Four years ago, when Jackie Mason made his Broadway debut, I was the only reviewer not to join the chorus of praise for the enshrinement of Borscht Belt humor on Broadway. (The Catskills influence was always there in the form of dialogue, but Jackie was the first to present it in undiluted form.)
In those days I had persnickety notions about what constituted theater, about why a comedian telling jokes was different from a one-person piece of theater.
It is a tribute either to Jackie or to the deadening effects of living in New York that, four years later, all my cavils have flown. In his new show, accurately called "Jackie Mason: Brand New," it took Jackie approximately one minute to have me laughing - sometimes uncontrollably - all evening long.
To be fair, it is not simply that my taste has deteriorated over the years. I think this time Jackie is genuinely funnier. Something I objected to back then was his gibes at other ethnic groups. Jews are justifiably sensitive about other groups making fun of them; someone as self-consciously Jewish as Jackie ought to be equally wary of making fun of others. (His only lapse this time is an oddly vehement, charmless attack on the French.)
As it happens no one can be wickeder about Jews than Jews. Here Jackie is merciless, as when he explains the need for an intermission: "Jews have to go to the lobby and discuss their opinions - their opinions are more important than the show."
Even four years ago, I admired Jackie's gifts for physical comedy. Here he has a particularly funny bit about the nervous way New Yorkers walk and why it has been a boon to chiropractors. His gifts as a mimic are also prodigious: This time he has perfect impressions of several TV newscasters and an uncanny imitation of former Israeli premier Shimon Peres.
The show ends with some lovely cantorial singing, a reminder that Jackie began his career as a rabbi. Since laughter is a gift of God, his work might still be considered rabbinical.
A wolfish but elfin grin, a chunky, ample presence wrapped inside a double-breasted suit, a gravelly voice with a pastrami accent, he walks on stage like a mob boss, glares (half-comic, half-serious) at the front row, and demands: "You never saw a Jew before? This is it." And it is.
Jackie Mason is back on Broadway - his show officially opened last night at the Neil Simon Theater. He calls it "Jackie Mason Brand New," but who is he kidding?
The material...that, yes, is new. All new and all funny...funnier, I think, than his earlier show, "The World According to Me." But "Jackie Mason Brand New" is nowadays a contradiction in terms.
What is Yiddish for oxymoron? For Mason has himself virtually become a brand-name for Jewish ethnic humor, all export quality, and that brand can never be new again, can never be quite repeated.
So while this show is - fear not - totally new from top to tuchis, that individualist mixture of satire, commentary and observation delivered in tones, although inimitable, actually more easily imitated than described, is gloriously much the same as before.
There are differences of approach. Two years ago, Mason's one-man show had the makings of a phenomenon, whereas now it has the makings of an institution.
Earlier, he seemed still slightly aggrieved at past failures - the slights, insults, snubs and rejections of an earlier, unfeeling world. Now he is expansive - he can almost forgive Rudy Giuliani - why, he can even come close to forgiving the ghost of Ed Sullivan!
Now he has nothing to prove, not even his talent, and in a handsome new setting by Neil Peter Jampolis consisting largely of TV screens (in the intermission they show Looney Tunes cartoons, so, a word to the wise, stay in your seat) he relaxes with neurotic ease and flies off into an ecstasy of monologue. He is brilliant. His imitations alone would be worth the price (very modest by Broadway standards, by the way) of the ticket. As he says: "I don't take chances. When I do an impression, I tell you who it is first."
But his visual and aural impressions - far more caricature than impersonation - of Walter Cronkite, William Buckley and David Brinkley are quite extraordinary in the accuracy and friendly malice of their wit.
Observation is the key to his humor. He is fond of telling us "I don't make this up" - and usually he doesn't. He exaggerates here and there (particularly there) but for the most part he flicks his targets at their truest spot.
Mason's manner could be termed suavely aggressive. He practically terrorizes the front row of the audience, taking a few hostages, and raking them time and time again with machine-gun-like scorn - an atavistic throw-back to Catskills humor.
He is mocking - he very shrewdly even mocks his own well-upholstered sense of self-satisfaction and self-esteem. But not too much.
It is only when he gets to politicians that he becomes merciless. Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Dan Quayle, of course, (but he obviously feels a little shame-faced at going for the easy sport of quayle-hunting), Marion Barry and David Dinkins, together with David Dinkins' headboard - they all get theirs.
His monologues (they come in long but separate segments, and are punctuated by appropriate displays on the bank of TV screens) range from politics, to the Trumps and Marla, John Gotti, and airline security, but tend to come back to one main theme, to which most of Mason's humor is but variations - the differences, real, imagined and observed, between Jews and Gentiles.
Last time out, some of this hit my perhaps over-sensitized ethnic consciousness (after all, as half Hungarian Jew, a quarter Irish and a quarter English, married to yet another ethnic mix, I am perhaps unusually conscious and peculiarly vulnerable) in the wrong place. And some of it still does.
It seems a tad too easy, too insular, even too chicken-soupy and massaging for his largely Jewish audience. But now, the only people he actually goes out of his way to insult are the French - and Francophobia here hits new depths.
Oh well, I suppose the French can look after themselves - and how many are going to get to the Neil Simon Theater, anyway?
And I laughed. I laughed a lot. Mason doesn't depend on shtick, he depends on life. He even stands up for it. Go see - and keep your ears open.
The setting for ''Jackie Mason: Brand New'' (at the Neil Simon Theater) is an approximation of a television studio. Behind Mr. Mason is a battery of television monitors on which are projected images of politicians, astronauts and - a bulletin from Israel - Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea. The stand-up comedian is now standing in for a television anchor. He is also doing his own commercials, as in his confident aside to the audience, ''It's a wonderful thing to see me in person.''
Mr. Mason's audience, which is an integral part of his act, returns the compliment. With this comedian, there is no sense of indecisiveness. He is sharp, pungent and self-assured. Yet his humor is not without its moments of subtlety. He does not batter an audience into submission, but informally amuses them with shticks of recognition.
''Brand New'' is an exact meeting of performer and material. He is wound up and ready for action, with the same targets but with a different arsenal of jokes. He never moves very far from what he regards as eternal differences betweens Jews and Gentiles, differences that are social, marital and, perhaps above all, culinary.
There is a high caloric content in his comedy. In his view, you eat what you are. This leads him to a withering discussion of health-food stores, whose patrons have sickly looks on their faces from eating too much alfalfa, a word he pronounces with disdain. As a confirmed hot-pastrami fancier, he offers a shrewd comment on changing nutritional patterns: no food is considered good to eat for two weeks in a row.
For him, there is something especially suspect about sushi, the food served by restaurateurs who have no room in their establishments for a kitchen. Chauvinistically, he questions the elevation of everything Japanese while reserving surprisingly virulent remarks for the French. He prefers seltzer to Perrier and, as a tip to bottlers, suggests that sparkling-water sales would soar if the beverage were pronounced seltzier.
The comic style - a spritz followed by a topper - derives from the Catskills via Las Vegas, but in his heart, Mr. Mason has the retaliatory instincts of a political commentator. Despite the controversy he aroused during last year's mayoral campaign, he still makes jokes about Mayor David N. Dinkins's wardrobe (photo of the natty Mayor on the television screen). He surmises that if the Brooklyn Korean market had sold jackets instead of vegetables, the Mayor would have immediately broken up the boycott. Not one to play favorites, he also spoofs former Mayor Edward I. Koch and Mr. Mason's own defeated mayoral candidate, Rudolph W. Giuliani (''He's a brilliant crime fighter. He puts people in jail whether they're guilty or not'').
In the equivalent of an extended opening monologue on the Johnny Carson show, he needles George Bush, Ronald Reagan and Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. of Washington who ''said he would get drugs off the street and did.'' The assault is ecumenical, as he imitates a gallery of Israeli leaders as well as William F. Buckley Jr. When he mimics someone he does not ape a voice but rather a manner - and mannerisms - that reveal his own diabolical gift as a caricaturist.
This time there is perhaps excessive interaction with the audience, which only reminds one that the show would be equally at home in a nightclub. Those seated in front rows should be prepared to become the object of Mr. Mason's mockery. On the other hand, he seems more concerned than in his previous Broadway show about giving the audience its money's worth. During the intermission, theatergoers can remain in their seats and watch Daffy Duck and Porky Pig cartoons on those monitors. This bizarre touch may be an attempt to broaden his already wide audience.
Despite his apparent parochialism, there is a universality in his comic assault. He cuts everyone down to size, including himself, as in his comment, ''At the stage of life when most people are passing away, I became a star.'' Admirers will laugh and skeptics will smile. Mr. Mason is one of a kind, a stand-up comic who has found a hospitable home on Broadway.