Jackie Mason
(Photo © Barry Avrich)
Jackie Mason
(Photo © Barry Avrich)
If you've been away from New York, you're likely to find its Yiddish institutions aren't quite where you remember them. The city's famed Second Avenue Deli has relocated to East 33rd Street. And Jackie Mason has planted a one-man show not on the Main Stem, but at New World Stages, where he's presenting Jackie Mason: The Ultimate Jew -- billed as his eighth and final extended outing. But once you get past the odd new digs, Mason -- much like the Second Avenue Deli -- has the same comforting flavor as always.

This familiarity is essential to enjoying the show, as Mason hasn't worked up much in the way of new material. He's coasting on personality and the nostalgia engendered by his seven previous solo shows. Jokes that lag behind the headlines include easy jabs at Viagra and the Atkins diet. Mason's more topical humor feels even older, with Hillary and Obama serving as springboards for generic riffs on race and gender.

Indeed, The Ultimate Jew offers an unhealthy helping of this sort of "politically incorrect" humor (to borrow the title of one of Mason's previous evenings), and though he ultimately gets away with the gags, I suspect it's not for the reason he imagines. Mason views himself as something of a comic crusader, but rather than speak truth (or even comic truth) to power, he's actually practicing a brand of old-time racism that's so antiquated it's positively quaint.

Yet, if Mason's advanced age belies an impish innocence, he nevertheless remains smartly self-aware. At one point, Mason declares a particular joke is for "the intelligent people" in the audience before pausing to note that the intelligent people probably skipped his show altogether. A lesser comic would rest on this simple zinger; but Mason has a point to make. He's not high culture -- and you're not attending his act as a status symbol. You're there to laugh, often in spite of yourself, and certainly at Jewish humor.

As ever, Jewish jokes are the heart of Mason's routine. A one-time ordained rabbi, Mason can't help himself from slipping sideways into Jewish-tinged schtick -- nor should he. A discussion of sushi winds up attributing its birth to two Jews wondering, "How can we open a restaurant without a kitchen?"

Mason's best moments are all this simple, returning to traditional musings on Jews versus Gentiles or working over the audience with casual insult humor so effortless that it must be the result of comic muscle memory. Often, Mason's perfectly honed delivery elicits laughter where there shouldn't be any. In truth, Mason rarely says anything different in substance from what my octogenarian Jewish grandfather does -- but his timing sure is better.