In an increasingly uncertain world, in which change is not necessarily for the good, it’s natural to turn for comfort to things that give evidence of life’s consistency. Maybe this is why Jackie Mason has named his new show after a mere pastry. What could give better proof of the bedrock continuity of human affairs than the existence of something as mundane as prune danish?
Mason, like prune danish, may be an acquired taste, a treat for a particular audience. But like the pastry, he’s not going anywhere. Al-Qaeda or no, plummeting stock market notwithstanding, Mason sticks around, and remains perennially annoyed at the foibles of gentile and Jew, and the follies of civic life. So here he is again on Broadway, maybe even in the same suit, serving up familiar befuddled shtick with the same understated ease, in that inimitable voice that suggests frequent intimacy with an ear-nose-and-throat doctor. His forays into offensiveness are relatively mild this time, and even they are somehow soothing in their dependability.
The new show mixes some evergreen (aka old) material with the expected derisive forays into the latest thicket of headlines. After some throat-clearing Jew vs. gentile jokes (“Gentiles go crazy for Niagara Falls. It’s water falling down — they can’t get over it.”), he starts with the lifestyle pages, poking delicious fun at the bewilderingly contradictory diet crazes. This one says fat’s no good, that one says it’s carbohydrates. “The next one says you can eat anything you want as long as you eat half a grapefruit once a month.” The conclusion: “It’s not a question of staying healthy but of picking the illness you like.”
A startling announcement — “I was invited to perform in Palestine” — introduces the first op-ed section of the evening (punchline: “They offered me half a million, plus funeral expenses.”). President Bush provides plenty of material. Mason is naturally incensed at the silliness of the color-coded alert system. Airport security is a natural, too: “The only people who’ve still got tweezers are Puerto Rican girls who work at the airport.” For nostalgia fans, Mason provides some good old Clinton jokes, too. “He was a great president, especially for a guy who was never involved in politics.”
From the advice column, Mason comes up with some fine if overlong material about the kindness of telling white lies. “Who tells a bride, ‘White is not your color’?” Turning to the business pages, he works up quite a head of steam on the subject of Enron — one of the few occasions in the show when actual ire seems to infect his usually laid-back approach. “Steal $5 and they lock you up. Steal $900 million, what’s your punishment? A congressman calls you a few names.”
There’s no particular logic or narrative progression to an evening with Mason. After leaving politics to conclude act one — after a couple of false endings — with a riff on answering machines, Mason opens the second act with a few jabs at Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who proves so innocuous a target that the next thing you know Mason’s gone back to Rudolph Giuliani jokes. Then it’s back to technology, and the pretensions of cell-phone users, and from there to the stupidity of gambling (“Ask a gambler how he’s done — he’s always about even; but the last time he won was in 1938.”).
The evening, as usual, is a full 2½ hours, and midway through act two Mason falters with a sour and silly diatribe against the “filth” and “vulgarity” he finds invading Broadway. Mason apparently is unaware that clinical terms like “vagina,” “penis” and “urine,” however odd they may look on a marquee, are considered rather more acceptable in polite conversation than the slang terms for same, not to mention the four-letter epithet he uses at least a half-dozen times in the show. (He is also apparently unaware that neither “Puppetry of the Penis” nor “The Vagina Monologues” is actually on Broadway.)
But Mason’s loyal audiences don’t cherish him for factual accuracy, but for the accuracy of his comic insights into a shared culture. Judging from the laughter at the Royale, he’s still hitting mostly bull’s-eyes.