Jackie Mason’s newest show, “Prune Danish,” is — like its namesake — familiar, unsophisticated and ultimately satisfying. That is, of course, if Mason’s brand of pastry is what you’re after.
The New York Times’ reviewer Bruce Weber clearly had a hankering for something different. He panned “Prune Danish” — Mason’s sixth stand-up stint on Broadway — as “idiotically, hypocritically reactionary” and said the two-and-a-half hour-show served up only about 30 minutes of good material.
But a recent Friday-night audience at the Royale Theatre responded heartily to Mason’s jokes about Jews versus gentiles, affirmative action, terror alerts, foreign policy, cell phones, diet fads and the state of current theater. The 68-year-old comedian left the stage to the soulful strains of “America the Beautiful” and the resounding cheers of a standing ovation.
The descendant of rabbis from a family of rabbis, Mason instead made his reputation testing the boundaries of offensiveness. (He called his second Broadway show in 1993 “Politically Incorrect.”) Early in his career, Mason got himself barred from the Ed Sullivan Show for a suggestive finger pointed at the influential TV host. The impulsive gesture got him blackballed from the mainstream comedy circuit for decades. This year, things got sticky when a Chicago comedy club cut a Palestinian comedian from an opening slot on Mason’s bill, apparently due to community pressure and with no objection from Mason.
Fans who come to “Prune Danish” looking for the Catskill comedian’s familiar blend of cutting insult and comic observation won’t be disappointed. True to form, Mason disparages a few groups by name: homosexuals, Puerto Ricans and, as Weber indicated in the Times, Southeast Asians. But, as one patron pointed out, the group with the most ground for taking offense could easily be National Socialists: Mason refers to just about everyone, including hapless audience members, as “Nazi bastard[s].”
Hardcore Mason fans may be surprised by how tame his current act actually is. A recurring theme in “Prune Danish” is that it’s not nice to make fun, and some of the funniest parts of the performance are Mason’s directives for avoiding trouble.
“Today it’s dangerous to make fun of anybody,” especially anyone who’s been persecuted in the past, Mason says. Women are out, so are African Americans. The only safe targets for derision, apparently, are tall, white, heterosexual gentiles. “They’re the only ones without an organization.”
But Jews are always safe targets. “Jews were also persecuted,” Mason notes, adding that in the past major corporations would never hire Jews.
“Not that we cared. We owned the company.”
In Mason’s universe, Jews remain distinctly different from gentiles. They’re a difficult bunch, unimpressed by the wonders of nature, unwilling to pay the check at a restaurant, averse to exercise, ignorant of sports and perpetually under the weather. “Gentiles go for a beer, Jews go to the doctor,” Mason says, in a variation on one of his standard themes.
Dressed in a brown suit and dark shirt that accentuate his cadaverous visage, Mason paces the bare stage against a twinkling backdrop. His shows are often described as unprintable, not for their off-color content, but because so much of Mason’s humor comes from his conversational style, polished phrasing and unbeatable timing.
There’s also Mason’s jerking physical humor that is as effective as a cartoon’s frying pan to the face: his stiff-legged walk, a hand stuck in a pocket, the use of a pursed-lip Bronx cheer for punctuation.
“Prune Danish” comes advertised as “always fresh, never stale,” and Mason does cover topical territory. He launches into the war on terrorism, airport safety screening and Bush’s policy on Iraq. He brushes by the Middle East conflict, with a few swipes at Yasir Arafat. Ariel Sharon, he says, would like to give back disputed land. “But he can’t, it’s in his wife’s name.”
Still, some of Mason’s material feels a little crusty. A bit on skiing or about dealing with the wife’s body image sounded generically Borscht Belt. And jokes about Indian doctors, blacks’ and Hispanics’ test scores or the presence of gays in the audience come across as potshots in part because they sacrifice Mason’s obvious comic creativity to cheap laughs.
One of Mason’s trademarks is a fast-paced series of contradictory observations, riffs based on the cadence of “on the one hand, on the other.” In “Prune Danish,” he gives this treatment to hilarious descriptions of his cell phone plan and the etiquette of hospital visits, with arms criss-crossing his torso for emphasis.
Mason reserves part of his rambling act for a critique of the current competition on Broadway, shows like “Urinetown,” “The Vagina Monologues” and “Puppetry of the Penis” — not to mention “The Graduate,” in which, he says, “the yenta” disrobes in the second act.
“If it’s on 42nd Street, Giuliani closed it down,” Mason says. “On 43rd Street, it’s art.”
He’ll be back in the neighborhood soon enough. According to the program, Mason — who was a cantor in his younger years — returns to Broadway in March 2004 for “Laughing Room Only,” billed in the program as “a comedy with music.”
Jackie Mason appears in “Prune Danish” through Dec. 1 at the Royale Theatre, 243 W. 45th St., Man. (212) 239-6200. Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed., 2 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. $55-$40.