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JACKIE : After Dramatic Comeback, Comedian Mason Will Play Performing Arts Center Monday Night

It is more cute than accurate to say that Jackie Mason has ended up with the last laugh--because he keeps having it.

Here is a comedian whose promising career was significantly derailed--heck, just about ruined --25 years ago when he supposedly made a certain gesture on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

In mid-performance, Mason was informed by Sullivan that he had to cut the set short because the program was going to be interrupted by an announcement from then-President Lyndon B. Johnson. Sullivan held up two fingers to Mason, indicating that he had two minutes left. Goofing around, Mason responded with various gestures of his own.

Sullivan thought those actions included the one-finger salute--and went bonkers: He canceled the comic’s big-dollar contract and told the press that he was “sick to my stomach” about the on-camera behavior, all of which, Mason has said, branded him as an “erratic, unpredictable, sick character.”

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A videotape of the show later established that Mason indeed had not flipped off Sullivan, and Sullivan eventually apologized on the air. But the damage was done. Mason’s career slid considerably, maybe not to square one, but certainly down several notches. And, for years, he was effectively banned from network television.

But in one of the most dramatic comebacks in showbiz history, Jackie Mason--who appears Monday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center--is now red-hot. The linchpin of the comeback is his one-man show, “The World According to Me!” which has been a smash hit everywhere it has played, including New York, Beverly Hills and London.

The production has drawn rave reviews from the New York Times, the Washington Post and several other publications, and kudos from some pretty respected comedy figures, including Neil Simon, who called it “the funniest evening I’ve spent in the theater in 10 years.”

But wait. There is more. The show won a Tony award and the comedy album culled from the show earned a Grammy nomination and became a strong seller--as did a book version of the production.

And, for perhaps the sweetest last laugh of them all, Mason now has his own television show-- network television show --scheduled to premiere in the fall.

The show is “From This Moment On,” a star vehicle for the 56-year-old comedian. Without gloating too much, Mason clearly seems pleased by the network’s perception that he will be applying his new-found Midas touch to it.

“No matter what they decide to do with it, I’m being paid for 13 shows,” Mason said during a lunch break on the set, picking at the fish entree with which he was clearly displeased (“It smells too fishy”).

"(The network is) assuming they have a hit,” he added, “ ‘cause they’re treating it like a major hit. They come here with the hierarchy from the network, the heads of every department, everybody is treating me like the show is already a hit. Because when they don’t think you’re going to be such a big star, they say ‘hello,’ but when the show looks great, they say ‘ Hello !’ ”

So it is all in the inflection?

“Not only is the inflection different, but there (are) a million other things also marked with difference,” he continued. “When you need to make a telephone call, you don’t have to pay for it--they pay for the call.

“If you want to go for a walk, there is someone to walk with you. If you want to dance, someone suddenly dances with you. You go home to sleep at night, and--I don’t want to go too far with this story. . . .”

That Jackie--always the kidder. Well, maybe not always , but for a few decades, anyway. Mason (nee Jacob Maza) grew up on New York’s Lower East Side, the youngest son of a rabbi. His three older brothers became rabbis, and there was a clear expectation that he would too.

And he did, but almost immediately he was telling jokes in the midst of his sermons. He apparently preferred that to the other aspects of his rabbinical duties because it wasn’t long before he was working as a comic in the Catskills (after a stint in the resorts as a social director).

He parlayed his success there into a gig at an important nightclub in Beverly Hills called Slate Brothers. The performance there went sufficiently well that, within days, he had been booked on the “Steve Allen Show.” He made that appearance--his network TV debut--on April 11, 1960. Other TV spots followed quickly, including on “The Ed Sullivan Show"--until that fateful night.

From hot potato (as in, being dropped like) to hot ticket: These days, among other things, he is frequently contacted to do benefits such as Monday’s show here, which will raise money for the Jewish Senior Center and Geriatric Services of Orange County, an organization that provides social, cultural, recreational and educational programs.

“Before I became a major hit, I did about 50 benefits a year,” Mason said. “Now I would like to do a hundred, but my schedule doesn’t allow it.

“But anytime I have a free night, I’m thrilled to do it. I just want to make sure--and my only condition is--that the benefit should be legitimate. If 300 (wealthy people) get together and have a benefit and I work for nothing, to me that’s (wrong). Because each one of them got $9 million and I’m the only guy who’s got no money, and I have to work for nothing for them?

“But if there’s an institution or an organization that really needs money and can benefit from it . . . I’m there in five minutes.”

Jackie Mason performs Monday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Showtime: 8 p.m. Tickets: $30 to $250. Information: (714) 556-2787.


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