The funnyman who's getting the last laugh

JACKIE MASON was working the crowd. Or what crowd there was in Delsomma's Restaurant on West 47th midweek, midafternoon. There was Mr. Mason in the corner holding court: two reporters, one photographer, and one prizefighter-cum-restaurant-owner who wants his picture taken with the Borsch Belt-banana-turned-Broadway-comic-kingpin, appearing nightly at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. ``Be my greatest pleasure, you kiddin'?'' This from the silk-suited banana, one arm encircling a reporter and another looped around the restaurateur. That makes an audience of four. You kiddin'? That's not enough PEOPLE. So, Mason heads outside to look for more of what Mason loves more than anything: an audience.

In Times Square, this is like shooting fish in a barrel.

``Hey! Hey! Jackie Mason, funniest man in the world!'' comes the cry. Half a block swivels in Mason's direction. Bingo.

``Thank you, thank you,'' says Mason, pronouncing it, `Tank you, tank you,' and clicking open a pen to oblige the young fan. ``Be my greatest pleasure.''

If Mason is not the funniest man in the world - and several funnymen besides Mason, including Neil Simon and Mel Brooks, will assure you that he is - this rabbi-turned-comedian is one of the most ardent seekers and espousers of his own better-late-than-never success. Twenty years after Ed Sullivan sent Mason's career into a nose dive by accusing him of making obscene gestures on the air - 20 years pounding out borsch circuit stand-up in Atlantic City and Miami Beach - Mason has become a legitimate hit, and one still plagued by controversy.

``What's left to conquer? Now, I don't have to conquer,'' says Mason, ``I'm a major star.''

If there are several conquests of late, there are also a handful of contretemps. On Broadway, Mason's Tony Award-winning one-man show, ``The World According to Me!,'' is in its second season, and still doing a 90 percent capacity business. His record version of the show was last year's top-selling comedy album.

He's back on television doing guest shots, HBO specials, even ABC's ``20/20.'' And Mason has now returned to film as Rodney Dangerfield's replacement in the new ``Caddyshack II.'' (In case there are any untapped fans among readers, Mason's autobiography, ``Too Jewish,'' will be published this fall.)

``I feel lucky. My whole life I fight for something and finally I get it,'' says Mason. ``Now, I shouldn't enjoy it?''

A couple of reasons. Mason recently bombed on the televised Grammy Awards when his 10-minute routine veered into racially offensive territory. And Mason, who has never married, has been slapped with a paternity suit. But beyond these incidents lies the undeniable presence of someone not quite convinced of his own success. Mason's the elected official who keeps on running.

``You know, I can say the most brillant thing in the world, and it's low comedy,'' says Mason. ``But a guy with an English accent says it, it's art.... I'm a schmuck with an accent.''

Nonetheless, Mason is now one of the reigning court jesters in a very crowded field. Opinions on this vary. Some credit him with always having performed top-drawer stand-up, that the public just caught onto a good thing. Steve Allen has compared Mason to the philosopher-comedian Lenny Bruce. Others say Mason's outspoken style now seems tame compared with the ranting excesses of such younger comics as Steve Kinison and Sandra Bernhard. Still others insist that Mason is simply preaching to the converted, that his chicken-soup humor plays well only to Broadway's sophisticated, largely Jewish audience.

And Mason's style is, like any credible comedian's, singular. Go to his show. Cocky as a bulldog, Mason struts back and forth on the nearly bare stage delivering the usual political humor with his typical pugnaciousness.

``I don't blame Reagan. [The presidency] is not his field. ... How can we balance the budget? Put Congress on commission.'' But he is better known for his subtle-as-a-meat-ax ethnic humor. Begin any routine with ``What's the difference between a Jew and a gentile?'' and you get the drift.

Ask Mason for some sociological wherewithal on this Broadway success and he goes into his I-am-a-star shtick.

``I'm the same performer I was 20 years ago, exactly the same. I just found a vehicle to Broadway. You do a show in a legitimate theater and it gets elevated to art,'' says Mason, who has settled into more simpatico digs in a crowded deli.

In person, Mason, who barely reaches 5 feet 5, is much smaller than he appears on stage. Also a lot quieter. And not nearly so funny. He's an old-school performer, a comedian who, like Bob Hope, slips easily in and out of his public persona. With his coiffed, strawberry-colored hair, double-breasted silk suit, and tiny suede Gucci loafers (``Personally I don't tink they're worth the price...''), Mason could be any garment-district salesman doing business over coffee and cake.

What the comedian does sustain, onstage and off, is a somewhat disconcerting ability to sound sincere and insincere all at once. It puts an extra edge to the honed ethnic and racial humor and makes his from-the-heart confessions sound as if he's putting over a fast one. Like at the end of every show, when Mason sits on the stage stairs and in his best Mister Rogers affability act, thanks his audience ``for making it possible for this rabbi to really be a star.''

Is this schmaltz for real?

``You bet your life I'm sincere,'' says Mason. ``Don't you think I sound sincere?''

Ask Quincy Jones, who smiled gamely through Mason's Grammy Awards act. (``I go on the Grammys and - right, I stink.'') Or ask Ginger Reiter, the Miami-based actress who has levied that paternity suit, a suit that Mason is appealing. (``I've been ordered not to talk about it.'')

Indeed, the controversy that began 20 years ago with Sullivan (``I was kibbitzing with my fingers'') has continued to dog Mason's career. It is the kind of second-guessing that still rankles.

``Look, I don't have any profound philosophy about my humor; my humor comes from what I see that strikes me funny,'' says Mason. ``What I see are a lot of idiosyncrasies in people and a lot of hypocrisy in people, and I point it out.''

``I'm like what I was when I was a rabbi. I'm trying to teach some kind of principles of morality and compassion. People say it's divisive. That's ridiculous. I'm just pointing out the different ways we kid ourselves.''

His favorite parts of his show? ``I like my Ronald Reagan stuff..., and the social satire, the Jewish/gentile differences. I get my biggest laughs with the boss joke: `To the WASP, his boss is a god; to a Jew, the man is a schmuck.' To me that's the whole difference between a Jew and gentile - the Jew, no matter how successfull, still thinks he's on the outside.''

The case has been made that Mason - born Jacob Maza, the third son of an Orthodox rabbi, and who grew up in a Lower East Side tenement - remains that perpetual outsider, that this is at the core of his humor.

There is a pause. ``Not so much today, although in my career I've suffered more discrimination from Jews in the business who said my act was `too Jewish.' But growing up I felt like an outsider. It's one of the reasons I became funny.''

Although Mason made himself into something of a class clown, he eventually did become a rabbi (``mostly to please my father'') and just as eventually got out of it. ``I started to tell a few jokes at bar mitzvahs and I started to charge a cover and a minimum.'' He began as a social director at the Catskills resorts, eventually turned to stand-up, trying out a variety of personas, Henny Youngman, Woody Allen. Eventually he discovered Jackie Mason, and in 1962 he was spotted by Steve Allen, who passed him along to Sullivan. Success, back in the early 1960s, seemed assured. Assured until October 1964, when the on-air snafu infuriated Sullivan and resulted in the well-publicized canceling of Mason's $45,000 contract. Twenty years later, does Mason feel robbed?

``I've said I've given up a lot for this. That's true,'' says Mason. ``But what I was chasing all my life, I've accomplished. So what do I feel? I feel a great sense of relief.''

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