Jackie Mason--The Ultimate Jew
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 22, 2008
At one point in his new one-man show The Ultimate Jew, Jackie Mason riffs on the question of whether Barack Obama is entitled to be called a black man. Obama's mother, he reminds us, is white. "If I had on one white shoe and one black shoe, would you say to me, that's a nice pair of black shoes?"
Jackie Mason—the ultimate Jew, perhaps, but let us hope no longer the typical one—thinks too much in terms of what separates us from one another and not enough in terms of what unites us. He derogates Obama as a "schvartzer" at a political moment when a man as smart as he seems to be ought to be less dismissive of a politician who has come so far so fast; he doesn't have to like Obama, but he should be taking him seriously. But Mason's comedy, which categorizes everybody—Jew, Gentile, Puerto Rican, Nazi Bastard—has very little to do with most of what's going on in America these days. His routines are littered with references that are badly dated: he spends about three or four minutes on the Atkins Diet, for example. He's billing this show as his final stage appearance, and it's just possible that it's one show too many. Mason, a master at what he does, is badly out of step, and his shtick often feels like a relic of a long-ago time.
That feeling is the one reason you may nevertheless want to see this extraordinary comedian one last time before he retires. An entire chapter in the history of American comedy is embodied by Jackie Mason, and there's just nobody left alive who can do the cadences and rhythms of this aggressive Borscht Belt style with such panache. Mason, when he's on a roll, is very very funny: whether he's pretending to banter with the people in the front row ("This show is not for you; it's for intelligent people") or building a satirical bit about something as mundane as going to a gambling casino ("If you came to my house and left $150,000 on my table, I would send a car for you too"), watching him do his stuff is like watching a master class in timing and delivery. Even when you know the joke is offensive, you're often so disarmed that you let the laugh take you over anyway.
It is unfortunate, then, that so much of The Ultimate Jew is focused on topics that, to use one of Mason's favorite expressions, just aren't his field. Jokes about somebody looking like a homosexual shouldn't exist anymore; neither should jokes that purport that black people no longer suffer discrimination in America. Yet Mason not only does such jokes, he overdoes them, to the point where he actually got heckled (which he doesn't seem to like). Too many of the sentences he speaks start with the word "they"—and it's so unnecessary because most of his humorous observations apply to all of us.
I should note, finally, that Mason, who will be 77 this year, is simply not as sharp as he used to be; he seems to be forgetting key names and words on occasion (asking the audience to remind him of them), and he also lapsed into Yiddish more frequently than I've ever seen him do, which felt to me like a (entertaining and genuine) crutch. The performance I saw lasted less than two hours, substantially shorter than his usual program. However, he clearly revels in being on stage.