COMEDY REVIEW : Jackie Mason at the Fonda: New but Still the Same

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jackie Mason set himself a tall order when, in "Jackie Mason Brand New," which opened Wednesday at the Henry Fonda Theatre, he promised a show that would consist of completely new material. With the exception of a solitary joke having to do with guarding your health while your grandfather steals your money, he's succeeded, even if it's deja vu all over again.

It's good to see that he's back strong after his "Chicken Soup" TV debacle, and that he's even chosen Hollywood, which forgives everything except failure, as his comeback site (though the program tells us he really has eyes for Broadway again). He doesn't have that stricken, embalmed look he had on TV. His hair no longer has that strange orange glow that suggested Tang shampoos. Aside from some absurdly vainglorious program notes (how will we know if he's destined to be "the funnyman of the '90s" if the decade is only five months old?), he seems comfortable with himself at last.

In an era in which a comedy boom billows out of the collective energy of self-satisfied amateurs whose shallow efforts are bent on parlaying 20 minutes of material into a show-biz career, Mason plays well by contrast. His timing is incomparable. His jokes are delivered with the utmost economy, and he knows how to cluster them around themes that often develop like cadenzas. And he has of course that old-fashioned Brooklyn Jewish persona that's as thick and distinctive as borscht (it was interesting to see how uneasily he went over on "The Arsenio Hall Show," where he didn't traffic in any of the nouveau artifices of hip). What the jokes are about, though, is another matter.

Thomas Wolfe has a passage in one of his novels about a character who can't help but utter cliches every time he opens his mouth. Even when he thinks he has an original thought, and even when he says something that's true or of merit, it sounds stale. That's one of the problems with Mason. He's struggling for freshness, and sometimes you're with him, as when he does a number on George Bush's militant effort to annihilate the wimp factor (Bush to Gorbachev: "You better not come here with broccoli !"). Or when he talks about the trendiness of diets ("Twenty years ago, who knew cholesterol? Now it's 'Hello, I'm 238.' ").

Still, he falls into his old drumbeat in which Jews squabble their inept lives away with sour envy, price-tag mania and nouveau riche affectation; Gentiles are eminently practical ("Jewish ingenuity stopped in 1874. That's when Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, and the Jew realized he could call a Gentile to do the job"), and marriage is a prison sentence or a financial arrangement (Ivana Trump doesn't think $25 million is enough of a settlement; so what did she do for even that much? Did she cook something special?).

There's a lot of redundancy in the act too. Any disagreement, imagined or otherwise, casts the dissenter in the role of "Nazi bastard," and the "putzes" and "schmucks" that people the stage of Mason's devising all owe their existence to the contemporary comedic atmosphere of obscene flip-offs. Every object is a tchotchke--who can think of the name of a thing when one is feeling so plaintive and disagreeable?

There isn't anything about Mason's pillorying of affectation that doesn't show up in Moliere or other classic writers of comedy, except that his ethnic caricature eventually becomes relentless. It's one thing to observe the hypocrisy of Jews who insist on identity while "shortening their noses and their names" and naming their daughters Bambi. But there's a tenuous line that separates parody from excoriation, and Mason doesn't have the necessarily light feel for locating it, particularly in our racially and ethnically sensitive time. If his lines about New York Mayor David Dinkins' suspicious memory lapses at income-tax time are funny, there's still no way he can extricate himself from the mess he's still in over his references to "schvartzes," even though he's still trying.

Mason thinks he's bearing the comedic burden of telling us the truth when, in fact, he's relating the narrow perspective of the self-described Brooklyn Jew, memorably pungent in small doses, but not something that describes a world of experience. The neighborhood isn't far from Andrew Dice Clay's, and rises up, as many neighborhoods do now, in militant parochialism. Jews and anti-Semites, blacks, women, Latinos (Mason jokes improbably about Puerto Ricans, whose low-on-the-totem-pole status is only distantly comprehensible to Southern Californians) are all seemingly on their angry march these days, substituting vehemence for discourse. For that, Mason really is a funnyman for the '90s, or at least their bitter beginning.

Neil Peter Jampolis created the impressive TV production-booth design, which has virtually nothing to do with Mason's act, but which, Mason reminds us, looks expensive. And looks do tell.

At Gower Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood, Tuesdays through Fridays 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8:30 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. Runs indefinitely. (213) 410-1062 or (714) 634-1300.

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