Forty years into his career, Jackie Mason is claiming “The Ultimate Jew,” his current solo show, will be his last. It may be skipping Broadway, where many of his previous stand-up concerts have played, but this collection of Borscht Belt gags, political zingers and inflammatory race humor has already extended its run at New World Stages. Judging by the response at the performance reviewed, Mason’s swan song gives his audience exactly what it wants.
The show is one long jab at the world’s hypocrisy, dusted with one-liners from the “take my wife, please” vaults. Mason can be painfully old-fashioned, like when he tells the millionth joke about expensive restaurants serving small portions, but he doesn’t seem to care. For an aging crowd often ignored by the entertainment industry, the comedian’s refusal to be modern — and his mockery of modern ways — may be a comforting show of solidarity.
But Mason does have youthful energy. At 76, he still commands the stage, nailing his punch lines and improvising with the front row. His commitment powers his most frequent set-up: Mason points out a situation that Americans might typically take for granted, then asks us to imagine the same scenario under slightly different circumstances.
This construction produces some amusing observations. During a collection of jokes about the American obsession with status, he notes that businesspeople who lose thousands of dollars a day are called failures, but gamblers who do the same thing are called “high rollers.” His wording rejuvenates cliches about the wastefully wealthy.
It’s harder to be amused when Mason turns to minority groups. Inevitably, his barbs are about the foolishness of those who are not like himself and his aging, Jewish fanbase.
For instance, he says he loves faygelehs because he trusts them to decorate his apartment. To demonstrate, he acts like a burly construction worker barking about wallpaper, then imitates a limp-wristed, literally skipping gay man squealing about light fixtures. Apparently, the choice is obvious, but the gay community could do without that kind of support.
Mason also attacks the supposed hypocrisy of black people who claim to be oppressed. He jokes that since whites are afraid to visit black neighborhoods — and are afraid to stand next to blacks in elevators — they are actually the ones being held down.
It’s possible Mason wants to skewer white prejudice, but if that’s the message, it gets lost when he cartoonishly imitates rappers or uses a stereotypical Chinese accent. Instead, he sounds like he’s mocking what he doesn’t understand.
Many will defend his humor by saying he has always been politically incorrect. However, some culturally divisive comics — Chris Rock, for example — use their explosive jokes to make us consider fixing what’s broken in society. Mason lacks that generosity. People who don’t share his particular worldview may find it hard to laugh along.