Jackie Mason: Much Ado About Everything

at Park West, through January 6

By Adam Langer

Let he who is not full of shit cast the first stone… –Anonymous

Hypocrisy is deadly to comedy: there’s an art to saying somebody’s full of shit without being called full of shit yourself. Woody Allen seemed a wonderful satirist of pompous New York Wallace Shawn-style intellectual windbags until it became clear that he longed for acceptance from the very windbags he was skewering. Eddie Murphy, an astute observer of racial prejudice, severely undermined his own credibility with his virulent homophobic rants, which sold hundreds of thousands of comedy albums in the mid-80s.

Jackie Mason’s comedy is largely based on calling people full of shit. Why did Bill Clinton speak out on the merits of public education while sending Chelsea to private schools? “The man is full of shit,” says Mason. Why do some liberal Jews try to apologize for Louis Farrakhan? “They’re full of shit.” Ed Sullivan? Full of shit. Jesse Jackson? William F. Buckley? George Bush? All full of shit.

Mason–appearing for the next month at Park West in Much Ado About Everything, his latest one-man stand-up and social-satire performance–may be guilty of many things and has probably been accused of more. A bigot? Perhaps, despite the fact that 90 percent of his ethnic humor comes at the expense of his own religion and that his jabs at blacks and Italians are considerably more tame than any jokes you’d hear after the Canadian Club started to flow at a bar mitzvah. Homophobic? To some extent. Mason’s brief, mincing homo impersonation was lame when John Ritter was doing it on Three’s Company 20 years ago, and even though Mason does it to make a point about Clinton’s hypocrisy on gays in the military, it still comes off as tired and cheap. Sexist? Sure. By far the weakest elements of his act are his jaw-droppingly outdated jokes about suburban households in which diamond-sporting, fur-clad wives boss around their meek Jewish husbands.

The one thing you can’t say about Mason is that he’s full of shit. He may be boorish, lecherous, and stuck in the year 1962, but he’s no hypocrite. For better or worse, he’s unabashedly himself. He seems to hold nothing back. You get the feeling that, 30 years after the notorious incident on the Ed Sullivan Show, he’d still give his host the finger even though he knew it would relegate him to the dustbin of obscurity for years. In their own creaky way, Mason’s performances are as transgressive as those of any stand-up comic out there.

Calling a 63-year-old borscht belt relic whose idea of fine dining is a huge hot pastrami sandwich at Katz’s Delicatessen on the Lower East Side subversive may seem a stretch. But the genius of Mason’s comedy is his way of rooting out hypocrisy, not only in the world at large but in his audience. Mainstream smart-ass comedy these days consists largely of us making fun of them. All the David Lettermans, Jay Lenos, Roseanne Barrs, and Howard Sterns allow their audiences to chortle with self-satisfaction at the idiots out there. Woody Allen and Albert Brooks give us the pleasure of being part of a group that’s smarter than those people who think they’re so smart. Daytime TV talk-show trash grants us the security of being normal in a country populated by freaks.

The prime targets of Mason’s comedy are not generally so safely distant. Instead they’re the status-seeking nouveau riche of the suburbs. They’re the well-heeled professionals of America who attend the opera even though they can’t stand the music (Mason calls the opera house a “bedroom for rich Jews”). They’re the art lovers who hang Picassos in their living rooms even though they don’t have the slightest understanding of them, the pseudoliberals who claim to support civil rights but run for the suburbs the moment a black family moves into the neighborhood, the young assimilated Jews who claim pride in their heritage but clamor for acceptance in the goyish mainstream, the poseurs who pay three bucks for a cup of java at a trendy coffeehouse even though they can’t tell a fancy blend from Sanka. In short, they’re the people who spend $45 to go to Park West and roar with laughter at a vaguely rabbinical sexagenarian telling them they’re full of shit.

It’s not much of a trick to get an audience to laugh at others’ shortcomings or misfortunes. Someone talented at it, like Jim Carrey, can get ten zillion dollars per picture, and in his thankfully brief heyday Andrew “Dice” Clay could fill stadiums. Of course, insulting an audience isn’t much of a challenge either: when Don Rickles makes fun of a bald spectator, he’s not exactly pushing the comedic envelope. But it takes a rare talent to get an audience to not only examine but laugh at its own hypocrisy.

Take, for example, Mason’s throwaway line about Puerto Ricans early in his act. “The Puerto Rican people are a great people,” he says without a hint of irony. But the statement produces scattered laughs and a general air of tension: OK, what kind of stupid ancient joke will he make now? The joke never comes. It was never going to be a joke. The joke is that the audience assumed a joke was coming. And those who laughed are forced to examine why they thought Mason’s statement was funny in the first place. When Mason repeats later in the show that “the Puerto Rican people are a great people,” there is no laughter.

Another of Mason’s throwaway lines concerns husbands looking to their wives for approval. I’ve noticed earlier that the clean-cut yuppie in front of me often glances at his wife before he laughs. Mason tells a joke, he looks at her, she smiles, he laughs, he looks at her again, she laughs, so he laughs louder. Without apparently noticing the yuppie, Mason tosses off, “Men always look at their wives to see if it’s OK to laugh.” The guy in front of me looks at his wife, then stops himself. Then he starts laughing on his own. The joke’s on him, but he’s laughing anyway.

Little of this would matter, however, if Mason weren’t such a sharp, shrewd master of comedy. Surprisingly limber, energetic, and quick-witted, he bounds about the stage for two and a half hours, rattling off his routines with perfect timing and expertly imitating the likes of Henry Kissinger, William F. Buckley, and his old nemesis Sullivan.

Mason’s newest and strongest material comes at the end of the first act, when he sets his satiric sights on the institution that for him embodies the ultimate in bourgeois hypocrisy: Starbucks. To Mason, it’s a “shithouse” where you pay three bucks or more to “drink burnt coffee from a cardboard cup,” you don’t get any refills, and you sit on an uncomfortable stool in a window “like a caged animal” before you get to clean up your own place. “The less you get, the more it costs,” Mason cannily observes, not only confronting the absurd lust for status but quite possibly initiating a downturn in business for the coffee conglomerate.

By the end of the evening, even Mason’s ethnic jokes don’t seem the typical wop, kike, and schvartze humor. They’re less intended to savage particular ethnic groups than they are to pay tribute to cultural differences, which Mason seems to believe are becoming more and more blurred as members of every race and religion strive for a bland, assimilated bourgeois state in which everyone is a hypocrite eager to don the emperor’s new clothes, sip coffee in the emperor’s new coffee shop, and fall asleep in the emperor’s new opera house. If a single comedian over the course of one evening can get his audience to reflect on these issues, he’s succeeded not only as a comedian but as a social critic and public servant.

Or maybe I’m full of shit.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jackie Mason uncredited photo.