Jackie Mason’s Backâeuro;”But Why?

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

Much Ado
About Everything
Jackie Mason

Seinfeld, before Barbra went WASP in The Way We Were, your average armchair
sociologist could posit two basic views of Jewish identity in America: one from
New York City (and maybe Miami Beach) and one from everywhere else. Because
New York was the only place in the country where being a Jew seemed normal,
it fostered an exaggerated insider-identity that, in my extended family and
others, could often border on arrogance. Elsewhere, the opposite experience
prevailed; despite massive pressure to assimilate, blatant and subtle anti-Semitism
constantly recalled the fact of being a minority and fostered an exaggerated
outsider identity that could sometimes border on paranoia, even in Miami Beach.
Crass generalizations aside, however, two recent theater productions demonstrate
both the power such views once held and the extent to which they have now become

From the stage, Mason claims
to know and understand his critics’ objections to his act. "People
say I’m too Jewish. But I’m never too Jewish for gentiles. Only Jews
think I’m too Jewish." This is a deflection, however, an attempt to
steer attention away from the real point. Pretending that only dumb and envious
people seriously question him won’t keep any of the smart and open-minded
ones from noticing, say, that his universal gauge of normalcy, the Jewish delicatessen
(they don’t have nouvelle cuisine there), isn’t universal, or that
his view of today’s social roles is shockingly narrow. At one point, for
instance, he says that "when people become successful they never sound
Italian," and "they never sound black." Then he illustrates this
with ludicrously exaggerated impressions of the head of General Motors talking
like a Brooklyn Mafioso and a tv weatherman talking like a homeboy. The impressions
are amusing, for a second or two, but they also leave him looking like he just
isn’t aware of many different types of "successful" people nowadays.

Let me be clear that I have
no interest in measuring Mason (or any comedian) against liberal pieties. My
point is only that his humor is tired and its appeal very limited; it won’t
stand the test of any broader public than the graying and complacent one that
follows him. He’s not "politically incorrect" (the title of one
of his previous shows) in any dangerous sense, if he ever was. He’s merely
out of date and out of touch, despite his trendy cracks about cellphones and
SUVs. ("People buy computers as status symbols…they’re buying
things they have no use for"–come again?) His notorious ethnic jokes,
which comprise the bulk of the evening, are his dullest material. Watching him,
I found myself thinking of John Leguizamo’s wonderful 1998 Broadway solo
show Freak, whose ethnic humor was just as tasteless as Mason’s
but 10 times fresher and funnier because (1) it reflected the multiethnicity
of New York City without seeming to regret it and (2) its group self-critique
(about Latinos) never came off as a falsely humble mask for smug dominance.

I readily confess to laughing
heartily at least half a dozen times during Much Ado About Everything–at
the typical Jewish reaction to Bill Gates’ fortune, for instance ("$100
billion? You think it’s a lotta money? Ach, years ago it was a lotta money"),
and at the forgiving spirit of Hillary Clinton ("If she was Jewish, by
now he’d be in a homeless shelter in the Bronx"). It’s astonishing,
though, how much of this show is either unbelievably hackneyed (Frank Sinatra,
Bing Crosby and Ed Sullivan impressions, which go on way too long) or lifted
wholesale from Mason’s previous shows (the Jesse Jackson jokes are precisely
the same as in the 1980s, and the Clinton-lying jokes are nothing but the old
Reagan-lying jokes with the name switched). The net impression is of a silly
effort to poke holes in balloons that deflated on their own years ago.

John Golden Theater,
252 W. 45th St. (betw. 8th Ave. & B’way), 239-6200, through April 2.

Adam Baum
and the Jew Movie
Daniel Goldfarb (Closed)

enough, Adam Baum and the Jew Movie (which recently closed at the McGinn/Cazale
Theatre) deals with the opposite terrain of Jewish experience outside New York,
and its vision of Jewish invisibility is in some ways as dated as Mason’s
smugness. Jews and Judaism are much more present in today’s American pop
culture than they were when the play is set in 1946, so the work sometimes smacks
of historical hand-wringing. Happily, though, first-time playwright Daniel Goldfarb
also has other ambitions. His story–a fiction based on a shelved project
of Samuel Goldwyn–was an excellent vehicle for the fine actor Ron Leibman
and was also moving as a general allegory about "passing."

Movie producer Samuel Baum
(the Goldwyn character, played with wonderful finicky pushiness by Leibman,
with a thick Yiddish accent) is trying to scoop 20th Century Fox and its project
Gentleman’s Agreement–the first Hollywood movie about American
anti-Semitism. Baum has hired Garfield Hampson Jr. to write a competing script,
Soil in Utopia, and is convinced this project will prevail ("two
Jew movies is one Jew movie too many") because he’s been clever enough
to hire Hollywood’s only WASP writer. Hampson, however, turns in more realism
than Baum bargained for–"You’ve written this script as a Jew,
not as a gentile"–and a difficult discussion ensues in which Baum
explains the game rules: Hampson can’t mention the recent world war, his
Jews can’t be religious or speak Yiddish and his anti-Semites have to be
either sympathetic or not generally representative of Americans.

Hampson is appalled, and
his anger is where Goldfarb’s play goes awry. We learn little about this
WASP, other than that he’s a married, rich-born, scotch-drinking Oscar-winner
who feels he’s been wasting his time with screwball comedies, and we learn
almost nothing about the content of Soil in Utopia, so we never know
what he’s defending. Christopher Evan Welch gives a smoothly confident
performance in the role, but his magisterial proclamation that he’s sick
of being "forced to perpetuate this myth" that everyone in the country
"is rich and white" nevertheless sounds like detached critical theory.
Later, when he picks up the conversation at Baum’s home–where he’s
been invited to Sam’s son Adam’s bar mitzvah, ostensibly to conduct
research–his abusive vehemence is utterly implausible: "This party
is disgusting…the whole thing seems so garish to me." "You people
have created the American ideal and it fucking excludes you!"

Baum, meanwhile, has learned
of Moss Hart’s concept for Gentleman’s Agreement–a gentile
passes for a Jew in order to write an article about anti-Semitism–and is
dumbfounded at its "truth" and simple commercial brilliance: "Only
a Jew would write a Jew and not think of writing a Jew." The sturdy core
of Adam Baum and the Jew Movie involves this touching portrait of Baum
as a secretly insecure mogul (and aggressively loving father, since Adam appears
as well), struggling to define the relationship between his heritage and his
success. Goldfarb had the makings of a powerful and possibly disturbing one-act
in this. Stretching the conception to two acts, without paying the dues of developing
the other major character and explaining his stake in the story’s 54-year-old
political questions, plunged the whole thing into a sort of harmless historical