gotten too loud, they get special treatment, and we really don’t have a racial problem in this country anyway (at least not in any all-white suburban enclaves).

Several years ago at the Shubert Mason’s curmudgeon act seemed the mask of a witty, well-meaning but wounded comic, a man who’d been unjustly denied a brilliant career by Ed Sullivan, who supposedly banned Mason from his show in the mid-60s for giving him the finger on the air. This time around Mason just sounds like a bitter, bigoted old man whose anger has overwhelmed his wit.

It wasn’t a pretty sight. Especially in the second act, when Mason worked himself into such an angry fit that even the most consistent laughers in the audience were silent as he ranted hysterically about “shvartzer” and affirmative action and the “bullshit” race problem in America. Watching Mason rave, pacing back and forth, barking out his words and cutting the air with short, sharp gestures, I began to see Ed Sullivan’s side of things. Maybe Mason didn’t literally give him the finger, but figuratively Mason flashes the bird again and again–fuck you Minister Farrakhan, fuck you Colin Powell, fuck you gays, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you. Until you want to shout, enough already!

Should heterosexuals be allowed to marry? was a question I ran across in last week’s Reader. Should we even be allowed to pair up? was the question I asked myself as I watched Jenny Magnus’s wise and witty two-person show about a benighted couple named Heave and Sop who spend an unusually long car trip talking, fighting, singing, whining, sighing, justifying, criticizing, and dramatizing the whole damn catastrophe of couplehood.

The premise of the play is that Sop and Heave–played with grace and sublime understatement by Magnus and Beau O’Reilly–have a long trip ahead of them, and so to pass the time they chatter mindlessly about this and that like some modern American version of Didi and Gogo. The thing is that the longer they talk, the clearer it becomes that something is bothering Sop, but she doesn’t quite know what it is. And her attempts to discuss this unknown something with Heave only lead them into greater and greater confusion. Meanwhile the car trip is also going awry, as Sop drives deeper into foreign territory.

Much of Magnus’s spare, playful dialogue is reminiscent of Waiting for Godot, except that every time it looks like we’re headed for a stretch of Beckettian tedium, the characters break into song. Likewise, whenever the songs threaten to turn this seriocomic adventure into mere entertainment, Sop and Heave abruptly stop singing and return to their maddening, melancholy, multilayered story of love, friendship, and crippling codependence.