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Mason still funny?

by: David Silverberg - Last updated: 2004-09-13

Jackie Mason

Jackie Mason

Jackie Mason must've been one entertaining rabbi. A pulpit patriarch for three years, sermons became practice for stand-up, as sacrilegious as that sounds.

Rabbis know how to compel an audience and judging by Mason's latest tour -- dubbed "Freshly Squeezed" and ending in Florida in February -- comedians can also make hundreds of Jews look at their lives differently. But as I sat watching his shtick during his Toronto stop, I wondered, "Is Mason talking to us, the twenty-something generation, or is he still chucking Yiddishkeit to the grey-haired crowd?"

After all, Mason cut his chops as a regular on The Ed Sullivan Show and in 1986, when I was only six, Mason won a Tony Award for his Broadway show The World According to Me. There was something very Mason-esque about my parents and grandparents so I began watching the comic with some cynicism during his first few moments on stage. We all know how breezily Mason throws about a cutsie Polish accent (person is pronounced "poison") but I was curious to see how sharp and contemporary his tongue can be.

"I never knew about Canada two years ago," Mason said to a close-to-sold-out audience at Toronto's Winter Garden Theatre. "You guys are lucky though, the terrorists don't know about you, so you're safe for now." His Canadian material didn't last long, before he turned to Israeli politics, riffing on Yasser Arafat's appearance, chiding him for looking less than presentable. Easy target, been done, but then Mason lassoed our attention by saying, "Israeli Jews are tough, so tough I thought they were Mexicans at first. Every North American Jew says they almost killed a man -- 'Oy, I would've given him such a klup, I swear it' -- while Israeli Jews don't fear anybody."

The deep laughs began to rumble from Jewish chests and I looked around: Orthodox families sat beside 23-year-olds on dates who sat beside grandparents chaperoned by granddaughters. All kinds, as one of my friends says.

He must've known about his varied audience because Mason's routine hit many notes. His cake-and-coffee bit -- "Everywhere Jews go, they need some cake and coffee, like the goyim need booze" -- evoked the most laughter from older Jews while his three minutes ranting on restaurants dimming lights so you can't see their skimpy portions could've taken a page from Saturday Night Live.

Credit Mason's humble beginnings in Manhattan's Lower East Side for his bits railing against rich folk. "Who needs a house with 37 rooms?" Mason asked us, shrugging sincerely. "What, one night you feel like sleeping in one room and then one night you say, 'No, tonight, I'm sleeping in this room.' Those Nazi bastards." And from that angry insult springs Mason's energy, what we love to see in Jon Stewart. It's scripted of course but it's real and honest. Mason hates phonies, in Jew or Christian, and, as he even remarked recently, he doesn't make fun of Jews, but points out their "foibles, pretensions and contradictions."

Much of his Jewish material was recycled at the show I saw but it still garnered laughter. Jews ignoring a dinner bill, Jews getting drunk off Manischewitz, Jews as self-hating hypocrites -- Mason tried to cover it all, complete with farting noises, those patented jerky dance moves, and a hefty dose of Yiddish expletives. For chazzanut fans, he also sang a few bars of Ribono Shel Olam and Veemaleh during dead air.

That's not to say his stand-up only related to Jews, or even older Jews (the British Royal Family is especially fond of Mason). President Bush got caught in Mason's crosshairs more than once, as Mason predictably attacked Bush's intelligence. Several lines sparkled, though. "Bush can't accomplish anything here on Earth so he wants to go to space, where there's nothing, absolutely nothing. He likes moving from nothing to nothing." And on the terrorism-induced fear-mongering: "Bush wants me to be alert? If a bomb fell from the sky and hit me in the mouth, does it really matter if I'm alert or not?"

Mason doesn't have the snappy transitions that I appreciate in a Robin Williams but his material is still funny enough to compel me to recommend him. He's not just for our parents, I tell my friends. He has the smarts and the jaded mind of anyone sick of an indulgent world, and the experience to bring perspective to areas like politics and civil rights. You can't help but like Jackie Mason, even if you thought you never would. He's one of the few Jewish comedians bold enough to unleash the truth about American Jewish culture, from the good to the bad to the ugly.


David Silverberg is a freelance writer living in Toronto