Bravo’s “South Bank Show” sets its sights on comedian Jackie Mason, the orthodox rabbiturnedstandup comic who has enjoyed a minor and sometimes controversial vogue on Broadway during the decade since the debut of his first solo show, “The World According to Me.”
Produced by Millenial Entertainment, released by White Star, for the South Bank Show. Executive producers, Dennis M. Hedlund, Pearl Lee; producers, Del Jack, Cress Darwin; director-writer, Peter Gailey; video Piling up vintage clips from the shows as well as from the archives, a lecture at Oxford and interviews with Larry Gelbart, Steve Allen, director John Avildsen, producer Bobby Chartoff and others, “An Equal Opportunity Offender” conveys the jagged stretch of a career that has veered from the warm-bath embrace of Borscht Belt audiences to the cold outer fringes of showbiz obscurity and paranoia.
Too bad that Peter Gailey’s narrative spins some raw material into a moony puff piece, reducing one of the stranger careers in comedy to a case of universal misunderstanding. The docu is unbalanced and incomplete.
Born in Wisconsin, Mason grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, destined like his father and three older brothers for the Orthodox rabbinate. But he was having a lot more fun during summer holidays in the Catskill Mountains, playing the tummler (entertainment director) by day and standup comic by night.
Though he was ordained in 1958, his reputation in the clubs grew. In 1960 Steve Allen gave him his first TV break. Ed Sullivan saw Mason’s Ed Sullivan impression and immediately booked him; Mason appeared on the Sullivan show a record 57 times over the next four years, until the infamous 1964 show in which the host had to cut Mason’s routine short and the star responded on air with what Sullivan thought was an obscene gesture.
The result, as Larry Gelbart observes, was being “sent to Siberia.” Though they publicly reconciled on the show two years later, that proved to be Mason’s last appearance on the show, and it would be 15 years before the taint faded.
Gailey introduces some heavy-handed sociopolitical gab about how the times they were a-changin’, but it doesn’t really wash. Mason’s reputation was as a lowbrow insult artist, and he didn’t help his cause by getting involved in some unsavory, Morton Downey Jr.style antics.
Along the way, he wrote, directed and co-produced a Broadway comedy, “A Teaspoon Every Four Hours,” that earned the distinction of running for the longest preview period in history 97 performances before closing on opening night.
“They resented me personally for having the gall to think I’m a playwright,” Mason says of the critics, giving vent to a theme that runs through the program. “They’re accustomed to seeing 3,000 homosexuals working for months and months and months on one dance number.”
It may be unfair to single out one boorish observation among the many that pass for Mason’s wit, given the billing as equal opportunity offender. But the label is as phony as Mason’s claim to tolerance. He may poke gentle fun at everyone, but certain groups may be forgiven for taking particular offense.
There’s no mention in the show, for example, of Mason’s widely quoted description of New York’s first black mayor, David Dinkins, as a “fancy shvartzer.” No mention either of Mason’s quixotic threat to derail the Tony awards for snubbing his genius one year, or of the failure of his Carsey-Werner sitcom, “Chicken Soup.”
Instead, there are uncontested Masonisms like “the greater the genius, the smaller the audience Shakespeare’s been talking to himself for 300 years.” Well, that’ll sure come as news to many.